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Fotohistorias Documents Everyday West Siders

On the west side of San Antonio is a museum without walls. Many say the exhibit brings a sense of pride and history to that unique part of the city.

To find it, head southwest from downtown then turn on Guadalupe Street. A big, colorful mural wishes you Bienvenidos a West Side--Welcome to the West Side. Nearby on a 4-foot fence hang the photographs of people who brought life to this neighborhood. Large, primarily black and white pictures, they're fascinating. And a little haunting.

"The folks who lived there were the people who built San Antonio," says Esperanza Peace and Justice Center's Graciela Sanchez. "They were the laborers, the crafts-people.  When you see all the decoration in King William, the crafts-people lived in that neighborhood."

Sanchez says the outdoor museum called En Aquellos Tiempos--In Those Times,  Fotohistorias del West Side, runs a couple of long blocks along Guadalupe Street. They hung the first ones there a decade ago.

"They're essentially photographs from the 1890s to 1959.  What you get to see is how people dressed at that time, the houses in that neighborhood looked like," Sanchez says.

These are the faces of the working class people who lived and died on the West Side, people whose lives have gone largely un-chronicled. Regarding Fotohistorias, Sanchez says the whole thing happened almost by accident. The Esperanza began collecting oral histories and they asked west siders to bring in their pictures to help tell their stories.

"But once we brought these photographs it's like--what do we do with them?"

Then, an interesting idea emerged.

"Let's put the photographs up on the streets! You know, and let it be a community museum," Sanchez says.

Some were reluctant, thinking the displays would be vandalized.

"People said, 'You know, the kids are going to destroy them,' and we said, 'No, you don't know the kids, the kids are gonna love them.'  They're gonna see them as family," Sanchez says.

So a decade ago they hung 50 photographs there on Guadalupe. Each picture is printed on vinyl mesh. Next to the picture is a mesh placard describing the persons pictured.  Organizers were right--hooligan taggers steered clear, though at times, high winds have damaged photos and they've had to be replaced.

Over  time the gallery grew from Guadalupe to include Brazos Street and other locations, which led to a problem: they had just too many pictures to hang.  So now, they've added an indoor exhibit. That exhibit is at Esperanza, near San Antonio College. On the night they opened, Josefina Merla Martin describes her niece discovering one of her family's photos while driving.  

"My niece was driving on the West Side on Guadalupe and she looks up--she says, "That's my grandmother!" Merla laughed. "She called me in a panic 'What's grandmother doing up there?'" 

Josefina had come to the Esperanza with her daughter Cynthia Merla Y Spielman. Cynthia says the Fotohistorias helps bind the generations together.

"This documents that there is a rich history on the West Side, and these pictures establish a continuity. So, between her generation and my generation and my kids' generation, that the West Side is not a dead place. It's a place where generations continue to be."

Rachel Delgado describes the picture she's standing in front of.

"My father, Pedro Delgado, he and my uncle, are toasting the New Year, 1948. And it's New Years Day, they've got their champagne bottle and their little glasses.  And that is when they are adding the arches to the house."

Those arches still stand at that house, the house where Delgado still lives. In fact, Delgado has been there all her life. 

"I was born in my house. Back then, there were midwives and you were born in your house.  I live there with my mother, who is a 101 years old. She just celebrated in August."

Twins Rosemary Guzman Luna and Rachel Guzman Rodriguez displayed a picture from when they were five years old, dressed identically.

Rachel said, "They would always pick us, my sister and I, to be flower girls, since we were twins.  We were always asked to be flower girls."

"So you did it more than once?"

"Oh, we did it about five times," she laughed.

Rosemary acknowledges that times were sometimes tough on the West Side. But the photos showed the good times, too. 

"People were poor, but we didn't know that we were poor because we had a family. A pop and a mom, and there was food on the table all the time. So we didn't know the difference, we didn't think we were poor."

Graciela Sanchez says there are plenty of more walls and fences out there for additional Fotohistorias exhibits to go up.

"These photographs give them a better sense of themselves and a sense of pride that is amazing, but it helps the rest of the city say, 'Yeah, this is a great group of people' and now I want to do the same project in my neighborhood.'"

Sanchez has heard there's a move afoot for the South Side to begin their own Fotohistorias project, and she thinks that's just fine. 

Find more on En Aquellos Tiempos here.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii