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Historic Lerma's Nite Club reimagined as a space to watch films, view art, and make new memories

 Lerma's Nite Club on July 20, 2023.
Kayla Padilla
Lerma's Nite Club

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The historic Lerma’s Nite Club will reopen as a community center on Sunday.

The club has been under construction for the past few years, a process prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is housed in a West Side neighborhood that was among the first to integrate Latino and Black people.

Susana Segura, a San Antonio preservation activist with the Esperanza Center, said the project started as a one-year construction plan in 2019 after a community effort to save Lerma’s Nite Club from demolition.

She added that ultimately, Lerma’s purpose is to be a community space. “This space is going to be for socializing and community gatherings, but we’re also planning on having film screenings and art shows,” she said.

A branch of the Bibliotech digital library system will open in the building, thanks to the efforts of late Bexar County commissioner Paul Elizondo.

“Federal county is going to be putting $1 million into that space. The service to the community is having access to computers, and they’re all Apple computers. They even run the 3D printers there,” Segura explained.

'All the top names'

In its prime, Lerma’s was home to the Conjunto genre’s most popular artists, including Flaco Jiménez. The genre, which Segura called "the music of the migrant workers," grew from a multicultural fusion of sounds.

“Conjunto music is this very nice fusion of the Mexican-American Norteńo sound with the Czech, Polish and German accordion sound. All of that music fusion was born here, in Central Texas. People who worked in the fields of Texas always worked around those German, Czech, Polish communities,” she added.

Segura said that Lerma’s became a rite of passage for conjunto artists. Its accessible price and vibrant community made it a hotspot for conjunto lovers.

“Anybody who’s anybody in Conjunto music has played inside of Lerma’s. It was always one of these venues where you could pay $2 to get in and you could hear Flaco Jimenez, Santiago [Jimenez], [and other] different musicians. All the top names would play here,” she said.

The fight to save history

But the club’s lively nightlife came to a halt in 2010 after structural concerns caused it to get shut down. Mary and Gilbert Garcia, the owners of Lerma’s at the time, were met with a demolition order. Segura and other community members were quick to recognize the severity of the order.

Just eight years before, a gas station that housed a popular rooftop dance hall on the West Side had been demolished despite local efforts to save the building.

Eight years after the demolition of La Gloria, Lerma’s was under threat of being erased. The owners and local activists formed “Save Lerma’s," a movement that would stretch across a decade.

By 2010, Lerma’s had become a hazardous building that needed severe repairs. It was far from the recognizable hotspot it once was.

“The land had been shifting underneath it — the concrete slab that was in here was what they call a floating slab. The floor was cracked everywhere, the interior walls were cracked. You could even stick your whole arm into some of the cracks, it was in that bad of shape,” Segura said.

In addition to trying to raise funds to help repair the building, community activists fought to get Lerma’s recognized as a historical landmark.

Overwhelmed and desperate to save the conjunto hotspot, they even considered putting the building on the market. To their disappointment, those interested in purchasing Lerma’s were looking to knock it down.

Eventually, the Esperanza Center decided to purchase the building from the Garcias. Gilbert Garcia passed away about three years after the purchase was made.

“So he didn’t get to see all of this beautiful work,” Segura added.

Honoring Lerma's as a cultural landmark

“Queremos bailar!” or "We want to dance!"

Those were the words uttered by passionate locals in the 1990s film Selena, which features a scene at the historic Lerma’s Nite Club, which highlighted its popularity among Mexican Americans.

“They put neon lights on the window, and Selena’s dad had a rock band, and they were singing rock music here. And the people were like ‘Queremos bailar’ because they were waiting outside of Lerma’s. They didn’t want to hear rock music — they wanted to hear conjunto music,” Segura explained.

The once-segregated neighborhood that houses Lerma’s is an area that had a lot of ‘firsts’ as racial inequity persisted throughout the decades.

“The first segregated African American housing complex was right up the street here. So if you go up Laurel, you could see it there like two blocks away. And that’s the Lincoln [Heights] Courts, which is a public housing project,” Segura said.

Just around the corner from Lerma’s, the Keyhole Club was opened by New Orleans Jazz Musician Don Albert in the 1940s. It became the first fully integrated Jazz club in San Antonio.

Segura added that the most important part of Lerma’s is that it offered a meaningful cultural space to the community.

“When Lerma’s was open, if somebody passed away, this was one of the places where people would have their wake at. Their family gatherings after the funeral would be here. There’s just so many people who met here, and they got married here. It’s important to their family history,” Segura explained.

Unlike a typical night club, families would bring their children to mingle with other children on weekends.

“When people would come here after work on Fridays and Saturdays, they would bring their kids with them. The kids would also dance or run around and play with each other.”

'People are dying. You need to hurry up'

Norma Elia Cantú is a Chicana postmodernist writer and a professor of the humanities, modern languages and literatures at Trinity University. She recalled Lerma’s in its prime.

“Well, I can tell you, it was exciting. It was a space for dancing. The groups that they were bringing in are really fantastic. Mostly conjunto. There were also jazz groups, because there was an African American community in that area as well,” she explained.

Cantú recalled the music was the most memorable aspect of the club.

“I remember the music more than anything, which is fabulous. There were several times when I went with friends. Just to hangout, and for the music, when they had special groups,” she said.

About eight months after Lerma’s shut down, Segura was approached by a woman who was curious about when the club would reopen. “She said, ‘Mija, when are you going to open Lerma’s? People are dying. You need to hurry up. People aren’t exercising anymore.’”

Segura said that the club helped the community get their bodies moving. “It is that dramatic though, it really is. Especially in a community with high diabetes rates, it’s important for people to stay social and to keep moving.”

Now that Lerma’s has returned, Segura hopes that it will rejuvenate youth to learn conjunto.

The pandemic has led to the deaths of some conjunto artists around the city, including Gilberto Perez and Chencho Flores.

With the grand opening on Sunday, Lerma’s Nite Club is set to return to its roots: providing conjunto music for the community and fostering a space that will provide resources for the Latino population and other community members in need.

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