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West Side San Antonio's Elders: 'I'm Still Here'

The West Side of San Antonio is predominantly poor and Hispanic, and has a reputation for being crime-ridden. But many of its residents wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Many of the West Side’s oldest residents have stories to tell, but historians normally don’t come knocking on their doors. Their stories are now compiled in “Still Here: Homenaje al Westside de San Antonio.

Musician, composer, and poet Lourdes Pérez gathered the oral histories of 12 of the West Side’s elders and set their stories to music. Pérez said 20 San Antonio musicians took part in the project, which took two years to complete.

One of the songs in the collection is “Salimos Ganando,” or “We Came Out Winning.” Pérez says it was inspired by the story of Lucy Perez and Ray Pérez (no relation), who frequently entered and won dance competitions.

 Portrait by Antonia Padilla.
Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Enrique and Isabel Sanchez, West Side residents, and parents of Graciela Sanchez. Portrait by Antonia Padilla.

“They danced anywhere from jitterbug, to waltzes, chotises, redobas. Within the song that I did for them, there are the rhythms of jitterbug, redoba, chotis, (and) a cast of stars from Flaco Jiménez, to Eva Ybarra, to Max Baca.”

On a drizzly, misty, cool Sunday afternoon, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center was packed with young and old to hear more of these stories. Large portraits of the West Side’s elders by photographer Antonia Padilla line the walls.

Guadalupe Bertha Flores is the oldest woman in the room, born on March 16, 1921. The 97-year-old grew up on the West Side. Flores was the youngest of seven children and served in the Navy as a switchboard operator at the tail end of WWII.

In a shaky alto voice, she said as soon as she joined the Navy, the war came to an end.

“I wasn’t barely a year, a year-and-a-half (in the service),” Flores said. “The minute they saw me come in they stopped the war.

“(My family) used to kid me, ‘Yeah, with your face, it would stop anything.’ ”

Portrait by Antonia Padilla
Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
A portrait of Lucy Pérez and Ray Pérez, whose stories of entering and winning dance competitions inspired Lourdes Pérez to compose the song "Salimos Ganando." Portrait by Antonia Padilla.

As a child, Flores remembers playing “nurse” with the other kids in her West Side neighborhood and giving them green grapes as medicine. Her parents grew a large grapevine across their front porch.

“They wouldn’t let me, ‘Go nowhere else but on the porch.’ The kids would come over and we’ll play,” ” said Flores, laughing. “If you were sick, I give you a green grape.”

Another West Side elder Jesse Vidales, 97, is only slightly younger than Flores.

“I was born there in 1921. … I’m still here,” he said. He added the only time he left his “wonderful, beautiful West Side” was when he joined the army in 1943.

And Vidales said he’s not going anywhere, yet.

“According to what I have heard, my doctors and the VA, they tell me I’m going to live another 20 years,” he said.

And Vidales has the family history to back him up. He said his great-grandfather lived “to the ripe old age of 123 years.”

 Portrait by Antonia Padilla.
Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
West Side resident Jesse Vidales, 97. Portrait by Antonia Padilla.

Over the decades the West Side of San Antonio has been subject to urban renewal that has displaced many residents and demolished historic buildings.

But Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, says the history of the West Side is “complicated.”

“There’s also richness and culture and tradition and convivencia,” she said. “How people come together and share the little that they have with one another. That was the way in the past and it’s kind of gotten lost today.”

Norma Martinez can be reached by email at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1