Bienvenidxs a San Anto: A Literary Guide to My Beloved City
Mar 02 ● BY Bonnie Cisneros
Welcome to San Antonio, y’all.
I’ve lived here for three decades, más o menos, and I remember from my brief, wild years in Portland, Oregon (and my even briefer, sad little stint in Austin) that there is some sort of equation for how long someone has to live in a place in order to say they’re from there. I forget the number of years supposedly required, but I have no qualms about claiming deep South Texas, where San Antonio is the unofficial capital, as my home.
My homeland is these borderlands, and I welcome you to town.
When I was tapped to give my recommendations and favorites, I felt overwhelmed, so I gave myself some rules and parameters. I had to focus on places that are easily accessible to where AWP 2020 is taking place: the conference is happening at the Henry B. González Convention Center, right smack dab in the center of downtown. (Sidenote: if you don’t know who Henry B. González is, you should. Please consider reading up on his life and work as you make your way to the conference. You’re gonna love him.)
I felt a sense of trepidation when I was given this assignment, and though I do want to show you some of our famous Tex-Mexican hospitality, I also have to be conscious of not spilling all my beans.
Let me tell you what I mean.
San Antonio, like many major cities across the nation, is in the middle of a development boom, and we all know what rapid revamping tends to do to inner-city establishments, cultural landmarks, and intergenerational families/communities/neighborhoods. I won’t use the G-word, but I will tell you that S.A. has always been a sort of step-sister to our super-cool hermana, la Austin, up I-35, so we find it highly ironic that it’s taken this long for transplants to figure out what we’ve known all along.
San Antonio is a beautiful place, and though I am happy to share what I love about our city with the writers and writing enthusiasts reading this, I’m also wary of presenting you with a rundown of what I consider sacred and special.
In the last ten years, I’ve seen so many brutal changes in the areas surrounding downtown. I say changes, and some say change is the only constant, which is true, but it’s also dismissive. I say brutal, and some say, okay, dramatic, but I could write a book about what’s been lost. And I am.
We see people come to town with the sole intention of buying and developing and flipping and remaking our city. We see our cultural and spiritual institutions knocked down, reduced to a stack of sticks or a heap of bricks. We see ourselves (almost) erased.
Even so, I’m happy you’re here. I find it serendipitous that AWP landed in my city, right as I edge nearer toward the precipice of my own professional writing life. San Anto is beautiful because of its people—and I have been gifted with many friends/loves/mentors who have entrusted and anointed me with their most precious treasures: their stories.
San Antonio is brimming with stories.
I hope you find time to create a story while you’re here. I X-ed out the suffix in bienvenidos when I welcomed you, and that’s to remind us that all are welcome here.
Y’all come back. There’s so much more to talk about.
Favorite San Antonio Bookstores
When my mother migrated to San Antonio from the deepest, most southernmost part of Texas, where the river is a border that splits our ancestral homeland into this side and that side, I was ten years old. She always found ways to keep us entertained on a very limited budget. There was a bookstore called The Bookworm, in a rinky-dink shopping center near a trail of thrift stores on Blanco and West Ave., where we’d end up on Saturday afternoons.
The used book nook had a bright green glasses-wearing caterpillar near a teetering stack of books painted onto the front window. It smelled musty, as the best books shops always do. The store was a maze of small rooms labeled FICTION, SCIENCE, HISTORY, ART, but you could find me in the kids’ room, which was full of—we didn’t call it vintage then, we only knew the books were affordable: paperback editions of classic American pre-adolescent literature from a decade or two before. Mom pointed me to Beverly Cleary early on, so I knew to pick up Ramona and the rest; later, she steered me towards Judy Blume, so I tore my way through a seventies edition of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and probably read Tiger Eyes at least seven times. Since then, I’ve discovered many great books in many independent bookstores in many cute neighborhoods in many grand cities, but honestly there will never be another Bookworm for this bookworm.
If you feel like popping into some book stores while you’re here, and haven’t mastered the art of time travel (The Bookworm closed over twenty years ago), I wholeheartedly suggest the following spots:
Bookshop Hopping on Broadway St.
There is a trail of bookstores on the northern edge of downtown that can be accessed easily from the Henry B. (that’s what we call the convention center—that’s the type of tip I’m fairly confident y’all want to glean from me, right?).
Everyone is going to tell you to visit The Pearl, a lux shopping/dining development where a brewery used to be, but I won’t. However, the Twig Book Shop is located there, and they feature a nice mix of curated contemporary publications and lots of San Antonio-related lit.
A mile or so north on Broadway from the Pearl, you’ll find a little cluster of used bookstores—including my favorite, Half Price Books, located in one of my favorite places, Brackenridge Park.
HPB is a chain, yes, but they’re unique because most of their inventory is supplied by locals (including me) who sell their books, movies, music, magazines to the stores for a wee fraction of what they resell them for. I forgive them, though, because of the countless gems I’ve scored there for decades. The store is brightly lit and meticulously organized and clean, so it’s the opposite of The Bookworm, but they have a stellar Nostalgia section, with rare books and first editions that might surprise you. Make sure to seek out the Ephemera display, where you might find some unbelievable magazine or ancient map or weirdo pamphlet you didn’t know you needed until that very moment.
Next door to HPB is the Antiquarian Book Mart, which specializes in rare books and has been open for decades, and a few blocks up Broadway is Cheever Books, a book snob’s destination since 1986. Both shops cater to readers looking for out of the ordinary books to add to their collections.
The Broadway book trail is a nice detour, and I always think that a suitcase weighted down with books is the sign of a good trip, don’t you?
Spots for Liquor & Libations
What The Bookworm was to me for books, Saluté International Bar on the historic N. St. Mary’s Strip was for Chicano cultural expression, live Conjunto music, spiritual activism, art, and comunidad. Like The Bookworm, Saluté only exists in the memories of those who were there, but I have to mention it here.
I never thought I’d have another favorite bar after the neighborhood changed, and so many of our nightlife landmarks disappeared, the musicians and regulars were displaced, and their legacies and memories were disrespected, but that is another story (one that I am working on, gracias) entirely.
I wish I could point you to Saluté or the original Bar America or Lerma’s or Tacoland or Acapulco Drive-In, but all I can do is recommend that you visit La Botánica for vegan Mexican food, crafty cocktails, and a thoroughly poppin’ nightlife.
La Botánica is owned by artist and activist Rebel Mariposa; she and her staff create a healing space to meet and eat, drink and dance, study and dream.
Try a tamarita (tamarindo + tequila= yum) and tell ‘em Bonnie says hiiiiiiiii.
Más Downtown Bars:
The Menger Bar near the Alamo, where they swear you can see ghosts. Designated a literary landmark by United for Libraries, the hotel boasts a guest list including Oscar Wilde, O. Henry, Sidney Lanier, and maybe, just maybe, they say that Robert Frost first contemplated “The Road Not Taken” there.
Havana Bar in a dimly lit hotel basement where my comadre says you might meet your vampire boyfriend.
Classic, charming, and cool, Liberty Bar sits in a former convent in the neighborhood known as Southtown. Good food and stiff drinks, it’s where a cross-section of the San Antonio arts and culture scene meets. (Sidenote: come celebrate the launch of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, a new essay anthology edited by Texas State University’s own Dr. Debra Monroe, on Friday night. Shameless plug, maybe, but I’ll be one of the featured readers.)
Lowcountry, set back in a ramshackle house, where the drinks are works of art, or so I’ve heard. I have kids now. Bars are a rare luxury.
The top of the Tower of the Americas, where everything is overpriced, but you can arrive already buzzed, walk out onto the observation deck, and peep our city from every angle. If it’s windy enough, you can feel a crazy sensation of height mixed with light mixed with wildness. That’s San Anto.
Mariachi Bar at Mi Tierra. It’s a tourist trap for a reason. An over-stimulating environment that is a rite of passage for people traveling through and locals alike.
Local Food Spots
I won’t tell you about restaurants long gone or tales of tacos past, but I will say that you should eat Mexican food at least once a day while you’re here. Not from a chain, por favor. Seek out a hole in the wall. This is San Antonio, y’all, and we are the epicenter of the culinary magic known as Tex-Mex.
In Austin, they call them breakfast tacos, but here they are . . . tacos. That’s like calling coffee . . . breakfast coffee, as if the morning is the only time cafecito is served.
My family’s favorite taqueria is La Bandera Molino on Zarzamora. Place your order at the case displaying a dizzying array of steaming delicacies. Choices are displayed on hand-painted signs, and you can always ask what a certain vat contains. Ask for corn tortillas, the thick ones, and when they bring them to your table take a deep whiff of that ancient aroma of maiz. You might teleport, I swear.
Unsung Literary Landmarks
Hands down, cross my heart, no doubt about it: the Latino Collection and Resource Center, located on the first floor of the Central Library, is the literary landmark of my dreams. A collection of 14,000 (and counting) titles, and home to innovative and impactful programming curated by program director Emma Hernández, the LCRC is a Latinx literary wonderland, a collection to admire and peruse and sometimes, just sometimes, be granted a variance form by, in order to check out a book for one week. But you better bring it back!
It was only a decade ago that Tucson Unified School District banned Mexican-American books and an entire Mexican-American studies curriculum from public schools because it “bred resentment against whites,” not knowing that banning our literature and curriculum breeds resentment much more efficiently. Telling our stories and expressing emotion and creating literature are rights we are still fighting for. Scratch the surface and you find that the dirt is not just American, you know?
If you only hit up one landmark, I recommend you visit the Central Library for the Latino Collection—for the architecture, the Chihuly, and the veranda, where they filmed the press conference scene in the Selena movie. You’ll be muy excited to find that though there is no basement at the Alamo, the Central basement contains the Book Cellar, yet another used book shop with crazy surprising finds for reasonable prices.
I’m in the middle of teaching Altar-ing: A Latinx Memoir Workshop at the LCRC, but I would recommend you check it out even if I wasn’t. It’s truly my favorite place.
How San Antonio Has Directly Inspired My Writing
See: everything above.
I won’t claim that San Antonio is my muse, because the inspiration is two-way street. On my best days, I feel enmeshed in the city’s fabric, like I am San Antonio, and she is me.
The aforementioned long gone bars/cultural landmarks played such an important role in my own cultural enlightenment and quest for social justice that I’m writing our side of story. My Saluté book is in the works. Someday it’ll sit on the shelf of the LCRC.
Favorite San Antonio-Based Writers
From the madrinas like Angela de Hoyos and Carmen Tafolla to the comadres like Laurie Ann Guerrero and Anel Flores, San Anto sings with a multitude of voices. The AWP 2020 Latino Caucus is happening on Friday, March 6 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. in Room 214D, and we are told, according to the description, “Latinx writers are becoming increasingly visible in literary spaces.”
Becoming . . . visible. There is so much I could say here, but I’d rather give you a list of established and emerging Latinx writers who call San Antonio home. These writers are visible if your eyes are open.
Look out for: Natasha Hernandez, Victoria Garcia-Zapata, Viktoria Valenzuela, Nephtalí De León, Vincent Cooper, Polly Anna Rocha, Miryam Bujanda, Ariana Brown, Barbie Hurtado, Mari Barrera, Adela Arellano, Eduardo Garza, Claudia Cardona, Jo Reyes-Boitel, Anthony Flores, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Josie Mendez-Negrete, Jesse Cardona, Patricia Portales, and so many more.
Now that you see us, I’m excited you get to find your own favorite!
The Best Reading I Ever Attended in San Antonio
His friends called him Trino, and over the course of one year in 2005, I am blessed to say that we became friends. In outreach programs and in the schools, Trino used poetry to exorcise past and current injustices and shine a light on our stories. Expressing themes of Chicano cultural identity and the beauty of bilingualism, Trino owned the microphone. It is not hyperbole to say that whether he was reading to a room of five people or five hundred, he made it seem as if was speaking directly to you.
When I met Trino in 2005, I was at a poetry reading organized by my now-ex-husband at the now-defunct Ruta Maya Café in downtown San Anto. I’d tag along to the readings each week, and eventually Trino and I befriended each other in the sea of poets and performers.
I was in awe when Trino took the stage. His word choice (bilingual!) and rhythms (Chicano!) painted pictures upon my imagination and plucked at my heartstrings, sometimes made them sting.
Eventually, Trino discovered I was writing poetry in my little book. And every week, almost first thing, he’d ask me the same question: “Bonnie, are you going to read tonight?” My heart would pound at the mere thought of sharing my work onstage, and I’d quickly reply, “Oh, not tonight. Next time.” New week, same question: “When will we hear your voice?”
I want to recall that he called me “mija,” but so much time has passed that maybe I’m embellishing to comfort myself—but no, the “mija” sentiment was definitely there.
“Oh, you know, I’ll sign up next time,” I’d pretend to promise.
The idea of going onstage made my panza churn; I never signed up at that open mic.
Trinidad Sánchez, Jr. died July 30, 2006, at the age of 63. He never heard me recite my own work, but as I look back, I realize how much he impacted me. Like many of the unofficial mentors San Anto sent my way, Trino Sánchez swooped into my life as quickly as he exited it.
Fifteen years later, I’m still mulling over his words and honored by the friendly nudge of confidence he bestowed upon me.
So here, I’ll leave you with some lines from my favorite Trinidad Sánchez Jr. poem, which I think illuminate a facet of this multifaceted jewel called San Antonio and reflect the spirit of my most sincere bienvienidxs. Welcome to San Anto:
I learned “At Last” the blues is about drinking, eating,
living, suffering, and dreaming every second of the breathing.
I learned the blues is for dancing, for a revival of the soul,
to bring about the resurrection for all that is dying inside.
—from “The Night I Danced with Etta James”
La Calaca Review: Un Bilingual Journal of Pensamiento & Palabra