Isabel Casillas Sánchez lived a long and fulfilling life as a community advocate, raising a family while inspiring a familia of “buena gente” centered around the West Side of San Antonio and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center run by her daughter Graciela Sánchez.

The elder Sánchez died peacefully at her daughter’s home in the early evening of June 14, surrounded by family. Despite good health at age 97, she had suffered a severe stroke 10 days earlier and went into hospice care.

A visitation will be held July 2 from 4-6 p.m. at Casa De Cuentos in the the Rinconcito de Esperanza, followed by a rosary and vigil service. A requiem mass will take place at St. Alphonsus Church at 9 a.m. on July 3, with a celebration of life immediately following. At 9 a.m. on July 6, a gravesite service will be held at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery shelter No. 1.

Sánchez is survived by husband Enrique, sons Xavier, Bernard, Fernando, and Gustavo, daughters Graciela and Leticia, nine grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren and one great great granddaughter.

Isabel and Enrique Sanchez stand in front of Casa de Cuentos one of their many properties dedicated for community gathering. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Isabel and Enrique Sánchez stand in front of Casa de Cuentos, one of their many properties dedicated for community gathering, in 2016. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The day after Sánchez’s death, the Esperanza Center announced a $1 million grant from MacKenzie Scott for ongoing community work, which Graciela credited to her mother’s legacy. “This million dollars is about my mother’s values,” she said Tuesday.

One significant value Isabel demonstrated consistently throughout her life was acceptance, including Graciela’s status as an out lesbian during a time when issues of gender identity and gay rights commonly caused consternation.

In 1997, singer Lourdes Perez and partner Annette D’Armata wrote a song in honor of Isabel’s support for her daughter, titled “Yo Parí Una Luchadora” (“I Gave Birth to a Fighter”). The lyrics are sung in the voice of the loving mother:

Me bendijo dios, señora (God has blessed me, ma’am)
Su furia es como la mar (Her fury is like the sea)
¿Como poderle explicar? (How can I explain it to you?)
Yo parí una luchadora (I gave birth to a fighter)

María Berriozábal was District 1 City Councilwoman from 1981 to 1991, the first Latina to serve in that role. She described the values held by Sánchez that were transmitted throughout her Westside community.

“She had a long history of being very courageous and involved in speaking out when she saw something wrong. She was protective of her family, of her neighbors,” Berriozábal said, and was a consistent presence at city meetings, advocating for many issues that affected her fellow San Antonians.

Scholar Antonia Casteñeda formed the Westside Preservation Alliance with Sánchez in 2009 to advocate for the preservation of homes that had been in families for generations. Sánchez helped to successfully preserve a number of homes but did not consider herself special for having done so.

Casteñeda gently disagreed. “She was for me extraordinary and uncommon, because of her profound love for [her] rootedness in the West Side.”

Though vocal when necessary, Sánchez mostly did her work quietly. She eschewed making speeches on behalf of her many causes, instead working behind the scenes to influence and inspire.

“It’s the gift of presence, of authentic presence,” Berriozábal said, “that not too many words are needed. You’re just there and have a way of communicating without really saying much, and then we understand.”

She met Sánchez early on, saying, “I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t there,” always helping out with neighborhood fundraisers, making tamales, chalupas, and capirotada to sell at events, volunteering her own time with several organizations, and helping to establish the Esperanza Center.

Sánchez graduated from Lanier High School in 1942, which retired teacher Helen Chouinard described as “a very huge accomplishment in her time for her to be graduating from high school, as a young Latina,” which was unusual for the time.

The 1942 graduating class of Lanier High School. Isabel Sánchez is in the first row, third from the right. Credit: Courtesy / Graciela Sánchez

Sánchez would go on to show her appreciation for Lanier by helping to establish the Sanchez/Fuentes Scholarship Fund along with her husband Enrique and fellow Lanier alumna Amelia Fuentes, to grant scholarships that might make the difference between a student being able to attend Lanier or not, Chouinard said.

Chouinard recalls Sánchez as “a great cook,” and estimates the tamales and capirotada sold at annual bailes at the Esperanza Center have raised in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

“She made a difference to lots of people’s lives,” she said. “Lanier lost a very stalwart supporter in losing Mrs. Sánchez. They were lucky to have her.”

Amelia Valdez studied at Lanier in the 1980s but was struggling with the government class she needed to be able to graduate, partly because of family troubles at home. Sánchez not only treated Valdez like family, welcoming the young student into her home, but went to the teacher and advocated on behalf of Valdez.

“Ten years later, I’m getting my degree from the University of Michigan. And this is rightly due to her,” Valdez said.

Valdez also said Sánchez’s values were carried on through her daughter Graciela, who hired Valdez as the Buena Gente Coordinator at the Esperanza Center in 2014 when she was in need of work, a position Valdez maintains to this day.

Along with her significant role as a community and educational advocate, Sánchez is most remembered for her dancing. Activist artist Marisela Barrera once wrote an encomium to the frequent cheek-to-cheek dancing of Isabel and Enrique, whom she holds as a model couple.

“If you just saw them on the dance floor, it was special,” Barrera said, tearing up. “I’m crying just because we’re all searching for that.”

Enrique and Isabel Sánchez dance at the Rinconcito de Esperanza, circa 2011. Credit: Courtesy / Graciela Sánchez

Berriozábal said love was among Sánchez’s greatest gifts to her Westside community and the city she lived in her entire life.

“She has always been a force behind many things,” Berriozábal said. “A woman who is able to be very courageous, very firm in her beliefs of justice, but also a very kind and loving woman. And I think that’s her greatest gift, her very quiet demeanor that exudes love. And we all feel it.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...