On Tuesday morning, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center broke ground for its long-awaited Museo del Westside.

Scheduled to open in May 2023, what the center calls its “new community participatory museum,” will focus on the history and culture of San Antonio’s Westside neighborhoods through archives collected by community members.

First conceived of in 2007 when the building was acquired, the Museo has since been supported by a $75,000 grant from Impact San Antonio, a $50,000 donation from an anonymous donor in Dallas, and $1.5 million from the city of San Antonio’s Westside Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ).

A sacred day

Graciela Sánchez, the Esperanza Center’s executive director, welcomed a crowd of supporters and members of the media “on this very important, sacred day,” to announce the official groundbreaking for the museum that will anchor the Rinconcito de Esperanza on the corner of Guadalupe and Colorado Streets.

The Rinconcito is a collection of historic buildings that serve as living memory for the West Side: the 100-year-old Casa de Cuentos, a casita that represents typical working-class housing from the area’s past; the MujerArtes adobe building that houses a group of artisans; and the corner building that stands vacant but once housed M&E Grocery Store, and the adjoining Ruben’s Ice House.

Project architect Dwayne Bohuslav began restoring the vacant building 12 years ago, working with the Esperanza Center’s vision “that each of these buildings was a miracle,” he said, “and that there could be a way of thinking about them … being conjoined into a kind of necklace of milagros.”

Esmeralda “Sam” Rocha said she was born in a shotgun house that used to stand on the block. In the 1960s she worked for her parents Manuel and Elida Reyes alongside her nine siblings in the grocery, serving coffee or hamburgers out of the side window that is now gated and served as a backdrop for the Mariachi Esperanza musicians providing music for the groundbreaking ceremony.

Her sister Patricia Reyes Zepeda also recounted her days working in the store. “As a child, you see it as chores, but as an adult, they become beautiful memories that built closeness amongst the family.”

Rocha said the family feeling extended throughout the community that visited the store, which served as a “Cheers”-like gathering place. “When you walk in everybody knows your name — that was here. We knew everybody in the community, they knew my dad and the kids. Everybody knew everybody. It was awesome.”

When it came time to sell the building in the mid-2000s after the deaths of their parents, the 10 children had to make a choice between following their dad’s “100% businessman” example, so described by Reyes Zepeda, or their mom’s feeling that “she would have given it away” to the community. Bolstered by what then-Councilwoman Patty Radle recalled as a $35,000 gift from her discretionary fund, the Esperanza Center offered the $50,000 asking price. That offer was immediately supplanted by another buyer who offered $90,000, a price beyond what the center could afford.

Foregoing substantial profit and favoring their mother’s example, the children chose to sell to the Esperanza Center, and Rocha and Reyes Zepeda said they were thrilled to be on hand Tuesday to celebrate the eventual result.

By and for the community

Sánchez credited the Westside community with the founding vision for the Museo. “The fact that it’s even a museum is because the community said this is what we want,” she said. Now, “they get to imagine, they get to dream, and that vision will become a reality.”

Radle praised the Esperanza community for its 15-year commitment to realizing the museum vision. “Thank goodness we were able to … have the vision back then,” she said, because amid subsequent Westside property sales, “there are a lot of people who aren’t necessarily committed to what this community is about.”

Sánchez emphasized that while the Museo will be unlike traditional museums based on the work of scholars, local historians who hold doctorates will be key contributors to the mission of the museum, offering context to collected artifacts and interpreting them for future generations.

One such scholar is Antonia Castañeda. The former associate professor of history at St. Mary’s University and current Museo advisory board member drew a direct connection between the development of the Museo and the complex, sometimes conflicted history of the Esperanza Center.

“It is important to know not only that we have these spaces, but what these spaces cost, and not in monetary terms, but in terms of struggle, in terms of politics, in terms of blood, sweat and tears,” Castañeda said. “But here we are. We prevail. The Esperanza has prevailed.”

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...