Since its founding in 1987, by a small group of largely Chicana activists, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s organizing, advocacy, programming, and outreach have taken many forms – but a fundamental focus on social justice has remained through the years. 

Esperanza’s call is laid out on its website: It has galvanized “a multiracial, multicultural and bilingual cultural arts/social change community headed by Latinas, the majority of whom are lesbians.” It struggles, in broadest possible terms, to find “new voices, new forms and new solutions to the problems oppressed people are facing.”

As an organization that is of and for its community, largely anchored on the city’s West Side, one of Esperanza’s major facets is its staff’s and volunteers’ physical presence in the lives of community members, especially the most vulnerable.

As such, and owing to the fact that in-person event programming usually provides a strong source of funding for the center, Esperanza has had to adapt over the past several months amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Pandemic programming

“We like to be in the community and with the community, physically sharing space,” administrative assistant Imane Saliba said. It took Esperanza “a bit of time to get going” with online offerings to take the place of its normally robust slate of in-person cultural events and advocacy efforts.

Center Director Graciela Sanchez said, half-chuckling, that her team has “been quick at generating ideas, but then we find out all the work required to make them happen.”

The first virtual events were the center’s regularly scheduled Noche Azul shows in April. The concert series by singer-songwriter Azul Barrientos was an earlier success for Esperanza in the virtual realm, owing largely to Barrientos’ editing and technology skills.

Barrientos has been instrumental in much of the online programming Esperanza has offered during the pandemic, Saliba said.

The programming has included videos of previous events, like Paseo Por El Westside, Queer Voices, and Son Tus Niños También: Trans Kids Back to School. The center is working on more of these archival releases.

Esperanza also has put on new programs virtually, such as a panel discussion with local Black Lives Matter activists on the Netflix documentary 13th, memoir workshops with humanities professor Norma Cantú, and indigenous plant based cooking workshops with Mexican American studies professor Lilliana Saldaña.

This programming, the new and the old made new again, represents a significant stride into the digital realm for Esperanza. The memoir and cooking workshops, in particular, have been well-attended and have helped the center generate much-needed revenue and community engagement.

Natalie Rodriguez, the grassroots development coordinator at Esperanza responsible for the memoir workshops, said the focus was timely because “it is important for all individuals to reflect on their feelings and thoughts, to make sense of them, to move through emotions, to grieve.”

Echoing Rodriguez, Cantú said that “all of us in this global pandemic have suffered losses, but few have thought about the gains, including insights and knowledge we gain through pain and sorrow.” In her estimation,writing can help folks access those insights and that knowledge.

Esperanza’s food justice coordinator Judit Vega helped make the cooking workshops a reality.

“Food is just magic,” she said. “It can help people to connect to memories and to a sense of cultural belonging – it can be really powerful.”

The final indigenous plant based cooking workshop with Saldaña will take place at 7 p.m. Aug. 19.

With the success of these two series, Esperanza plans to host more virtual workshops in the realm of literary arts and cooking, though not necessarily with Cantú or Saldaña. A virtual event centered around Aug. 18, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, also is in the works.

Digital divide(s)

Sanchez said the technology learning curve has presented a special challenge – for her staff and the communities they aim to uplift. Lack of access to digital devices or the internet becomes, for many, lack of access to cherished and crucial social activities.

“The digital divide,” Sanchez said, “works along both economic and age lines.”

Sanchez expressed particular concern over the elderly in this regard. She worries they feel especially “isolated and alone and depressed because all of their social activity usually centers around physical spaces and hugging and holding and breaking bread together.”

Aside from doing socially distanced personal check-ins on elderly members of their extended community, Esperanza team members have partnered with a growing nationwide organization called Older Adults Technology Services to help secure devices and technology education for those who need it most.

“With everything being digital now,” Saliba said, “we are losing some of them, but hopefully not permanently.”

Persistent values

Sanchez recognizes that this is important work that makes Esperanza ever easier to engage with online. It’s also a potentially powerful endeavor of self-reflection.

As for the popular memoir and cooking workshops, those too came from looking inward: both Cantú and Saldaña are on Esperanza’s board. The Black Lives Matter panel discussion, Sanchez said, was really just a timely and necessary public engagement effort built around work the center is already involved in.

“For Esperanza,” she said, “it’s not only the programming – we are sitting side by side with these activists already, participating in planning, organizing, and strategizing around Black Lives Matter” and related issues like evictions and police reform.

“We do the work, which is where the programming is rooted,” she said.

For Sanchez, this is an important distinction, one she feels the City doesn’t always appreciate.

“This is why back in 1997 we got defunded by the City, because we were too political. And it’s like, you know, our work is related to the community and if the community is being evicted, for example, do we just say, ‘Oh well, let’s just program,’ and just ignore the problems?”

All of Esperanza’s work – to include the cultural programming, the boots on the ground advocacy and activism, the pursuit of basic needs for the community it serves – comes back to the call that led to its founding over thirty years ago.

Sanchez, dauntless in her focus, still sees Esperanza as a “translator and supporter for folks who, because of age or class or race or other reasons, feel pushed out of the processes” of social and political life.

James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.