The passion that gives punch to the “Arte es Vida” bumper sticker drove many of the questions posed by a diverse audience at the mayoral forum Tuesday night hosted by the Westside Arts Coalition. Conversations covered ideas that everyone from finger painters to Old Masters could appreciate.

Six of the 14 mayoral candidates attended the event to craft a portrait of themselves – Mayor Ivy Taylor was unavailable – as they answered questions about the inequity of City arts funding; whether Tricentennial events will include groups integral to history but normally marginalized; the 1%-for-arts capital project funding policy; and cultural tourism and its commercialization of culture.

San Antonio Express-News Editorial Editor Ricardo Pimentel read questions supplied by the audience. About 75 people attended the event at the Central Library, spanning a young mom rocking a baby to 82-year-old Tea Partier “Mama Bexar” who also is on the May 6 ballot.

The crowd had its most strong reactions to comments made by candidates Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina and indigenous rights activist Antonio Diaz.

As Medina has stated in other debates, he is in favor of most of the proposed $850 million bond, but not the $200 million he said is “being given away to corporations.” He cited funds slated to improve Broadway Street, build a hotel at Hemisfair, and a land bridge at Hardberger Park. The audience erupted in applause.

The bond does not actually include any money for a hotel, rather for the eight-acre Civic Park. Proceeds from commercial businesses surrounding parkland will go toward maintenance and programming for the public parks within Hemisfair.

Asked about his own experiences with art, Medina named San Antonio artists with whom he’s “enamored,” including printmaker Cruz Ortiz, poet Carmen Tafolla, and teenage recording artist Isabel Marie Sanchez.

“Cities need sewers, but they also need souls,” he said, “and that’s what art [gives] to us, soul we can see, we can touch, we can feel” with the added benefit of “bringing economic vitality.”

Diaz drew fervent response from the audience for his no-nonsense talk about cultural inequality in San Antonio reflected in arts funding and the rewriting of history that paints indigenous people as expendable. He recognized others in the room who have struggled against cultural disparity – “all we have, all we will have if we don’t keep up the fight.”

Mayoral candidates from left, Antonio Diaz and Dr. John Velosquez answer questions at the Mayoral Arts Forum in the San Antonio Central Library auditorium.
Mayoral candidates (from left) Antonio Diaz and Dr. John Martin Velasquez answer questions at the forum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Audience members were most heartily roused when Pimentel asked a question about raising the pay of hospitality workers to a living wage.

Diaz answered first. “The servant mentality is still here. We were trained to be servants; I would work against the servant mentality. I would not offer incentives to any entity that does not want to pay a fair wage to our people. You make millions of dollars a year, and our people should benefit from it, just like the people around the Missions.”

In closing, Diaz described his impoverished childhood as a migrant worker, and recalled the joy of hearing live conjunto music on Saturday nights with his family. “I’m for the arts – the music, painting, all its forms – because it helps lift our spirits, as it did mine.”

Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) was glad that the arts were being discussed during a mayoral campaign at all, especially as he is a musician and former general manager of Trinity University jazz station KRTU.

“Jazz best expresses, in my opinion, the great variety of heritage we have here, from the jazz heritage of the Eastwood (Country Club) and the Key Hole Club, to the Guadalupe Cultural [Arts] Center, to the Westside Horns, to the jazz that came up from New Orleans, to south of the border,” Nirenberg said.

A wreath of cactus he and his wife bought at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center has a ribbon that says “Asimilación.”

Mayoral candidate Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) answers questions at the Mayoral Arts Forum in the San Antonio Central Library auditorium.
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) listens to audience questions at the forum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“It’s there to make you think about what art means to you,” he said, “about whether it’s an expression of how cultures come together into one unifying voice or it’s a way of how our culture puts pressures on us to diminish the voices that are unique and create commercialization of things we don’t like.”

Candidate Gerard Ponce, a consultant and lifelong San Antonian, took painting classes at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and the McNay Art Museum as a child, and found that paint ran short at the first and flowed at the second. He believes bond money intended for the Broadway Corridor should be spent to support the Westside, and that the Hotel/Motel Occupancy Tax should be increased for the same purpose. He sees graffiti as an art form whose makers should not be punished, and reminded the audience repeatedly, eventually to laughter, that he himself is an artist, influenced by Van Gogh.

Rhett Smith, a candidate with 35 years experience working in security, asked why white culture doesn’t want to have anything to do with Mexican culture in San Antonio. If elected, he would call for schools to teach pre-Revolutionary War history to give context to the Mexican-American story.

Mayoral candidates from left, Dr. John Velosquez, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), Gerard Ponce, Manuel Medina, and Rhett Smith listen to the auditor at the Mayoral Arts Forum in the San Antonio Central Library auditorium.
Mayoral candidates (from left) Dr. John Martin Velasquez, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), Gerard Ponce, Manuel Medina, and Rhett Smith listen to the auditor at the Mayoral Arts Forum in the San Antonio Central Library auditorium. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In describing his own affinity to the arts, he gave the location of his artistic Westside house, which a gentleman in the audience averred is colorful. When he declared, in a thoughtful tone, that everyone should vote for him because he has run for office more times than anyone in the room, laughter erupted. He went on to criticize City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who he calls “Mayor No. 2.”

John Martin Velasquez, a clinical psychologist formerly on the faculty of the University of the Incarnate Word, earnestly declared himself best fit for mayor because of his ignorance of City issues and his openness to learning. He sees the arts as “health-promoting activities,” physically and psychologically, whose budget shouldn’t be cut any more than hospitals’ should be cut. He encouraged the audience to go home and create something.

Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.