This is the first installment in a three-part series diving into the findings of the West Side Sound Oral History Project, an effort to document and preserve the West Side’s musical heritage.

If you spend time on San Antonio’s West Side, you’ll get a glimpse into a vibrant community with rich history and deep roots. You’ll see colorful murals documenting that history and homes that have been in families for generations. You’ll find independently owned convenience stores, barber shops, delicious Mexican restaurants, fruterias and cultural arts organizations like San Anto Cultural Arts, El Rinconcito de Esperanza and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center — all evidence of the way this community cares for and supports itself, as well as contributes to the arts in San Antonio.

This includes music, and specifically the West Side Sound, a genre dating back to the ‘50s and ‘60s that was largely influenced by R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, swamp pop, conjunto and country and western music. 

A combination of factors contributed to the development of the West Side Sound: the military bases that bring in folks and their musical interests from across the globe; Highway 90, which bridges Texas and Louisiana and contributes to a fusion of musical genres; and the Chitlin’ Circuit, which were Black-owned nightclubs such as the Keyhole Club, which brought in amazing musical acts such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and many more who influenced local Chicano musicians. West Side Sound is one of many examples of the contributions people of Mexican descent and Black folks have made to San Antonio culture.

When we started the West Side Sound Oral History Project, we wanted to learn more about this music directly from the community. With the ongoing pandemic and its impact on communities of color, and the current attempts at banning books that teach about the histories of people of color, it becomes important, especially within the field of Mexican American Studies, to engage in research that documents our contributions, experiences, and memories. 

Our oral history project is rooted in our love for San Anto and our belief that San Anto gente are experts and intellectuals who embody knowledge and history, especially about the experiences and contributions of Mexican Americans. 

Radio and TV personality Henry “Pepsi” Peña spoke about the importance of documenting the history of West Side Sound for future generations to not only learn about the music but to learn about their identities as Mexican Americans. Similarly, music historian and Friends of Sound manager Rambo Salinas discussed the historical significance of local record collections. Below is an excerpt from his interview for the West Side Sound Oral History Project.

YouTube video

That specific R&B, soul, Chicano sound of San Anto is definitely its own. The shoddy engineering, or however they recorded it, just sounds just so powerful. All those records are thick wax and you put the needle down, even if it looks scuffed, like a lot of San Antonio records, they’ll still play on that deep groove. And it’s just that that deep sound to the way everything was recorded here. [It was] probably just a bunch of young kids not having access to all the latest equipment that people had in other areas. That sound alone is easy to fall in love with.

I call them fossils or relics because, really, that’s what they are. They’re a snap in time. We don’t have a museum yet, nothing in San Antonio documenting these stories. It’s not always just the musicians, it’s the people that were witnessing those things in the ‘60s and ‘70s or even before. Being able to get those stories straight from them is so crucial. That’s the real goal beyond the records: to have those kinds of stories.

When I speak of fossils and relics, we’re looking at them now and kind of it’s making a second turn around the world … with all these youthful people that are interested in this music again. [But we have to think about] the price and being mindful of what our culture is worth because there’s nothing else like it. It’s called West Side Sound for a reason, because it made its own name. 

So we need to be wise about what we do with these things and the stories, how we present them to other cultures. And also how we keep them safe in our own culture, making sure that those things are still around, and that we can still have those spaces still have the stories or those records. Kids 20 years from now still need to be able to hold on to a record and look at it with their own eyes to understand the actual tangibility of it. If they’re all gone, you can’t do that. So we have to be wise about how we move around what’s left.

Rambo Salinas

The West Side Sound Oral History Project, which is supported by a grant from UTSA’s Westside Community Partnerships Initiative, is about the preservation of our community memories, local histories, music and cultural contributions, businesses, and barrios. If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed, please contact westsidesoundproject@gmail.com

Sylvia Mendoza, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Mexican American Studies at UTSA. She was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas and attended San Antonio College, graduated with her bachelor’s from...

Gloria Vásquez Gonzáles is a lecturer and co-director of the Mexican American Studies Teacher’s Academy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Norbert “Geremy” Landin III is from San Antonio and holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in public history from St. Mary’s University. Geremy currently serves on the San Antonio Public...