The mural titled 'La Veladora' by local artist Jesse Trevino located outside the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A Democratic political organizer. The founding president and chief executive officer of LiftFund. The publisher of La Prensa newspaper. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

Socorro “Choco” Meza, Janie Barrera, Florentino “Tino” Duran, and the Guadalupe Center all have made notable contributions to the West Side’s economic, political, educational, and cultural evolution.

The Westside Development Corporation (WDC) spent Thursday night formally recognizing those contributions. More than 500 people attended the City delegate organization’s ninth annual Westside Honors Gala at Rosedale Park.

“These are the people and places that make San Antonio what it is,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the gala’s honorary chairman. “This gala is and has become one of the city’s most important traditions and most enjoyable.”

Meza, who died in 2016 at age 64, posthumously received the Public Service Award. The native of Zaragoza, Mexico, grew up in Eagle Pass and arrived in San Antonio in the early 1970s and soon became a leading organizer for local Democrats, advocating for a range of issues important to progressives and to the West Side, such as voter registration, education, and equal rights.

She organized Hillary Clinton’s local presidential campaign headquarters before her death in October 2016 from cancer and served on the Democratic National Committee.

Meza also chaired the Bexar County Democratic Party and worked with former Mayor Henry Cisneros when he led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She also was the national research director for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Meza’s daughter, Ivalis Gonzalez, accepted the award on her mother’s behalf. Gonzalez described how, in the ’70s, Meza helped draw up a single-member-district plan to change the City Council’s composition, enabling local Hispanics to have greater representation at City Hall.

“This landmark decision made it possible for Latinos to have a seat at the table as major decision-makers on the City Council,” Gonzalez said. “Since then, the first Latina Councilwoman [Maria Berriozábal] was elected, and the first Latino mayor [Cisneros], and many other Latino leaders rose to be elected and represent their respective community.”

Choco Meza and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5).
Socorro “Choco” Meza and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5). Credit: Courtesy of the District 5 office

Gonzalez read an excerpt from a letter written by Meza when she was executive director of the YWCA. The letter extolled the virtues of activism and social responsibility: “I want [my children] to have the courage to make changes so that all people can live with dignity and pride.”

Duran, who died in June 2017 at age 82, posthumously received the Education Award. The Lanier High School alumnus and U.S. Air Force veteran graduated from St. Mary’s University.

In the 1980s, Duran became general manager for El Sol de Texas, Dallas’ first Spanish-language newspaper, and then president and CEO of El Informador Hispaño newspaper in Fort Worth.

In 1989, Duran resurrected the historic La Prensa, strengthening that publication’s longstanding reputation as a vital, local bilingual newspaper. In 2014, he was inducted into the Texas Newspaper Hall of Fame.

Duran and his family began the La Prensa Foundation, which raises money for scholarships.

Tino’s son, Steve, accepted the award on his father’s behalf. Steve Duran said his father taught him much about the value of education, hard work, and faith.

“You just have to believe in it, you just want to have it in your heart, work hard, and good things will happen,” Duran said.

Steve Duran speaks about his father, the late Tino Duran. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

Duran said his father never missed a day of work at La Prensa, and strived to fulfill all  his personal and professional obligations. “His word was his bond, and everyone knew it,” he said.

Barrera received the Business Award. The organization she founded in 1994, LiftFund, offers loans to entrepreneurs, especially women and minorities, in Texas and 12 other states. To date, LiftFund has provided more than 19,000 small business loans totaling more than $300 million.

LiftFund’s mission is more than about helping aspiring business owners launch their own enterprise, Barrera said. It’s helping those people build wealth, grow their business, and to empower their community.

“Today, we know that small businesses need access to capital and training to be successful and to build wealth,” she said. “This is community asset-building. We need to help individuals build wealth and assets, not just income. We need more than just income, because income is volatile. Salaries and wages go up and down, but income is stable over time.”

LiftFund founder Janie Barrera speaks about being honored at the Westside Development Corp.’s Westside Honors Gala. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center received the Arts and Culture Award. For more than 70 years, the center has celebrated Latino, Chicano, and Native American heritages through musical and dance performances, live theater, film screenings, and classes and workshops in the arts.

Center Executive Director Cristina Ballí and Board Chairwoman Celina Peña accepted the award. Ballí said one of the Guadalupe’s main events, the recent Tejano Conjunto Festival, also held at Rosedale Park, nearly doubled its total attendance from last year’s edition.

“We’re very happy that the work of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center – that’s  represented so well in a program like the conjunto festival – is recognized,” said Balli.

Cristina Ballí (left), Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center executive director, and center board Chair Celina Peña speak at the Westside Development Corp.’s Westside Honors Gala at Rosedale Park. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

In addition to honoring past and present community leaders, Nirenberg and Leonard Rodriguez, the WDC’s president and CEO, talked about initiatives designed to positively affect the West Side.

Nirenberg, whose Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force will soon make recommendations about increasing the city’s affordable housing stock, said affordable, quality housing is an especially critical issue in San Antonio’s urban core.

“You all know housing costs continue to rise, pricing too many residents out of our market,” he said. “The dream of home ownership should be within reach for every San Antonian.”

Rodriguez said his organization is proud to be a partner in the Alamo Colleges District’s Westside Education and Training Center (WETC) program.

WDC helped the community college district to secure $23 million, in a voter-approved $450 million bond from 2017, to build a new WETC campus on the West Side. Ground will be broken this summer on the new site, which was once the location of an Edgewood Independent School District elementary school, Rodriguez said.

“This project has legs,” he said, adding that money in the neighborhood improvements bond, part of the City’s 2017 bond, could benefit the Edgewood area, including the new WETC campus.

Corporation Board Chairman Joe Carreon said the WDC could not make strides in revitalizing and preserving the area without help from the public and private sectors.

“A few things make these projects happen: Focus, dedication, collaboration, cooperation, understanding, partnership,” he said.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.