25th Anniversary Issue
Current 25: John Phillip Santos on how the SA arts scene prepared the way for the Current
Published: May 31, 2011
When you live too close to a place, the city becomes an impressionist painting: it’s so close to your nose, all you see are spots of color, globs of light. It’s when you step back that forms take shape. For San Antonio author John Phillip Santos it was his time spent in New York from 1986 to 2005 that opened his hometown to him, from the distant vantage point that he was able to appreciate the forms and shades of our city, a city he loves. And his perspective is useful to understanding how the cultural events of the city made the Current possible.
Why 1986? Why not before, or after? How did the city suddenly became “ready” for an alternative newspaper? “For a long time, this was a two-newspaper town,” Santos, a Rhodes scholar, award-winning writer, and Emmy-nominated filmmaker told the Current. “There wasn’t much alternative culture before ’86, and the city was locked down politically by the Good Government League, a political bloc that controlled City Hall.”
But then, things started to change.
Santos recalls that, in the early to mid-’80s, the other San Antonio began to emerge. “There was an incredible dance scene, and George Cisneros had an amazing festival of experimental music and dance,” he said. “Some of the giants of electronic music would come annually for these experimental music and dance festivals, and I mean people like John Cage, Morton Subotnick, Jerry Hunt, and Meredith Monk. This was serious stuff.”
It was in ’84 that Sandra Cisneros arrived from Chicago to become a key figure in San Antonio letters. “In ’84 I applied to run the Guadalupe literary program, and it came down to Sandra [Cisneros] and me,” said Santos. “They chose her. Wise decision.”
With Cisneros as literary director, the Guadalupe became a reading center for regional and national writers, and it was around that time that noted Chicano poet Ricardo Sánchez (1941-1995) arrived in San Antonio for a university job and started writing a column for the Express-News.
“This is a city of great diversity, one wherein the arts compete for exposure and funds,” Sánchez wrote in his first column in 1985. “It is a city of different understandings of pride. I will seek out those artistic and cultural phenomena that are off the beaten track and approach them with a poet’s sensibility.”
But Santos has a special place in his heart for Naomi Shihab Nye. “She really looms large in terms of San Antonio writers, because in the ’70s she graduated from Trinity and she became a tireless poet in schools,” said Santos. “She was the great awakener of poets in SA. Virtually every poet you meet has a story of how they were basically switched on by their encounter with Naomi.”
Inspired by his own encounter with the poet, by the time Santos graduated from high school he was corresponding with major poets and novelists, and he wasn’t the only one. Slowly but steadily, the worlds of poetry, visual arts, and music formed an organic unit that changed the face of the city forever.
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