Why focus a story on San Antonio’s Southside? Let us count the ways.
One is because in so many ways, the Southside is San Antonio.
Four of the five San Antonio Missions—all but the Alamo—are located there, along with iconic structures like the giant stage and outdoor movie screen at the Marquee Mission Plaza, institutions like Don Pedro’s family restaurant, and scores of families whose roots go back to the earliest days of living memory for San Antonians and the people who lived here centuries before any European settlers set foot.
Two is because it’s a massive, exhilarating place with dimensions and depth.
You’ve got the history, and then you’ve got the present: a new DeLorean car factory amid other booming plants; Brooks City Base; Texas A&M San Antonio; wide swaths of farmland and rural developments; booming neighborhoods being built overnight—but hardly fast enough to keep up with growth.
Which brings us to Three: It many be representative, and it may be fascinating, but the Southside is also often overlooked by too many people in San Antonio.
Yet today, the Southside is growing in the face of a legacy of neglect that delimited opportunities for far too many families and children.
The Southside is too big, too complex, and too varied to cover in just one story. We’re not even going to pretend that’s possible here. But we do want to introduce you to a few of our Southside neighbors.
MEET GLORIA MORA
a woman who committed her years in retirement to fighting for her neighborhood
Gloria Mora has spent the vast majority of her 79 years on the same Southside street. The home she lives in now—where she and her late husband, Agustin, raised three boys and two girls—is blocks away from the one where Mora herself was raised by her grandmother, two uncles, and an aunt.
This street gave Mora a front-row seat to how San Antonio developed its neighborhoods—and to understand her story, you’ll need to know some of that background.
In Mora’s youth, a lot of work was needed in a part of town that the city had not bothered to care for. Basic resources—paved streets, clean water, electricity, drainage systems—were an afterthought even though this neighborhood of young families was just a short drive from downtown.
Growing up, Mora would hear her aunt and uncles talk about how their Mexican American community was being cut off from the rest of the city. But they didn’t just talk—they got involved as community organizers.
Community organizing may be an unfamiliar concept if you’ve never been around it. What organizers do, basically, is talk to community members to identify community needs. Then they develop a plan to get those needs met by working with—or pushing against—elected officials.
In 1974, a new community organizing coalition—Communities Organized for Public Service, known as the COPS/Metro Alliance—was formed. COPS worked closely with churches especially throughout the Southside and Westside, including St. Leo’s Church where Gloria and her family have been committed for many years.
With its help, the Southside community set its sights high: they wanted paved streets and proper drainage systems, but they also wanted a college.
The vast majority of Southside families like Mora’s had never sent anyone to college before, which limited career possibilities for the entire community. So COPS devised a plan.
But “they were turned down” by the civic leaders of the day, says Mora. “We can’t have a community college out here. Nobody’s going to attend.
“Well,” she adds, “they got a surprise.”
The surprise was a long time coming, though: The college, first called for in 1974, did not get built until 1987. Between those dates, a battle ensued. Mora’s aunt, Mary Louisa Segovia, was one of the lead organizers with COPS during those years, along with her uncles and many members of their church, St. Leo the Great.
When Palo Alto College finally opened, 231 students enrolled. By 1991, it was the fastest-growing college in the state. Today, over 10,000 students are enrolled on a campus that sits on 162 acres, complete with a theater, recital hall, and recording studios. Many are the first in their families to attend college, and over 70% are Hispanic.
That’s the power of community organizing. Mora always knew she wanted to tap into that power. After a career climbing the ladder at Kelly Air Force Base, and eventually pursuing her own college degree with her employer’s support, Mora retired from work—and then got to work organizing, following in the footsteps of her aunt and uncles and the tradition of her faith community at St. Leo’s.
Because even with Palo Alto College and paved streets, a lot of work still needed to be done on the Southside.
She says, “I felt like I had a responsibility to continue” to support the work of COPS. Plus, watching her uncles all those years, “I saw the fruits of it. I was very aware” of the struggle to improve the community.
“They had to wait 20 years” for the drainage issues to be addressed. And the only reason it finally happened was that the community demanded it, led by community organizers from COPS Metro.
Demanding change from local officials did not come natural to Mora. “I was very scared” speaking before City Council, she says. “But I surprised myself. When you have something that really matters to you, that you are fighting for, you get the courage to go.”
Mora speaks quietly and deliberately. She lost her beloved husband to COVID in 2021, and she has since stepped aside from community organizing. But she remains proud of the work she and her community did, all the wins they tallied on behalf of her neighbors.
I ask her to reflect on all the issues she and COPS took on over the years: “Did you lose any battles long the way?”
Mora looks up at the ceiling, collecting her thoughts. “Well. . .” Then she looks back at me, smiles, and answers:
MEET REBECCA VIAGRAN
a transformative leader still in the thick of her career
Former councilwoman Rebecca Viagran likes to say that the Southside “is the past, present, and future of San Antonio.”
The Viagran family’s local roots go back more than 250 years. Her great-grandfather’s middle name is Losoya, which is also the name of an unincorporated community that’s considered part of the Southside—only about 20 minutes from downtown San Antonio.
“Dad was indigenous to this community, and by that I mean he was Native American as well,” she explains. Her mother’s family is from Mexico by way of Italy, and they were part of the wave of people who migrated here during the Mexican Revolution.
The Viagrans are not novel in this respect—a lot of local families are connected to each other and to the region’s history.
Interconnected, but also disconnected from San Antonio’s growing downtown and Northside. And that was no accident of history—the disconnection was by design, a matter of public policy.
We’re accustomed in this country to hearing about the Jim Crow Era, and we think of that story as one mostly set in the Deep South. But Jim Crow existed in south Texas, too, where brown-skinned families and neighborhoods were subject to intense discrimination.
“My mom is much lighter skin than her cousins,” says Viagran, and “she was treated differently than her cousins because they had darker skin.” Her mom could enter the front entrance of local movie theaters, while her darker-skinned cousins had to access a different entrance.
Yet the family thrived. Viagran’s dad owned a trophy shop, then managed a softball complex to help generate a stronger market for his trophies. The family worked the businesses together. “My sister Phyllis was the engraver,” says Viagran. “My uncle, my aunt, my cousins—it was a complete family business. If somebody needed a summer job, they would work at the trophy shop.”
“The Viagrans are not novel in this respect—a lot of local families are connected to each other and to the region’s history.”
That past connects to the present: “I still live in the same neighborhood, in the same house that I grew up in,” she says. She and Phyllis were raised a few blocks from St. Leo’s, where the Viagrans went to church and the girls went to school. Everything was connected.
“The community helped raise my sister and me,” she says. If they so much as crossed the street the wrong way, “the mama patrol” would tell their parents. “Everybody knew your business. We knew our neighbors. Everybody knew what was happening around the neighborhood.”
Viagran moved to San Marcos for college, New York City for a summer internship, and Spain for a year of mission work. She came back to San Antonio to work for St. Mary’s University and then the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce before winning a seat on San Antonio’s City Council.
Viagran spent a full eight terms on the council in keeping with a campaign promise she made after learning constituents were frustrated with councilmembers leaving before they got anything done. She stayed, and she has the receipts of eight years of work—the work of catching up the community after all those decades of neglect and disinvestment.
The catchup included seemingly simple but beneficial resources like dog parks and hike-bike trail extensions. And a lot more:
The Mission Marquee Plaza, an iconic outdoor movie theater and event space that needed a reboot. The plan was to plot a cheap blow-up screen in front of the marquee, but Viagran refused to go that way. “That’s second class,” said Viagran. She told the community, “That’s not what we’re doing. We’re going to find the money.”
A new YMCA—the only YMCA south of Highway 90. The YMCA would not support including a swimming pool, but Viagran’s constituents thought it was essential, so they found the money.
The University of Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, which opened in 2017 and is now one of the fastest growing and most diverse medical schools in the country. “Nobody would have believed that [was possible] ten years ago,” Viagran says. “People from all over the U.S. are coming to this school.”
But my favorite example of the catchup work is sidewalks. “Some of your readers may not understand the importance of a sidewalk,” she says. They’re either there or not, and you don’t always notice one way or another. In some affluent neighborhoods, sidewalks are against community regulations because people don’t want as much foot traffic in front of their house.
But in many places in San Antonio, the absence of sidewalks is a sign of neglect. It means when hard rains come, the waters pool up randomly, flooding front yards, streets, whole intersections. The morning after a heavy rain, you can see kids trudging through those waters.
Or maybe they will have sidewalks, but they’ve not received attention in three, four, five decades. Tree shoots have given way to full trees, rising up and cracking the sidewalks, creating impasses.
But a sidewalk “can be transformational to neighborhoods,” says Viagran. “When you have families that have to walk to the bus stop, they want a sidewalk and not to have to walk in the street to get to the bus stop.”
One of Viagran’s first ribbon cutting ceremonies was for a sidewalk. “For a street repair project, actually,” says Viagran, “but it’s the sidewalk that got everyone’s attention. This grandma came up to me and tells me, “Now I feel like a rich person now with a sidewalk in front of my house. I’m so tired all the time now because my grandson just wants to keep walking and walking.”
All these Southside improvements are great for the Southside. But they matter for neighbors across San Antonio.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link,” she says.”You’re only as strong as one part of your city. If one part of your city is sick, the entire city is sick.”
MEET ANGELINA RODRIGUEZ
a recent high school graduate rising up from her Southside roots
This past June, eighteen-year-old Angelina Rodriguez graduated from Southside High School. By the time you’re reading this, she’ll be in Albuquerque, starting her freshman year at the University of New Mexico.
Rodriguez represents the Southside’s future, and her roots are every bit as deep as Viagran’s. (Indeed, the roots are intertwined—they are distant cousins.) But first, she needs to go explore the world.
Rodriguez is proud of where she comes from, and she believes the Southside has given her plenty of support, including within her very high school. She credits Southside High’s strong career readiness program for preparing her way.
Student can choose from a range of career tracks. “I chose the health science route,” she says. “I’ve been doing it since my freshman year and I have three certifications because of it—patient care technician, phlebotomist, and workplace safety.”
Rodriguez bursts with hometown pride. Asked to describe her home, she rattles off place names of “different parts of the Southside”—Harlandale, Cullum, the South San area, the Southwest area, Elmendorf, Somerset, Poteet. She loves the football traditions in the fall, and everyone getting the day off for the Battle of Flowers parade in the spring. And the way “everybody kind of knows everybody. I really do love that about our community.”
Any community struggles? She sits back in her chair and takes a breath. “You see it every day,” she says. “I rode the bus with kids that live down dirt roads, and they go home and they gotta watch their little brothers and sisters ‘cause their mom is working her second job.”
Moreover, she says, there is a continual sense of being overlooked.
“People forget about the Southside. They don’t realize how much talent we have out here—intellectual talent, athletic talent. Our amazing teachers and staff.”
Rodriguez speaks particularly about all this from her years of experience as an athlete. She was a proud and successful member of Southside High School’s softball team. “We have great athletes out here and they’re barely getting the recognition they deserve,” she says.
“Growing up, it was hard representing Southside on our jerseys. People think so bad of us. And we do wish we had the resources that people have in the wealthier communities.
“I’m not saying that everybody on the north side is wealthy or gets everything they want, but that’s how we see it over here. Brand new stadiums, brand new schools, brand new malls.”
This spring, Rodriguez won the KENS 5 All Star Student Award, and she was featured on TV. “And of course people shared it on Facebook and Instagram and all that,” she says, and in the comments section “people were like, Southside? Where’s the Southside? What is this?
“It’s very unfortunate, because we have a lot to offer out here.”
Rodriguez responded to this challenge by stepping up. Playing softball taught her discipline, and she learned to apply that discipline to her studies, too, making the honor roll all four years of high school. And even while fighting through injuries that kept her off the field for long stretches, Rodriguez was recognized on the all-district team and named defensive MVP.
She also won academic scholarships that will support her at UNM. But she can’t help but carry a sense that if she had such success on the north side of San Antonio, even more doors of opportunity would have opened up.
Even so, as Rodriguez has risen, so has her entire area. For years, Southside Independent School district was ranked very last of the 17 San Antonio area school districts. In 2022, surged up the rankings, with seven campuses receiving B grades and one receiving an A.
Rodriguez says that even as she moves further west, her heart stays here—with her family, her community, and with a city that she always loved even when she’s not sure it was loving her back.
Any parting words for San Antonio?
“Don’t count the Southside out,” she says.
“We have a lot of talent out here. Very smart kids out here, smart adults, great leadership out here. We just hope that people will look at our perspective and take a chance on a kid from the Southside.
All we need is a chance, and we’re gonna make it happen.”
|We know only part of our Echoes audience is in San Antonio, but we still want to use this space to let you know about an exciting new platform we’re launching there: Know Your Neighbor.|
Know Your Neighbor is a new expression of the storytelling work we’ve been doing for a few years now—inspiring people to get to know their neighbors across town, to get up close and personal across the divides that too easy separate us.
Neighboring is at the heart of the gospel. And not just next-door neighboring, but neighboring across lines of race and class and even geography. Neighboring across ZIP codes and parts of town.
We think this effort is especially vital in a city with the nation’s highest poverty rate and with extreme degrees of segregation. We cannot overcome these challenges without seeing and understanding each other better.
Know Your Neighbor has three main parts:
This work is rooted in San Antonio, but we hope and believe it can inspire you wherever you live.
Join us! It’s time to Know Your Neighbor.
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