…from a trip down south, June 2007…

Part One: CoolinÂ’ at the icehouse
Not here 10 minutes, and I’m already scratching dried sweat off my ass.
My sister doesn’t get in for a few hours, so I take a taxi to Taco Cabana — the best Tex-Mex fast food EVER — and chill with the diabetics drinking Lone Stars. On the way over, the driver says pretty much what I read in the San Antonio Express-News: “Yeah, the whole world thinks the Spurs are boring, but I bet they wish they were boring as us, with four championships, ey!”
The newspaper puts it down like this: “So the Spurs are considered unremarkable, uninteresting and downright unwatchable. Today, San Antonio fans survey the bored landscape beyond their city limits and offer a succinct reply. So what?”
After sucking down a tub of Dr. Pepper, I decide to walk to the hotel, like a leisurely stroll, but I soon remember how much hotter and stickier it is here. Just my walk is equivalent to a vigorous jog in terms of the sweat I work up.
Amalia shows up, and we hit the streets with all the gathering Spurs fans. Downtown SanAnto isn’t very modern looking, so you can almost imagine walking into, variously, the 19th or early 20th centuries. And the city is obviously so much more brown in its aesthetics, tastes, and people: Spanglish, also, is the norm, so much that after a while I don’t even notice the easy, lax switching between Spanish, English, and Tejanismos.
The Riverwalk is flooded with brown folks rocking Spurs regalia, and when we find our spot to watch the floats and fanfare, cheers go up for Plácido Domingo busting out with the Star Spangled Banner. After a bit, we’re able to see Coach Pop, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker (with Eva in tow), and then Bruce Bowen and Tim Duncan, who acknowledges my sister from his floatboat with a cool, finger-pointing triple-nod.
Loaded up on Spurs, we slog to Southtown and dehydrate our way to La Tuna icehouse. Sedimented, rusted bottle caps crunching underfoot, we find our way to a picnic bench and watch the tough stray cats, freight trains, old-school veteranos, and hick hipsters sucking down brews like water. La Tuna, like so many other buildings strewn along rugged streets with yellowed grass, is a bit rickety and lurching toward collapse, but unassuming and done up with the trinkets, posters, and cast-off art from a deep Tex-nexus of down-south brown funk.
Willie Nelson plays over the speakers from a portable turntable.
We meet up with my sister’s friend Maria, a theater chick, and drink until closing, what seems a lazy, satisfying pace of sweating and consuming. After a bit, Rudy Galindo — the Chicano Tom Sizemore — comes by to crack us up, and they all talk theater tech. This morning, we roll out and see Laura Varela, a filmmaker friend of ours, at Taco Haven over fresh, homemade tortillas (FINALLY!). It’s great to sit and listen to these folks talk with my sister, hurriedly catching up mainly on projects and performances — so much shop-talk about getting art off the ground.
Later today, shopping. Maybe tomorrow, the slam I created back in 1999, which will be weird since I have not set foot near that beast since I made it happen and rocked Nationals with my team in 2000. Thursday, maybe a drive to Corpus Christi or Port Aransas, to dive into the Gulf and get oceanic.
Part Two: “Please do not throw away the fajita skillets”
The Taco Cabana trash insignia speaks to SanAnto’s conservation efforts in the trenches of grease gravy. After walking the downtown “Alamoland” area — a hyper-real tribute to history that never really happened — my sister and I survey the coonskin caps and faux mission arches that define much of S.A.’s central skyline radiating outward from the Marriott and Riverwalk Mall.
Time for tacos.
Random word-picante now infects my speech, as we take on the voices and verbals of people around us. (Overheard on the bus: “Ey, uh, when you shave a vato’s head, do you like have to put some vaselina or lotion on that?”)
We trudge to Sunset Station near the Alamodome at dusk, but the air is still sticky and heavy with heat impervious to paltry breezes. We arrive for the Dinosaur Jr. show, but they already opened, so now it’s The Black Keys from Akron, OH, a duet popping big-beat blues and weltering guitar dynamics.
Amidst the rock, we meet up with various old friends — artists, writers, rockers — like my buddy Phil Luna, late of Worm, 1.0, and the Shit City Dreamgirls. It’s a puro SanAnto cadre, and we reminisce about Tacoland (R.I.P.), the SWC Club (and its recent ruckus), and assorted homies.
Next morning, my Stanford compadre Professor Ben Olguín shows up at the hotel with Greg Barrios, a former Express-News reporter and playwright. We hit Taco Haven and then Ruta Maya on the Riverwalk, later joining up with Laura Varela at her office at ONE9ZERO6 Gallery, near Gallista Studios in the Southtown arts district. We stroll art spaces and peruse the paintings, prints, silkscreens, installations, contraptions, drawings, sketches, and objets by a variety of MexChicano artists.
Later, at one of countless taco huts in a cave-like casita near Southtown, carne guisada and Wolf-brand beef-chili flavor the air in a free-form art chat, about Laura Varela’s Vietnam veterano movie coming up on PBS within a year, and Greg Barrios runs down his encyclopedic knowledge of Chicano music from the Vietnam era.
Amalia’s boyfriend Kip flies in from L.A., and we’re thinking Gulf Coast, we’re thinking Mex, we’re thinking cosmic.
While Amalia works on a poem for tonight’s slam, Kip and I visit the San Antonio Museum of Art, forged in 1981 out of the original 19th century Lone Star Brewery. (Yes, art and beer go hand-in-hand here, literally.) We check out the Fernando Botero exhibit, mainly of the Colombian artist’s religious and culturally inspired oil paintings. With heavy Latin American baroque influence, Botero plays with fleshy proportion, as in the rotund corpulence of a bronze statue titled “Smoking Woman.” (The cylindrical slightness of her cigarette gets smothered by chunky overflowing of breasts, buttocks, and thighs spilling out onto a velvety blanket.)
Of course, we’re in SanAnto, a very military wing-nut town built on “The One True Faith,” and so the Botero exhibit excludes his controversial 2004 Abu Ghraib series, depicting American soldiers torturing prisoners — in these pieces, voluptuous sensuality turns to agony of the flesh, reminding of his still-life paintings where juicy fruit carries blemishes of worms, flies, and rot.
I check out these pieces in the museum bookstore, though they are not on exhibit, and the images stay with me when I finally crash for a heatstroke-nap.
Part Three: “NoÂ’ombre, SHUT UP!” — Puro SLAM Redux
I’m at Sam’s Burger Joint waiting for S.A.’s poetry slam to start, and I’m doing something I NEVER do in Chicago. I’m watching a Cubs game. Ads for the minor-league Missions pop up with a big draw for fans — come to the game and tackle a guy running around the park in a huge puffy taco costume. (That should’ve been my job back when I lived here.)
Over nachos soaked in grease and golden cheese-stuff, I study German for my upcoming trip to Salzburg. (What was that line I memorized years ago for no great reason? “Als Zarathustra dreissig Jahre alt war, verlass er seiner Heimat und den See seiner Heimat, und ginge in die GebirgeÂ…“)
Well, I’ve returned from my own Gebirge, and here I am full circle at the rhyme-spot I started in 1999. But an Express-News article posted on the wall says different, naming Phil West as the “creator.” Impossible — in 1999, that guy was in his promised land of alt-landia otherwise known as Austin, the most over-rated Texas town ever but like a Branson, Missouri, for weirdos who you could just as well find in Seattle or SanFran. (I.E. Fuck Austin — don’t even ask me if I visited there while in Texas, and don’t come near me with that shit…)
No matter — people in SanAnto tend to care little for facts, and I note many other such errors in the article that writes me out of this secret history of how I created one of the hottest shows still running after eight years.
Why did I do it? The thing never benefited me near as much as it did so many poets and fans who rocked 100+ turnout every week of my tenure as “slammaster.” In the end, the thing was a huge pain in my ass, and I felt like people got over on my hard-earned juice, most notably when I ended up ass out.
No matter — I’m here for my sister, who likewise returns to the roots of her own poetry career to bust out a bilingual poem and see if she can rock the crowd.
It turns out to be a great time. Raucous, weird, off-color, anti-PC, and totally run by audience participation. Just like I did it back in the day.
I run into a handful of old friends — Dan Allen, the bisexual atheist who rails against pederast priests every week; Rich Perin, the Australian madman who jumped ship from Austin and joined Team SanAnto for our romp at the 2000 National slam; Anthony Flores, a genuine poetic soul who told me the story of how he read about the slam in a newspaper one night years ago and hopped a cab after work to check it out, how it got him doing poetry. And so on.
They buy me beers and actually thank me for creating this thing. It actually, genuinely touches me to get this long-delayed simple thanks. And Rich Perin even calls it an “honor” to have me back for one night. I can’t say now how much this means to me, to have this sliver of recognition when I thought they all forgot about me. After all, I created this show for this city, for “my people” of San Antonio, and gave it away as you would any meaningful gift from the heart.
And what about the show? “It’s a fucking slam,” Anthony reminds me, waxing nostalgic about the days when I used to whip the crowd into a froth.
(And now, Anthony and his daughter slam together for Team SanAnto! Cool!)
Like the old days, a few of us head back to my hovel for a party into the wee hours, re-telling tidbits of the best moments. (Like when Wyle Killshire, known back in the day as “Mr. Fuck,” heckled a Chicano political poem by howling, “DROP THE CHALUPA!”)
It’s a good scene, and it was exactly my plan so many years ago to create something that would live long after me, even if I was forgotten and eaten up in the process of creation like a catalyst, like so much electro-chemical residueÂ…
Part Four: Tacopalypse
Late-nite Cabana crunching has taken its toll, as my pants tighten and stomach readjusts to heavy treats laden in silky-rich manteca. Of course I know what’s really making the tacos taste so damn good and so making my tummy turn — lard — and I wonder if the local Pig Stand sandwich shoppe closed because all their customers succumbed to diabetes.
Though my stomach can’t quite keep pace with how much my mouth savors puro Tex-Mex flavor, I keep throwin’ down the homemade flour tortillas with liberal chasers of Shiner Bock and Lone Star.
Sluggish chugging at Bar América nicely two-steps in time with the jukebox 45s rolling Hank Williams, Flaco Jimenez, Robert Earl Keen, and so on…
Next day, on our way to see the South Side sights of Spanish Missions and stray cats, we stop at the Instituto Cultural de México at HemisFair Park, near S.A.’s UNAM campus. The current Instituto exhibit features “Sensacional Mexican Street Graphics” — a smorgasbord of signage, placards, and commonplaces from Mexico’s anarchic street-level visual-design universe. Much of it reminds of the border, of bilingual beaux-arts crafted out of on-the-line mixes of color palettes, cultural touchstones, and hand-made typeface fabrication on everything from instructional broadsides to hyper-violent comic books to rather unappetizing restaurant signage barking right off the sandwich board.
Some of it even reminds of Chicago, specifically all those chicken shacks with the animated neon depicting terrorized poultry and portly cooks in puffed-up chef hats rocking hatchets.
But my favorite feature of the show is video footage of urban street parties, where New “New Wave” Mexican electro-rockers mix banda with beats and vocoders to pump up a kind of Mexicano crunk-dancing coming straight outta the gutter. The master of ceremonies — a man known as Silverio — sports a semi-automatic mullet and leads his spandexed compadres in a schizophrenic quebradita. Call it bandido body-rock.
SEE Silverio’s hit at:
After the Instituto, Kip, Ami, and I trek down to the South Side for a stroll at the Spanish Missions. SanAnto’s most famous relic from the 18th century is of course Mission San Antonio de Valero, a.k.a. The Alamo. But four other Missions sprawl down the San Antonio River and mark the original founding of this town as a frontier buffer. Though the Missions were pretty much a failure in Texas, they were meant to bring in the natives and close ranks against attack, while establishing a spiritual base in this New World.
At Mission San Francisco de la Espada, we see an old, blown-up snapshot of mestizo kids receiving instruction at the end of a nun’s wooden ruler. The caption makes clear that these holy bulwarks were here to transform Indios into “productive servants of God.” And a hand-written card posted in the background gives the class its most intimate imperative: “SPEAK GOOD ENGLISH!”
With a side trip to the “Haunted Train Tracks” and a ride through the ravines and wild-weed patches of forest in fruitless search of the Donkey Lady, we end up later at cowboy karaoke, where Ropers and Wranglers roll out under Stetsons and Shiners.
And the SanAnto skyline never seemed to make me crave just one more taco quite as keenly as it does nowÂ…
Part Five: “…ending up somewhere/ That looks like home”
“I made a pledge to be drug free
The day I started at H.E.B.
The work is hard and the days are long
I justa wish I could grab my bong
I’m gettin fatter every day
And I got no place to stay
God what has become of me?
I’m livin in misery!”

–The Swindles, “H.E.B.”
Loaded up on local CDs, my playlist features Sunny y los Sunliners (Chicano doo-wop), Boxcar Satan (experimental noise-blues), Sir Doug with Groover’s Paradise (Tex-Mex Nuevo Wavo), and garage rock by the Swindles, with my favorite ode to working retail (at the “H.E.B.” grocery store) just to have a shot at rockin’ on the weekend.
When last I lived here, I ended up in much misery, when all I was trying to do was find a place just a little like home. Of course, there is no going home. So what am I doing here? Maybe I can answer that a bit later, when I’m back in Chicago.
For now, I meet up with Prof. Olguín, Ami, Kip, and Notre Dame Prof. Javier Rodriguez, to check out the San Pedro Playhouse production of Los Angeles writer Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad. This adaptation of Greek mythology transplants Electra and Orestes to East Los, a sort of cholo epic that attests to “who we are and where we come from,” as the chorus chant goes.
But I’m not quite sure where this play is coming from when the comadre chorus swigs Big Red and peppers their speech with more SanAnto than Califas. (Is there even Big Red in Cali?)
It’s also an uneasy shift from comic Spanglish one-liners to full-on tragedy. And why, oh why, do “our” issues always boil down to sociology? Can’t we, too, have epic lust and greed, larger-than-life human motivations that aren’t reducible to the barrio? This goes back to one of my central problems with much Chicano drama — it’s melodrama masquerading as tragedy.
Even so, my problem here is not with the cast and this particular production — the players and crew give it their all, and this piece goes over much better than the last few plays I’ve seen in Chicago. Afterwards, I cool out at the Acapulco Drive-Inn icehouse and then Bar América, running into L.A. David and jotting down his number so I can hang out at his studio space later and maybe buy a painting.
Much later still, I rendezvous with Ami, Kip, and the play cast, that includes our buddy Maria Ibarra, comadre extraordinaire. Overloaded on karaoke, we crash an art-space studio party and end up on the rooftop, sucking up the skyline and tossing back Shiners under stray streetlamps and purple cloud cover.
And my second installation of the Pig Stand at 5 a.m. keeps me nice and full through early morning dawn and then a stretch of afternoon today jogging through the humid, misty rain spatter.
Time to check out the S.A. Underground Film Festival at the historic Aztec Theater, take in the reunion of Glorium (famed local rockers from a few minutes ago), and then finally hook up with my friend Wendi Kimura at her rooftop art-space coctail party tonight.
Part Six: S.A. EPILOGUE — “GrooverÂ’s Paradise”
“Got out on the highway
found myself a rideÂ…
I wanna go back to Texas
Where cosmic cowgirls play
I wanna have some fun
in a good ol’ Texas way”

–Sir Doug
I arrive back in Chicago for rainbow congestion up and down the block with all flags flying, as the Pride Parade is in full swing and someone else’s party reminds me that everybody has their own “Groover’s Paradise.”
Mine is back up the road apiece, where deep-brown tattooed Indias flash straw hats and cool off with beer-bottle condensation. Where metal still rules and the street cats are tougher than some folks up north. Where history upon secret history replays a kind of Texas revolution, a sort of cultural freebooting that cares not where pavement ends and gravel begins, just up the dirt road apiece where you see that hand-printed sign for brisket, beer, and brown blues.
Saturday kept us chasing those brown blues, but we had just a bit much to do. Famed rockers Glorium are reuniting for a rare set, and then at some other spot über-veterans The Sons of Hercules play a memorial gig for Ram (R.I.P.), whose Tacoland cantina shut down with his shooting death on June 24, 2005, the night of S.A.’s last Spurs glory. (A MySpace bulletin straight outta SanAnto: “FUCK June 24thÂ…”)
Both shows will surely overflow with local punk/garage rock cognoscenti, but Kip, Ami, and I check out the S.A. Underground Film Festival first, at downtown’s beautifully restored Aztec Theater. Cine-wunderkind Adam Rocha started this like 13 years ago, and I covered it once as a journalist. I get a chance to talk to him and his uncle, Al Rocha, who tells stories about sneaking into the movies downtown during the heyday of a now touristed-out centro.
Tonight’s big feature (and grand-prize winner) is the doc Get Thrashed: The Story of Thrash Metal. S.A. should be the epicenter for this flick getting screened, since they built this city on puro metal back in the day, and of course quite a few heavy denizens show up for dark-room rockin’. The movie starts with a long recount of the big four — Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer — and the audience barks, “TURN IT UP!” The sound kicks up to “11” for a solid 99 minutes of more than I ever really wanted to know about thrash metal.
Afterwards, Robb Chavez is on hand to shoot interviews for his long-running cable-access show, Robb’s Metal Works, the closest thing to Wayne’s World around.
(When Robb puts me on camera, I enthuse, “My favorite part, ey, was when the crowd yelled ‘TURN IT UP!’ and they, like, turned it up pero PINCHE LOUD!”)
“Thank you, San Antonio, for being so metal!” says the filmmaker.
Ami, Kip, and I are pretty fried and still nursing beat-up stomachs, so we do Thai and try to work out our all-night rooftop fiesta fallout. We’re not quite in rocker mode after all, so we head over to see my old buddy Wendi Kimura, whom I met as a writer when I lived here. She’s an all-around artist now, like so many in puro SanAnto, and she even teaches her daughter Zoe how to tag. Funny full-circle enough, I even interviewed her boyfriend Shek about graffiti when he was a teenager.
Her rooftop overlooks San Pedro Park, giving good perspective on the central downtown basin. Mad crew shows up, and various vatos mark up strings of stickers with pictures and tags for posting later. Wendi notes how I’ve done lots of tourist stuff and suggests I come back to see the real SanAnto, and I’m always down for real SanAnto, especially if it involves hopping rails and seeing art go up under darkness before it ships out around the country with long, haunting locomotive whistles.
A nice surprise rounds out the waning hours of my visit when DJ Jester, the Filipino Fist (a.k.a. Greg Michael Pendon), rolls in from Austin. I refuse to believe it when, reminiscing, Jester tells me that he wouldn’t still be spinning today if not for me.
So what does all this mean to me? Like my friend Ben Olguín asked, “How do you feel about coming back?” Well, I can never really come back. Every big city starts out as a small town, and you can sort of pretend that S.A. never really got big, even as it sprawls out of control up Austin-way. It’s an ever-flowing river I can dip a toe into but never re-capture.
And I won’t try to claim S.A. as “home,” whatever that means. There’s no going there. And there’s no glorious return. I’m a tourist, and SanAnto is a sort of Cancún for my taste to get out of Chicago every now and then, to find refuge somewhere that resembles “home.”
In Chicago, too, I am a sort of outlander. Not from here or there. I am the fabled “rootless cosmopolitan,” and I cannot even begin to act like I still have some claim on Tejas — no, I’ll leave that to Sandra Cisneros and whomever else washes up in SanAnto from the outer reaches of art-colony hell.
As much as I love my memories of Texas and SanAnto, this visit has been an exercise in reminding me that I am now and forever from nowhere. In this moment of clarity, I realize how I must discover more of this nowhere, by trying to go everywhere. After my quick sojourn in Salsaburg, USA, I’m off to Salzburg, Austria, in a week or so.
Let this be the beginning of a quest to chase my own tail down the road to self-recognition. Let me try London, then Tokyo, and always Mexico City. To keep building what I am, and to soothe that part of my soul that will forever mourn “home.”
The vatos locos rock cowboy hats and boots plus wife-beater tank-tops, and they spout straight Spanish over their Tom-Yung soup and Thai noodles. I turn to my sister: “You would NEVER see shit like this in ChicagoÂ…”

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