San Antonio has a long history of social activism, from Emma Tenayuca and her work to organize the city’s pecan shellers in the ’30s to Willie Velásquez’s later fights to increase voter registration education and awareness among Mexican-Americans.
The tradition continues today through the work of groups including the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas. All fight to make sure underrepresented voices are heard in San Antonio, a city that for all its celebration of diversity and Hispanic culture is still defined by its deep economic inequalities.
With so many activists working at the grassroots level, many never seeking or expecting recognition for their important work, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Instead, consider it a broad sampling of the city’s loudest voices in the fight for social justice, representing its past, present and future.
As director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, San Antonio’s community-based cultural arts and social justice organization, Sanchez builds on her mother’s and grandmothers’ history of social activism. Since 1987, the Esperanza has served as a focal point for San Antonio’s progressive community. At its helm, Sanchez has played a vital role in developing programs to aid underrepresented groups and forcing important conversations about colonization, racism and homophobia. Under her guidance, the center has also built a rich calendar of cultural programming that serves 70,000 people annually.
Longtime labor leader Chavez-Thompson was elected executive vice president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, becoming the first person of color to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices. While in that role she also served on the boards of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Much of her attention has been on national issues, but Chavez-Thompson’s continued commitment to her adopted hometown was apparent last year in her support for organizers’ successful petition drive on paid sick leave for San Antonio workers.
From helping secure paid sick leave for local workers to mobilizing voters to elect Democratic DA Kim Ogg in Harris County, the Texas Organizing Project has emerged as one of the state’s most visible advocates for social and economic justice. And, as its executive director, Tremillo is able to call on a growing base of supporters to help mobilize black and Latinx voters. What’s more, she’s done it from the Alamo City. Since returning to her native San Antonio with a degree from Stanford, Tremillo has also worked for ACORN and helped found Public Allies San Antonio, which trains future non-profit leaders.
As co-founder of UpgradeSA, a community-driven civic tech organization focused on advocating for digital equity in San Antonio, Cuellar is on the front line of fighting to ensure everyone can participate in the digital revolution. As part of that cause, Cuellar has also been an outspoken proponent of net neutrality, the concept that Internet service providers should not be allowed to block or slow down the websites you can access. That longtime Internet principle fell into jeopardy when the FCC, under chairman Ajit Pai, dismantled net neutrality rules in 2017.
Born in Laredo but raised in Nuevo Laredo, Sepulveda has emerged in the past few years as one of San Antonio’s most visible activists. Name a protest event, and she’s likely been there at the front of the crowd. She’s been a tireless campaigner for Bernie Sanders, a member of the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition, worked with the Texas Organizing Project and Our Revolution Texas and served as a Bexar County Democratic Party precinct chair.
H. Drew Galloway
Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to civic education and leadership development, recently told the Current he sees his work “as giving young people a voice in our democracy.” After moving to SA to work in the wine business, Galloway quickly fell into local politics, stepping up as MOVE’s leader in 2016. The first year in that role, the group registered nearly 9,000 voters, largely through face-to-face conversations. Galloway has made a priority of driving Millennial engagement in the political process.
Salcido’s activism for the LGBTQ+ community is double barreled. He’s both the statewide field coordinator for Equality Texas, the state’s largest such advocacy group, and executive director for the Pride Center San Antonio. In addition, he’s served as a member of the mayor’s LGBT advisory team and in executive roles with Orgullo de San Antonio and the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce. While helping craft and launch the city’s first non-discrimination ordinance is among Salcido’s important contributions, he’s also worked to increase the number of gay, lesbian and transgender representatives in elected office.
Salas, a member of the University of Texas at San Antonio faculty, has been an advocate for San Antonio’s African-American community since the early 1970s. He was a central member of the San Antonio chapter of the Student National Coordinating Committee, itself also part of the Black Panther Party. Among other community services, the group provided free breakfasts for needy children and free legal aid. In addition to serving as a founding member of other activist groups including Organizations United for Eastside Development, Black Coalition on Mass Media and Frontline 2000, Salas spent two terms as an outspoken advocate for the East Side on San Antonio’s city council.
Calvert is a tireless East Side community organizer whose Neighborhoods First Alliance has been a leading advocate for environmental justice, safe and affordable housing, health care and education. He’s also a founder of both weekly African-American newspaper the San Antonio Observer and nonprofit community radio station KROV-FM. Calvert also passed on a legacy of activism to his son, Precinct 4 Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert, the youngest and first African-American County Commissioner in county history and an advocate for many of the same issues championed by his father.
Berriozabal’s political awakening came as she worked on San Antonio’s HemisFair ’68. After seeing first-hand how power and money interacted, she became engaged in the civil rights movement, ultimately mounting a successful run for city council in 1980. Not only did she become the first Latina to serve on council, she also spent a decade representing the district that includes downtown. Berriozabal’s impact continues today through her input on Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task force, which last year issued a report recognizing the city’s long history of economic inequality and laying out a plan to ensure affordable housing as the city grows.
David Zamora Casas
Art can be a powerful form of activism, and Casas’ art has never shied from the political. Indeed, Casas has performed as an artistic conscience for San Antonio over the years, using his work to force sometimes uncomfortable conversations about sexuality and Chicanismo. Whether sporting a drag take on Catholic vestments or a puro pachuco look, replete with a cocked fedora and Stacy Adams shoes, Casas has also used his attire to drive similar conversations outside the walls of galleries and onto the street — and into the H-E-B. “I live my life as a performance,” he told the Current several years ago.
Led by artists Mark Menjivar, Molly Sherman and Jason Reed, the art group Borderland Collective has made an oral history called Migration Stories the heart of its efforts to humanize immigrants and spur thoughtful conversations about refugees and migrants. The group’s multimedia work can incorporate anything from printed versions of the stories its collected to video to installations using statistics and data alongside examples of the spartan shelters migrant families are forced to occupy.