Any healthy community — any healthy democracy, in fact — needs people who are willing to ask uncomfortable questions, stand up for social justice and hold elected officials accountable. Whether protesting outside city hall, organizing disenfranchised voters or creating art that packs a political message, San Antonio has a long and colorful history of folks willing to be difficult in the cause of making our city a more equitable, inclusive and transparent place. Here’s a sampling of some of our most significant activists, from must-know icons to a new generation of firebrands.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has been a focal point of San Antonio’s progressive community for more than three decades. As its director, Graciela Sanchez has been key to shaping the cultural arts and social justice organization and making sure its voice remains loud and clear. She’s played an essential role in developing programs that aid underrepresented groups and force sometimes uncomfortable discussions about colonization, racism and homophobia and their continued influence in our city. Under her watch, Esperanza has built a rich calendar of cultural programming that serves 70,000 people annually. Sanchez’s social activism is also a family affair. She credits her tireless advocacy to the examples of community involvement embodied by her mother and grandmother.
In 1995, longtime union leader Chavez-Thompson became the first person of color to serve in one the AFL-CIO’s top offices, winning election as executive vice president. 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. Chavez-Thompson’s efforts as a labor leader and organizer aren’t limited to national issues, however. She was a key player in the successful petition drive to force San Antonio to adopt the paid sick leave ordinance — a law still being decided in the courts. She still makes frequent appearances on local picket lines.
By mobilizing black and Latinx people in low-income and working-class communities, the Texas Organizing Project has emerged as one of the state’s most visible advocates for social and economic justice. Its San Antonio-based director, Michelle Tremillo, has been instrumental in putting the group on the front lines of major battles including San Antonio’s fight for a paid sick time ordinance and canvasing for progressive candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Jessica Cisneros in the 2020 election cycle. 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.
H. Drew Galloway
As executive director of MOVE Texas, H. Drew Galloway leads one of the state’s largest and most active voter registration groups — one whose aim is to give young people a louder, more resilient voice in our democracy. Galloway originally relocated to the Alamo City to work in the wine business, but he quickly became a powerful voice in local politics, registering 9,000 voters in 2016, his first year with the nonprofit, and tens of thousands since. In 2018 alone, the organization registered 30,000 new voters under the age of 30. Last year, it outstripped that number, putting 70,000 more on the rolls prior to the important 2020 election. Although nonpartisan, MOVE Texas doesn’t shy from championing progressive issues that affect the lives of young people. Among those causes are environmental protection, equality and economic justice for young workers.
Robert Salcido plays two important roles San Antonio’s LGBTQ+ community. He’s the statewide field coordinator for Equality Texas, one of the state’s largest civil rights groups, and he also serves as executive director for the Pride Center San Antonio. As if those vital roles weren’t enough, Salcido has 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. What’s more, he’s worked to increase the number of LGBTQ+ representatives in elected office and played a key part in shaping the city’s first non-discrimination ordinance.
Community organizer Barbie Hurtado is ubiquitous at local rallies, raising their (Hurtado identifies as a non-binary person) voice for causes ranging from immigrant rights to reproductive health. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Hurtado migrated to the United States with their mother and siblings at the age of 11. Hurtado serves as organizing and training manager with Planned Parenthood TX Votes. What's more, they are national recruitment co-coordinator for Mijente and a member of Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s LGBTQ+ advisory committee. In 2017, Hurtado also co-founded Son Queers, a collective of queer, trans and non-binary musicians that share, teach and play traditional son jarocho music in a safe inclusive environment with the mission of healing through art and music.
Marlon Davis emerged as one of the most powerful voices calling for the preservation of the historic Hays Street Bridge, once the key conduit between the predominantly African American East Side and the rest of the city. Davis, born and raised on the East Side, served as a frequent spokesman for the alliance as it successfully fought city hall to halt a condo project next to the structure. His outspoken advocacy suggests that the fire of larger-than-life East Side activists such as T.C. Calvert and Mario Salas may be passing to a new generation. Beyond fighting to protect the Hays Street Bridge, Davis has played a role in deciding how to use the adjacent land and reimagine it as a place of opportunity for residents of an area long neglected by city leaders.
Trans woman Sofia 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.
At the intersection of art and activism, San Antonio-based actor, poet, playwright and activist Amalia Ortiz’s has made recent waves with The Canción Cannibal Cabaret & Other Songs. The politically charged performance piece uses reinterpretations of punk songs to weave a tale of revolution set in a post-apocalyptic near future. In the work, an anti-colonial, anti-capitalist refugee plans an intersectional feminist revolution with the aid of roving emissaries. Ortiz and her troupe have presented the piece in both highbrow arts venues and music clubs. Its text is also available in a book released by Aztlan Libre Press. During a 2015 TED Talk, the acclaimed poet compared her code-switching linguistic style to a mashup of Selena and the Sex Pistols: “a dyslexic DJ ready to bidi bidi bomb the suburbs, punk ruca style.”