Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies
Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies

2019 Graduation Speaker Announced

Mon, April 22, 2019
2019 Graduation Speaker Announced

We're excited to announce that this year's 2019 MALS Graduation Speaker will be Graciela I. Sánchez, Director of Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas. 

A native of the Westside of San Antonio, Graciela follows in the footsteps of her abuelitas and mother, neighborhood activists in San Antonio’s Westside. A dedicated activist/cultural worker, Graciela has worked throughout her lifetime to eliminate racism, sexism, queerphobia and class elitism.  Graciela began that journey while attending San Antonio’s segregated inner city public schools where she began organizing students to challenge regressive school board policies, which favored wealthier schools over the poorer predominantly Chicano inner city schools.

Prior to her work at the Esperanza, Graciela worked with Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.  Her concerns regarding the United States' involvement in a covert war in Central America took her to Nicaragua, where she made her first video, Testimonios de Nicaragua. She was then selected to study film and video at the internationally recognized Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. At the film school, she produced several videos most notably, Esperanza, based on Sandra Cisneros' book, House on Mango Street, and No Porque Lo Diga Fidel Castro (1988), the first documentary on gay life in Cuba made in Cuba.

In 1988, Sánchez returned to San Antonio to become Director of the Esperanza and has served in that position ever since.  Under her bold leadership, the Esperanza has challenged, organized, and irrevocably changed the political character of San Antonio.  Her leadership has placed the cultures and arts of historically excluded communities at the center of the cultural-political life of this city, offering powerful, risky cultural and arts programming through exhibitions, film festivals, educational forums, arts collectives, and performances.  The Esperanza has organized against homophobia in San Antonio and South Texas presenting the first AIDS art exhibit and the first LGBT art exhibit in Texas in 1989. Esperanza has also organized against U.S. aggression in the Middle East, for the rights of women workers, for immigrants and communities of color, against environmental racism and cultural imperialism.

Sánchez and the Esperanza have paid a heavy price for their work.  In 1993, the Esperanza was evicted from its first location because of its advocacy for the rights of women and queers, work that challenged traditional social justice organizations.  Sánchez and the Esperanza re-grouped, organized, raised funds, and bought a building, their current home at 922 San Pedro Avenue.

Following a “campaign for cultural diversity,” that challenged the lack of diversity in the staffs and programming of the European-centered cultural organizations that receive most of the City’s arts funding, Sánchez and the Esperanza were targeted by City officials as “troublemakers.”  Soon thereafter, a right-wing radio talk-show host began to attack the Esperanza as “socialist baby-killers” because of its work on women’s reproductive rights and a group of conservative, politically connected gay white men attacked the Esperanza in the local gay newspaper as promoting “obscene” art and anti-white programming.  In 1997, the unlikely coalition of business-oriented city officials, right-wing activists, and conservative white gay men worked together to deny all local public funding to the Esperanza.  The Mayor justified this decision by saying that the Esperanza’s political vision disqualifies it from being an “arts agency.”

In response to this sustained attack, Sánchez and the Esperanza community organized massive Arte Es Vida and Todos Somos Esperanza, respeto es básico campaigns and filed a lawsuit.  In the historic Esperanza Center v. San Antonio (1998-2001), the Esperanza proved that the City had violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, and won a decisive victory for all progressive cultural activists.

Her greatest love has been to work, develop and promote women and queer voices, especially women of color. In 1985, Graciela worked with other women of color to develop a month long celebration of women during the month of March, a first for San Antonio. This tradition continues beginning with a march and rally during International Woman’s Day which brings together labor activists, cultural workers, academics, mothers, daughters, elders and youth to articulate the struggles women face in San Antonio and the world. Esperanza has brought hundreds of women of color performance artists, writers, filmmakers, visual artists and thinkers unlike any other community cultural institution in this country including the likes of Amparo Ochoa, Gloria Anzaldua, Dolores Huerta, Cherrie Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Lila Downs, Astrid Hadad, Barbara Smith, Loretta Ross, Lourdes Perez, Suzanne Pharr, Mab Segrest, Monica Palacios, Carmelita Tropicana, Sharon Bridgforth, Ana Sisnett, Kathy Vargas, Liliana Wilson, Laura Aguilar, Elia Arce, Marga Gomez, Marsha Gomez, Maria Berriozabal, Antonia Castaneda, Carmen Tafolla and hundreds more.

Through programs such as Fotohistorias del Westside, Arte es Vida, MujerArtes and the Rinconcito de Esperanza, Graciela is helping to culturally ground Latinos in this neighborhood while preserving a cultural history of San Antonio’s near Westside. This work is helping to culturally ground Chican@ youth of this community while helping to maintain and strengthen authentic voices of San Antonio Chican@s/Mexican@s. She is also working with community members, historians, educators, students and architects to envision and develop this historical Chican@/Mexican@ community with a respectful and honest approach that honors the sabiduria of the people and consciously works to avoid gentrification and other forms of cultural assault.

Graciela has worked with community members and organizations to challenge the city’s ordinances and policies restricting the exercise of free speech and assembly in the public streets and parks. In 2007, she worked on the federal lawsuit, International Women’s Day March Planning Committee and San Antonio Free Speech Coalition v. City of San Antonio now pending in U.S. District Court and currently, she is supporting the work of the Hays Street Bridge Restoration group v. City of San Antonio.

Graciela has challenged San Antonio by being one of the most outspoken queer activists in Texas. She was a founding board member of the San Antonio Lesbian Gay Assembly (SALGA), the San Antonio Lesbian/Gay Media Project and ELLAS, a state and local latina lesbian organization. She now works with national groups such as the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the Audre Lorde Project, the Women of Color Resource Center, Southerners on New Ground and Queers for Economic Justice to help build and strengthen a progressive people of color, women’s and queer agenda for this nation. Most recently, she has joined the efforts of CAUSA (Community Alliance for a United San Antonio) to get city officials to incorporate the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to San Antonio’s non-discrimination ordinance.

During Graciela’s tenure, the Esperanza has grown from an all-volunteer organization with an annual budget of $6,000 to a nationally and internationally recognized cultural arts and social justice organization. Under her leadership, Esperanza purchased its home on San Pedro Ave. with 100% of its funds coming from community members. Since then, Esperanza has purchased and renovated several small historic homes in San Antonio’s historic Westside and built the first commercial adobe building in San Antonio in over 100 years. She is also working with staff and community members to renovate and restore the famous Lerma’s Nite Club and Giovanni’s.

Graciela has received several awards and honors, including being selected as one of the  National Women’s History Month’s Project 2019 Honoree, Distinction in the Arts (2019), National Association of Chicana Chicano Studies, Tejas Foco – Lifetime Achievement Award (2019), Fellow of the Intercultural Leadership Institute (2017), San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame (2012), The National LULAC Women’s Award (2010), Maria Leavey Tribute Award (2009), UTSA Women’s Advocate of the Year Award (2009), Women of Color Resource Center’s Sisters of Fire Award (2008), The Alston Bannerman Fellowship (2007), International Gay Lesbian Human Rights Commission Award (2002),  the UTSA Hispanic Research Center Lifetime Achievement Award, the Stonewall Award for Lesbian/Gay leaderships which came with a $25,000 cash award (1992), National Association for Chicana/Chicano Studies Community Leadership Award, and the San Antonio Human Rights Campaign Award.     

Graciela has served on several national and state boards including the ACLU of Texas (2017-present), Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma American Friends Service Committee, the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation/Community Funding Board, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Paul Robeson Fund, the Out Fund for Lesbian and Gay Liberation (1991-1993), the National Gay Lesbian Task Force the Gill Foundation's People of Color Initiative, and The Open Society's Southern Initiative Advisory Board

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