San Antonio’s Cultural Assets Should Not Be Made Into Commercial Spectacles

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Edward A. Ornelas for the Rivard Report

A family altar surrounded by illumination is displayed during the Dia de Los Muertos held at La Villita in 2018.

San Antonio continues to struggle with how to position its identity to sell the city by getting behind ideas that are pre-packaged and presented as commercial spectacles instead of building on what we have historically been sowing locally for decades. This became apparent in two recent articles published in the Rivard Report revealing a challenge in how the city presents certain promotional cultural content. 

The first article announces a splashy new Day of the Dead event at La Villita that aims to catapult “San Antonio as a world destination.” The second piece announces Visit San Antonio’s attempts “to attract visitors…by inviting aspiring local storytellers to create internet videos.”

Both articles point to a common truth: San Antonio has authentic cultural assets that are homegrown and serve well as pillars for promoting our city. These range from San Antonio’s historic architecture and sites, art and cultural centers, public art, and a wide offering of free festivals including those for Día de Los Muertos.  

The relationship between tourism and culture drives the overall competitiveness and attractiveness of destinations. The City of San Antonio is aware of this and is making good use of the local Hotel Occupancy Tax. That’s a good thing when it helps cities advance the appeal of their destinations by supporting tourism, as well as cultural initiatives. However, the City often becomes shortsighted when it chooses to invest and promote cultural ideas that are imported and sold as the golden egg.  

Remember People En Español Festival? The City was sold on and invested in the packaged festival in 2012 to promote San Antonio as a destination for a Latin music extravaganza. Three years later, no más.  Day of the Dead festival at La Villita, riding on the coattails of Pixar’s Coco, has similar airs. It looks shiny, but it’s not new to San Antonio. 

Día de los Muertos as a Mexican heritage holiday is deserving of our attention, just like it is in other cities with large Mexican populations like Chicago and Los Angeles. Those two cities for decades have honored the partnerships that institutions such as Self Help Graphics & Arts in Los Angeles and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago helped solidify in their home cities. 

What sets us apart is the robust number of celebrations already produced by local cultural organizations and artists with a long stake in the cultural identity of San Antonio such as Centro Cultural Aztlan, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Urban 15, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the Instituto Cultural de Mexico, SAYSí and Muertos Festival.   The Pearl has successfully embraced the celebration by tapping local artists and cultural organizations to activate their vibrant urban center with Muertos holiday festivities. 

Why reinvent the wheel by attempting to replace the locally produced Día de Los Muertos Festival? The festival moved to Hemisfair this year, but it was held at La Villita the last six years with much success. Why replace it with a “Coco Fest” concept that seems to profess that a void exists and attempt to validate it by calling other cultural providers to join in the fanfare? 

Let’s also not forget that in 2005, the City of San Antonio Office of Cultural Affairs invested in the production of Día de Los Muertos Festival marketing campaign with sacalaveras.com serving as its platform. It was a well-designed and orchestrated strategy in partnership with Centro Aztlan to generate community participation and attract visitors. The calendar is still active today as a community-based platform, but is now more of a footnote to the larger celebratory productions that lead Visit San Antonio promotional efforts. 

For the past two decades we have seen variations of the campaign that Visit San Antonio has produced to sell the city. This daunting task, to say the least, has been part of many group discussions about San Antonio’s selling hook. Brands have come and gone, mostly due to the periodic changes in marketing firms. But the one thing that has remained steady in each campaign is San Antonio’s authentic value. 

San Antonio has evolved to a much larger and vibrant city with its own set of new messy dynamics. Not unlike other cities, urban mess provides opportunities for a new set of authentic conditions to explore. And in today’s competitive landscape, more and more cities are opting to bank on the inherent power that culture, heritage, and art have in developing and promoting them as destinations. 

San Antonio’s historical and cultural context have an unmatched advantage, but this requires deeper private and public investment and a broader perspective of the cultural ecosystem. 

To its credit, Visit San Antonio’s marketing narratives have come a long way, but often ending in the same circle of comfort. As the recently released storytelling initiative indicates, the agency continues to find new ways for capturing local stories. But is crowdsourcing homemade videos the best approach?  

In the past, the former Convention Visitors Bureau, Department for Culture and Creative Development, and Film Commission partnered to commission local filmmakers to help stimulate a fresh perspective of San Antonio. The partnership yielded a collection of narratives giving voice to a deeper side of our city – diverse, messy and authentic. Some were really good short film narratives and others were just interesting and funny, but nevertheless a starting point for discovering new stories.

I suspect that ideas on how to sell the city differ widely between the tourism team and local cultural producers. I also suspect that this premise will grow wider when deciding to compensate local storytellers to help guide promotional content. In my view, funding is not the issue but the will to bring our qualified video and filmmakers into the mix.

It’s not a cheap proposition, but the return will be memorable. Let’s not reinvent the wheel, just grease it a bit.

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