BUENAS TARDES San Antonio,…. the city with a CENTRO-beating heart!, a city where past and future are in love and give each other the best BESOS…. A city unlike any other… a city that has grown in its OWN way and with its own character….

A man stands for a portrait on Commerce Street in April of 2013. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

I was born and raised on the west side of this city—just a little west of el centro, also known as downtown , where my great-gramma washed her family’s laundry in the San Antonio River right here…where she and HER mother ran a seamstress shop downtown under 4 of our flags, where HER great-great-great-grandfather came to the presidio and found a beautiful river, and even MORE beautiful Indians, and MARRIED one of those beautiful local Indians RIGHT HERE, en el centro… el Corazón. The CENTRO is why we’re here.

Luminaria Art Festival in 2015. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio 

It pulls us all together--from the east side and the west side, the south… and the north. It gives us CONNECTION, and it helps us realize that we can’t survive without each other.

This is a city of dreams- a city that reaches back to embrace its past and to hand that gift to the future. When I was a child on the City’s West Side, I dreamed of becoming a writer. But I didn’t think that dream was possible or accessible to me. You see, all the books I’d seen came from New York, and I figured that to be a writer you had to write about the things that happened in important places, like New York—things like Central Park or the Statue of Liberty. But what did I know about Central Park? Instead of a park at the end of MY block, there was a tortilleria, where an old, old woman made corn tortillas and sold them for a penny each. She was the oldest woman I’d ever seen still breathing! SO old that I just stood there gawking, till the little kid from down the block cut line in front of me and said, “SIETE TORTILLAS, POR FAVOR.” As she counted up those seven pennies so slowly, I stared and stared at this old face so brown and so wrinkled that it looked like those old dried-up charcos, mudpuddles at the end of a long drought, where the dirt was so dry it cracked into little brown squares. Her face looked just LIKE those little brown squares! “I know why she and the dried-up mud puddles look alike” I said, “It’s because they’re the same age. She must be the oldest breathing creature on the planet!” Then I stared at her hair, so white that the sun’s rays that came in through the window seemed to be sending vibrations back and forth—they were communicating, saying “Hey, how ya doing this century?” – Oh Okay, last siglo was a bummer.” “Hiiijo, que gacho.” They were chatting because they were best buds—her hair and the sunlight—and I figured out “THAT’s why they’re best buddies. They’re the same age! She’s the oldest breathing creature in the solar system!” Then, I looked at her hands, and her hands didn’t look like hands, they looked like the corn masa she’d been working all day to make those tortillas, and I said, “”OH, MY God! She’s older than Mexican food? NO civilization in the UNIVERSE could possibly survive without Mexican food! She must be the oldest living creature in the universe!”

A lady paints her face for Dia de Los Muertos. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
A man poses for a portrait on Commerce Street in 2012. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

Then, she finished counting off those pennies and turned around to call someone from the back to help her turn the tortillas, and she yelled “Ma-MAAA!” And her mother came out to help her turn the tortillas. And I thought I had nothing to write about, because I hadn’t grown up in New York City, and I didn’t know about Central Park.

But what I HAD seen here in San Antonio was the source of all the best writing that I would do in future years—and the poem that would be published the MOST would be a little ten-liner about the world’s oldest woman and her mother. And it wasn’t because to be a writer you have to grow up either in New York OR on a block with a tortilleria. It was because that poem came from who I authentically WAS. Our best and our brightest and our most creative comes from who we really ARE. And OUR San Antonio CENTRO dreams are possible when we reach into who SAN ANTONIO authentically is. We don’t have to MATCH anybody else—we have to reach into who we are in our core, our Corazon, our centro.

The viejitas in all our neighborhoods across this beautiful city know that we all need our community—we can’t do it alone—and they know that WE are a tightly woven magical fabric—something special and unique.

Henry Ford Academy Art students pose for a photo on Commerce St in 2014. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio

WE ARE A PLACE, a rich place, FILLED WITH SPIRIT, WITH HISTORY, WITH MAGIC. We are a place filled with the ground corn in a molcajete that has been pounding its ground corn tune here for 12,000 years!

We are filled with a song whispering through the leaves of the pecan trees… calling your heart! Speaking your name…

FEEL THE GROUND UNDER YOUR FEET HERE—IT IS SPECIAL, IT IS FILLED WITH ALL THE VOICES OF ALL WHO CAME BEFORE YOU, and maybe a few whispers from those who will come after…

Listen to those voices—twelve millennia of voices… THIS DIRT HAS SPREAD ITS FLAVOR UP THROUGH YOUR FEET INTO YOUR SOUL— and has spread its passion for justice and peace and community INTO YOUR HEART, WHICH STILL BEATS WITH THE DEERHIDE DRUM of the YAnaguana Indians, with the flamenco guitar of the Spanish, with the Mexican jarana, with the German/Czeck accordion, with the Tennessee fiddle, with the immigrant dances from India and VietNam, from Colombia and Africa, and with the black jazz saxophone… your heart, OUR heart still beats, —with a spirit that cannot be measured by income, population density, numerical figures or predictions of how we don’t MATCH other cities…

Our heart beats from the centro, from our trees and our river and the dirt beneath our feet—and its beats make a beautiful melody… when all its people come together in EL CENTRO. Gracias for supporting our Centro!

A mother embraces her child on Navarro Street in 2014. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio 

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Dr. Carmen Tafolla is the Poet Laureate of the State of Texas. Author of more than twenty books, Tafolla was called by Rigoberto Gonzales “the Zora Neale Hurston of the Chicano Community” and by Alex Haley “a world-class writer.” Tafolla, a native of the West-Side barrios of San Antonio, has been published in English, Spanish, German, French, and Bengali, and has performed in London, Madrid, Mexico City, Norway, New Zealand and throughout the United States. Recognized by the National Association for Chicano Studies for "giving voice to the peoples and cultures of this land," she was named in 2012 by Mayor Julian Castro as the first Poet Laureate of the City of San Antonio. Learn More