Puro Urbanism: San Antonio, Texas perspectives – March 2017

 Mark A. Tirpak

(Author’s note September 2021: this is an edited version of an essay that, in March 2017, I submitted by request to Antonio Petrov, Assistant Professor with The University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA)’s Urban Future Lab, for a book project about Puro San Antonio that was not completed.)

Through my past San Antonio focused research and ongoing underdog activism as an urban planner and urbanist, I have tried to cultivate the “witty, irreverent, and impertinent posture” as well as the “grit and spit” and handiness that scholar and San Antonio local treasure Tomás Ybarra-Frausto has described as traits of the “working-class” Chicanx sensibility of rasquachismo (Ybarra-Frausto, 1991, pp. 155-156). For me, puro San Antonio is Ybarra-Frausto’s rasquachismo — or the distinctly San Antonian taste for and lived reality of making-do (sometimes fabulously) with the barest least, and particularly with what others waste, discard or force upon us.

San Antonio strategies — such as driving on the I-10 expressway at low speed with hazard lights flashing and a plastic kiddie pool on the roof; no strapping, just many hands out car windows holding on — do not just create unforgettable images. They allow the San Antonians who practice these movidas to, in Ybarra-Frausto’s words, “gain time. . . make options . . .retain hope” in a city that often seems equally jury-rigged, or “always on the edge of coming apart (the car, the job, the toilet)” (Ybarra-Frausto, 1991, pp. 157). To live in and as puro San Antonio is to be, at any given hour, a plumber, a mechanic and a moving strap. It is to be introduced at a conference as a good academic and house painter. It is also, at heart, in response to the reality of $9 or less per hour jobs for skilled adults amidst overall rising costs of living (the car, the toilet and now rising property taxes, healthcare and public education expenses in San Antonio). Also to contend with are the exceedingly hot summer temperatures (and sometimes freezing winters), poor air quality, neighborhoods cut off by highways and new rail developments, closed public swimming pools and an epidemic of stray dogs.

Although I am not Chicanx, I embrace puro San Antonioas part of the “admixtures and recombinations” that Ybarra-Frausto has noted comprising life in deeply economically divided and longstanding majority-minority San Antonio (Ybarra-Frausto, 1991 p. 157). As the son of a polka drummer, I find the rhythm of San Antonio’s hybrid Tejano music like a family heartbeat. With ingrained sensitivities to the value of materials and resources cultivated from challenging childhoods that would not be lost on San Antonio’s puro, my parents will almost certainly leave behind ‘junk drawers’ and other supply stashes, maybe even a plastic kiddie pool, to contend with when they eventually pass.

Ybarra-Frausto has thus described the material realities informing rasquachismo:

Limited resources means mending, refixing, and reusing everything. Things are not thrown away, they are saved and recycled, often in different contexts (automobile tires are used as plant containers, plastic bleach bottles become garden ornaments, discarded coffee cans are reelaborated as flower pots). This constant making do, the grit and obstinacy of survival played out against a relish for surface display and flash . . . . . (p. 157).

Like a coat of many brash colors or chillantes, puro San Antonio maneuvers can simultaneously exhibit pain, beauty, ugliness, humor, intellect, poverty, resourcefulness, risk and pride while challenging notions of ‘propriety and keeping up appearances’ (as well as the casta and disposability) that can dominate and exclude. Similar to jujutsu, puro San Antonio forms and strategies can lightly and briskly ‘turn ruling paradigms upside down’ (Ybarra-Frausto, 1991 pp 155-156). As the ruling enclaves of the nation and city are seemingly haunted by the vision of “taco trucks on every corner’ (Sander, 2 September 2016), others recognize the détournement that can be found in puro San Antonio approaches to everyday life, as well as the need to adopt these maneuvers to cope with an increasingly hostile environment. If not today, perhaps tomorrow there will be a plastic kiddie pool on your car roof.

Unfortunately, urban planning and management strategies in San Antonio recently have involved treating the working poor — historically the city’s majority— as well as corresponding homelessness like invasive species. There are locks on some electrical outlets at the downtown public library to discourage congregating. Some public benches downtown have been removed. Some fountains have been turned off to halt puro splashing, bathing and cooling off in some ‘revitalized’ (and  now often vacant) downtown public plazas. Additionally, fences have been erected under expressways downtown, blocking historic pedestrian rights-of-way and paths to and from public transit, to further establish a “buffer zone” to try keep homeless and poorer residents way from more pleasant public spaces and amenities in the center city (Fletcher Stoeltje, 5 August 2012).  It is new and segregating urban management and public infrastructure that at least some San Antonians have interpreted as “. . . rammed down our throats because we’re Mexicans,” which is local short-hand for the puro San Antonians who “. . . don’t have millionaires on our side” (quoted in Fletcher Stoeltje, 5 August 2012). As coping mechanisms, rasquachismo maneuvers can demonstrate irreverently and powerfully “fregado pero no jodido” — or to translate Ybarra-Frausto roughly, how to be screwed in and by San Antonio but not entirely fucked (Ybarra-Frausto, 1991 p. 156). Comprised of underdog strategies, puro San Antonio can teach us not only how to avoid being lessened by the public spending and place-management follies orchestrated by and for the interests of the city’s economically elite, but possibly how to tackle such urban challenges.


Fletcher Stoeltje, M., 5 August 2012. Haven for Hope causing headaches for neighbors. San Antonio Express-News.  Accessed 14 March 2017 at: <http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Haven-for-Hope-causing-headaches-for-neighbors-3763459.php&gt;

Sanders, S. #MemeOfTheWeek: Taco Trucks On Every Corner. National Public Radio.  Accessed 14 March 2017 at: < http://www.npr.org/2016/09/02/492390405/-memeoftheweek-taco-trucks-on-every-corner&gt;

Ybarra-Frausto, T. 1991. ‘Rasquachismo: a Chicano sensibility.’ in R. Griswold del Castillo, T. McKenna & I. Yarbro-Bejarano (eds), Chicano art: resistance and affirmation, 1965-1985, Wright Art Gallery of the University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, pp. 155-179.

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