My Purple House -- Color is a Language and a History By Sandra Cisneros
© 1997 Hispanic Link SAN ANTONIO, Aug. 31, 1997 --http://www.latinolink.com/news/news97/1006ncis.htm
My life is such a telenovela! One day I painted my house tejano colors; the next day, my house is in all the news, cars swarming by, families having their photos taken in front of my purple casita as if it were the Alamo. The neighbors put up an iced-tea stand and made 10 dollars!
All this happened because I chose to live where I do. I live in San Antonio because I'm not a minority here. I live in the King William neighborhood because I love old houses. Since my neighborhood is historic, certain code restrictions apply. Any house alteration plans must be approved by the Historic Design and Review Committee. This is to preserve the neighborhood's historic character, and that's fine by me.
Because I thought I had permission, I gave the go-ahead to have my house painted colors I considered regional -- but as it turns out, they hadn't been approved. However, I was given the chance to prove them historically appropriate. So I did my research, and what I found is this: We don't exist.
My history is made up of a community whose homes were so poor and unimportant as to be considered unworthy of historic preservation. No famous architect designed the houses of the tejanos, and there are no books in the San Antonio Conservation Society library about houses of the working-class community, no photos romanticizing their poverty, no ladies' auxiliary working toward preserving their presence. Their homes are gone; their history is invisible. The few historic homes that survived have access cut off by freeways because city planners did not judge them important.
Our history is in the neighborhoods like the famous Laredito barrio, heart of the old tejano community and just a block from City Hall; it proved so "historically valuable,'' it was demolished and converted into a jail, parking lot and downtown police station, with only the casa of tejano statesman Jose Angel Navarro as evidence Laredito was ever there.
Our past is present only in churches or missions glorifying a Spanish colonial past. But I'm not talking about the Spaniards here. My question is, where is the visual record of the tejanos?
The issue is bigger than my house. The issue is about historical inclusion. I want to paint my house a traditional color. But I don't think it unreasonable to include the traditions of los tejanos who had a great deal to do with creating the city of San Antonio we know today.
I wouldn't mind painting my house a historical color, but please give me a broader palette than Surrey beige, Sevres blue, Hawthorne green, Frontier Days brown and Plymouth Rock grey. These colors are fine for some houses, and I think they look handsome on the dignified mansions on King William Street. But look at my casita. It's not a mansion. It's a late-Victorian rental cottage, built circa 1903. In 1913 my house was sawed in two like a Houdini magic act and wheeled to its present location. This accounts for its architectural affinity with the houses in Baja and Lavaca communities.
Frankly, I don't understand what all the fuss is about. I thought I had painted my house a historic color. Purple is historic to us. It goes back a thousand years or so to the pyramids. It is present in the Nahua codices, book of the Aztecs, as is turquoise. the color I used for my house trim; the former color signifying royalty, the latter, water and rain.
But we are a people sin documentos. We don't have papers. Our books were burned in the conquest, and ever since, we have learned to keep quiet, to keep our history to ourselves, to keep it alive generation to generation by word of mouth, perhaps because we feared it would be taken away from us again. Too late -- it has been taken away.
In San Antonio when we say "historic preservation,'' we don't mean everyone's history, even though the Historic Review office is paid for by everybody's taxes. When they ask me to prove my colors historically appropriate to King William, they don't mean tejano colors. But I am certain tejanos lived in this neighborhood, too.
Color is a language. In essence, I am being asked to translate this language. For some who enter my home, these colors need no translation. However, why am I translating to the historical professionals? If they're not visually bilingual, what are they doing holding a historical post in a city with San Antonio's demographics?
Color is a story. It tells the history of a people. We don't have beautiful showcase houses that tell the story of the class of people I come from. But our inheritance is our sense of color. It has withstood conquests, plagues, genocide, hatred, defeat. Our colors have survived. That's why you all love fiestas so much, because we know how to have a good time. We know how to laugh. We know a color like bougainvillea pink is important because it will lift your spirits and make your heart pirouette.
We have a tradition of bright colors. Dr. Daniel Arreola of Texas A&M University has written that in a survey of 1,065 houses in a Mexican-American district in San Antonio, 50 percent showed evidence of brightly painted exteriors, even if only evidenced in the bright trim. From the Arab influence of elaborate paint exteriors carried over to the Iberian peninsula, as well as to the use of intense pigment in the pre-Colombian structures, our people have always decorated their exterior walls brightly.
In some pre-Colombian centers there is not only evidence of a love of color, but a love of vivid visual effects; in Teotihuacan, it is the drama of red contrasted with blue. That passion for color is seen even now in our buildings on both sides of the border. Mango yellow, papaya orange, Frida Kahlo cobalt, Rufino Tamayo periwinkle, rosa mexicana and, yes, even enchilada red. King William architecture has been influenced by European, Greek Revival, Victorian and Neoclassical styles. Why is it so difficult to concede a Mexican influence, especially when so many people of Mexican descent lived in the city?
This issue is not about personal taste, but about historical context. It belongs not only to the architecturally elite, but also to los tejanos, as well as the Irish, French, Native American and yes, even the poor. History belongs to us all.
My purple house colors are not deemed historically appropriate because "there is no evidence or documentation these colors were ever used in King William.'' But if the HDRC is true to its word, oral testimonies should count as evidence. I am inviting the community to assist me. I invite Brackenridge High School, especially, which, I'm told, adopted my purple house because it's their school color. So why not an oral history project they could get credit for? Why not a documentation of our ancestors? It's about time we had our history count on paper.
If you know someone who lived in San Antonio at the turn of the century who remembers the colors of the tejanos who lived in the King William/La Vaca community, document their stories on paper. Would you like to be part of a collection of tejano oral histories? If so, tell me your stories. I would love to collect them and publish them in a book we could gift to the San Antonio Conservation Society, the San Antonio Public Library, the King William Association, the Historic Review Office, the City of San Antonio. After all, maybe somebody else will be inspired and follow my example, and paint his or her house a beautiful South Texas color, too, and nobody would raise a fuss. Now wouldn't that be something? Send your testimonies on paper, video, audiotape or disk, to: Sandra Cisneros, P.O. Box 831754, San Antonio TX 78283.