Interview | Gianna Rendon, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, San Antonio, TX

Gianna Rendon is a community organizer at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas. She is a proud Westsider and sees herself predominantly as an advocate for justice for and with her community. We asked Gianna to share her thoughts on San Antonio’s hydrosocial landscape in this conversational exchange. This interview is part of the catalog for ‘Blue Star Ice Company,’ an exhibition by Works Progress Studio and collaborators in the project space at Blue Star Contemporary in San Antonio, Texas. Blue Star Ice Company is open March 3-May 8, 2016.
Photo by Gianna Rendon

Gianna, what is the mission of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center?

The people of Esperanza dream of a world where everyone has civil rights and economic justice, where the environment is cared for, where cultures are honored and communities are safe. The Esperanza advocates for those wounded by domination and inequality — women, people of color, queer people, the working class and poor. We believe in creating bridges between people by exchanging ideas and educating and empowering each other. We believe it is vital to share our visions of hope… we are esperanza.

How did you find yourself organizing around water? What’s your personal connection to water?

I remember being a small child when the vote around putting fluoride in our water was a big thing. My dad was involved. I remember him going to community meetings about the issue and him coming home and speaking to me about the importance of protecting our aquifer.

My dad’s favorite slogan that he created was “SAWS: Stealing All Worker’s Salaries.” It was a real honor to make that into a sign and present that to city council during November’s struggle.

I am really grateful to all my grandparents who taught my parents and me about conserving everything. My grandmother is Italian and was in Italy during WWII and her house was destroyed in the war. Harsh wartime conditions as well as being raised by a single mother (her dad died while she was young) caused her to know the importance of not only the earth but everything she had. She never wasted anything, food, old clothes, water — nothing.

Same thing goes to my other three Mexican-American grandparents. My dad’s dad was a farm laborer. My other grandfather also comes from farm laborers. This generation did not have the privilege of just tossing things aside. They taught me how to do catch the rainwater and how much better it is than the water from the hose. They taught me how to grow food, and how the food I grow is much more alive than the pesticide rich food at HEB. My grandmother may not know what GMOs are but she does know that a tomato that I grow in my backyard tastes 5000X better than one from the store. And growing up the mainstream consumerist culture did not compute with the culture around me. It is not just my grandparents but all the elders in my neighborhood.

I remember one year when there was a really bad drought. Everything was dead. Water restrictions were really high so no one watered their grass or plants as much. Talking to some of my neighbors especially the viejita that lives next to my grandma, they were all heartbroken that their garden died. Each plant had a story, “that was given to me by my mother in law,” and their deaths killed a piece of them. On the northside when there’s a drought they can just paint their grass.

My neighbors know about climate change. They know how the weather used to be in San Antonio. They know that it used to snow more. They know that it hasn’t always been this hot or this dry. They can remember life events depending on weather, “Oh that was the year it flooded,” or “That was the year of the worst drought, and all my roses died.”

My family’s history and their relationship with water as well as my neighborhood’s history and relationship with water has shaped the way i view the interconnectedness of my life and others and the earth.

In our story circles, some of our elders remember growing up without running water and remembering their grandmothers washing them in large metal tins. They remember their mothers washing the clothes by hand either in a tin or down by Apache Creek. these are the stories and the connections that people don’t hear.

These are the same stories people will give to explain why they will fight for our water.

From our experience in Minnesota, and from what we’ve seen here, it seems like women are often on the front lines of fighting for clean, affordable water and environmental justice. Do you have any thoughts on why this may be and can you talk about how women are fighting for water in San Antonio?

This is a hard one to answer because I don’t want to answer it wrong. So for this answer I can only speak through experience. In the Summer when I went around getting signatures to try to tell city council that they were opposed to the SAWS Rate Structure and the rate increases that would pay for the Vista Ridge Pipeline and the pipeline itself, it was mostly women who’d get excited and not only sign the petition but get their entire family and friends who were with them to sign the petition as well.

Although I did get some signatures from men, they would ask me 50 questions about the nuances of what I was talking about and often wouldn’t sign anyway. The women (mostly Mexican/Mexican-American) would usually interrupt me halfway through my speech and ask to sign. They did not like the idea of having to pay more for their water. Many of them are already having to deal with their other bills increasing and can’t deal with another one. Some of them know how it feels to have their water turned off. Some of them, while they admitted they might be financially OK, they know friends and neighbors who would be affected.

Although I do think that gender is mostly socially constructed, the women that I work with, know in my family and neighborhood, tend to care more about their families and neighborhoods and greater community than men. If men have a family they will care about their immediate family, but in my experience it has been hard to try to convince men to care about someone other than themselves or their immediate families. For me, when I see someone in my community hurt, I hurt. And that is why I’m a community organizer and an activist. I can see the connections between oppressions of people and my own oppression. I can see how when we mess up the earth it has real effects.

In my area there was a chemical dumping ground and there has been many cases of liver and kidney cancers in that area. My grandma died from kidney cancer.

And while this is not related to my work with water so much, it was my first encounter with environmental racism. We live in a working class Mexican/Mexican-American area and I learned from a young age that we don’t matter as much as other people. That it’s ok to contaminate our ground and poison our water because our lives are less important. And I think from that comes three options, you can ignore this reality, let this reality that you are worthless eat you up inside, or you can fight back. I decided to fight back. It is often hard for marginalized communities to fight back for many reasons,

While there are men in the Mi Agua Mi Vida Coalition and throughout the history of our water struggles, I feel like women have a natural relationship to water.

Can you talk about the role that art and artists play in Esperanza’s work?

So Esperanza likes to say that we do cultural organizing work, which is a combination of cultural programming and community based (political) organizing. Our cultural programming centers Latin@s, women, queer and working class people, as well as other marginalized people. We do this because mass media and mainstream art does not do this. It is also easier to reach people through art and culture than through politics. Someone may rather go listen to a concert than listen to a lecture, and we understand.

The cultural grounding piece of our work is — by us showcasing Latinx, Queer, working class, women based art — we make the viewers as well as the artists themselves feel empowered and grounded in who they are, so that they will speak up for themselves.

For example, our En Aquellos Tiempos project displays fotobanners around the Guadalupe area. These are photos from the people in that area. When I first saw some of the fancily dressed people I felt shocked since I didn’t think people from our side of town could look that good, but then I felt pride.

Art is also a natural way that marginalized people can express themselves/ourselves. A lot of times City Councils or legislatures won’t listen to us or take us seriously, but maybe they’d listen to a song or a poem or a light bulb will go off during an exhibit.

Can you tell us about Mi Agua Mi Vida? When and why did the effort get started?

Thank you for this question. I was actually talking to Eliza about this yesterday, so first I’m going to give you a straight answer and then give you the real answer.

The straight answer: In summer of 2015 Dr. Meredith McGuire from the Sierra Club as well as a professor at Trinity University called up various environmental and social justice groups to fight against the Niagara water bottling company moving into San Antonio. After we found out that that plan was no longer a thing, we stuck together to organize around the Vista Ridge Pipeline, but more specifically, the SAWS rate structure and water rate increases that would pay for sewer lines as well as the Vista Ridge pipeline.

The real answer: There has been groups, including the Esperanza, doing activism around water in San Antonio since at least the 1980s, including around Applewhite I (1991) and II, PGA Village (2002- 06), and various efforts to protect the aquifer from development. Many movements like to take credit for previous movements, or they honestly think they are the first ones doing this work. Fortunately, many of the folks involved in Mi Agua Mi Vida were involved in the struggle around Applewhite I and II and PGA.

Many of them were also involved in the brief struggle when the Vista Ridge Pipeline was pushed through City Council with one or two month’s notice. So the struggle is old, but the name Mi Agua Mi Vida is new, to convey that the various environmental and social justice groups are united against the pipeline and rate increases that would harm specifically people of color, working class people, elders, women and children the most.

Also the name “Mi Agua Mi Vida” means “My Water My Life” and is an extension of the slogan used during the PGA struggle “Agua Es Vida,” or “Water is Life.”

We wanted to convey that the water that San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and San Antonio City Council want to gamble on belongs to the people. The people, in this case, refers to San Antonio residents as well as the people who live by the Carrizo Aquifer and along the pipeline route. I think the slogan also changes the conversation from the stereotypical view of white hippies trying to save the planet to gente/raza who speak Spanish, who are brown, and who we don’t often associate with environmental work.

In the Westside of San Antonio a big deal was the lack of running water and indoor plumbing. We’ve spoken to elders who remember not getting running water in their house until the 1940s. Running water was already a thing, but because the Westside was the place Mexicans and Mexican Americans were forced to live (because of segregation), that area was not a priority. Children would catch waterborne diseases because there wasn’t indoor plumbing and would often die young. Health advocates eventually made sure indoor plumbing was a priority.

Water and food are often things that governments use to oppress groups of people all around the world. People need to know that this is still happening. Flint is probably the most prominent example. On a separate note, the real problem that caused lead poisoning was not aging infrastructure, but the privatization of water. In that way, Flint and Detroit and California and Baltimore and Dublin and San Antonio and different Native American reservations are all connected.

What happened on November 12th, 2015 at City Hall? Can you explain the photograph on the wall of the gallery?

Mi Agua Mi Vida (based in San Antonio) is part of a larger anti-Vista Ridge group called Oppose the Hose, which is made up of a group of environmentalists and political and social justice groups that are predominantly based outside San Antonio, like the independent Texas Voters and Save our Springs Alliance (Austin based). These groups worked together to bring landowners (farmers / ranchers) from across the intended pipeline route to the cause. They were coming in to tell City Council that they didn’t want this pipeline. They don’t want San Antonio to take their water. They shared stories of how some of their wells have dried up, so they don’t have any extra to give.

They also talked about how many elders were tricked or coerced into signing over their water rights. San Antonio residents, as well as folks from social justice and environmental groups, showed up to welcome these folks and stand with them in opposition to the pipeline. In our speeches we also spoke up against the SAWS rate structure that would disproportionately raise rates for families while cutting rates for businesses, as well as against the rate increase (there were two, but the one we were against was the one that would pay for Vista Ridge).

About 50 folks came from Burleson, Lee and Bastrop counties. We totaled about 150. We began with a prayer circle. Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM)of Central Texas led us in indigenous songs and prayer and began with a smudging. Then other religious leaders came forward and spoke about the importance of water and also led us in prayer.

The prayer circle was important to those of us planning because we realized being angry and loud would not get us heard. Maria Berriozabal, the first Latina City Council rep and water warrior, gave us the advice to be like water. She said to be gentle like water, but to realize there is strength in that (think erosion).

After that we all gathered on the steps and folks from along the pipeline spoke, then some local water activists spoke. Then a delegation of three people were going to go deliver our almost 2,000 signatures and the over 6,000 signatures from along the pipeline. But then Graciela came up with the idea that ALL of us should go into city hall! So we did.

Some 70 people tried to pack ourselves into Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office. She wasn’t there so we decided to go up to the 4th floor to deliver the petitions to a city councilperson. Eventually, once we stayed there long enough and realized no one was going to speak to us, people started to leave. Then eventually Councilman Nirenburg came out to speak to the few left. We had decided to drop off our petitions another time, which we did, on the day of the vote.

Now we can no longer storm city hall in that way because of the gun law precautions. We have to wait downstairs til someone gets us. Us storming city hall freaked EVERYONE out. It’s never been done before and it will probably never happen again.

The images and press coverage of that moment was amazing. The press played off the idea of “cowboys and indians” coming together mostly because of AIM, and because the folks from Burleson did look like cowboys.

I forgot to mention that before the prayer service someone from Burleson brought us some of their water and we sat it beside the San Antonio water to show solidarity and interconnection.

Many folks felt like this was a “win” even if city council still unanimously voted for the rate increases and continued to support Vista Ridge, because previously we had not united on this level before. Usually the white environmentalists and the radical social justice organizations and the ranchers and farmers and working class Mexican/Mexican American people don’t come together much. I think that moment was healing for lots of people there. The folks from the proposed pipeline had given up hope, they didn’t think anyone in San Antonio cared. It was great to show them that we do care and that our struggles are united with their struggles, and that together we can get something done.

What’s one thing about water in San Antonio that you wish more people would know?

I would like people to know that water isn’t a commodity. It’s a human right. I’d specifically want SAWS to know that.

I’d also like San Antonians to realize the connection between our river and creeks and the drive toward development. And the reality that the development that has been built around our bodies of water hasn’t always been for San Antonians or hasn’t been for the majority of San Antonians (working class people of color).

During the summer I took note of how many times a day I used water. When I wake up I brush my teeth and wash my face. I flush the toilet various times during the day. I drink water, and even when I’m not drinking water almost all drinks have water in it. The oil that I put in my car was most likely extracted by fracking which takes lots of water. I use water in food preparation and clean up. I take a shower and wash my clothes. I realize how many of these things I’ve taken for granted. I also think about how often others take water for granted.

I want people to release there is a connection between how we treat the earth and her resources and how we treat marginalized communities. The way we take water for granted and use it as a commodity is similar to how we treat women, people of color, queer people and working class people. We live in a culture that views people as objects and commodities and something to throw away. In the same way environmental injustices disproportionately affect people from these communities. People of privilege can often move away in environmental crises like Detroit and Flint, but working class people of color, elders, women and children — not so much.

I want people to realize that you can say you’re a vegan or a “treehugger” but unless you realize the connections between the liberations and struggles of marginalized people and the earth and the role you play in these oppressions, your views will never make any change.

Mi Agua Mi Vida Ally Organizations: AGUA, Alamo Sierra Club, American Indian Movement-Central Texas, BAJA Beacon Hill, Domesticas Unidas, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, Fuerza Unida, League of Independent Voters, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, Martinez Street Women’s Center, Mi Agua Mi Vida Coalition, MujerArtes, PEACE Initiative, Promotores de Corazon, SEIU, Southwest Workers Union, Save Our Springs Alliance, SWU- Domesticas, Oppose the Hose, Texas Organizing Project, Vecinos de Mission Trails, and Westside Preservation Alliance.