Local Color

by Julia Hayden

In a job that I had, several jobs ago, my immediate boss was a transplant from North Carolina, and one of the things that he often noted was how deep was the Hispanic influence on just about everything in this part of Texas. It is, after all, the Borderlands, where two different cultures mix and meld so thoroughly and have done so for so long that those of us accustomed to it. Of course we should dine on breakfast tacos, and the supermarket carry every imaginable variety of salsa, and listen to conjunto music, and have in our vocabulary a smattering or more of Spanish. It’s just the way that things are . . . and sometimes it takes a recent transplant, like my old boss, to notice it in a significant way.

For me – since I grew up in another Borderland (southern California) – I was already pretty comfortable with the California version of such elements: Spanish and old missions, cilantro and cumin, and home-made tamales, steamed in Mom’s tall stock-pot, Olvera Street on a grade-school field trip. The one thing I did notice almost at once, though – was how exuberantly colorful buildings tended to be, especially those with a South-of-the-Border influence. Almost the first local ruckus-du-jour that I remember reading about in the Express News was the long and drawn out affair of Sandra Cisnero’s Purple House. For those with short memories, this was and is a cute little Victorian cottage on the edge of the King William Historical District, and she chose to paint it an eye-popping periwinkle purple, which put a selection of neighbors up in arms as being just a titch too vivid for a historical district. I think the color eventually faded to something a little more genteel – or everyone got over it . . . anyway, it was the ruckus-du-jour for a while.

I got more of a personal introduction to this when my elderly (and admittedly half-blind) neighbor had her nephew repaint the outside of her house, and I didn’t realize it until the day after we went onto (or off of) Daylight Savings Time, and for the first time in months I was arriving home in daylight. Came around the corner and had to cover my eyes, the shock of it was that intense; a tiny little garden cottage, painted the exact color of Pepto Bismol. It did make it easy to give directions, though – I would tell everyone to look for the house painted the color of Pepto Bismol – I’d be in the house just next door.

There was at about the same time – if memory serves, another color-oriented ruckus about the color of the new Central Library in San Antonio; a collection of artistically shaped and arranged slabs of concrete painted a brilliant shade of paprika red. Like my next-door neighbors’ house, it certainly made it easy for strangers to find it, and know indeed and without a doubt that it was the Central Library. There certainly wasn’t another one like it anywhere within a hundred miles.

After a while, though, one gets used to the brighter palette of colors. Eventually almost every other place looks bland, blah, beige and boring.