October 19, 2017

Lerma's Nite Club: How the Group Saved Conjunto

Note: This Place Matters is a campaign that the National Trust started in 2009, before Black Lives Matter had come into being as a movement. Out of respect for Black Lives Matter and the important message behind it, we retired the campaign in June 2020. We encourage National Trust supporters to instead celebrate places that are important to them using the hashtags #SavingPlaces or #TellTheFullStory.

Just as jazz defines New Orleans’ music heritage, conjunto music reflects that of Mexican-Americans in South Texas.

Conjunto, which means “group,” is a fusion of German and Czech accordion sounds and Mexican “ranchera” music unique to Texas. The style evolved in the late 1870s as Mexican and European immigrant workers labored alongside each other and exchanged musical traditions. The result was a distinct style that would form a part of Texas music history.

By the 1930s, conjunto music was popular throughout the region and represented the cultural traditions of the Tejano working class. But despite its popularity, the realities of discrimination meant that many clubs would not book bands that would attract Mexican-American patrons.

The former owner of Lerma's Nite Club, Gilbert Garcia.

photo by: Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice

Lerma Nite Club’s former owner, Gilbert Garcia.

An exception: Lerma’s Nite Club in San Antonio, a popular and well-known venue for both performers and patrons. Throughout the 1950s, Lerma’s was one of the few official music venues that would regularly book conjunto bands. Its commitment to celebrating conjunto helped keep the traditional music alive and provided the community with a familiar space to dance and relax for almost six decades.

A historic photo of Lerma's Nite Club.

photo by: Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice

Historic photo of Lerma’s (date unknown).

In 2010, the city of San Antonio closed the building due to code violations. It became clear that saving the cinder block, Arte Moderne building would require an expensive repair process.

Community members formed the Save Lerma’s Coalition to advocate for the club’s preservation. The group hosted a series of fundraising events and received a grant through the National Trust’s “This Place Matters” Community Challenge. Part of the coalition’s advocacy was getting the club listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which can help protect historically significant sites from redevelopment.

Susana Segura, community organizer and Project Development Coordinator at the Esperanza Center, described Lerma’s as a cherished community gathering space: “The owners, Mary and Gilbert Garcia, would open the club for weddings and funeral receptions. They wanted it to be a supportive space for the tight-knit community to gather.”

The Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice, a grassroots activism and preservation organization, currently holds guardianship of the club and is overseeing a campaign to raise money for its renovation. With the participation of community members, the organization conducted a local neighborhood survey to determine how to best preserve the club’s historical legacy while keeping the building use reflective of local needs.

In 2016, the city awarded the Esperanza Center a $500,000 contract to rehabilitate the building. They hope to make Lerma’s a Latino cultural arts center, the first of its kind funded by the city in over 30 years.

In addition to a performance area, the Esperanza Center plans for the new space to include a small museum and educational resources open to the public. The contract will help make sure that this piece of the city’s history is not erased.

To Segura, the success of Lerma’s preservation speaks to a powerful sense of community pride. As she says, “grassroots mobilizing is essential to Latino preservation. It’s about recognizing working-class people, including their architecture and history.” Though not considered an example of fine period architecture, Lerma’s cultural resonance among San Antonians makes it both a valued community landmark and a monument to a unique musical style.

Kelli Gibson is the manager of the Easement Program at the National Trust. Her interests include the adaptive reuse of historic institutional buildings and the preservation of sites significant to Black American culture.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

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