City of Dreams

The many strands of San Antonio’s rich mestizo history—much of it vanished and vanishing—left me with a range of influences, from Bongo Joe to old man Brock.
City of Dreams
Bongo Joe performing in downtown San Antonio in 1982.

I recently went searching for the long-lost ranchito just south of San Antonio that my father bought with a Veterans’ Land Board loan in 1960, when I was three years old. Rancho Santos wasn’t a grand Texas spread, but it was 125 thickly forested sandy acres, apparently untouched since creation time, where we could leave modern comforts behind and live, more or less, like our Mexican vaquero forebears, or so my father liked to imagine.

There was a humble wood-post corral, occupied by an ornery Shetland pony named Brown Beauty; an old galvanized metal papalote windmill that kept an algae-rimmed cement tank filled; and a military surplus Quonset hut, lavishly furnished with canvas cots and a wood-burning potbelly stove. Along with my parents and brothers, my aunts, uncles, friends, and cousins would retreat there on weekends to barbecue a cabrito, attempt white-knuckle rides on the cantankerous Brown Beauty, and listen to my dad sing and play guitar once the sun went down and a big fire was lit. Sometimes, it seemed the ancestors might be listening from just beyond the treetops.

Years later he sold the ranch, under protest, to buy a house in the suburbs that would give me and my brothers a chance at a decent public education, and we never saw the land again. On my latest expedition, I took a right off congested Southwest Military Drive onto Pleasanton Road, passing the aging Griff’s burger joint landmark, passing Loop 410 and the outer 1604 loop, both new since I was last there. The gritty city streets lapsed into rural roads through scrubby open fields that vaguely stirred memories of our journeys long ago, from our Dellview neighborhood home at the northwest edge of the city. There was still a lot of countryside in the San Antonio de Béjar I grew up in; you didn’t have to drive far in any direction to see cattle grazing.

“Our old San Antonio was six miles by six miles,” one elder Bejareño recently remembered with me.

Farther down the road, I recognized the stinky pond we’d wince to sniff, quickly rolling up the windows of the station wagon. On the other side, set off from the road a bit, I saw the last ruins of an old black clapboard house. My brothers and I knew it to be the residence of the local witch and would duck as we passed so she’d not be able to catch a glimpse of us and thereby snatch our souls.

Astoundingly, the ubiquitous tentacles of housing developments, strip malls, and their accompanying clatter of sprawl haven’t reached this far south of the city yet. But much of the land has been cleared, mesquite and oak stands and brush thickets that once swathed the land swept away, setting the stage for the inevitable arrival of the earthmovers. Turning off another familiar road, I looked for the truck path that led to the rusty ranch gate, but to no avail—it was gone, probably swallowed up into a larger tract long ago. A piece of my old San Antonio had been erased.

No matter where you come from, some of the dearest places of your earliest memories sooner or later disappear entirely from the face of the earth. You can lose much of the city you once adored and thought unchangeable, a whole world wiped away while your life unfolded during long spells on distant paths, as happened to me during thirty years of living in semi-voluntary exile from Texas. But something always remains, the origins of your own story that can never be fully excised from the land.

Even when I lived far away, and I’ve lived as much of my life in New York City as in San Antonio, I’ve always been from Texas’s historic River City. From the first poems of my adolescence, I’ve been writing about the history, mystery, and enigma my hometown and its denizens imparted to me at my birth, like a secret compromiso, a troth with history itself. I don’t remember deciding to do that. There are few precincts of the city that don’t conjure memories of discoveries, foundings, battles, adventures, misadventures, epiphanies, close calls, amorous interludes, births, marriages, and deaths.

My city’s stories, familial and historical, just fascinated me more than anything or anywhere else. San Antonio is a crossroads of New World history, founded early in the eighteenth century, rooted in the epic of the conquest and colonization of Nueva España, transduced later into a town of the Republic of Texas, and eventually transmogrified into a city of the United States of America.

No transition was ever easy.

There’s an extraordinary but little-known map of San Antonio, designed and drawn by Eleanor Magruder in 1932 and given to me by her daughter some years ago, that testifies to this rich history. Cradled by the missions, each shown with the year of its founding, the city streets are inscribed with titles denoting what each neighborhood was known for. Hot Tamales. Mexican Hairless Dog. Burros for Sale. Cock Fight. Chile Stands. Marihuana Smoker. On Matamoros Street, a line of saucily dressed ladies bears the caption: Buenas Noches, Señor. Elsewhere, there’s the United States Arsenal and Municipal Auditorium. Also, separate cemeteries are designated as Hebrew, Catholic, Polish, and German.

Printed in a spectrum of serape colors, red, orange, green, turquoise, and brown, this cartographic gem captures for posterity the interregnum epoch of San Antonio’s past, between colonial origins in New Spain and a modern American future, the era of the city that I witnessed in its twilight.

Who knows what San Antonio might yet become?

The city I discovered as a child was not the Alamo City of history books. For my twin brothers and me, the hoary limestone Alamo was where my parents would drive us many evenings, in pajamas, after the ten o’clock news, to hear the funky ruminations of Bongo Joe (a.k.a. George Coleman). San Antonio’s legendary African American street griot beat contemplative, slow-grooving, rock-steady batucadas on two battered

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