When I told my parents I was moving to Austin, my dad’s initial reaction was “Oh good, you’ll finally use your Spanish!” In his mind, coming to Texas was the next best thing to studying abroad. But after nearly three months in the border state, I still hadn’t gotten the true Spanish immersion my dad was hoping for. I decided to be proactive with my cultural education and informed my roommate Katie we were going to explore a town where Hispanic influence runs deep—San Antonio. Down to its very name, San Antonio is filled with Spanish language, culture, and history. So it was with great academic curiosity that we packed up and headed south of the Travis County border.
After a rainy ride down I-35, we followed the brown signs directing us to the San Antonio Museum of Art at Jones and Broadway. I had read that the museum contained one of the nation’s foremost collections of Latin American art, but as I stepped out of the car and looked at the rather industrial looking building, I was slightly skeptical. Katie and I ventured guesses of what the building had been originally—a granary or a factory? A brochure informed us it was built in 1884 to house the original Lone Star Brewing Company for Anheuser-Busch. The structure was a far cry from the regal columns of the Art Institute of Chicago or the modern facade of the Guggenheim in New York. But once we started exploring the vast wings of art within, our skepticism died.
Our first stop was an exhibit entitled “¡Que Milagro! Votive Art From Spain and Mexico.” Despite years of schooling in Hispanic culture and customs, neither of us were familiar with the art form, which involves objects and paintings giving thanks for favors and miracles or in anticipation of future assistance. Much of the exhibition was comprised of small oil-on-tin paintings from the early twentieth century that pictured saints aiding mere mortals. Complaints ranged from toothaches and sick children to incarcerated husbands and strained family relations.
The folk art and Spanish Colonial and Republican collections depicted the native and conquistador cultures in detail, the composite of which makes up Latin America today. This led us to the modern Latin American collection, which offered insight into Hispanic culture not through the eyes of the commoner as ¡Que Milagro! had, but through the brush of the cultural elite. Works by the likes of Joaquín Torres-García, Diego Rivera, David Alfáro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo portrayed diverse images of social injustice, political unrest, and the evolution of Latin American culture.
From the fruits of Latin America to the roots of Hispanic San Antonio, we left the museum in search of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, billed as the “most beautiful building in San Antonio” by the National Geographic Society. Expecting something of palatial proportions we circled again and again, scanning the cloudy horizon. When we finally found the palace we realized the reason we had missed it was because we were looking too high—the small white adobe building was a mere story, just off West Commerce. We entered under the double-headed eagle, which is part of the Spanish coat of arms, and were greeted by the friendly Alice Garcia, who gave us a brief rundown of the building’s history—formally dedicated in 1749, the palace served as the birth place of the municipal, military, and police governments in San Antonio. It was also Santa Ana’s main headquarters during the revolution. Garcia described the rich historical furnishings, decorations, and placards, including a list of the original Canary Island families who established the San Antonio government and San Fernando Cathedral—relatives of her husband. After our introduction, we were left to wander the palace at our leisure, exploring the four-poster beds and coal-burning brazeros (a primitive “central heating” contraption) in the bedrooms, the regal cobblestone courtyard, and the small chapel that served as the predecessor to the San Fernando Cathedral on Main Plaza.
After the tutorial on the infancy of Spanish influence in San Antonio, we were ready for a taste of its modern trappings. We walked the two blocks down Commerce to the big pink wall that marked “El Mercado”—a conglomeration of shops, vendors, and restaurants patterned after an authentic Mexican market. We escaped the dull gray of the afternoon in the wealth of colors in every display: bright yellows, oranges, reds, and purples in countless piñatas, wooden flowers, dyed eggs, and woven ponchos.
After getting our fill of window-shopping, Katie and I were ready for a literal taste of Mexico. We wandered into Mi Tierra Café y Panadería and were taken aback by the huge piñatas, festive twinkle lights, strolling mariachis, and most of all, the huge line. At four o’clock in the afternoon it was standing room only as people jostled to pick their favorite panes dulces (sweet breads) from the bakery case. I grabbed number 48, Katie took number 49, and we drooled over the endless assortment of empanadas, campechanas, and cuernos. When our numbers were finally called I settled on a campechana de guava, some sweet potato bread, and an apple cuerno. Katie selected an empanada de calabaza, dulce de coco, and a pineapple cuerno. We immediately found an empty table and proceeded to consume an obscene amount of sugar.
Now weighed down by our bulging bellies, we decided we should get some exercise and set out walking back up Commerce toward the River Walk. Even here, the influence of Spanish culture was evident, from the restaurants touting margaritas to the signs that proudly proclaimed the area the “Paseo del Rio.” Unfortunately, between the rain and our rather thin jackets a more apt name would have been the “Paseo del Frio.” After an hour we found ourselves nearly sprinting for the car, thoroughly soaked and ready for a piping hot Mexican meal.
I had read a Texas Monthly review of a newly opened Mexican eatery—Cascabel Mexican Patio—touted as “another stellar Southtown Mexican restaurant.” When we arrived we did a double take, not sure if the trailer-size building was big enough to hold a dining room. Not only did Cascabel manage to seat us, but it also proceeded to treat us to what we both proclaimed to be the best Mexican meal we had ever had. We began with complimentary soup, a delicious alternative to the typical chips and salsa. The incredibly spicy enchiladas verdes contained only the freshest cilantro, onions, and cheese. To top it off they were served with steaming homemade corn tortillas. Katie summed the dinner up nicely when she said, “I’d die a happy person if I died after this meal.” Our only disappointment was when Cascabel owner Reyes Quintanilla informed us that the restaurant wasn’t open on Sundays, forcing Katie and I to look elsewhere the next morning for breakfast tacos.
Sticking with what we knew, Katie and I woke up on Sunday and returned to Mi Tierra—this time sitting in the dining room and ordering off the menu. When my Huevos a la Mexicana Tacos (Mexican egg tacos) and Katie’s plate of Chilaquiles Famosos arrived we happily ate our breakfast amid the din of a packed dining room and a quiet guitarist. After we finished our meals, we asked our waitress if we could get some pastries to go. It only seemed right that after eating our way through San Antonio we bring a taste of it home.
In the end I may not be fluent in Spanish, but my dad will be pleased to know that after a weekend in San Antonio I am now an eloquent orator in el lenguaje de dulces (the language of sweets).