What a drag it is getting very old. In our advancing years, every birthday can occasion reckonings with an increasingly voluminous and unwieldy past, sparking fond reminiscences alongside warts-and-all inventories of the years that might inspire reaffirmation of familiar paths, or a wholly new start, or leave us altogether unsettled and chastened, staring blankly toward a diminishing future.
Turns out this can be true even for cities. San Antonio turns 300 this May, and the city’s tricentennial commemoration of its founding has turned out so far to be a mixed bag of brightly festooned anticipation, remarkable creative outpourings, deep historical reflections—and an unmistakable seeping ambivalence. The city’s official programming has been plagued by confusion and early misfires. Nonetheless, San Antonio “obsessives” all over town are seeking out the hidden meanings of this auspicious anniversary.
Historians, artists, journalists, and curators are sorting through myriad narratives of our city’s past and their elusive echoes into the present, imagining what the city may yet become. In effect, though there are many official programs and initiatives, the best observances of the city’s founding are transpiring as a yearlong crowd-sourced event. San Antonio de Béjar is revealing itself to itself, from the ground up.
Historian Andrés Tijerina, who consulted with the Witte Museum on their impressive “Confluence and Culture” tricentennial exhibition, believes the city’s three-hundredth anniversary has a special importance. “San Antonio is, was, and will remain the heart of the story of Texas,” he recently told me. “What happens in San Antonio has always been at the heart of Texas.”
Tijerina is among a generation of historians whose work over the last thirty years has reminded us that Texas’s story began not with the Siege of the Alamo, but long before, and from the south. The fall of Aztec Tenochtitlán, the Conquest, and the emergence of New Spain and Mexico was our Plymouth Rock. San Antonio’s founding two hundred years later arose from those events, complete with the echoes of first encounters between the indigenous and Spanish worlds and the emergence of a mestizo settlement. It was this historic pedigree that made San Antonio the place where modern Texas would be born, connecting our Mexican origins to an American future. And, with its abiding, indelible ambiente Mexicano and the ongoing burgeoning of the state’s Latino population, Tijerina observes, San Antonio will likely prove to be a decisive community in the orientation of Texas’s future.
In the words of one of my mentors, the late San Antonio writer Virgilio Elizondo: “The future is mestizo.”
San Antonio is, was, and will remain the heart of the story of Texas. What happens in San Antonio has always been at the heart of Texas.
In 2015, that understanding of our city’s history was affirmed when UNESCO added the five San Antonio Missions, built between 1718 and 1756, in the era of New Spain, to its auspicious list of World Heritage Sites. It’s the sole World Heritage Site in Texas, and one of only 23 in the United States, including the Statue of Liberty; Independence Hall, in Philadelphia; La Fortaleza, in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the ruins of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, in New Mexico. “World Heritage Site status wasn’t given to the River Walk,” Tijerina points out. “They gave it to the Missions! And the Missions is the Indians, it’s undeniable. The Native Americans were the reason everybody came. They’ve been here all along!” Indeed, many of the descendants of the Mission Indians continue to reside in the neighborhoods surrounding the Missions in present-day San Antonio, illustrating the abiding, and continuously evolving, nature of San Antonio’s now centuries-old narrative.
For an event that was three hundred often strife-torn years in the making, an opportunity to observe and celebrate San Antonio’s uniquely rich indigenous and mestizo American legacy, it was cringe-making for many Bejareños to see the launch of the city’s tricentennial commemoration year with a shambolic New Year’s Eve kickoff fiesta—headlined by Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon, two stellar acts of a hoary yesteryear with no relevance to the city’s epic Tejano saga.
Watching the live broadcast of the concert at home with my wife on a frosty night in the Alamo City, the scene reminded us of the frequently seen bumper sticker slogan: “Keep San Antonio Lame,” with the a in lame rendered in the shape of the Alamo.
Just six weeks before this inaugural event, in November of 2017, Edward Benavides, CEO of the city’s Tricentennial Commission since its creation in 2015, resigned after revelations of anemic fundraising, a thicket of mismanaged contracts, and reports of general managerial disarray. Aspirations for $50 million in public and private funds to support an ambitious slate of events and programs were scaled back to $20 million.
San Antonio’s efforts were soon being unfavorably compared with tricentennial ceremonies taking shape in New Orleans. San Antonio Express-News reporters Josh Baugh and Brian Chasnoff, attending Mardi Gras in January, heard Mayor Mitch Landrieu describe the mission of their year to be celebrating “with the world the history of the great city of New Orleans, our culture, our music, our art, and essentially the greatest asset that we have, which is our people.”
The Nola 300 website is full of cultural and historical narratives, video, and links to diverse archival resources, whereas the San Antonio 300 site tilts toward a festively presented log of partnering events, comparatively thin on culture and history. The marketing approach is more parti-colored and fiesta-flavored than philosophically inflected with any historical gravitas. And, as Baugh and Chasnoff reported, “New Orleans shaped its celebration without controversy, a result of better use of resources, more engaged leadership, and less dependency on municipal government.”
By contrast, Bexar County, the historic Texas condado that once reached all the way west to New Mexico and north to Colorado and Nebraska, has been focusing on the horizon of the tricentennial since 2012, beginning with the considerable efforts to secure the World Heritage Site status. The county’s tricentennial initiative got under way in 2015 with Nuestra Historia (“Our History”), an exhibition of artifacts and documents relating to San Antonio’s origins in Iberia and New Spain, followed by a series of three historical symposia in the years since.
The county’s most ambitious undertaking has been the creation of a linear “culture park” that will ultimately stretch 2.5 miles through downtown San Antonio along the banks of the restored San Pedro Creek. The first section is due for inauguration during the tricentennial celebration in the first week of May of 2018. Archaeologists have revealed that the creek was the scene of human settlement going back 10,000 years, and it was also the place of the city’s first settlement in the time of New Spain, as well as the locus of much of the city’s early development. Using interpretive historical signage, mythic word art inscriptions (which, full disclosure, I played a role in creating), and public art, the park will present the city’s millennial story for pedestrian visitors.
The city of San Antonio’s Tricentennial Commission is now under new management, has made grants to support numerous tricentennial-themed programs, and is focusing on a slate of events planned for “Commemorative Week” in the first week of May. Still, how could such a terrific opportunity to tell San Antonio’s incomparable American story be so awkwardly fumbled out of the gate? The city’s feverish culturati are agitated and opinionated. One local analyst of cultural goings-on observed that neither the former mayor, Ivy Taylor (under whose auspices the commission was created in 2015), her successor, Ron Nirenberg, who took office in June of 2017, nor the city manager, Sheryl Sculley, were San Antonio natives.
Mayor Nirenberg, a longtime San Antonio denizen, regrets the stumbles, but after the course correction, he’s hopeful. “The tricentennial,” he explained to me, “is an opportunity for San Antonio on a world stage to demonstrate why people locally and around the world should care to spend time, be interested in, and invest in our city. It has an extraordinary heritage, rich diversity, and this is an opportunity to celebrate the city we have become and the city we are growing to be.”
What all of this may reveal is that San Antonio’s heritage is too expansive to be managed by a single municipal commission. And, perhaps still more telling, amid the recent confusion, history uncannily seems to be repeating itself.
A century ago, San Antonio politicos attempted to plan for a grandiose bicentennial fair to celebrate the city’s two-hundredth birthday, only to have citizens vote down a $1 million bond initiative, half the anticipated budget. Ultimately, the event was abandoned altogether. Could it be that, alongside pride in the city’s history, there also lingers a deeper ambivalence about San Antonio’s indigenous and New Spain origins that partly accounts for the reticence and missteps surrounding our indecision about how to commemorate and recall its past?
We’ll never know what ancient geomancy may have aided the First Peoples in divining this fertile place of (once) abundant waters, where the springs of San Pedro Creek and the Blue Hole headwaters of the San Antonio River are separated by gentle hills and dales with an escarpment to the north and rolling river plains to the south. It was a verdant place that would become a crossroads of peoples traversing the landscape through the millennia, leading to the fateful encounters that would eventually bring about the creation of a presidio, a mission, a villa, then a town, and then an American city—and whatever it is we are still to become. San Antonio was born in 1718 under the sun of another empire, at the remote northern frontier of New Spain, in the lands that had once been known as las tierras bárbaras or las tierras de los infieles—the barbaric lands of the infidels. That was the beginning of the Tejano saga, much of which has been left out of official histories, until recently.
San Antonio’s Tejano history is of a place born of meetings between strangers in a propitious natural setting, first between the indigenous and the newly arrived Spaniards at the farthest edge of a short-lived empire, then briefly reimagined as the legendary scene of the birth of the Texas republic, and then reimagined once again as a city at the frontier of yet another empire to which many people of the world would come. That’s the story of how we became American.
Yet despite all the changes in nations and governments of this place since its founding, San Antonio’s origin in the unfolding story of Mexico is a part of our destiny that continues to play out, like one plot line in an endlessly unspooling movie. According to census data from 2010, Hispanos make up 63.2 percent of the city’s population, a “majority minority” population as it has recently been dubbed. Or, as I think of it, the demography of a longtime “secret” Mexican city.
The Tejano historian and folklorist Américo Paredes has argued that we remain within the spiritual and cultural patrimony of a “Greater Mexico,” a sanctuary of history and memory, which includes all who’ve come here to partake in it. (My family, like so many others, has found refuge here over the last century.) This legacy may be particularly discomfiting in these fractious times, when the borderlands are contested, policed, and mortally catalyzed, and the U.S.-Mexico border appears to be as abscessed a wound as ever. It’s a political border in search of an elusive cultural partition.
And in addition to the implications of the unresolved story of our Mexican birth and our American maturation, San Antonio looms like a grizzled, wild-eyed prophet in the Texas epic, telling anyone who will listen that regimes rise and fall, empires come and go, and they can blow away from one day to the next like dry leaves from a pecan tree. Nueva España. La República de Mexico. The Republic of Texas. The United States of America. Each of these transitions was another occasion for bloody conflict.
It’s a litany of unlikely and violent reinventions, yet this is the saga of San Antonio de Béjar. Still, what is it a story about?
In that query may lie the still germinal promise of San Antonio’s tricentennial, regardless of what comes of the official observances. Across the communities of San Antonio, the anniversary has occasioned a serendipitous coalition of museums, art galleries, performance spaces, and journalists—each with their own testimonio regarding San Antonio’s origins, history, and unfolding destiny. These emerging acts of witness reveal how everyone carries their own story of their connection to the saga of San Antonio, and what these stories may yet mean for the future of the city, Texas, and America alike.
At its deepest, San Antonio’s story is a mythic tale about indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, Texan, and American becoming.
Betty Bueché, director of the Bexar Heritage & Parks Department, put it this way: “It doesn’t matter when you got here. If your ancestors came 10,000 years ago, 287 years ago, when the Canary Islanders [creators of the first civil government in 1731] arrived, or ten years ago, everybody is a part of this story.”
At its deepest, San Antonio’s story is a mythic tale about indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, Texan, and American becoming. Over three centuries, it has come to involve people of all nations—a ciudad cósmica, or cosmic city. It’s a story that is unashamed of its astounding metamorphoses, daring the world to demur from our changes through the three centuries.
How is this deeper story being told in this tricentennial year? Here are a few ways people around the city are answering that question, with destinations that might merit a road trip.
“San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico”
The San Antonio Museum of Art
The exhibition greets visitors with a prophetic and corrective epigraph from a letter Walt Whitman wrote in 1883 in observance of the 333rd anniversary of Santa Fe’s founding, referred to as “The Spanish Element in Our Nationality.”
“We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents,” Whitman wrote. “We tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashioned from the British Islands only . . . which is a very great mistake.”
Organized around the themes of “People and Places,” “The Cycle of Life,” and “The Church,” the SAMA exhibition is a trove of paintings, sculptures, religious implements, and personal effects that illuminate myriad aspects of San Antonio’s genesis in the viceregal world of New Spain. It was imagined and curated by Marion Oettinger Jr., the longtime SAMA curator of Latin American art and internationally noted expert in the art of Viceregal New Spain. “It’s not about art history,” Oettinger told me. “It’s about the history of San Antonio, told through art.”
The show reveals how, from its inception, the city’s birth was inflected with a mystical, evangelical fervor. There is a grand portrait of Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, a legendary Spanish nun of the seventeenth century who never visited the New World, much less San Antonio—at least not in her body. Instead, she claimed to have “astrally” projected her spirit through a series of 500 metaphysical bilocations, appearing to the Chichimeca natives of northern New Spain, in Tejas and New Mexico, as an apparition of a blue lady, “preparing” them for their eventual evangelization. The Spaniards believed that the all the “savages” of the mundo nuevo had to be converted before Christ would return. Her connection to San Antonio was through the work and missionary efforts of one of her devotees, the Franciscan Fray Antonio Margíl de Jesús, also represented in the exhibition, who journeyed here in 1720 to found Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo in partial fulfillment of Sor María’s prophecies towards building the City of God.
There is also a collection of fifteen exquisitely rendered castas paintings by José de Páez from 1780, the genre which depicted the unique race “science” that emerged from the delirious mestizaje, or mixing of peoples of many nations, in colonial Mexico. If this phenomenon could not be controlled, the Sistema de Castas sought to classify the mixed offspring in a hierarchical taxonomy, with Spaniards at the crown of social rankings. The paintings routinely show a nuclear family, father of one ethno-racial extraction, mother of another, and the resulting child of union. While the paradigmatic union was Español y India produce Mestizo, (Spanish and Indian produce Mestizo), there were as many as 95 permutations of racial and ethnic mixtures represented in the “caste system” of New Spain, many of which appear as descriptions in the earliest censuses of San Antonio de Béxar, part of what historian Gary Nash has called “the hidden history of mestizo America.”
What is the message this show imparts to San Antonio’s tricentennial commemoration? “Our ties with Mexico go very, very deep and far, and we wanted to show there was life before the ‘A’ word [Alamo],” he said, laughing.
Referring to the castas paintings, he sees the show as an emblem representing San Antonio’s place in the emergence of la raza cósmica (the cosmic race) in Texas, using the phrase coined by Piedras Negras–born Mexican philosopher and politician José Vasconcelos to describe Mexican mestizos as a race of all races. “We will never have a relationship in this country’s future that’s more important than Mexico. We’re joined at the hip, and we’ve got to figure out a way to honor that!”
“Confluence and Culture, 300 Years of San Antonio History”
The Witte Museum
This exhibition seeks to comprehensively span the centuries of the city’s story, but it begins with an immersive, synesthetic evocation of the city’s cosmic identity as a crossroads of all nations. Visitors enter a darkened, cave-like gallery space partitioned by a series of stone arches in the style of San Antonio’s missions. Video projections of photos drawn from the city’s history move kaleidoscopically up, down, and across the walls—landscapes, buildings, historic plazas, mission scenes, faces, and skyline views through the years.
The work, titled Cacophony, is by artist and composer George Cisneros, and the transfixing visual panorama is complemented by a 40-minute loop of sound art, a 48-channel track playing through 16 speakers that overlays natural sounds of water flowing with industrial machine sounds, a typewriter clicking, helicopter rotors whirring, and words of welcome spoken in myriad languages. You hear Coahuilteca, Gregorian, and Buddhist chants with the Muslim call to prayer, the blowing of the shofar, gospel organ, and song. “It is Cacophony,” Cisneros told me, “but I also call it ‘(My) Faith in San Antonio,’ with the ‘my’ in parentheses.”
Through six galleries, the show’s historical narratives draw on recent developments in the historiography of San Antonio and south Texas by such historians as Gerald Poyo, Jesus F. de la Teja, Amy Porter, Antonia Castañeda, and the show’s historical consultant, Andrés Tijerina. “It used to be that historians were teaching that the history of Texas starts out on the British Isles,” Tijerina said. “But now they’re teaching that the history of Texas starts on the Iberian Peninsula.”
After Cacophony, the Witte show proceeds through galleries beginning with life in la Frontera, then the Missions, the development of the unique Tejano town and identity, the legacy of San Antonio’s many battles and military enterprises, and then ending with industrialization and the emergence of the modern city.
When I asked Tijerina about the single most important object in the show, he became animated talking about an extraordinary artifact: the sunburned leather-bound journal of baptisms from 1718 of Fray Antonio de Olivares, the founder of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, or Alamo. “This is the man who built the Alamo. He made San Antonio! He argued, he fought with the Viceroy and the generals, and brought Spain. He founded this place,” Tijerina explained emphatically. “It’s called the book of baptisms, in his handwriting, and he names every person. And let me tell you something: Those are Indians, there’s Spaniards, there’s Mexicans. But you want the birth of the people of San Antonio? They were the Native Americans, and he’s got who was born and what date!”
Tijerina sees this artifact as a record of the city’s conception and birth, a text that records the meeting of the indigenous and Spanish worlds, a complex union forever imprinted on the city’s future.
“This is not a book of the baptism of an Indian,” Tijerina insists. “It’s the book of the baptism of San Antonio. This is your birth certificate! Cities don’t have a birth certificate. San Antonio’s got one, by God. It’s signed, original.”
The “Confluence and Culture” exhibition also presents a chronicle of the human toll in the battles for all of our becoming: the bloody battle of Medina (1813), Concepción (1835), the Siege of Béjar (1835), the Alamo (1836), the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam. Complemented by an account of the creation of the U.S. Army’s Fort Sam Houston and Kelly, Lackland, and Randolph Air Force Bases (which helped create a Mexican American middle class), it’s a telling of how we became known as Military City, USA. It’s a part of the San Antonio story that takes on a mythic meaning, a recollection of the Homeric struggles through which our antecedents fought to achieve broadening forms of civil government that might yet seek protections for all, perhaps against all odds, shirking the histories of discord and exclusion.
The “Confluence and Culture” exhibit bookends these narratives with an homage to the birth of San Antonio as a modern American city. This gallery includes the lectern that JFK used during his visit to San Antonio on November 21, 1963, when he inaugurated an aeronautics research center at Brooks Air Force Base. A poignant video shows the speech he gave that day, passionately arguing how space science would transform the fields of technology, atmospheric science, and human biology and medicine. The next day he was assassinated in Dallas.
This is the ultimate crowd-sourced testimonio to San Antonio’s tricentennial. Initiated by Southwest School of Art, it’s an ongoing collaborative project with five other local arts organizations. Each institution designated two artists, who each chose two other artists, who each reached out to two others, and so on. Now it’s a dendritic coalition of 300 artists, each of whom was given a year of San Antonio’s history to evoke, respond to, imagine anew, or otherwise commemorate. “300 artists for the 300 years” was the project slogan. The sizzling exhibitions, including works in every genre, continue through early May.
Joe Harjo’s contribution to the project is titled Muskoke Indian standing and breathing at Yanaguana (ancient indigenous name for San Antonio) in the exact spot other Indians stood and breathed in 1749 and for thousands of years before. A monoprint of the artist’s footprints, in red paint on white paper, punto.
Terry Ibañez’s work, a remembrance of 1888, pays homage to the legacy of the eighteenth-century tale of Pedro Huizar, stone carver of Mission San José’s legendary sacristy Rose Window. The multimedia piece depicts interlocking hands surrounding the elaborately carved window, overlaid upon faded cartographic images of the Huizar Spanish land grants in the Mission environs. Huizar’s legacy is a classic San Antonio story of transformation. He was recorded in his earliest census entry as a Moro, denoting an African-Mexican person in the Sistema de castas, and he appeared in a later census as a Mulato, of mixed origins, suggesting his social station had risen. And then, once he’d become an accomplished citizen of San Antonio, he is recorded in a final census as an Español, an exemplar of the fungibility of identity and prestige early in San Antonio’s history. Huizar’s story also illuminates an often-heard critique of current tricentennial initiatives that ignore African American legacies in San Antonio. And yet his story is also testimony to San Antonio’s heritage of protean changes, as if to say that all can find their sanctuary here and, through struggle, make their own way.
Bexar County’s San Pedro Creek Culture Park Project
This $125 million project may prove to be the signature achievement of San Antonio’s tricentennial commemoration, set for inauguration in early May. The Culture Park will last long beyond the tricentennial year; in fact, it’s meant for perpetuity.
It grew out of the county government’s involvement with the Museum and Mission Reach extensions of the San Antonio River, which garnered great community response for their incorporation of public art and site-specific cultural narrative. In a recent conversation, County Judge Nelson Wolff, head of Bexar County’s Commissioner’s Court, told me that the San Pedro Creek Project was conceived of and designed by the San Antonio–based architectural firm Muñoz & Co., noted for their practice of a unique style of “mestizo regionalism” and “Latino Urbanism.” Early designs for the project included a multicolored, vaulting bridge structure recalling the ancient jácales of indigenous peoples and lighting fixtures draped with illuminated teardrops. The company got a lot of pushback from the community. “Too much color, too glitzy,” Wolff explained. But to his credit, it evolved into Let’s tell the story of San Antonio on the creek.
Where the River Walk experience has morphed into touristic simulacra of things Mexican and Texan, San Pedro Creek Culture Park is intended to be an immersive encounter with the city’s millennial legacy. The creek’s route through San Antonio’s historic downtown traces a path deep into the city’s origins. Large illuminated panels of punched metal cladding on the hydrological plant at the trailhead depict the stars in the sky in May of 1718. Along the creekside path, historical texts tell of the first human settlement going back thousands of years, of the Spanish founding of Mission San Antonio de Valero, of the first land grants, of the first industry, of the community of Italians, of the first African Methodist Episcopal church, of the legendary Alameda Theater.
While the first stretch is currently under construction, already installed is a sprawling, brilliantly colored tile mural on one of the park’s walls created by San Antonio artist Adriana Garcia. The mythic tale she unfolds there invokes the “place of herons,” the legendary homeland of the Mexica people who would build Tenochtitlán in the valley of Mexico. The Coahuiltecas are there, hunting, planting, and harvesting, as are the Spanish settlers who would come long after. Other immigrant arrivals appear in the sprawling scene. And at the center of the panorama, Garcia has depicted her own mother’s family, seated on the banks of the abundant waters that have nurtured generations. Nearby is one of the wall inscriptions that reveals the title for the mural: De Todos Caminos, Somos Todos Uno. From all roads, we are all one.
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