Texas History

San Antonio Is the Mother of Texas

The city that gave birth to the republic continues to nourish the traits that distinguish the state’s character.

Virgin de Guadalupe
Flowers in bloom at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Photograph by Tamir Kalifa

If Texas were a family—and to many of us, it is—then the father would be Dallas, a good ol’ boy in a Rolls-Royce, as high-flying in business as the city’s glistening skyscrapers. The son would be Houston, ambitious, hot-tempered, a young oilman just old enough to have experienced his first boom, followed by the inevitable bust. The daughter would be Austin, a daring woman, perhaps a musician or a comic book illustrator, certainly a vegan. El Paso would be a cousin once removed, a professor who writes about regional literature in the Southwest. Galveston, with its robust history of gambling, dance halls, and all manner of vice (in 1929, the island was home to some 800 prostitutes), would be the father’s other woman.

Then there’s San Antonio, the mother of Texas. Though the city is most often associated with the battle at the Alamo, it was the river that first drew Native Americans to the area in the 1500s, and it is the river that continues to nurture its culture and commerce. Now the seventh-largest metropolis in the U.S., with a population that is 64 percent Latino, San Antonio lives in the hyphen between Mexican and American, an in-between place where it is possible to observe multiple migrations of Europeans, Latinos, Asians, and natives of this land. It is a place of nourishment, a meeting ground of ancient civilizations. It also has served as a mother to me.

I was not born in San Antonio but in deep East Texas, where pine trees stand shoulder to shoulder like soldiers, obstructing the horizon. I arrived in San Antonio as a newly minted college graduate in 1973, and my first impression was astonishment at how much light fell over the city and how spacious everything seemed compared with the confinement of the small towns of my youth. The smell of Mexican food—tacos, chalupas, enchiladas, tamales, queso—was intoxicating. On the streets, people talked in three languages: English, Spanish, and Spanglish. It all felt deliciously foreign.

I landed a job at the daily San Antonio Light and was one of just a few women in the sprawling newsroom. A copy editor there, a grizzled man who wore a visor to shield his tired eyes and kept a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream in his drawer, advised me that the newsroom was no place for “gals” and that if I wanted to thrive, I should mosey on over to the style section, where the “little ladies” would put me to use. Shortly after I arrived at the paper, the city editor assigned me to “pooper scooper” duty for the Battle of Flowers Parade during Fiesta, the annual festival held in April. As I recall, my task was to march behind the horses (and there were legions of them), shovel their leavings into a trash can that I wheeled alongside me, and write a story about it. In preparation, I researched the origins of the parade and was delighted with what I found: In 1891, a group of civic-minded women rode in carriages in front of the Alamo to honor the heroes of the battle. Rather than reenact the fight, they pelted one another with the petals of spring flowers. This struck me as brilliant, and it was one of the first lessons I learned in how to withstand the various strains of Texas machismo: to overcome obstacles, get creative and never lose your sense of humor.

Market Square
Market Square from above. Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
Market Square
An accordion player warms up in Market Square. Photograph by Drew Anthony Smith

Thus, scooper in hand, I went forth that Friday afternoon to take my place along the nearly three-mile parade route. The sun was high, and at first the smell emanating from the horses’ backsides put a painful hitch in my get-along, but a mile in I finally began to look around. Thousands lined the street, most of them Mexican Americans, but there were many others who also represented a convergence of cultures: German, English, French, and Irish; descendants of bankers, oilmen, and cattlemen; and visitors from across the world. I still remember the giant helium balloons that filled the skies and the percussive sounds played by high school bands. Ladies dressed in elaborate velvet gowns glittering with rhinestones lifted their skirts to show off their cowboy boots when the crowd shouted, “Show us your shoes!” I bought my first raspa (a variation of a snow cone) from a street vendor, shook hands with politicians wearing white suits, and near the end of the parade line, purchased a flowing, richly decorated dress at a Mexican boutique. That day I knew I had found my place in the world, a city that fired my imagination.

From the start, I felt that the city was feminine, probably because wherever I went I saw the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I would see it on nichos (display boxes used as altars to loved ones and important figures) and outdoor shrines all over town, in the gardens of the poorest people on the West Side and the richest on the far North Side. Her image was painted on automobiles and T-shirts, in cafes and art galleries. Cities are built on more than mud and money—stories, too, form foundations—and few stories in San Antonio are as powerful as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

From the start, I felt that the city was feminine, probably because wherever I went I saw the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

According to legend, in 1531 an Indian named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hill north of central Mexico City. When he approached, she spoke to him in Nahuatl, the language of the conquered Indians who were then living under Spanish rule; she told Diego to build a temple in her honor atop the hill where they stood. Diego then went to the archbishop to do as the Virgin told, but twice he was turned away. The Virgin then directed Diego to a spot in the desert where a patch of roses grew. She arranged the roses in his cloak and sent him back to the bishop. When Diego unfolded his cloak for the bishop to see, the roses spilled to the floor and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared. Word spread.

The image became a symbol of hope and pride not just in Mexico but in San Antonio, where the apparition is part of the city’s ongoing cosmology. I remember an evening in 1985 when I went to a quinceañera at St. Joseph Catholic Church, downtown, not far from Alamo Plaza. The young girl, about to be initiated into womanhood, arrived at the church wearing a T-shirt with Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image on the front—and the famous singer Madonna’s on the back. She had a foot planted in both worlds, that of her ancestors and her contemporaries, a sign that the city remains a place where disparate civilizations exist side by side. Generation after generation, these celebrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe have continued in small courtyards, in churches, at the home altars of humble people, in cemeteries. It is a symbol of protection, nurture, and new life.

The River Walk near Commerce Street. Photograph by Drew Anthony Smith
Mariachi mass
Mariachi Mass at Mission Concepción. Photograph by Tamir Kalifa

Unlike other major cities in Texas, San Antonio embodies, rather than alters, its past. In the twenties, when a building boom was under way, a group of women formed the San Antonio Conservation Society to protect the area’s historic sites. Decades later, in the early seventies, the Texas Department of Transportation built a highway on a stretch of green space near downtown. Wanda Ford, a former president of the conservation society, attempted to halt the freeway. She was featured in Life magazine holding a bouquet of flowers near the construction site, and in the article she promised to “lie down in front of the bulldozer” to stop the highway’s progress. Though she ultimately lost that battle, she pressed on, routinely protesting developers who wanted to tear down old buildings. She and I later became friends. She lived with her husband, the world-famous architect O’Neil Ford, south of town on the banks of the San Antonio River, where she raised peacocks. 

We imagine that the stories our predecessors told one another must have revolved around the bounty of the water.

There have been other San Antonio women through the years who, like Ford, inspired me. For instance, in 1975 I was covering city hall for the Light when Lila Cockrell, a former president of the League of Women Voters, became the first woman elected mayor of San Antonio. Soon after she started the job, I followed Cockrell into the women’s restroom for an interview. It was, after all, my first chance to interview a politician in a bathroom. Later, at a press conference, Mayor Cockrell told the rest of the press corps, all men, that because of my gender, I would have a slight advantage when it came to access. I wondered then how many times Cockrell had endured a stream of put-downs, hustlers, and egotistical businessmen, and yet she’d still managed to become mayor. She gave me strength.

A lot of things have changed since I arrived in San Antonio 45 years ago. As a young woman, I used to join the conga line of hundreds of people moving along the five-mile path of the River Walk, dancing up to Alamo Plaza, where magicians performed coin tricks and raspa vendors thrived. Later, I married and became a mother to two children, who grew up, as do all children in San Antonio, nurtured by the flow of the river. We still go to the river to see the lights during the Christmas season, to see the flowers in spring, to have picnics and dinners on birthdays and anniversaries. And now that the River Walk has been extended to fifteen miles, thanks to public investments, we stroll or bike alongside it on a quiet, wooded trail that runs from the city’s north to the south.

When we are near the river, we are reminded of San Antonio’s history, and we imagine that the stories our predecessors told one another must have revolved around the bounty of the water, because that is what gave them life. It is what sustains us still.

The river. It rises and falls in seasons, sustaining everything good for growing and for creating, over and over again, generation after generation.

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