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The Alamo Just Became a World Heritage Site, But What Does That Mean?

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Texas made international news Sunday, and this time it wasn’t for racial controversies or our love of guns. Instead, it was for an awesome reason: the Alamo and four surrounding missions were officially named U.S. World Heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. It was, as USA Today noted, “the first time that a Texas site has been deemed of ‘outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity’” by UNESCO. 

Based on local reports, however, it seemed like the designation was no big deal (in our defense, we’ve known since forever that all of Texas is of outstanding cultural import). A few politicians praised the news, and the San Antonio Express-News had this captivating analysis

What it means: Tourists from around the world are more likely to find out about the missions and visit San Antonio.

Despite the shoulder shrugs, the designation seems like a huge achievement. After all, the Alamo now joins wonders of the world such as the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame, and Stonehenge. And when it comes to such sites, the U.S. is lagging. 

Passage of time is partly to blame for the lack of U.S. World Heritage sites, which include both man-made and natural wonders. Although the U.S. is full of purple mountains and fruited plains, widespread civilization in the Americas hasn’t had nearly the lifespan of, say, everywhere else. So our list includes plenty of national parks, but after that? A couple pre-modern humps (“Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point”), Independence Hall, and the Statue of Liberty (thanks for that one, France!).

So the Alamo & Co.’s inclusion is a pretty powerful nod to the significance of a structure in our own backyard. As the application for the Alamo to be named a World Heritage Site notes: 

The ensemble of five eighteenth-century San Antonio Mission complexes, with more than fifty standing masonry structures, archaeological resources, and landscape features, is the most complete extant example . . . of the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize, and defend its colonial empire, the world’s largest at that time.

(Sure, this is a celebration of often brutal repression, but hey, a lot of incredible human achievement in history was done through human suffering!) 

The application—it’s available online and amounts to more than 300 pages, including an appendix—took about nine years to wind its way through the proper channels, so I’d called up Jerry Patterson, the former Commissioner of the General Land Office of Texas, the office that owns the Alamo, to find out more about the effort. “It’s got a lot of [information] in there that’s silly, hard-to-answer stuff,” he said. 

There’s an extensive history—pre-modern through the Spanish colonization and beyond—and fun, bar trivia factoids such as the “1573 Laws of the Indies [that dictated] missions be a distance of at least one day’s ride apart.” Also mentioned are the less-discussed features like the acequias and an extensive comparison to similar missions in the Americas. (The whole document is definitely worth a read for Texas history buffs.)

But the state of Texas didn’t have a lot to do with the protracted application process. Credit goes almost entirely to the National Parks Service, which did most of the work for this group project. The research to compile the document is one thing, but it’s equally impressive considering that we’re talking about the UN, whose quintessential inefficiency provided a lot of red tape. 

“I mean, it’s a bureaucracy,” Patterson said, providing some context for the nine-year effort. “It’s just a lengthy bureaucratic process.” 

Other groups working on the project included “the city of San Antonio; Mission National Historic Par; the General Land Office; the San Antonio Conservation Society; Los Compadrios [a fund-raising arm]; the San Antonio River Authority; National Parks Conservation association; [and] archdiocese of San Antonio,” said Sara Gruber, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

But there’s one group that is conspicuously absent from that list: the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. That’s understandable, though, considering they lost control of the Alamo in April after years of scandal and controversy. But the application, which still lists DRT as managers of the Alamo, was clearly already turned in.

So what does the Alamo & Co. get out of all this? Well, as of yet, not even a nice plaque. 

“As far we understand it, they get listed on the [World Heritage] website,” said Brittany Eck of the General Land Office. 

Oh, well. As I noted, Texans have always known the Alamo is amazing, and a World Heritage designation is sort of meaningless, “partially because we already have our own recognition with the NPS, which has its own sites,” explained Linda Bennett of the NPS, who admitted even she wasn’t familiar with World Heritage sites initially. In other countries, Bennett said, “it’s a very unique recognition” and “most countries are really proud of it.”

According to Bennett, World Heritage sites are often part of an international traveler’s “bucket list,” and financially speaking, that’s what advocates of the designation are banking on. USA Today reported that the World Heritage sites could inject $105 million into Bexar County by 2025, including adding 1,100 jobs and $2.2 million in hotel tax revenue. 

But here’s an ominous concern—is this the start of a UN takeover? Fans of InfoWars have been aware of this looming New World Order threat for some time. Notably, state senator Donna Campbell proposed legislation that “would ban any foreign entity from owning, controlling, or managing the Alamo complex.” As the Texas Tribune noted in January, “Campbell’s Protect the Alamo Act was a response to the looming UNESCO recognition.” 

I felt obliged to ask officials about the possibility of such a conspiracy. Eck at the General Land Office could confirm that the UN would not be flying a blue flag over the Alamo. This was seconded by Patterson. “Boy, they were about to,” he said. “But I got to them first. They did not outsmart Jerry Patterson.” 

Unfortunately, several calls made to Donna Campbell’s office were not returned, so there’s no telling if her concerns of a UN takeover have become a fully realized nightmare. But while we’re all waiting to become citizens of a one-world government, it’s nice that Texas now has even more bragging rights, both here and abroad. 

Follow Jeff Winkler on Twitter.

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  • Kaber Vincent

    Try to find the Alamo on the UNESCO web site. You won’t because they don’t refer to it by that name. Instead of remembering the Alamo, UNESCO is remembering the Mission Valero. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1466/gallery/