This blog on Texas education contains posts on accountability, testing, postsecondary educational attainment, dropouts, bilingual education, immigration, school finance, environmental issues, and Ethnic Studies at state and national levels. I am also covering COVID in my attempt to get the right information into the right hands.
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.”
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 300website is full of cultural and historical narratives, video, and links to diverse archival resources, whereas the San Antonio 300site 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 testimonioregarding 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.
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.