History

Fiesta is the biggest party of the year in San Antonio and I’m afraid that I haven’t fiesta-ed nearly as much as I should have as a travel blogger.

I guess we probably should go back to the beginning. Well maybe not all the way to the beginning, because that’s when groups like the Apache, the Comanche, the Caddo, and the Coahuiltecans were the only humans in this area of North America, and that’s beyond the scope of this post (I may share some of that part of the history of the area when I write about the various mission).  In the 17th Century, the government of Spain decided to expand New Spain, which was located in what are now Florida and Mexico, into the mainland of what is now the United States.

In 1810, Mexico (which included most of the southwest of the United States, which included parts of Colorado and Wyoming) began an 11-year process of gaining independence from Spain.

Well, once Mexico had its independence, Texas apparently decided that this was a pretty good idea, and so they fought a roughly six-month war against Mexico from October of 1835 until April of 1836 (you see that April there? we’ll be coming back to it in a minute).

The first major battle was fought in San Antonio on October 28, 1835. This was the Battle of Concepcion, so called because it was fought on the grounds of Mission Concepcion. The Mexican soldiers took comparatively heavy losses and retreated, making this a win for the Texians (yes, that “i” is intentional — it was the demonym for Texas back then).

Things wouldn’t go so smoothly on March 6, 1836. This was the date of the Battle of the Alamo, in which somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 Texians  were killed and Mexico was declared the winner. Most of the bodies of the slain Texians were cremated on pyres near the site of the battle. The exact sites have been lost to history, but I have heard that the place where the San Antonio Fire Museum is currently located may have been one, and others may have been along Commerce Street.

Then, on April 21, 1836, the two armies faced off for the final battle of the war near present-day LaPorte. Ultimately, the battle, known as Battle of San Jacinto for reasons that I can’t quite get confirmation of, took 18 minutes. The Mexicans retreated and the Texians reportedly chased them down, killing as many Mexicans as they could. Nobody ever said that the Texians were good winners.

In the late 19th Century, the city of San Antonio decided to mark the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto with, well, a party. Originally called Fiesta San Jacinto, the centerpiece of Fiesta was the Battle of the Flowers, which was sort of like the Tournament of Roses Parade, if people would rip the flowers off of the floats and throw them at each other. Look, I’ve lived in Texas for 24 years, as of next month, and sometimes I suspect that I’m no closer to being able to explain Texans now than I was back in 1993.

Fiesta San Antonio decorations, 2014

Plastic papel picado decorations on the River Walk, Fiesta 2014

The name was changed to Fiesta San Antonio in 1960 and Fiesta is now ten days long, beginning the Friday before April 21 and ending not that next Sunday, but the Sunday after that, so an entire week and two weekends. The day of Battle of the Flowers Parade is a day off for many, including all teachers, staff, and students of the schools of San Antonio.

In my 24 years here, I’ve never gone whole-hog for Fiesta. I’ve been to Fiesta events at the Botanical Gardens and I think maybe the zoo once. My mother and I went to Fiesta San Fernando, which is music, dancing, and food in Main Plaza one year, I even attended the Battle of the Flowers Parade in 2014 (it was a parade; except for the Fiesta princesses on some of the floats, it didn’t look much different from the Fourth of July parade in my Chicago suburb home town), but not much else.

I began writing this post on April 28, which was Battle of the Flowers Day, but it took several hours to compose and so now it’s Saturday. Later today, if I can get the energy up to do so, I hope to rectify some of my Fiesta non-participation. I hope to make it to Market Square for their Fiesta event and if I can hack the hour walk there and back, I might check out the King William Fair, as well.

But, before I can even consider doing any Fiesta-ing, I’d better get some sleep.

This post is to give you some background on my next couple of downtown San Antonio destinations.  All of these, the Institute of Texan Cultures, the Tower of the Americas, and HemisFair Park, are left over from the 1968 World’s Fair, which had the title “HemisFair ’68.”  Under a principle known as “eminent domain,” the city seized the houses in and razed a residential neighborhood on the southwest side of downtown for the fair, which was a shame.  Over a hundred buildings in the neighborhood were named as historic by the San Antonio Conservation Society, but ultimately only around 20 were saved.  Those 20 houses are in the park today.

The theme of HemisFair ’68 was “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” and San Antonio chose to host the fair that year to honor the 250th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio. If a centennial is 100 years, a sesquicentennial is 150 years, a bicentennial is 200 years, is there a term for 250 years?  Let’s check Google.  Apparently 1968 was chosen in honor of the sestercentennial of the founding of San Antonio.  Or possibly the quarter-millenial, since 250 is one-fourth of 1,000.

Looking at the buildings that still stand today, it seems that HemisFair ’68 must have had an odd layout.  If you walk around HemisFair Park today, you’ll see that some of the buildings seem (to my mind) to point off in odd directions.  The park tends mostly west-to-east, or northwest to southeast, (starting at Alamo Street) but two of the pavilions, the Women’s Pavilion and the Eastman Kodak Pavilion, are off near the southern edge, with what sure looks to me like the entrances pointing southeast, away from the center of the fair.  The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México  (“UNAM”) is tucked up in a strange place alongside the Henry B. González Convention Center with a door that faces, again, away from the center of the fairgrounds. The building that UNAM is in might not be original to the fairgrounds, though.  There’s something labeled “Amusement Area” in that spot on the map But it still seems kind of out of the way in its current location.  I wish I could find some kind of diagram of the flow of traffic or something that would indicate why these locations seemed to make some kind of sense.

Speaking of things that didn’t make much sense, there’s Beethoven Hall.  Today Beethoven Hall is home to the Magik Theatre, but originally it was the concert hall for the Beethoven Männerchor (Men’s Chorus). The planners for the fair decided that Alamo Street needed to be widened for the fair, and for some reason they decided that the best way to do this was to lop the front off of the building, then they just bricked up the hole in a way that looks very 1960s.   They could have widened the other side of the street, but the resulting street would have been curved, which the planners apparently felt would not give a good impression of the city to visitors (and north of Beethoven Hall the street curves anyhow, so I don’t know why they objected to having a curved street south of the hall).

Some of the hotels that were built for the fair are still there today. Of particular note is the Hilton Palacio del Rio hotel, which, for years, held a record for construction of 202 days. The rooms were built off-site and then lifted into place with a crane.  One of the hotels which is no longer there was the first La Quinta Inn.  If I recall, the original La Quinta is now underneath River Center Mall.

Ultimately, the fair did make a good impression on visitors, which cemented San Antonio’s reputation as a tourist destination.

This weekend Wurstfest starts in New Braunfels, Texas.  If it doesn’t rain, we’re planning to go.  This reminds me that I haven’t given you much of the history of San Antonio. Trust me, the Wurstfest/San Antonio connection will become apparent.  At least, that’s the plan.

Prior to 1718, the only residents of what is now San Antonio were nomadic bands of Native Americans, primarily the Payaya.  I live uphill of a creek and was told that Native Americans used to camp on my land. Sure enough, I found, not an arrowhead, but a genuine, for-real stone age tool in my back yard.

On June 13, 1691, a group of Spaniards traveling through Texas discovered a river.  They named the river for the saint whose feast day it was, Saint Anthony of Padua.  These Spaniards left and others arrived later, on April 13, 1709.  They arrived somewhere near where San Pedro Springs Park is today and promptly named the springs for a saint whose day it wasn’t.  Surprises the heck out of me.  Among the choices of April 13 saints, for those playing at home, were San Martín, San Carádoco and San Urso de Rávena. Maybe the friars just didn’t like any of those choices.

As an aside, my ex and I used to watch Sliders and in one episode they arrived in a world that was virtually indistinguishable from their home world and they settled back in and lived for a while and Quinn kept noticing tiny differences.  They were finally convinced when, after some time (I seem to recall it had been months) they saw that the Golden Gate Bridge was blue.  My ex and I were incredulous because the Alamo is ubiquitous around here.  There’s just no way you could live here for months or whatever without ever seeing a picture of the Alamo.  If the parapet were a different shape, it’d be pretty obvious to a careful observer within days, if not hours, and the Alamo is not nearly as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Anyway, that was just in aid of saying that there may well be parallel worlds where San Pedro Creek, San Pedro Springs Park, and the major road known as San Pedro Avenue are all “San Martín” or something.

These Spaniards were apparently just passing through as well, because the next contact the natives had with Spaniards was May 1, 1718, when the friars established a new mission, San Antonio de Valero, near the San Pedro springs.  They apparently chose the original Spanish name rather than sticking another saint, in this case, likely San Jose Obrador or San Orencio or something, on the area (just wait, there’ll be another new saint eventually).

This mission, which would eventually become the Alamo, moved around a bit before finally settling not too far from the San Antonio River in what is now downtown San Antonio.

Two years after the founding of the Alamo, the Franciscans founded another mission in San Antonio.  This was Mission de San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo.

In 1731, San Antonio experienced something of a population boom.  First, three more missions moved to the area from East Texas.

One was Mission San Francisco de la Espada (for those who speak Spanish, yes, it does mean “St. Francis of the Sword,” and no, we don’t know why it ended up with that name). San Francisco de la Espada, known locally as “Mission Espada,” was actually the first Spanish mission in Texas, founded in 1689. Another was Mission San Juan Capistrano (not the one in California), which was founded in 1716 as San Jose de los Nazonis. The third was Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, which is a mouthful, and is generally known locally as “Mission Concepción.”  Mission Concepción, which is my personal favorite, was founded in East Texas in 1716.

Then, the King of Spain sent 400 colonists from the Canary Islands to San Antonio they had set out in 1730 and finally arrived in 1731.

All of this settling of the area was in aid of one thing:  outdoing France.  France had a foothold in what is now the United States, and Spain and France had something of a rivalry going. Spain didn’t want to be outdone, so they decided that the fastest way to win was to cheat, by turning the natives into Spaniards.  One drawback to this plan was that by law all Spaniards had to be Roman Catholic.  So, rather than sending Conquistadores and all of that, they sent Franciscan friars to build missions and convert the natives.

People still ended up dead, tragically.  Germ theory was still years away at this point.  People believed that disease was caused by something called a “miasma,” so it was something of a surprise when all of their new converts started getting sick and most of them ended up dying.

The Canary Islanders formed the settlement of San Fernando de Bexar, and their parish church is now San Fernando Cathedral.  As San Fernando de Bexar, grew, and merged with the settlement called San Antonio, it attracted settlers from elsewhere.  The earliest were Anglos from the United States, who moved in once Mexico was independent from Spain in 1820.  German settlers followed in the 1840s.  The Germans were led by Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, who founded a settlement in New Braunfels, to the northwest of San Antonio (this is where the connection to Wurstfest comes in).  At about the same time, a group of French immigrants came in with Henri Castro and founded a town called Castroville to the west of San Antonio.

Then there are the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, a Roman Catholic religious order, also French, which have had a major impact on San Antonio, despite not being part of the breeding population. The first three sisters of the order to arrive in San Antonio arrived in 1869, where they proceeded to set up the first hospital in the growing city, which was located on the site where the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio (formerly known as Santa Rosa Hospital, and which was named for St. Rose of Lima, the first Catholic saint from North America) stands today.  The sisters also founded a school, which is now the University of the Incarnate Word.

Other city institutions with French roots include the Ursuline Academy (now the Southwest School of Art and Craft) and San Antonio’s basilica, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, which started out as a Spanish church in the early 1920s, but which is dedicated to the French saint, Thérèse of Lisieux.

Over the next months/years I will probably go into all of these places (I just noticed that most of them are churches) in future posts, but I just thought I’d put a little bit out there on how San Antonio, a traditionally Mexican-American city, came to have so many people of different ethnicities whose families have lived here for centuries.