I was pleased to return this week to San Antonio, Texas, the city built upon a place once called Yanaguana. I went there to talk about the missions, and my arrival brought me back to places I left long ago but have never really left me. My talk at Trinity University was an occasion for catching up with old acquaintances and meeting new people keenly interested in the Spanish colonial missions.
Spatial Knowledges in San Antonio
Preparing for this talk reminded me how attention to spatial knowledges and the relationships they engender has always been part of my curiosity about cultures, religions, and people. Revisiting my earlier work on the San Antonio missions in my first book Blessed with Tourists has me thinking again about the “simultaneity of places”: people who occupy or visit a particular location produce different places according to their experiences and engagements of the space. Places are never singular.
Returning to the places of San Antonio recalled for me my own spatial knowledges of the city along the river. This time I stayed for the most part on the Trinity University campus with panoramic views of the downtown city. During my last visit I had stayed in the ungentrified neighborhoods of southeast San Antonio, working class, mixed race, mixed ethnicity, closer to a realistic picture of America. Not much attraction there for tourists, or even for locals from other parts of town. I felt more at ease there than I do in the gentrified San Antonio neighborhoods that visitors and transplants alike find so appealing.
But for me the most familiar places in San Antonio are the missions. Here the gentry, the tourists, and the rest of us all bump into each other. Those who haunt the halls of power in the city take great pride in these exquisite colonial buildings; political and financial support from these leading citizens maintain the missions as beautiful sites that so many people love. Meanwhile, the parish communities that occupy these churches inside the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park have always been communities of lesser means, the church homes of working class, mostly Hispanic, Catholics. Attention from visitors and others who love the missions has not made these parishes wealthy; in fact, keeping up old buildings loved by tourists puts an additional financial burden on these struggling parish communities.
A new story for the missions
The San Antonio missions balance on the unsteady foundations of a complicated history. Much of their past has been troubling, especially in the years of colonial occupation. But they have emerged as bold symbols of community, heritage, and possibility. As I thought about what I wanted to say to a San Antonio audience, I realized that although most everyone thinks about history when they enter the mission grounds, these sites are also places of the future. What visitors and residents gain from these missions, how they hear the mission story, the delight they take in the dignity and beauty of these buildings, can affect how they perceive the world as they return to the everyday concerns of their lives. Experiencing the missions can change how we experience each other in the more challenging spaces where we spend most of our days.
San Antonio is approaching its tri-centennial celebration. It has been a long three centuries from the native place of Yanaguana to the modern Alamo City of today. As I pointed out to the audience at Trinity, this may be an apt time for some collective reflection on the importance and value of the city’s historic missions and what they mean for the many communities that make their homes in south Texas. Perhaps it’s time to ask what stories do we need to tell now, what visions does our world need now? Can these graceful places of San Antonio’s past make possible new places and new realities for San Antonio’s future? Can they stand as models for the betterment of communities far beyond the mission walls? New possibilities are in the making in a place once called Yanaguana, a place that has become a busy modern city in an uncertain world. ♨