Salazar at Mission Concepción in San Antonio

San Antonio Missions Added to the World Heritage List

The restored church at Mission San José in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas, now recognized as a World Heritage site (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2012)

Today’s announcement from the World Heritage Committee approving the addition of five cultural sites on their World Heritage List, including the San Antonio Missions in Texas, has me wondering about the process of gaining World Heritage status. Certainly, the Spanish colonial missions in San Antonio are as deserving as any site of cultural significance, but so are the Newark Earthworks in Ohio, another site on the “tentative list” compiled by the United States but not yet put forward for final inscription on the World Heritage list. I have written about both places, and if it were up to me, I’m not sure that I would regard the churches in San Antonio more worthy than the ancient structures in Ohio. So how does one make it to the World Heritage list while the other languishes in the bureaucratic miasma of tentative consideration?

Here are some possible reasons that come to mind:

  • Tourists: as I emphasize in my book on the San Antonio missions, the Spanish colonial sites are “Blessed with Tourists”—they are eminently appealing places for tourist visitation. Their location in a major city with significant promotion of local tourist sites brings far more visitors to the San Antonio missions each year than visit the earthworks in Newark, Ohio, a much less populated area that barely registers among tourist visitors. Also in their favor are the missions’ stunning picturesque quality; they regularly adorn posters, calendars, and magazine covers. The Newark Earthworks, in contrast, are decidedly not photogenic. In fact, they are too large to view well from ground level. It takes an airplane and cooperative weather conditions to fully appreciate their visual aesthetics.
  • Local support: powerful local figures with significant national influence have consistently supported the missions in San Antonio. In Ohio, turning the earthworks over to federal management (which is part of the World Heritage plan as I understand it—the National Park Service would take over managing the sites) has some pretty stiff local opposition. One of the most significant sites, the Octagon Earthworks, is part of the Mound Builders Country Club golf course, for the most part closed to the public (except for a small viewing stand and a few days a year open for public tours). Club members are loathe to lose their manicured fairways and greens.
World Heritage Announcment
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announces the nomination of the San Antonio Missions to the World Heritage Committee, June 1, 2012, at Mission Concepción in San Antonio (Photo by T. S. Bremer, 2012)
  • Politics: as I listened in San Antonio to then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar  announce on June 1, 2012 the U.S. nomination of the San Antonio Missions to the World Heritage Committee, I realized that he was making a political speech appealing to Hispanics in a presidential election year. The missions, Secretary Salazar emphasized, were important symbols of a Latina/o cultural heritage largely absent from official histories of the nation. It turns out that Ohio was an even more decisive state in the presidential electoral politics that year, but the constituency most interested in the ethnic heritage represented by the Earthworks were absent from the political process there. Descendants of Native American peoples who built these incredible structures had been forcibly removed from Ohio in the 1830s and resettled in “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River. Contemporary native peoples living in Ohio carry virtually no political clout among the state’s voters. Consequently, no political advantage would be gained by a highly publicized announcement to recognize the cultural heritage of ancient peoples of Ohio.

Yes, there are politics, economics, measures of popularity among tourists, and a bunch of other complicating factors behind inscription on the World Heritage list of culturally significant sites. But I am holding on to my general optimism about the whole World Heritage enterprise. I am thrilled that the Spanish colonial missions are now on the list, and I am hopeful that the diligent efforts of passionate supporters will eventually effect the same status for the Newark Earthworks. If nothing else, it would indicate a growing acceptance of the diverse origins of our collective heritage. ♨

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