The San Antonio Missions

Mission San Juan
        In the eighteenth-century, Mexico sought to establish a presence in the territory northward for dual purposes: to expand its cultural influence and to transform the regional Native Americans into productive, loyal, and Christian Spanish citizens. The result was the establishment of five missions along the San Antonio River that would inadvertently become the largest concentration of Catholic Missions in North America. Collectively, the San Antonio Missions have had a profound effect on the social and cultural landscape. The fusion of the Christian-Spanish values with the hunting-and-gathering lifestyle of the Native Americans yielded a truly unique cultural identity. Though they were ultimately unable to protect the Native Americans from their aggressors, the Missions prove to be enduring institutions as they continue to contribute active parishioners in their Catholic Dioceses.

         The first mission we visited was that of San Juan. It is a huge compound and housed up to 400 people at a time. Hardship unfortunately was abundant in the early years of San Juan. Epidemics of European disease such as smallpox and measles ravaged the mission and the native population in the surrounding area, as they had never before been exposed to these illnesses. Equally devastating were the hostile Apaches and Comanche tribes who continuously raided and terrorized the San Juan community. Despite the encompassing adversity, however, the mission flourished, and by 1762 it boasted a granary, textile shops, and even houses. The inhabitants of San Juan found their greatest strength in their self-sufficiency.
Mission Concepcion
        Located 3 miles down the road is Mission Concepcion. Famous for its architectural beauty and design, Mission Concepcion was fashioned in the style of Spanish Colonial Architecture, a mixture of renaissance intricacy and the gothic arches with walls covered in vibrant frescoes. Mission Concepcion is best known for its religious festivals and its fervent intent to eliminate the Native American’s “Pagan” rituals. Christian Pageantry, such as reenacting the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, was commonplace. Through their strictness and effective administration, the missionaries of Concepcion are credited with formalizing the Native Americans’ acceptance of Christianity. Whereas Mission San Juan was largely rebuilt in the 1930s and 1970s, Mission Concepcion is 80% original and allows one to develop a greater appreciation for what these missions looked liked and how they functioned at their prime. Mission Concepcion is still vital and dynamic community with many of its parishioners tracing their roots back to the original residents. I got to see this firsthand during our tour when a bride-to-be and a photographer in tow were walking around the mission, scoping out potential sites for her bridal pictures. It was very much apparent by her gaze that she was well-acquainted with this place. It really helped me to understand that these missions are still a beautiful and important part of these people’s lives. I found myself really wanting to know this bride’s story – how many women in her family had gotten married at Concepcion before her? Could she trace her family back to the original inhabitants of the mission? What effect did the Franciscans have on her family’s history?

The Alamo
        San Antonio de Valero, more commonly known as the Alamo, was the final mission we visited and is the most sensationalized. Its primary function was to educate Native Americans in the Catholic-Spanish tradition, but in 1793, the Spanish government decided to dissolve the mission and distribute its lands. Consequently, it fell into disrepair. The mission soon became relevant again during the Texan Revolution. The Battle of the Alamo in 1836, a pivotal moment in the fight for Texan Independence, took place at the old mission. The brave rallying of dissident Texans was all but obliterated by Santa Anna’s army. This show of cruelty sparked a new wave of support for Texan Independence, even from American outsiders. The Battle of the Alamo caused a swelling of emotions and increased anti-Mexican sentiments. The Texans went on to win their fight for independence, and the Alamo became one of the most eulogized events in North American history. As compelling as the Alamo’s story is, its actual building and exhibits contained therein are very underwhelming. Several displays even lacked explanations of what we were looking at. Even worse was the half-museum, half-gift shop; the throng of frenzied people fighting past each other to buy their commemorate Davie Crockett coon tail hat and Alamo t-shirt made it impossible to actually stand still and view the exhibits. The famous war cry of “Remember the Alamo” was predictably plastered all over various types of memorabilia, but interestingly enough, no one ever said this. “Remember Goliad” is most apt, as this battle was the most infuriating for the dissident Texans. It was at the Battle of Goliad that Texan soldiers surrendered to Santa Anna but were mercilessly killed anyway. The resentment and desire for vengeance proved to be much more potent than those arising from the Alamo, as the favor was later returned to the Mexican prisoners at the Battle of San Jacinto. Besides the underwhelming visit to the Alamo, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the San Antonio Missions. I departed more confident in my knowledge and understanding of southwestern culture and history; it was a beautiful ending to such a wonderful trip… I mean class.

-- Kristen Hunter

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