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San Antonio Missions in Texas declared World Heritage Site

Mission Concepcion was built directly on bedrock and

Mission Concepcion was built directly on bedrock and remains the most intact of the five San Antonio churches. Credit: For The Washington Post / Tracy L. Barnett

Two weathered gravestones sit in a small, dusty rectangle in front of the grand Spanish church at the heart of the nation’s newest World Heritage Site, the San Antonio Missions. I’ve been to Mission San Jose many times — to attend the lively Mariachi Mass, to photograph its antique majesty. But this is the first time I’ve thought of it as a cemetery.

I’m seeing it through the eyes of two members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, whose ancestors inhabited this part of what is now Texas for thousands of years. About 300 years ago, they helped to build these missions.

Last year the five missions, spread out along 12 miles of the San Antonio River, were named the first U.S. World Heritage Site in 20 years. Four of them are still active Catholic parishes; the fifth, Mission San Antonio de Valero, went on to become a military garrison — the legendary Alamo, now a memorial to the battle fought there.

Ramón Vásquez, a straight-talking Texan with a dark ponytail, and soft-spoken Jesús “Jesse” Reyes Jr., an anthropologist in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, are my guides today. They’ve teamed up to create Yanawana Mission Tours — after the pre-Hispanic name for the San Antonio River — which offers an eye-opening perspective on the missions and on American history itself.

We pause at the two small graves, one a nameless stone block topped with an iron cross, the other, dated 1893, chiseled with the name Juan Huisar. Most tourists visit these sites because they make up the largest collection of Spanish colonial architecture north of the Rio Grande. But for the Tap Pilam and other Indian mission descendants, they are a vital link to their ancestors. All of these missions, including the Alamo, are cemeteries, as the dead were customarily laid to rest inside mission grounds.

UNDERSTANDING THE NATIVE STORY

Our tour begins at Mission San Jose, the largest of the missions and the most restored. It has some of the most elaborate stone carvings, including the stunning Rose Window, believed to have been created by American Indian artist Pedro Huizar, an ancestor of the Huisar whose gravestone we saw. Huizar families still attend the church here, Ramón tells me.

The giant wooden doors at the main entrance of the fortresslike complex open onto a large grassy commons. Around us, the interior walls are lined with the dwellings of the American Indian families who once inhabited the missions, a series of small, interconnected rooms.

San Jose provides a strong foundation for understanding the American Indian story, including exhibits and the short documentary “Gente de Razón,” or “People of Reason,” the Franciscans’ phrase for their goal of converting the natives into good Catholic Spanish citizens.

As we learn, the Spanish Franciscan priests who came here from Mexico encountered several groups of tribal peoples, including a variety of semi-nomadic tribes now known collectively as the Coahuiltecans, as well as roving bands of Comanches and Apaches who were known to prey on their neighbors. The Franciscans invited the Coahuiltecans to join forces in the 1700s, and together they created the church-based agrarian communities now known as the missions.

Each mission had its own ranch — this is where the cattle culture of the Southwest began. The Spaniards brought the first cattle to the New World, and the first ranches were tended by the American Indian mission inhabitants. Thus, as Jesse likes to point out, “the first cowboys were Indians.”

CULTURAL BLEND

The imposing dome that rises above the South San Antonio neighborhood at Mission Concepcion has remained essentially unchanged since it was completed in 1755. We step inside the sanctuary, cool and dark after the Texas sun.

Concepcion’s walls are unusually intact, and the frescoes are an excellent example of the cultural blend of Spanish and American Indian, using both Christian and indigenous symbolism. Off the sanctuary, for example, the ceiling of one room features a curious image: a mustachioed face surrounded by yellow rays.

“The sun, the moon, the stars were all considered faces of God for our people,” Ramón explains. “Here, the Spaniards were the masters. They were seen as superior, so the face of God had to be depicted as a Spaniard.”

Most Coahuiltecans are said to have assimilated into the church. The minority that continued to practice the old ceremonies were hunted down, beaten and humiliated by mission authorities.

But even those who joined the Spanish Catholic church maintained a connection with the pre-Columbian tradition — and sharing that history is an important part of Jesse and Ramón’s mission tour.

LONG-LASTING TECHNOLOGY

We drive to the southernmost mission, Mission Espada, near the outer loop of the city, where a quiet, shady, older neighborhood surrounds the church and its grassy grounds.

This site is where the “acequia” — the irrigation system that was the lifeblood of the missions — can still be seen at its finest. Each complex had a gravity-powered network of channels that carried water from the San Antonio River to agricultural fields. This masterwork of Spanish design and indigenous construction has remained operational since at least 1745, and the water is still used to irrigate local crops.

We end our tour at San Juan Capistrano, along a rural, isolated stretch of the San Antonio River. Archaeological excavations during the 1960s unearthed the remains of more than 100 people at the missions. They were taken to a local university for research, where they were cataloged and archived and left to gather dust. Mission descendants fought for decades to bring the remains home to a proper burial ground. When they won that fight, the tribal elders chose Jesse, then 25, to stay with the remains through the reburial process.

Ramón stops in front of a small National Park Service interpretive plaque mentioning the presence of the remains. There should be an iron fence to protect the space from wandering tourists and children, Ramón says. He understands, however, that this is not a popular request in a national park that is now a World Heritage Site.

“I’d love for them to put a gate up there,” he said. “But instead, I’m doing the next best thing. . . . We’re going to have tours and talk about it and let the public know.”

IF YOU GO

WHERE TO STAY Hotel Havana, 1015 Navarro St. Vintage boutique hotel tucked away in a quiet bend of the San Antonio River Walk and across from the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Rooms from $155, 210-222-2008, havanasanantonio.com

Hotel Emma, 136 E. Grayson St. A 2016 “It List” pick in Travel + Leisure magazine, the newest addition to the San Antonio hotel scene is a converted brew house. Rooms from $350, 210-448-8300, thehotelemma.com

WHAT TO DO Yanawana Mission Tours. Group tours, which do not include the Alamo. Individual tours offered on an appointment basis. Tours include Native American-style foods and hands-on activities, including artisanal weaving and song-and-dance demonstrations. From $50, 210-227-4940 aitscm.org

MORE INFO visitsanantonio.com

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