Why did we choose to forget the Alamo? Well, it all began with a desire to see The Alamo while we were near San Antonio, Texas. It is probably the most famous place in Texas, at least it was for me. The Alamo Mission is one of many old Spanish missions in San Antonio. They have set up a long, sprawling park that encompasses 4 large historic missions. The Alamo is actually not part of that park but is its own historic site in the heart of San Antonio. The park is called the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.
A Little History
It is most famous for its galvanizing role in the Texas war of independence in which the American and Mexican settlers in the region decided to declare independence from Mexico. The Alamo Mission was the location of a famous battle, one in which the Texans were defeated and all the defenders killed. Tales of their valor inspired others to join the cause for independence and eventually emerge as victorious. Later, Texas voluntarily succeeded to the United States becoming a state. It was originally called Misión San Antonio de Valero but was renamed the Alamo after it stopped being used as a mission and was later used as a military fort.
These missions were not designed to remain missions forever. They were built as part of Spain’s colonization efforts in the Americas. Missionaries would establish a base of operations, preach to the local peoples, and teach them the Spanish way of life. Spanish military units would be stationed to defend the mission, scout the area, and stake Spain’s claim to the land. The idea was that after the missionaries had established Spanish culture and religion, they would convert the missions into civic centers.
Each mission is unique but they have some common characteristics. There is usually a large chapel building at the center of the mission. There are protective walls and defenses intended to repel raids by hostile native American groups. They have simple housing for the natives who join the mission culture and work there. And they have some kind of industry set up, typically geared towards construction and tool making. It is the fortifications that lent them to becoming forts after the missionaries left.
Our plan was for an all day outing where we would visit the Missions, culminating in the Alamo. The Missions are each a few miles apart, so you have some choices. You can walk from one to another, but if you want to visit them all, that is a serious hike. You can drive from one to the next, which is what we did. The roads are winding but they form a large loop from one mission to the next with neighborhoods and other park areas in between. You can also take public transportation or a bicycle. I think that last option might be the ideal way to experience them. Trail is not fond of cycling so we stuck with the truck.
All the sites have a few qualities in common. They are a mix of original ruins, reconstructed buildings, and newer structures built to replace older ones. Each of the missions here features an active catholic church, either in the original mission chapel or in a somewhat newer, but still period building. Outside they appear to be very old buildings, often in semi-ruin. Inside they have been modernized to some degree and accommodate modern worship service which you can attend. You may want to time your visit to coincide with service, or to avoid it depending on the experience you want to have. We visited when there were no services held and that let us wander around and take pictures inside.
Each site also gives you a good overview of mission culture. While some of the interpretive signs are specific to each mission, there are others that appear at each site which give you the overall history of Spanish missions in New Spain. The presentations are very thoughtful and appear to be updated with the times. They offer a lot of information both about the missions and the impact they had, without a lot of judgment. It is up to you to decide how you feel about the history and make your own judgments. I’ll go over mine a little later, but suffice to say I learned a great deal during my visit and found it fascinating.
Mission San Jose
This is the largest and grandest of the Missions in the park and also where you can find the park’s visitors center. The outer wall of the mission has been rebuilt and gives you a good idea of how the fortifications worked. They stand about 15 feet tall and include ports for using firearms or arrows against attackers. The interior of the thick stone and adobe walls make for residents for the native residents of the mission. Within the walls is a large courtyard where the other buildings of the mission would be. The main chapel here is the grandest of those you can visit and still has many of its original decorations. Some of it stands in ruins, but part of that is simply unfinished work.
Stepping inside, like all the missions you are struck by the beauty of the chapel and it’s comparatively modern decorations. The juxtaposition of the historic and crumbling exterior and the painted and air conditioned interior is striking. Trail grew up in the Catholic church so the symbolism and decorations are well familiar to her. We often play, “name the saint” when visiting catholic chapels. I found this mission to have the most educational material due to its size and the number of buildings they have reconstructed to demonstrate how they were originally used.
Mission Concepcion stands out as having the best-preserved chapel and grounds of the four. Not only is much of the exterior structure still in place, work here has managed to surface the original frescos by removing layers of dirt that have accumulated and obscured them. Much of its longevity is owed to it being built on solid bedrock as where most of the others were on less stable ground leading to structural failures. Most of the others had their roof fail when the building shifted which leads to a faster pace of decay for the rest of the building.
Mission San Juan
Mission San Juan is mostly in ruins. The Church that is in use here today was originally intended as a grain storage building. The original church was built of mud and straw while the intended replacement was never finished. The church you do find here is also under threat from the unstable soil and was shored up in 2015. Inside it is a remarkably beautiful chapel, decorated in what struck me as a more folk art style than the others. I really liked the atmosphere. While we were there, a family was gathering for a wedding ceremony and a native group was warming up for a dance performance in the central yard. Both added to the atmosphere of the place and stressed that it is still a living part of the community here.
Mission Espada is one of the smaller mission sites. It has one remaining wall and a rebuilt chapel. In addition to the working church, there is a catholic gift shop here that supports the maintenance of the building. There is a nice shaded porch with chairs and benches where you can take a break and enjoy the lovely garden they maintain in front of the church. I had a seat and chatted with an older woman who was also enjoying the beautiful day and cool breezes. There is also a small museum at this site, but it was not open when we visited.
The Alamo (We have not forgotten it…. yet)
Our final stop was to be The Alamo which is not part of the park and is right in the Heart of Downtown San Antonio. By the time we were headed there, we’d eaten and gotten some rest but we’d been exploring missions for a good 6 hours. It was also late afternoon on a Saturday with perfect 75-degree weather and clear blue skies. In short, it was a perfect day for heading downtown to see the Alamo or to do some shopping. As a result, the narrow streets of the city were jam packed with traffic and the parking lots were overflowing.
Trail, being the worrying kind, had planned ahead and found the best parking spot in the city. Unfortunately, this information was no secret and we found that the lot was both full of parked cars, and full of parking seekers circling the narrow lot looking for spaces. In our rather large truck, this made for a deeply stressful and unpleasant experience. After 15 nail-biting minutes, I gave up on the lot and started looking elsewhere. The only open lots we could find were covered garages and Trail was not at all keen on taking our truck into one of those. I was starting to become quite frustrated and stressed. It was at this point I said, “Honey, let’s just forget the Alamo.”
Reflections on Spanish Missions
Everywhere we travel in America tells a dual story. As the United States expanded and established itself, the native cultures were forced to retreat, assimilate, or face destruction. In the south, Spain plays a third role in the story as the first western contact. It is interesting to compare and contrast the approach to conquest taken by Spain vs that of America. Of course, neither of these are happy stories for most native peoples, but the character of them is different.
On the American side, you have the theme of manifest destiny which is essentially just that northern Europeans are destined by god to rule the world and everyone else either needs to bow down or will be dominated by force, which is exactly how they operated. Neither capitulation nor resistance did those they opposed any good in the end. The missionaries seemed to genuinely feel they were bringing gifts rather than mandates. They wanted to offer their faith, which they felt was everlasting salvation and their culture which they thought was an end to starvation and predation by rival tribes. And for some native groups, it was an attractive offer.
Ultimately, it’s not clear they did all that much for them. Spain lost the territory and the US program of clearing out indigenous Americans for white settlers was what they were subject to anyway. The missions were all abandoned. But it is clear that in most of latin America, the Spanish settlers and the native people effectively mixed and brought about a new hybrid culture, as where in America, the native people are essentially relegated to rural slums. What would America be like today if the mission style system of assimilation were to have been favored over manifest destiny?
Is think there is any practical purpose to such considerations? Well-intentioned or not, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas spelled disaster for everyone living here. Even if the Europeans had not tried to conquer and settle, the pathogens they brought wrought apocalyptic havoc among the native populations. And whatever the missionaries intent, the Spanish state was by no means gentle or kind with the native cultures they encountered. Now we have a world where every culture is connected to some degree. Only a few very isolated remote tribes are protected from the modern world. Still, we do find ourselves in situations where we feel compelled to help another culture or find ourselves in conflict, and we face questions of what counts as help or exchange, and what counts as domination and coercion.