A scholar considers the way San Antonio has been shaped and supported by pilgrims of all stripes
On January 26, the new SBC Community Centre near San Fernando Cathedral was inaugurated with abrazos and emotional speeches in its open-air courtyard. The ceremony was a powerful modern display of the roles commerce, tourism, and religion have played, and continue to play, in San Antonio's development. "We did it for historical memory," said Father David García, San Fernando's pastor, describing the Centre as "a beautiful building that enhances downtown, built to last 200 years." That day there was no Mass, but there was a heartfelt prayer. The new "place of gathering" was established in the names of saints, as each of the four meeting rooms is christened after a mission: Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada. The only intrusion into this "interior" experience came in the form of a prolonged screech from a bus, aimed toward the West Side, braking outside. A new place of pilgrimage was born.
San Antonians are often reminded, despite its obviousness, that tourism is our No. 1 industry, our golden goose, our tortilla and butter. Tourism is so ingrained in our communal identity, we sometimes forget we are locals and act like tourists. Think Fiesta. According to Thomas Bremer, author of Blessed with Tourists, a thorough and timely historical study of San Antonio's development, our city has long "occupied a borderland of religion and tourism," a world in which "tourists meet the sacred." Using San Antonio's historic missions and other sites as examples, Bremer examines how tourism, commerce, and religion have worked together to transform our city.
In the beginning, there was the Catholic Mass. The year was 1691 and a Spanish military contingent, in celebration of "discovering" a beautiful, green valley called Yanaguana, built an altar near the springs of what is now San Pedro Park. The purpose of the Mass was to give thanks and rename this newly Christian place San Antonio de Pádua. Standing in the background were the Payaya Indians.
The Spanish conquistadores and missionaries bestowed "a religious meaning on the significant features of the landscape" and this remains a major part of their legacy. They named what they saw, mostly in honor of saints; then they went on their way to found new places. When they returned 25 years later, they built the missions we see today. In only two decades, all of the missions became prosperous and self-supporting, so prosperous that they began to export goods and host missionaries in their travels. Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 changed all of that.
Anxious to break away from its colonial history, Mexico closed all of the missions, including those in San Antonio. The New World Catholic Church and its missions had become "abandoned ruins" by the 1830s. San Antonio as a place, on the other hand, was already developing as a tourist mecca without the missions' wealth. Word of San Antonio's beauty was spreading, evidenced by the flowery language of newspapermen around the country, romantically describing the "famous and sanguinary city of San Antonio." Interestingly, what visitors remembered most were the ruins of the missions.
Early in San Antonio's development, tension existed between commercialization and commemoration, religious tourism and local secular needs, and authentic culture and tourist expectations. In many ways, those tensions persist. Decorative mariachi sombreros grace brochures and billboards while locals pack the SBC Center for Spurs games. The San Antonio Hotel and Motel Association argues that the Hotel Occupancy Tax needs to be spent on cultural events that appeal to tourists. Yet, visitors and residents can still get many of their tourism and sacramental needs met in the same places: The Alamo thrives as a secular attraction and the missions still hold Mass. They all endure as pilgrimage sites, as living symbols of San Antonio's rich history, and, ultimately, as commodities.
In Blessed with Tourists, Thomas Bremer has presented us with a well-researched book that can be recommended to policy-makers, the staffs of cultural and religious organizations, and just about any San Antonio-phile. In it he shows us the people and decisions that played key roles in San Antonio's evolution. Our city is a living work of art, and, as Father García said at the Community Centre's inauguration, it relies on "a spirit that can put aside our differences in a spirit of collaboration." Hopefully, as our city progresses, the natives won't be left standing in the background again. •