A History of San Antonio is Closer Than We Think

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Lockwood Park in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood was among the historical neighborhoods that would not provide property deeds to minorities.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The lack of general history books in San Antonio can be partially blamed on a lack of well-funded archival programs.

In a recent column, Rick Casey poses questions that I have been asking since I arrived in San Antonio eleven years ago. In fact, my students and colleagues at Texas A&M University-San Antonio probably have grown tired of hearing me ask these questions.

How can the nation’s seventh largest city, with its long, unique, and compelling history, have generated exactly zero book-length general histories? Why does the corpus of published San Antonio history too often seem to stop after the Battle of the Alamo, Texas independence, and the invention of Fiesta, neglecting the gigantic, crucial developments of the twentieth century?

When I arrived in San Antonio in August 2008 to help start the history department at TAMU-SA, I began reading whatever I could find about San Antonio, both to learn about my new home and to acquaint myself with the published work on local history. To my dismay, I found only scholarly articles and book chapters, as well as a few books written by non-historians that focused on fairly narrow topics. I couldn’t believe it.

The city I had just left behind, Las Vegas, had produced at least two major book-length histories even though it was smaller and nowhere near as old as San Antonio. Indeed, numerous other mid-sized cities can boast of highly respected general histories that detail twentieth-century developments. Why not San Antonio?

I discovered one answer upon visiting some of the local city and county library facilities that held many of the city’s historical records. Library staff sheepishly walked me through closed storage facilities containing countless shelves and boxes of precious archival source materials, uncatalogued and thus unavailable to all but the most persistent and well-connected researchers.

A city that wishes to have its history told well, in a nuanced and thorough fashion; that wants its citizens to engage with their own history; that wants to show its seriousness about its historical identity, must adequately fund and staff its archival and library facilities. A decade ago, that clearly was not the case. As a result, as Casey notes, the few existing books about modern San Antonio history tended to be authored by former journalists, businesspersons, or elected officials, but rarely if ever by professional historians. 

This unusual phenomenon also stems from developments within the historical profession, some real and others more a matter of perception. Younger historians writing dissertations tend to focus on the kinds of “specialized” topics that seem especially relevant in their own time, place them on the cutting edge of the discipline, and not coincidentally make them more marketable for coveted faculty positions.

Universities, in turn, often reward faculty who publish scholarly books of national significance rather than local histories that may only draw regional interest. These are unfortunate realities of the academy that sometimes inhibit the production of a good local historical book. 

Another reason for the lack of a general history may reflect a lingering concern about the tendency of such surveys to favor powerful groups in history, or to marginalize the experiences of historically oppressed peoples. Consider, for example, the numerous U.S. history textbooks that have mischaracterized slavery, glossed over the treatment of Native Americans, or minimized the contributions of women, raising legitimate questions about the validity of survey histories.

It is not hard to imagine how this dismal track record might give pause to would-be San Antonio historians, given the city’s own troubled history of inequality, whose consequences remain all too apparent in our distribution of public education, housing, and city services. And yet, the challenge remains. As Char Miller wrote in the preface to last year’s San Antonio: A Tricentennial History, “a full and comprehensive urban biography of San Antonio” is “long overdue.” 

General histories are works of synthesis that require historians to integrate the diverse experiences of numerous groups, reconstruct important struggles and events from multiple perspectives, and reveal patterns of historical change that can inform our thinking about the present and the future. The raw materials are available to support such a project because the city’s historical support system is more elaborate than it was even a decade ago.

Community groups have been producing their own histories at a growing rate, suggesting a wide readership for a general history. In addition to the San Antonio Jewish Oral History Project described by Casey, there are the Museo del Westside at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the San Antonio African American Community Archive Museum, and many others.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, the published historical work on San Antonio has blossomed in the past two decades. Although these mainly have been academic monographs focusing on “specialized topics,” such works make a general history more possible. These include important earlier books like Richard Garcia’s The Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class: San Antonio, 1929-41, and Rodolfo Rosales’ The Illusion of Inclusion, The Untold Political Story of San Antonio.

This earlier wave of studies included books focusing on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands region that often have included important discussions of San Antonio, such as Vicki Ruiz’s From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America, or Carlos Blanton’s The Strange Career of Bilingual Education, 1836-1981. Meanwhile, urban historians led by Char Miller, David Johnson, Heywood Sanders, and Brian Behnken have examined how San Antonio’s politics shaped public policy surrounding such critical issues as water management, housing, policing, and the allocation of city services.

More recently, San Antonio has been the subject of several excellent book-length histories that should provide the author of a general history with a wide-ranging library. Laura Hernández-Ehrisman’s Inventing the Fiesta City: Heritage and Carnival in San Antonio probes the city’s shifting power relations through the history of one of its most iconic public festivals. When Mexicans Could Play Ball: Basketball, Race, and Identity in San Antonio, 1928-1945, by the historian and Lanier High School alumnus Ignacio Garcia, brilliantly tells the story of Lanier’s state champion basketball squad and illustrates the Mexican American struggle for equality in a segregated city.

David Montejano’s Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1981, a close study of the Chicano movement in San Antonio, has placed the city at the center of one of the more important social and political movements of the late twentieth century. A more comprehensive analysis can be found in Gabriela Gonzalez’s important book, Redeeming La Raza: Transborder Race, Respectability, and Rights , which places key events in twentieth-century San Antonio such as the 1938 pecan sheller’s strike led by Emma Tenayuca in a transnational context.

Last year’s Spirit: The Life and Art of Jesse Treviño, by Anthony Head, as well as Philis Barragán Goetz’s forthcoming book Reading, Writing, and Revolution: Escuelitas and the Emergence of a Mexican American Identity continue to expand and enrich our understanding of San Antonio’s history.

The explosion of new histories of San Antonio, the growing public interest in the city’s modern history, and the maturing of the city’s research infrastructure, make it clear that the conditions now exist for the production of the kind of wide-ranging, complex, compelling general history that so many are calling for. While I agree with Casey’s lament that such a book does not yet exist, I’m confident it will, and soon.

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