Dr. Alfonso Chiscano, Champion of Canary Islands Cultural Heritage, Dies at 81

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Tricentennial Commission Bexar County Appointee Alfonso Chiscano

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Dr. Alfonso Chiscano served on the Tricentennial Commission, which oversaw the city's year-long commemoration of its 300th anniversary.

Members of San Antonio’s government, cultural, and economic sectors mourned the passing of Dr. Alfonso “Chico” Chiscano, who died early Tuesday after succumbing to complications from metastatic cancer at age 81.

Chiscano was a prominent thoracic and cardiac surgeon who also worked steadfastly as a cultural ambassador, connecting San Antonio with his native Canary Islands and the country of Spain.

In February of San Antonio’s Tricentennial year, Chiscano wrote of the early Canary Islander settlers, “Were it not for the passion for a better life that drove these ‘earliest civilian colonists of San Antonio,’ our beloved city would not be what it is today.”

According to his friends and colleagues, the same could be said of Chiscano himself. “He was one of the best things that’s ever happened to our city,” said Rolando Pablos, former Texas Secretary of State and former chair of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Chiscano and Pablos formed the nonprofit organization Friends of Spain to further cultural, educational, and economic exchanges between Spain and the United States.

“He just had this extraordinary energy that a lot of other people couldn’t match,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, highlighting Chiscano’s involvement in the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project and his role in helping get a UNESCO World Heritage designation for San Antonio’s Spanish Colonial missions in 2015.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), Chief of Protocol and Head of International Relations Sherry Dowlatshahi, Mayor Ivy Taylor, _____ and San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez in Bonn, Germany for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. Photo courtesy of Nelson Wolff's Twitter account.

Courtesy / Nelson Wolff

(From left) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Chief of Protocol and Head of International Relations Sherry Dowlatshahi, former Mayor Ivy Taylor, Dr. Alfonso Chiscano, and San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez in Bonn, Germany, for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting that led to San Antonio’s Spanish Colonial missions achieving a World Heritage designation.

Most recently, Chiscano advocated for the recognition and inclusion of Canary Islanders in the city’s 2018 Tricentennial celebrations.

Said Mayor Ron Nirenberg in a tweet: “Earlier this morning, San Antonio lost a great historian. Dr. Alfonso Chiscano was a passionate advocate for the Canary Islands Descendants Association, ensuring we never forget our city’s earliest history. Today, we resolve to never forget him.”

The City of San Antonio Office of International Affairs issued a statement Tuesday morning, saying “Dr. Chiscano served tirelessly on the Tricentennial Commission, always reminding us all of the importance of Spain in our history and the need to recognize the strong bonds that continue to this day.”

Chiscano served as a “personal ambassador” to Spain and the Canary Islands for many, including Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8). “Chico was indefatigable in his advocacy efforts to keep San Antonio’s leadership focused on our Canary Island roots,” Pelaez said. “He had mayors, county judges, city managers, senators, congressmen, and titans of business on speed-dial, and they all stood at attention when Chico called.”

Pelaez said Chiscano was instrumental in engineering one of the most notable Tricentennial events, the June 2018 visit of the King and Queen of Spain. Chiscano also supported the March 2018 El Nacimiento performance in Main Plaza, which Wolff said should be known as “La Plaza de las Islas,” named so originally in 1731 by the Canary Island settlers who formed the community’s first civil government.

Chiscano played a key role in the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral on the plaza, said Father David Garcia, its rector from 1995-2008, and helped raise money for a retablo in the church honoring Our Lady of Candelaria, patron saint of the Canary Islands. Another Chiscano legacy in La Plaza de las Islas fronting the Bexar County Courthouse is the Founder’s Monument, which honors the original settlers with five bronze statues and has become a popular tourist attraction, Wolff said.

The Bexar County Founders Monument is unveiled for the first time in it's permanent location of the Bexar County Courthouse.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The crowd at the Bexar County Courthouse takes cellphone photos of officials and the Canary Islander bronze statues after the unveiling.

Chiscano’s accomplishments and legacies are “too many to name,” Pablos said, and must include his work as a physician. With all else Chiscano did, “it’s hard to remember that he also had surgeries every day and was saving people.” Chiscano originally moved to Houston from Barcelona to study medicine under renowned heart surgeon Denton Cooley. He practiced general surgery most recently at the University of Texas Health Science Center, now known as UT Health San Antonio.

Pablos was with Chiscano on Monday night along with family and friends. “I had the honor to be at the bedside with him last night, and just glad I got to say bye to one of my dearest friends,” Pablos said. “I promised him that we’d make sure that Friends of Spain lives on, we’ll take the reins and move forward to make sure that all of his good work continues to grow and blossom.”

Other projects Chiscano took on included helping secure the annual U.S. Spain Council Forum in November at the Pearl, and the book The Canary Islanders In Texas: The Founding of San Antonio, which Chiscano paid to have translated into English.

“We hope people will want to learn more about the story,” said Mari Tamez, president of the Canary Islands Descendants Association (CIDA).

Tamez said the legacy of the Canary Island settlers was “a source of pride for [Chiscano], that [they] traveled so far, and made a city out of nothing that is now the seventh-largest city in the nation.”

Al Rendon for the Rivard Report

Dr. Alfonso Chiscano

Tamez called Chiscano “our dear friend” and said, “he loved the history of San Antonio, and I believe it loved him back.”

Chiscano is survived by his wife, Mary Alice; sons Steve and Todd; daughters Kristie and Carina Chiscano-Doyle; and grandchildren Niko, Christian, Birdie, Kayla, and Lindsey Toman; and Caz, Lauren, and Oliver Doyle.

Chiscano also left a legacy as a devoted father, said his eldest son Steve Chiscano, a San Antonio attorney.

“Being the father of three,” Steve said, “and looking at how he was a father of four, and did two to three open-heart [surgeries] a day, almost every day of the week, seeing him find time for his four kids, and making that time quality time, was amazing.”

Chiscano loved his adopted city and loved the Canary Islands, his son said. “His perception was, ‘I left the Franco dictatorship of Spain to find a country that could give me everything, and this country did that.’ I truly believe he has spent his entire life and career giving back to this country … and not forgetting where he came from.”

Details about a memorial for Chiscano were to be announced later, according to the family.

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