Walking into the Texas Pavilion with my family for a respite from the scorching heat in the summer of 1968, I fell in love. Authorized by the Texas Legislature in 1965, to serve as the Texas Pavilion, the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) was an imposing symbol to all who visited HemisFair ‘68. It boldly proclaimed that Texas and its people were proud of their heritage.

The building itself was surrounded by a high grassy berm so that as you approached closer, its immense size surprised you. And that’s the way Texas is – it surprises you. It surprises you by its geographic differences and vast diversity of people. The berm is gone now, but the 50+ year institute which serves as the state’s center for multicultural education by investigating the ethnic and cultural history of Texas still provides educational resources to teachers and students. It also provides a much-needed place to share our stories.

As a Mexican American schoolgirl growing up in San Antonio, I often felt knots in my stomach during Texas Independence Week because I was made to feel ashamed that “my people” massacred the heroes of the Alamo. We learned about the bravery of James Bowie, William B. Travis, Davy Crockett, and James Bonham. We were also taught the story of the heartbreak and resilience of the surviving Susanna Dickinson with her infant Angelina.

But absent, were the names of José Toribio Losoya, Andrés Nava, and Damacio Ximenes who died defending the Alamo. Also absent were the surviving Texian women of Mexican descent: Ana Salazar de Esparza, Petra Gonzales, Concepcion Losoya, Victoria Salinas, and others.  Omitted in our Texas textbooks was the story of Texas Patriot Jose Antonio Navarro, who signed both the Texas Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the Republic of Texas. I was lumped in with the evil Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, even though my San Miguel ancestors played a role in the Texas Revolution. 

I wasn’t the only one feeling bad. As a teenager at Jefferson High School, my friend Bonnie Terry shared her anguish that African Americans were never mentioned, even though G.B. Logan, a Black freeman, followed Old Ben Milam to San Antonio. And no one knew about the Buffalo Soldiers. Our friend, Miriam Joffee, remarked that she had never seen pictures of Jewish families outside of her temple or the Jewish Community Center. Totally forgotten, too, were the proud indigenous peoples, our First Nations of Texas.

But walking into the Texas Pavilion that day, I saw it magnificently displayed for all – the story of Texas told by all the contributions of its ethnic and cultural groups. I marveled at the content dedicated to Indigenous Texans, Mexican Texans, Black Texans, Anglo Texans, Irish, Scottish, Italian, Greek, Swedish, Norwegian, Chinese, German, Lebanese, Alsatian and Jewish Texans. Sitting on the main area floor looking upward watching the “Dome Show” gave me a feeling of pride and belonging. With a confidence of knowing that we all belong here because all of our peoples built the Texas we love. I left that day wanting more of that special feeling. I wanted to come back.

I did. In 1974, Henderson Shuffler, former curator of the University of Texas’ Texana Program, and then director of the ITC, hired me as a bilingual tour guide. His vision for the institute was always to present a more comprehensive and complete, unbiased picture of our state’s history that included groups previously underrepresented. He wanted to make history relevant, engaging, educational, and inclusive. He often said, “History is a product and the property of the people.”  Along with O.T. Baker and Claudia Ball, Henderson Shuffler was a crusader for historical accuracy and believed Texans only knew a terrible one-sided story and set a course for change.

Aside from the floor exhibits, the ITC published books and pamphlets on particular ethnic and cultural groups that were devoured by teachers across the state, who were hungry to share the real story with their students. These materials presented knowledge that was at the time not allowed in Texas curriculum and textbooks.

They developed a celebration of all cultures first held in 1972, recognizing that food, music, dance, and arts and crafts could be shared in a Folklife Festival to promote the understanding and respect so desperately needed then, and if not for this COVID-19 pandemic would be desperately needed now.

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I met and learned from Rocky Stallings, a Tonkawa-Cherokee warrior, who worked at the ITC from its beginning to his retirement in the 1980s. Stallings built the teepee on the exhibit floor and demonstrated items used in everyday life to delighted schoolchildren and adults. He was an authority in medicinal herbs, an expertise passed onto him by both his grandmothers. We shared a mutual connection of our grandmothers imparting that special botanical wisdom, as my abuelas taught me much about las hierbas medicinales. He shared stories and traditions, and I wept ferociously at his recounting of unspeakable discrimination while living on the reservation. Stallings was very proud to be at the Institute daily to tell the stories of his people.

Now, our ITC is at a troublesome time. Painful decisions must be made by its parent, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Texas System because of the financial insecurity of the state’s budget and Gov. Greg Abbott’s order mandating a 5 percent cut now and the next fiscal year. These are hard choices in a challenging time. So we must re-examine the role ITC plays in our community and the state. Can ITC shift to deliver most of the educational content virtually? Can UTSA students be better immersed, educated, and utilized in the ITC mission? Can a consistent, more reliable revenue stream be created so as not to totally rely on the state’s contribution?

But the most important questions before us: Is the mission of ITC still valid? Is it still needed? Created in 1975, the institute was a place where people encountered, perhaps for the first time, the role ordinary people played in history and by association their own role in history as well. At a time in the Civil Rights movement, Shuffler believed “this approach could ultimately foster better understanding among individuals of every ethnic and cultural background by presenting exhibits in which all groups were shown contributing to the progress of their society.”

Jack Maguire who became director upon Shuffler’s death said, “For the first time in this country, an educational tool for working with this problem of cultural conflict rationally and objectively, establishing a base for understanding and unity rather than suspicion and division was created.”

This is why I fell in love with the Institute. This is why I wanted to come back.  I did come back – over and over again, and I brought my children and now, we bring our grandchildren.

Should ITC be a place where we can continue to gather safely and tell our stories?

I am reminded of my friend and fellow ITC Advisory Board member, G.P. Singh, and his ardent support for ITC’s mission and of the speech given by Sikh activist Valerie Kaur at Washington’s Metropolitan AME Church in 2016. 

“As we enter an era of enormous rage, as white nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all time high, I know that there will be moments whether on the streets or in the schoolyards where my son will be seen as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist.

Just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls are still seen as someone else’s property. And when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them.”

I fell in love as a teenager in a time of turmoil and uncertainty because the institute gave all groups the opportunity to share their Texas story in their own voice. It gave us a shot at truly understanding each other by correcting old myths and celebrating instead of hating our ethnic and cultural differences.

And 52 years later, I’m still in love. The generations of my children and grandchildren need ITC’s mission now more than ever.

Leticia Van de Putte

Leticia Van de Putte

Leticia Van de Putte, is a former five-term state representative and former five-term state senator who represented a large portion of San Antonio and Bexar County in the Texas Legislature. She is currently...