Plans are taking shape to make San Antonio’s approaching Tricentennial a year of nonstop cultural celebrations. Drawing from 300 years of history, organizers are overseeing a busy, event-filled calendar. Outside the official preparations, others are working to make sure the city’s story is told in all its nuanced historical dimensions.
Northwest Vista College political science professor Rudy De La Cruz Jr., along with a small band of dedicated historians, is working overtime to ensure that some of San Antonio’s long forgotten voices are represented in the Tricentennial and the canon of history it depicts.
While the commercial history of the area is centered on the “Texas vs. Mexico” dichotomy and the Battle of the Alamo, the project wants to point out that those Texans were actually members of a diverse community made up of various European cultures recently “gone to Texas,” and an already-blended culture of Native Americans and Spanish colonists.
De La Cruz is leading a project to “identify, catalog, and serve as a repository for a Special Collection of documents and artifacts relevant to the early history of San Antonio from the 1500s through the 1800s,” according to a memorandum of understanding between Northwest Vista and American Indians in Texas At the Spanish Colonial Missions (AITSCM). The digitized collection will be available through the Centers for Cultural Research portals at Northwest Vista and the Land Heritage Institute.
AITSCM Executive Director Ramon Vasquez joined the efforts to highlight the original diversity of the area. The history of the native people in the area has been painted with a broad brush throughout history, he said, and the Tricentennial runs the risk of over-simplifying their role in the city’s history.
“I feared that the Mission Indian families that contributed to the beginning of San Antonio would be left out of the celebration,” Vasquez said.
Far from homogenous, the Mission Indians were actually several groups of hunter-gatherer people with strict tradition regarding intermarriage. It was only with the advent of the Canary Islanders and the horse tribes – the Comanche and the Apache – that the groups began to merge for security. The Medina River, while not as commercially viable as the San Antonio River, offered critical hiding places during raids, and fertile land for the Missions to farm.
The same thing happened in the Czech, Alsatian, and other communities south of San Antonio.
“They cooperated at a time when it was essential,” De La Cruz. said.
From there, the blending of cultures continued. De La Cruz first realized the deep history of multiculturalism when he looked into his own ancestry, which was far more complex than he had imagined. When he looked at the faces of his students, he saw the same cultural amalgamations he had grown up with in southern Bexar County. He started to see distinctive Canary Islander features, and even some markers of the Bowie family.
The students are now involved in the research, which De La Cruz considers to be graduate level work. Much of it involves going through the treasure troves of information stashed away in family files.
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“About 95% of Texas history is still in the hands of private owners out there,” he said.
The project is quickly growing in breadth and depth thanks to a partnership with Art Martinez de Vara, an attorney, historian, and former mayor of Von Ormy. Martinez de Vara has written several books on the history of the small towns along the Medina River as well as a forthcoming volume, El Carmen – The Chapel of the Battle of Medina. El Carmen will be the first title in the newly established Northwest Vista College Series on Texas History, a partnership between the Alamo College District and Martinez de Vara’s Alamo Press, established to print primary source material and historical works derived from the partnership’s efforts.
Martinez de Vara has become the project’s guide to the repositories of history along the Medina.
“What you have out here are ranching communities that have a lot of parallel ties to San Antonio,” he said.
What should be a thicket of historical markers is dependent on the guiding acumen of Martinez de Vara and life long resident Mary Castro. The Santa Anna Oak, a massive, oddly shaped oak tree, sits in the middle of an RV Park. The Pamposa Crossing of the Medina River – used by Native Americans, Spanish settlers, and one flank of the Mexican Army as they marched toward the Alamo – is just down the hill. The crossing is named for the indigenous people who lived along the river.
When Texas was annexed by the United States, many of the Tejanos were pushed out of the urban commercial center. They brought their written records and oral histories with them to their rural ranches where they reestablished Tejano communities, Martinez de Vara said. With that, they have also been overlooked by historical preservation efforts. Many original structures around Von Ormy remain untouched, while some are crumbling. The opportunity, Martinez de Vara explained, is to tell the story afresh, without decades of editing.
“We are able to tell our own story instead of people telling it for us,” De La Cruz said. “We are still contributing to Texas and we want people to know that.”
Castro is one of the native Von Ormy residents whose personal trove of histories has fueled the research.
“There’s nothing going on in this town that Mary [Castro] does not know,” De La Cruz said.
Castro, Martinez de Vara, and Vasquez are all cousins at varying distances, like most people in the tiny town. Castro is a direct descendent of Francisco Antonio Ruiz, the alcalde of San Antonio during the Battle of the Alamo, and later alderman of the city under the Republic of Texas.
Ruiz opposed the United States’ annexation of Texas, and joined the Comanche after it was enacted. He later returned to the Medina River area and what is now Von Ormy. Ruiz’s gravestone lies among other notable names in the Ruiz-Herrera family cemetery, which was overgrown and crumbling until the town formed the Ruiz-Herrera Cemetery Association.
Castro’s home, like others in the Medina River communities, was full of photographs, letters, land deeds, and other historical artifacts. The group has started hosting “History Harvests” in the area, encouraging community members to bring old photos and documents to help fill in the gaps. The next History Harvest will be held June 25 at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Von Ormy.
The land around the Medina River is lush and scenic, with towering cypress trees and bluffs. In 2008, Martinez de Vara led the effort to incorporate Von Ormy, in part to keep San Antonio from annexing it. He then served as mayor until 2015.
“In a generation or two it’s going to be different,” Martinez de Vara said. “The reasons it hasn’t developed are quickly eroding.”
While the City of San Antonio has a history of focusing development in the North, De La Cruz said, it’s only a matter of time before people realize the value of the land in southern Bexar County.
Restoring marginalized voices to the historical narrative of Bexar County is one goal of the project, but another is even more universal. Texas’ state mythology has led to a false understanding of who “we” and “they” are in the city and the state.
“We have been shamed out of our heritage,” De La Cruz said.
To make it simple enough for Hollywood and politics to script, the bad guys have been broadly labeled “Mexican” and the heroes we know most readily – Sam Houston, William Barrett Travis, Jim Bowie – are white. The truth, Vasquez explained, is more complex.
“We’re feeling the effects of the John Wayne narrative,” Vasquez said. “We have to dispel myths and we have to tell the truths, as unbearable as they may be.”
By highlighting the diversity that shaped San Antonio from the very beginning, on both the “Texian” (Anglo) and the “Tejano” (Hispanic/Native American) side of that false dichotomy, De La Cruz hopes to encourage a more inclusive rhetoric in a time when it is sorely needed.
“It’s my true belief that by looking [at] and retelling the history of our story correctly, we can heal the politics of our future.”