Traditions Live On in San Antonio
One thing that becomes immediately apparent to even a casual visitor is that San Antonio is a composite, blending diverse ethnic groups and heritages. German, American Indian, Eastern European, African-American, Southern, Western, but above all a vibrant Hispanic legacy combine in a rich cultural mélange that sometimes yields surprising results. The best traditions in San Antonio are a blend of the old and new, and the city is at its finest when its ethnic diversity shines through the tourist façade.
San Antonio hosts a rich musical scene, especially when it comes to conjunto, a boisterous accordion-driven music which fuses European dance forms such waltzes and polkas with the pulsating rhythms and dramatic lyrics of traditional Mexican music. Conjunto’s soul, however, is pure American. Like the blues, jazz, rock ‘n roll, and other seminal American musical forms, it changes with the times yet always preserves its roots.
Several conjunto festivals are held in San Antonio each year, not to mention that each autumn San Antonio hosts the International Accordion Festival. Having recently discovered Tejano conjunto and having long been a fan of other accordion-rich genres such as Cajun, zydeco, and klezmer, I’d give my eye teeth to attend this world-renowned gathering of accordionists.
Of course, there’s far more to San Antonio’s musical scene than conjunto. The city abounds in bars and clubs featuring country and western music, not to mention jazz clubs and larger venues for everything from classical to hip-hop. And if it’s a good old-fashioned honky-tonk you’re after, San Antonio is the place to go. The city is also famous for its fiestas, and needless to say music (along with food and drink) is the main fuel at these festivities. Chances are if you can’t find music to your liking in San Antonio, then you simply aren’t trying.
Glorious Foods and Vibrant Marketplaces
Anyone who comes to San Antonio expecting to dine primarily on burritos and tacos had better take a closer look at the city’s sophisticated restaurants and lively markets. Each fall the city stages an ambitious New World Food & Wine Festival, which showcases not only regional cuisine but focuses on the city’s role as a cultural gateway to Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. You can find those burritos and tacos in San Antonio, sure, but you can also find world-class cuisine as well.
I had the pleasure of attending the 2005 New World Food & Wine Festival (which I hope to write about it in more detail in a separate journal), where I sampled everything from wild boar tenderloin to fine "reposado" tequila. San Antonio has just about any type of restaurant you can name, plus a few you might not have thought of yet.
The city is famous for its Tex-Mex cuisine, of course, not to mention its "chili queens," long since departed but still fondly remember. The tradition of chili queens dates back to the 1880’s, when San Antonio was a bustling cattle, railroad, and military town. Hispanic women would make a special homemade stew from beans, chilis, and beef. They’d load their chili onto colorful wagons to transport it to the market, where they’d keep their wares warm in big pots hung over mesquite fires. The "chili queens" would dish out their fiery concoction to eager customers. Crowds would gather, and as the sun set lanterns were lit and the night was filled with the music. It must have been quite a scene.
Alas, the chili queens are now but a distant memory (public health regulations put an end to this in the 1930’s), but you can still enjoy a night of music and song, especially at San Antonio’s El Mercado, a large and colorful indoor market similar to a Mexican market. I stopped by El Mercado one evening to visit Mi Tierra Restaurant and Bakery, a San Antonio institution. This lively place features wonderfully detailed murals featuring portraits of local personalities, restaurant employees, and the Cortez family, which has run this likable eatery since 1941. Mariachis strolled from table-to-table in the packed dining room, which was lit by thousands of twinkling colored Christmas lights left up year-round.
El Dia de Los Muertos
Flanking Mi Tierra’s entryway are two windows, which during my visit were filled with displays for El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, celebrated at the end of October and early November in San Antonio as it is in Mexico. At first glance, Dia de los Muertos displays may seem garish or simply macabre, with skeletons, skulls, coffins, and votive candles vying for position on the ofrenda or offering for the day.
But look more closely and it becomes clear that these offerings are an enticement to the spirits of the departed to return to the earth. Typically, an ofrenda will include the favorite foods and items of loved ones, and candles and incense are lit to help the departed find their way back home. Sweets (including skulls and coffins fashioned from sugar), specially baked bread, flowers (especially marigolds and cockscombs), elaborate wreaths, and cut-paper decorations are also placed on the altar in honor of the spirit guests who are said to return to earth for this special occasion.
I saw a number of ofrendas for Dia de Los Muertos while in San Antonio, including a very poignant one dedicated to troops stationed in Iraq at the Institute of Texan cultures. The city got into this traditional celebration in a big way in 2005 beginning in mid October with exhibits, lectures, performances, and workshops around town. What impressed me most about the displays I saw was that unlike Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos is still relatively untainted by commercialism. While many of the displays may seem whimsical, there’s a reflective side to this distinctive celebration.
The earliest of San Antonio missions, Mission San Antonio de Valero, founded in 1718, is better known today as The Alamo, but this was but one of a chain of missions the Spanish established. Today Missions Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan, and Espada comprise the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, one of the few urban national parks in the country.
What interested me most about these historic missions is that with the exception of the Alamo, all of them are still active parish churches. One afternoon while visiting Mission San Jose (1720), the largest and best restored mission, I found worshippers seated in quiet contemplation and prayer inside the lovely church, while elsewhere park volunteers gave interpretive demonstrations on life during Spanish Colonial times. There’s a sense of continuity in these places that is quite special.
If the missions provide a sense of religious tradition, in the geographic center of the city stands what is perhaps San Antonio’s spiritual center, San Fernando Cathedral. Founded in 1731 by settlers from the Canary Islands, it is said that several heroes of the Alamo, most notably Davy Crockett, William Travis, and James Bowie, are buried there, but historians and archaeologists have pretty much discredited this claim. That does little to detract from San Fernando’s glory, however, for not only is it the oldest continuously used cathedral in the U.S., but it is also still very much the at the heart of the city’s spiritual life, with over 5,000 people attending weekend masses.
The afternoon that I visited testified to the vibrancy of the cathedral. Camera-toting tourists stood admiring the altar and religious statues while at the back of the nave a priest blessed visiting children. Outside, a cluster of thirsty patrons thronged an umbrella-shaded refreshment cart, while across the street in the main plaza, the inevitable breadcrumb-tossing old lady drew a flock of cooing pigeons.
Echoes of the Wild West
Let’s not forget that San Antonio was once a frontier town, a meeting place for ranchers, cowpokes, traders, Native Americans, and any number of colorful characters. Teddy Roosevelt mustered his Rough Riders at Fort Sam Houston, and a local citizen who refused to brand his cattle and let them roam the plains freely, one Samuel A. Maverick, gave rise to the eponymous term for an independent cuss.
To get a taste of San Antonio’s storied Wild West past, I spent an entertaining hour at the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, a somewhat touristy but impressive collection of mounted trophy animals ranged alongside and above a old western style saloon. A true testimony to the art of taxidermy (and every animal-lover’s nightmare), the collection began back in 1881 when the saloon’s original owner began dispensing liquor in trade for deer antlers – a surefire way to appeal to the hard drinking if-it-moves-shoot-it set.
Whether it’s a vintage tequila or a quiet place for reflection, chances are one of San Antonio’s enduring traditions has it covered.