SAN ANTONIO, TX - A bubbly guide named Misty gathers our small tourist group in the handsome square opposite the fabled Alamo. In a whispered voice, as if not wanting to disturb the hero ghosts connected to this sacred place, she begins our tour by proudly telling us “I’m a fifth generation Texan.”
“That’s important,” she continues, “because you have to be a Texan to really appreciate what happened here. The Alamo is in our DNA. It’s our duty to keep the memory of the sacrifices made here alive.”
What happened here is well documented in history books and on film — a small band of 189 Texans, led by American folk heroes Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, withstood a 13-day siege in 1836 by an estimated 2,500 Mexican troops under the command of President General Antonio López de Santa Anna, before all the Texans were slaughtered.
“You see that spot over there,” says Misty pointing to a place opposite the main wooden doors of the tiny Alamo mission church, where the last stand took place. “That’s where they found Davy Crockett’s body.
“And over there (a small patch of manicured grass directly in front of the Alamo entrance) is where Santa Anna’s troops piled the Texans’ bodies and burnt them.”
Her voice now filled with emotion, Misty tells us, “we may have lost the Battle of the Alamo, but we won the war.”
Left: Massive monument in San Antonio remembers those lost at the Alamo. Middle: Mission San Jose is the largest of the five UNESCO missions in San Antonio. Right: The Rose Window is a striking feature at Mission San Jose.
Buoyed by what happened here, Texans and reinforcements from other parts of the United States regrouped and under the battle cry “Remember the Alamo” defeated Santa Anna’s army a month later and declared Texas independent from Mexico — it became a U.S. state in 1845.
As if on cue, the sun pops up from behind the Alamo and casts a golden light on a striking stone monument honouring those who lost their lives here.
“The square you are sitting in is the actual battlefield,” says Misty, as she leads the group across the street where the long barracks (Alamo living quarters) are located.
“They say at the height of the battle, the blood was six inches thick on the dirt floor of the long barracks,” says the guide as we enter the buildings that now serve as the Alamo Museum — one of its prized processions is a sword used by Santa Anna.
“Santa Anna actually was the one who introduced chewing gum to America,” says Misty. “He even wanted to adopt some of the children whose fathers were killed in the battle.”
Long before it became a symbol of American courage, the Alamo was a simple Franciscan mission — Mission San Antonio de Velero — one of five that the Spanish established in south Texas in the early 18th century during their colonization of the area, which included all of Mexico.
All five (Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Espada and Mission Valero) are now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and form one of America’s most fascinating frontier complexes.
Left: The Alamo is the best known of the five San Antonio missions. Right: Legends like James Bowey and Davey Crockett lost their lives defending San Antonio.
“The Franciscans established Mission Valero in 1718 and constructed the long barracks in 1724. The (Alamo) church was added in 1744 but it later collapsed and had to be rebuilt in 1756,” Misty tells her attentive audience.
“Interestingly,” she continues, “the Franciscans never built a roof on the Alamo and the one that tops the building now was added much later.”
Four of San Antonio’s five historic missions are governed by the U.S. National Parks Service but not the Alamo — that falls under the jurisdiction of the state of Texas.
“We Texans will never allow anyone but Texans to watch over the Alamo,” says a proud Misty.
Just as fascinating as the Alamo is the much larger Mission San José, a short drive from downtown San Antonio.
Officially known as Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, this is the largest of the five missions and best reflects the “community” aspect the Franciscans wanted to establish in the New World.
“San José is known as the Queen of the Missions,” says Anna Martinez-Amos, the U.S. Park Ranger who offers to show me around the sprawling complex, which was restored to its original 18th century glory in the 1930s.
What appears to be walls surrounding the mission are actual living quarters where, at its peak, hundreds of people would have lived. The cramped quarters, where I find it hard to stand up, offered shelter and protection for the indigenous people of south Texas during time of drought, famine and war, Anna tells me.
Left: The alter inside Mission San Jose is still is use today. Right: People used to live in the walls of Mission San Jose.
“The mission could accommodate about 400 people,” the Ranger says. “And up to 10 people would live in each of the homes.”
The mission’s lovely limestone church is its main attraction and its La Ventana de Rosa (Rose Window) is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Baroque architecture remaining in North America.
Located on the south wall of the church, the Rose Window was where the faithful would gather for the Feast of Pentecost and other high holidays. It was apparently named for Rosa, the lover of Juan Huizar, the man who designed it in 1775.
The church, which was completed in 1782, was once considered the most beautiful in all of New Spain — and it seems to be getting more beautiful with age.
Inside, it’s simple but lovely alter attracts many worshipers — the church still has a very active congregation.
So when you are in San Antonio, make it your “mission” to discover these relics from the past, which offer a true insight into what life was once like in pioneer south Texas.
For more on the missions around San Antonio, go to: www.visitsanantonio.com / The best way to get to San Antonio from Toronto is with Air Canada, which recently launched direct flights there. / If you are looking for some great places to eat in San Antonio, may we suggest: Cured: https://curedatpearl.com/ — Bzotika: botikapearl.com — Nao Latin Gastro Bar: www.naorestaurant.com (all located in the Pearl District) or very local ones like Smoke Shack BBQ www.smokeshacksa.com/ and Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderiawww.mitierracafe.com/