Two weathered gravestones sit in a small, dusty rectangle in front of the grand Spanish church at the heart of the nation’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the San Antonio Missions. I’ve been to Mission San Jose many times — to attend the lively Mariachi Mass, to photograph its antique majesty, to reflect on the history of this place and its role in the settlement of the American Southwest. But this is the first time I’ve thought of it as a cemetery.
I’m seeing it through the eyes of two direct descendants of the missions’ original inhabitants, members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, whose ancestors inhabited this part of what is now Texas for thousands of years. Some 300 years ago, they helped to build these missions, and their descendants maintain a vital connection to them.
Last year the five missions, spread out over about 12 miles along the San Antonio River, received the coveted designation of World Heritage Site. Four of them are still active Catholic parishes, attended by some of the original Native American descendants; the fifth, Mission San Antonio de Valero, went on to become a military garrison — the legendary Alamo, now converted into a memorial to the battle fought there.
Ramón Vásquez, a straight-talking Texan with a dark ponytail, and the soft-spoken Jesús “Jesse” Reyes Jr., an anthropologist in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, are my guides today. Ramón, executive director of a nonprofit organization called the American Indians in Texas, has teamed up with Jesse to create Yanawana Mission Tours — named for the pre-Hispanic name for the San Antonio River — which offers an eye-opening perspective not just on the missions, but also on American history itself.
Like most of the Tap Pilam people, Ramón and Jesse grew up with the missions as a fixture in their lives. One of Ramón’s most powerful childhood memories took place here at San Jose, when his family had come for Mass and he and his cousin were playing near the cemetery.
“We were running around and jumping on things, the way little kids do, and we saw an elderly lady all dressed in black, tiny,” he recalls. “She came in here” — he pointed to a stone building — “and we decided we were going to follow her. She walked in there real slow, and we walked in and we’d hide behind the little niches in the wall, and we followed her all the way in.” They followed her from room to room, finally into one with no exit — and then she was gone.
“After that, we just ran back and sat down next to our parents,” he says, chuckling. And yes, he does believe in ghosts.
We pause at the two small graves, one a nameless stone block topped with an iron cross, the other, dated 1893, chiseled with the name Juan Huisar. Most tourists visit these sites because they make up the largest collection of Spanish colonial architecture north of the Rio Grande. But for the Tap Pilam and other Indian mission descendants, they are a vital link to their ancestors. Because all of these missions, including the Alamo, are actually cemeteries, as the dead were customarily laid to rest inside mission grounds.
Our tour begins at Mission San Jose, the largest of the missions and the most restored. It has some of the most elaborate stone carvings, including the stunning Rose Window, believed to have been created by Native American artist Pedro Huizar, an ancestor of the Huisar whose gravestone we saw. Huizar families still attend the church here and are very active in the community, Ramón tells me.
The giant wooden doors at the main entrance of the fortresslike complex open onto a large grassy commons. It’s a world apart from the busy traffic and commerce that lie outside the stone walls. Around us, the interior walls are lined with the dwellings of the Native American families who once inhabited the missions, a series of small, interconnected rooms. A domed oven in front of one of them is a reminder that much of family life took place outdoors.
San Jose provides a strong foundation for understanding the Native American story, including exhibits and the short documentary “Gente de Razón,” or “People of Reason,” the Franciscans’ phrase for their goal of converting the natives into good Catholic Spanish citizens.
As we learn, the Spanish Franciscan priests who came here from Mexico encountered several groups of tribal peoples, including a variety of semi-nomadic tribes now known collectively as the Coahuiltecans, as well as roving bands of Comanches and Apaches who were known to prey on their neighbors. The Franciscans invited the Coahuiltecans to join forces in the 1700s, and together they created the church-based agrarian communities now known as the missions.
Each mission had its own ranch — this is where the cattle culture of the Southwest began. Indeed, there were cowboys in these parts before George Washington was born, my guides explain; the Spaniards brought the first cattle to the New World, and the first ranches were tended by the Native American mission inhabitants. Thus, as Jesse likes to point out, “the first cowboys were Indians.”
Ramón tells another story from those days:
“One of the things we were known for here was running down deer,” he says. “That’s how agile and in shape our people were, so they would also use them to be couriers to the different missions. . . . They knew the terrain, and they could, with or without a horse, still maintain their agility and speed — they were just good.”
Today, the Native American community commemorates those fleet warriors every September with the Spirit Run, in which the young men of the tribes begin at the Alamo and run 14 miles from mission to mission, being blessed at each one before continuing on their way.
The imposing dome that rises above the South San Antonio neighborhood at Mission Concepcion has remained essentially unchanged since it was completed in 1755. We step inside the sanctuary, cool and dark after the Texas sun. The focal point of the narrow and relatively simple church is the altar, where a painting of Christ watches over his flock. Ramón’s focus, however, is on a detail that would escape most. He points upward at blue and reddish lines on the ceiling.
“Part of our teachings is that there’s two roads that we walk: The Red Road, most people know about, and then there’s the Blue Road,” he said. “The Blue Road is the spiritual road that runs parallel to our Red Road. I’m not going to try to interpret all of this, but it makes sense to me when I look at the colors.”
Concepcion’s walls and frescoes are unusually intact, giving a rare glimpse into the artwork of the colonial period. The frescoes are an excellent example of the cultural blend of Spanish and Native American, using both Christian and indigenous symbolism. Off the sanctuary, for example, the ceiling of another room features a curious image: a mustachioed face surrounded by yellow rays.
“The sun, the moon, the stars were all considered faces of God for our people,” Ramón explains. “So when you look at things like this, you see the sun and moon and the balance of it and the interconnectedness to it. Here, the Spaniards were the masters. They were seen as superior, so the face of God had to be depicted as a Spaniard.”
Most Coahuiltecans are said to have assimilated into the church, leaving their native traditions behind. The minority that continued to practice the old ceremonies were hunted down, beaten and humiliated by mission authorities.
But even those who joined the Spanish Catholic church maintained a connection with the pre-Columbian tradition — and sharing that history is an important part of Jesse and Ramón’s mission tour.
“The natives mastered the guitar, the violin and the songs, and the Spanish said they sounded like birds,” Ramón said. “They became the best craftsmen, the best horseback riders, but every so often, they would leave the mission to conduct their “mitotes,” or ceremonies, which involved peyote and mezcal and the mountain laurel, and that would be used to make the connection to the spirit world.”
We drive to the southernmost mission, near the outer loop of the city, where a quiet, shady, older neighborhood surrounds the church and its grassy grounds.
“This is where I learned to drive, where Father Román used to take me out to practice,” Ramón says fondly. “My dad, he’s going to be 76 years old this year. He celebrated his 40th birthday right over there in that hall. You see those people over there bringing food? Someone is going to have a party. So the people still use this space. The community is very much alive here. The families that have been coming to church here since 1731 are still coming to this church, just as they have done for 300 years.”
Mission Espada, founded in 1690 near the town of Weches, Tex., and moved to its current location in 1731, is also the site where the “acequia,” or irrigation system, that was the lifeblood of the missions can still be seen at its finest. Each complex had a gravity-powered network of channels that carried water from the San Antonio River to agricultural fields. This masterwork of Spanish design and indigenous construction has remained operational since at least 1745, including an impressive double-arched aqueduct with a bulwark that lifts the watercourse over a creek and diverts floodwaters underneath. The water is still used to irrigate local crops.
As we enter the visitors’ center, two women and their children listen intently as a volunteer ranger explains the Spanish approach to colonization: to work with the native people, he says, instead of fighting them, as the English colonists did.
“You know, everything they were saying in there, I never got any of that in my history lessons,” one mother remarks.
Father David Garcia, director of the missions, says one of the most important aspects of the missions is telling that little-known story — and it begins with the Coahuiltecan peoples.
“Their contributions are not just that they were nomadic Indians running around killing buffalo — they actually built these missions,” he said in an interview at Mission Concepcion, where he leads the parish. “At one point, there was an intersection between them and the Spanish where they worked together. That is a different story than the story on the East Coast, where they didn’t work together, where [the Indians] were just pushed and pushed and pushed and eliminated and shot.
“In the Southwest, there was at least an attempt, even though it wasn’t perfect. But the fact remains that the Spanish made every effort to bring them in, to evangelize them, to teach them Spanish, to help them become part of the civilization of the Spanish — and that did not happen on the East Coast. And that’s a huge difference.”
We end our tour at San Juan Capistrano, along a rural, isolated stretch of the San Antonio River. Nobody knows this mission better than Jesse. He attended the church as a child, and in 1999 he spent nearly two months camped out here, guarding the bones of his ancestors that were being prepared for reburial.
Archaeological excavations during the 1960s had unearthed the remains of more than 100 people at the missions. They were taken to a local university for research, where they were catalogued and archived and left to gather dust. Mission descendants fought for decades to bring the remains home to a proper burial ground. When they won that fight, the tribal elders chose Jesse, then 25, to stay with the remains through the reburial process.
According to Native American tradition, contact with the remains created a potentially dangerous intersection with the spirit world, Jesse says. “It was scary,” he recalls. “My mom didn’t want me to do it. But I felt there was a calling.”
He shows us the small stone house where he held his long vigil. Nearby, he says, the elders set up tepees for all-night medicine (peyote) ceremonies, during which they prayed for the spirits of their people — those who had been taken from their resting places and were now being returned, and those who remain and keep their culture alive.
A spare white structure, long and lean, forms the church, absent the elaborate stone carvings, frescoes and other details that appear in the other missions. Indeed, I learn that this building was not meant to be a church; it was originally a granary, and a grander, more commodious church was planned across the way. But it was never completed.
Jesse and Ramón lead us around the complex, through the modest visitors’ center, on to the chapel itself, simple and austere, and the unfinished church. To the right is the cemetery where the remains were reburied in 1999, this time with prayers from new generations of descendants and from tribal elders of many nations.
Ramón stops in front of a small National Park Service interpretive plaque mentioning the presence of the remains.
“We asked at the time for a memorial to be put up in recognition of this, because how do you know what this is?” he demands. “I still see kids running in and out of here, jumping up and down. How do you protect this?”
There should be an iron fence to protect the space from wandering tourists and children, Ramón says. He understands, however, that this is not a popular request in a national park that is now a World Heritage Site.
“I’d love for them to put a gate up there,” he said. “But instead, I’m doing the next best thing. I’m going to start the Mission Tours, with my brother here, Jesse, and the American Indians in Texas, and we’re going to have tours and talk about it and let the public know.”
Tracy L. Barnett is a freelance writer based in Guadalajara, Mexico, and a former travel editor of the San Antonio Express-News.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the San Antonio Missions were the first UNESCO World Heritage Site to be named in the United States in 20 years. The text has been updated to reflect that it’s the country’s newest World Heritage Site.
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Yanawana Mission Tours
Group tours, which do not include the Alamo, are currently being scheduled. Check the website for details. Individual tours offered on an appointment basis. Tours include Native American-style foods and hands-on activities, including artisanal weaving and song-and-dance demonstrations. From $50.
History and Genealogy Day at Mission San Jose
April 23, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Mission descendant families, historical associations and genealogical societies will set up booths to tell visitors about mission history and how to do their own genealogical research. Free.