San Antonio: Fiesta City

First published in El Heraldo Magazine

San Antonio is synonymous with The Alamo. The legends and history surrounding the events of 1836 overwhelm the humble mission buildings and the city that grew up around it.

But San Antonio is so much more than The Alamo. Sure, that’s on the must-see list. But this Tejano city boasts a vibrant riverwalk shopping and dining district, art galleries that rival any major city’s, and enough family activities to keep the kids entertained while wearing them out.

First, of course, is The Alamo. A thorough tour takes about 90 minutes. A three-dimensional diorama shows the layout of the mission and surrounding area and describes how the mission was defended and how Santa Anna’s troops routed and killed the defenders.

Displays in the barracks buildings near the chapel tell the full story of the settlement of Texas and the fight for independence from Mexico. “It was heaven for men and dogs, but hell for women and oxen” reads one letter. Walk along the outside of the compound and look at the holes gouged by the grapeshot and cannon balls during the attack.

Many Tejanos fought for Texas independence. They settled the land alongside a United Nation’s-worth collection of Europeans. Each group brought its own traditions, and the mix created the unique Texas culture. Those contributions are celebrated at The Institute of Texas Culture. From Czech to Lebanese to Chinese to Jews to Black Seminoles to newly freed Blacks – only a melting pot as big as Texas could hold them all.

Each nationality has a display that tells why they came, when they came, what they did, and where they settled. Costumed volunteers man several areas, telling stories about what it was like to be a chuckwagon cook, or cavalry soldier. Videos show folk dances and ethnic customs, while interactive touch screens demonstrate how to “cook Seminole-style.”

The flavor of life in Mexico is found at El Mercado. This is the largest Mexican marketplace outside Mexico itself. The main market is an older building with stalls lining the dark corridors. Everything is found here: traditional ruffled dresses in rainbows of color, blankets, ceramics, many statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Anthony, even cattle skulls.

More stalls are in the building that once housed the Farmer’s Market. This is a much brighter, newer building, where artisans hammered tin art, porcelain sinks painted with giant sunflowers, jewelry, and ceramics.

Several food stalls inside keep shoppers from getting too hungry, but the best food is found in the restaurants outside. Mi Tierra is open 24 hours a day. Plan on going there for breakfast. Mariachi music filters in from the speakers at 8 a.m. The big dining room is decorated with hanging ‘icicle’ lights. Posts are covered with garlands and evergreens and more colorful bulbs. Photos of celebrities, employees, the owners, customers, and friends hang on the walls. In the back dining room, a mural depicting San Antonio’s history covers one wall. It’s peopled with residents of San Antonio, real and legendary, old and new.

Breakfast is equally legendary. A plate the size of a manhole cover arrived with huevos rancheros, Mi Tierra Style: two eggs, two smokets (sausage links that look and taste like hot dogs), potatoes with peppers, refried beans, salsa, and two big, warm, soft tortillas. And coffee. Lots of coffee, served by Blanca, a friendly waitress.

Most of the morning customers seem to know each other and the staff. There’s a lot of visiting among tables. Even those who are stopping in just long enough to buy something from the bakery where Mexican sweet rolls overflow from the counter pop into the dining room to greet friends.

“The Intersection of Civilization” is how Director George Neubert describes the San Antonio Museum of Art. It brings together the classical world and the Americas with a collection of Greek and Egyptian relics and the country’s premier collection of Latin American art.

Housed in the former Lone Star Brewery, the museum itself is a piece of art. The building was carefully restored, with a lot of thought given to using its space and design to best display the artwork.

The best example of that is the collection of Greek and Roman statues. They’re in a room that’s several stories tall, so it’s easy to picture these huge statues in a Roman forum. This also works well for two mosaics on the walls. Most museums aren’t large enough to allow for a sense of scale with those kinds of pieces.

The Egyptian room is a lot of fun, too. The mummy cases still have their original colors. There are friezes and snippets of wall art with messages from the Pharaoh, and Shawabti figurines. Egyptians used these as a way of cloning themselves in the afterlife.

The Latin American Wing has pre-Columbian art, Spanish Colonial and Republican art, folk art, and contemporary artists’ works. Interactive computer terminals allow for a frame of reference by explaining the different artists, styles, and historical times when the work was created.

The pre-Columbian area is open with lots of natural light, since most of the pieces are stone and not affected by sunlight. There’s a bowl, possibly used for containing ritual fires, balanced on the back of the ancestor of the Taco Bell dog; a brilliant blue figurine of an old man holding a younger woman; metalwork of the people of the Andes.

The folk art area is much darker in order to protect the art from the sun. Many of the artifacts are woven: ponchos and huipil blouses have designs that communicate marital status and other family information.

Contemporary artists have a gallery to themselves. Guides tell how excited Tejano children are to discover their world shown by respected artists. The museum is especially proud to have several works by Diego Rivera, the first highly-recognized Latin American artist. The pride of place is El Albanil (The Bricklayer). Rivera painted this for a contest and used the money he won to start his formal art education. It was thought to be lost for many years, but was recently discovered and donated to the museum.

San Antonio’s Riverwalk is now almost as well known as The Alamo. During the day, it’s filled with shoppers and strollers. In the evenings, its restaurants overflow with hungry tourists and locals, all enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. There’s a subdued bustle and an invitation to stroll along the avenue under the mature trees, listening to snatches of conversation and bits of music coming from the patios and clubs. Hop onto a barge for a guided tour through the canals.

There are so many kid-oriented things to do in San Antonio that there’s a separate guidebook. A quick sampler: The Hertzberg Circus Museum, with over 20,000 pieces of antique circus memorabilia and a hands-on area; the Cowboy Museum, where kids can explore a saddle shop, jail, general store – even a saloon; San Antonio Children’s Museum, where kids are encouraged to touch and try. If amusement parks are on the list, plan several days’ worth. There’s Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Sea World of Texas – the largest marine life theme park in the world, and Splashtown Water Park.

The Alamo may be why people first visit San Antonio, but everything else is the reason why they stay.
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