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Complex History of The Alamo: Missions of Catholicism

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Over our school’s fall break, I visited San Antonio, Texas. While there, I noticed that the city had a rich cultural heritage deeply rooted in history, and was intrigued by the brief history presented to me when I visited the Alamo or the Mission San Antonio de Valero, a popular tourist attraction and famous Spanish mission. Upon looking into the complex history of the Alamo, I discovered that there were five different preserved missions throughout San Antonio, each with its own story and unique architecture. I decided to visit the other four missions in the area, and when I did, I discovered an ethnic group known as the Tejanos whose ancestors were both the Spaniards from Europe and the Native Americans from Texas. Their culture has developed in an uncommon way due to the intermarriage between two vastly different groups.

The Tejano people of Southern Texas originated from hunter-gatherers in early times, or Native Americans that worked in the fields. At this point in time, the Native Americans in South Texas were known as Coahuiltecans. The Coahuiltecans would move around south Texas and northeastern Mexico depending on the season in the search for food. As a result, they found it tough to begin farming and have a stable source of food, so many died of famine or disease. For food, they infrequently ate game animals and, for the most part, consumed nuts, fruits, and seeds, and survived nomadically by moving through the surrounding areas.

By the 1700s, the Spanish had migrated through the New World to South Texas in order to spread Catholicism. In South Texas, the Spanish built many missions, many of which were in present-day San Antonio. These missions, located about three miles from each other, are known as the Alamo or San Antonio de Valero, Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada. The Spanish would gather tribes of Native Americans that they found in the surrounding areas and place them in the missions. The Spanish would convert the Coahuiltecans, then teach them how to farm and cultivate crops in a controlled way as well as other skills with European tools. Some Native Americans were forced into missions, while most others went to the missions of their own accord due to famine, lack of protection, or disease brought by the Europeans. The Coahuiltecans were oftentimes willing to convert and provide their labor due to the hardships they were facing outside of the missions and saw the missions as a gateway to a better life (National Park Service). Despite all of these advances, many of the Coahuiltecans felt out of place and confined within the walls of the missions. They escaped the missions and continued leading their old lives since they missed the life they were accustomed to. However, other Coahuiltecans conformed to the Spanish forms of living and took part in Spanish society by pledging allegiance to the Spanish Crown and learning how to defend against attackers using European weapons and methods.

Seventy years later, European diseases brought by the Spaniards had ravaged the Native Americans, and very few were left in the missions, even after each successive generation intermarried with the Spanish. As a result, the Spaniards secularized their missions in order to ensure their future success. For the most part, the Spaniards either went westward or back to Spain. This left the remaining Native Americans and their future Spanish generations to fend for themselves, after being dependent on the missions for so many years. These people who had to survive using their learned skills who were partly Coahuiltecan and partly Spanish came to be known as the Tejanos of South Texas and began to develop their own heritage that stemmed from their ancestors’ beliefs and lives.

In San Antonio, I visited all five of the missions to see how the Coahuiltecans and Spaniards lived within, and to see many of the chapels that were still in use within the missions. Each mission featured a chapel, living quarters for the Native Americans and friars, granaries, kitchens, workshops, and a large plaza in the middle. All of the missions were built in a square shape, with all of the buildings set towards the sides as a barrier from invaders. Throughout the chapels and the grounds, I noted that many of the areas remained cool despite the hot Texas sun since the trained artisans had built it using stone and many of the areas remained dark with few windows to minimize sunlight.

In Mission San José, I learned a great deal about the history of the natives with regard to the Spaniards and the beginnings of the Tejano people. I was able to see the way that the Native Americans and Spaniards lived and how their daily lives functioned. I saw many of the common areas, such as the kitchen for cooking food and the plaza for general events. This gave me a look into the community-centered lives of the Tejanos today, a concept taught by their Spanish and Native American ancestors. In San José’s chapel, I saw many “Day of the Dead” displays set up that honored certain families’ ancestors. Based on this, I could determine that the Tejanos still continued many of the Catholic ideas and traditions that were originally brought by the Spaniards. I also noted that service was regularly held in many of the mission chapels, proving the Tejanos’ cultural ties to their Spanish and Coahuiltecan ancestry.

In Mission Concepción, I attended a discussion about the significance of the chapel and its specific location. Mission Concepción was built with the intention to place the Virgin Mary’s altar on the east wall, so that the setting sun on the day of Conception, or August 15th, would display a double solar illumination. This is a phenomenon that causes the face of Mary and the floor of the chapel to be illuminated by the sun at the same time, through two strategically placed windows on the west wall of the chapel. The artisans in the mission designed this in order to honor the Feast of the Assumption of Mary when the Virgin Mary ascended into heaven at the end of her life. The sun illuminating the Virgin Mary’s face is representative of her assumption into heaven. This mission gave me an in-depth look into the Catholic rituals that are still practiced today by the Tejano people, started by the Spanish and Coahuiltecans in the 1700s.

Overall, the Tejanos remain connected to parts of their cultural heritage as inspired by their Spanish and Native American ancestors. Through looking at parts of the missions and Native American life and comparing them to concepts in present-day Tejano culture, one can see the deep influence of the Spanish missions on Native American history. Today, Tejanos have developed their own culture that involves celebrating many of their ancestors’ pasts and creating their own, new forms of cultural expression through music and art, which are ever-present in San Antonio, Texas. 

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Complex History of the Alamo: Missions of Catholicism. (2022, August 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
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