By Farah Merchant, Preservation Scholar, Texas Historical Commission
Formerly part of Mexico and Spain, Texas has deep Hispanic roots. Much of the food, entertainment, and celebrations Texans enjoy are part of its Hispanic heritage. Hispanics were among the original Texans—their history is Texas’ legacy. San Antonio is home to many Mexican American cultural attractions, making it the perfect destination to experience Hispanic culture.
José Antonio Navarro’s house in the former Tejano neighborhood of Laredito showcases his life at the restored 1850s limestone home. Navarro was a rancher, merchant, one of only two native-born Texans to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence, and a leading advocate for Tejano rights. Now a THC state historic site, the property was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1962, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and named a National Historic Landmark in 2017.
Just around the corner, at West Commerce Street and Santa Rosa Avenue, visitors can wander the papel picado-lined walkways of El Mercado (Historic Market Square). Traditional and modern Mexican craft, clothing, and cookery stalls line the space. The City of San Antonio sponsors many working artists to create and sell hand crafts. Many shops also sell traditional cookware and ingredients, such as molcajetes and dried chilies. At the back corner of the intersection, the Texas A&M University–San Antonio Educational and Cultural Arts Center hosts Latinx art and cultural exhibits.
The market moved to this location in the 1890s to make room for the influx of diverse new settlers. Immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia added their own flavor to the Mexican market, establishing grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, and social clubs. Also around this time, the tradition of “Chili Queens” emerged. Women would cook traditional Mexican delicacies with finesse over mesquite fires. The tradition continues to this day with eateries serving street food such as gorditas, elotes, and aguas frescas.
In the Medina River Natural Area, several trails on the city’s south side hold historical significance dating to Spanish Colonial times. One of these trails, the El Chaparral Trail, passes through a reconstructed jacal, a hut believed to be part of the Perez Ranch. The property belonged to Spanish Texas governor Ignacio Perez. Dating to the 1700s, the trail was used as part of the El Camino Real de los Tejas, earning the site a listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
A group of Chicano artists founded the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC) to preserve and promote Chicano, Latinx, and Native American culture. Located at Guadalupe Ybarra and Brazos streets, the institution offers art and theater classes, concerts, and performing arts events. The GCAC also hosts an international Latinx film festival and exhibits works by local artists.
Nearby sites include the 1926 Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church—established to offer Spanish Mass to those who settled here after fleeing the Mexican Revolution; the family-owned La Chiquita Bakery; the MujerArtes art cooperative; and "En Aquellos Tiempo: Fotohistorias del Westside," a street installation of historical scenes from the 1900s–1950s.
The Instituto Cultural De Mexico represents the Mexican Government of San Antonio. Located at the heart of Hemisfair Park, the institute hosts a variety of events in its three galleries, multi-purpose room, and auditorium.
The Founders Movement is in front of the historic Bexar County Courthouse, which received restoration assistance from the THC’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Now commonly referred to as Main Plaza, it was originally known as Plaza de las Islas Canarias. Created by Laredo artist Armando Hinojosa, the figures in the monument represent the founders of San Antonio. They include Canary Islanders, American Indians, a Franciscan friar, and presidio soldiers.
In 1731, Spanish immigrants from the Canary Islands settled and formed a civil government in this area. Here, they lived with members of the mission, presidio, and villa communities. Each group attempted to maintain their own identities yet eventually worked together. A historical marker about the Canary Islanders was placed in 1971 in Main Plaza between San Fernando Cathedral and the Bexar County Courthouse, at the site where the Canary Islanders’ journey of about 5,000 miles ended.
The trabajo rustico (rustic work) or faux bois (imitation wood) technique uses cement to create pieces appearing to be made from nature. Dionicio Rodriguez and colleagues such as Maximo Cortes utilized this trend when crafting bridges, benches, and fences. In San Antonio, this handicraft can be seen at the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, and the Japanese Tea Garden. Today, Mexican artists, including Cortes’ grandson Carlos, continue to use this Mexican method, maintaining the area’s trabajo rustico tradition.