Even as an elementary school student in the 1960s, Ramon Juan Vasquez was an activist. He got into trouble at school for refusing to eat the lettuce and grapes served to him for lunches. 

Vasquez’s mother had to explain to administrators that her son was observing the boycott on lettuce and grapes called for by the United Farm Workers union organized by Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and only then did they relent.

Vasquez now leads American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions (AIT-SCM), an organization advocating for the recognition of Indigenous peoples while providing support for San Antonio families.

AIT-SCM’s advocacy and support activities will only grow now that the group has found a permanent home after 29 years as a renter. The organization will celebrate the grand opening of its new headquarters at 1616 E. Commerce St. on March 24, with food, music and an exhibition of artwork by Vasquez’s father, AIT-SCM co-founder Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez.

‘Through an Indigenous lens’

According to the AIT-SCM mission statement, the group’s main purpose is “to work for the preservation and protection of the culture and traditions of the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation and other indigenous people of the Spanish colonial missions of south Texas and northern Mexico.”

Employees at AIT can add items to the later inside of the wellness room to honor their indigenous practices.
Employees at AIT-SCM can add items to the altar inside the wellness room to honor their Indigenous practices. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

However, the activities of AIT-SCM are many, including community engagement, cultural arts, health and wellbeing, social justice, economic development and education. These apply to members of any of San Antonio’s various ethnic populations, said Communications Manager Defranco Sarabia.

“We try to address our community’s issues via healing through an Indigenous lens,” Sarabia said.

That means learning how one’s own personal heritage and history can affect other issues in the community, he said. “The modality of community health work is every single race and person has their own type of medicine or their own type of healing. By understanding that every community has different ways to heal, you have to support the cultures that enhance that healing,” he said.

Communications Coordinator Jahsanna Randolph added that “so many different things can play into someone’s quality of life.”

She listed various organizational programs and campaigns, including mental health counseling, doula birthing services, youth leadership development, the San Antonio Fatherhood campaign to encourage positive involvement in children’s lives, and the Reflejo Court, a Bexar County specialty court under Judge Rosie Speedlin Gonzalez that aims to reduce recidivism by first time misdemeanor domestic violence offenders.

Such a multilayered approach to solving community issues is important, Randolph said, because if one family is affected by trauma, “their trauma may impact their health and their wellness, and when they go into the world, that impacts other people’s health and wellness and our society as a whole.”

Continuing mission

By taking the executive director position of AIT-SCM in 1998, Vasquez inherited the multifaceted mantle built by his father through a life of activism and advocacy. 

At the time, “there was no building, no staff, no money, and everything was being funded out of their pockets,” he said of founders Steve Casanova, Raymond Hernandez, Mickey Killian, Linda Ximenes and Vasquez y Sanchez. 

“I told them that I would give them 10 years of my life if they allowed me to take this organization to the next level,” he said. His first goals were to establish a physical presence and achieve nonprofit status to begin raising funds.

“Now we’ve got a campus, we have two other offices on the West Side, and we have a $3 million [annual] budget,” Vasquez said.

When AIT-SCM began, “the whole purpose of the organization was to fight the Archdiocese [of San Antonio] and the State of Texas to get back human remains that were taken from the missions,” he said.

One hundred fifty reburials were performed at Mission San Juan in 1999, and that work continues to this day, with a reburial in 2013 and the most recent reburial in December. “Part of our mission is still to fight to get those remains back,” Vasquez said.

Meanwhile, the organization is expanding its public-facing footprint with the Spirit Waters art gallery at the group’s new headquarters, what Vasquez called the “first American Indian art gallery owned by American Indians in San Antonio.”

Appropriately, the first show is a retrospective exhibition of his father’s artworks, with prints of some notable works including detailed drawings of the missions available for sale in the artisan shop next door.

Into the future

The cultural mission of AIT-SCM includes a dance theater, the Yanaguana Singers, culinary arts, missions tours, an annual pow wow and events including the free ¡Unidos, Si Se Puede! Civic Unity Fair at the Mission Marquee Plaza this Saturday evening from 5-11 p.m. 

As for the future, parts of the new campus remain in development. A smaller building between the main buildings currently houses a supply of diapers for families with infants and toddlers, with 450,000 given out annually, Vasquez said.

Sarabia and Randolph hinted that a “food forest” or community garden might be in the works for a plot in back, something they could not accomplish on their prior property due to rental restrictions.  

They can now “really reimagine this space to what we want it to be, and continue building it in the future,” Randolph said.

Sarabia added, “We’ve been in a lot of conversations just about the future of AIT, from food sovereignty to educational relationships and outreach.” He mentioned plans for new classrooms in the main building and hinted at the possibility of adding a second story for greater capacity.

Everyone is welcome at AIT-SCM events, Randolph said. “We’re very reachable. … We like to start conversations and discussions, which I think is a really great way to learn more about how we’re integrating this Indigenous knowledge into the way that we move in the world and with each other.”

The AIT-SCM Center grand opening is free and open to the public with RSVP. It runs Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and features food, artisan vendors, and performers including Tejano fusion group Volcán.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...