Standing before about 50 people in a large room at the Witte Museum during the last public meeting on the Brackenridge Park bond project, Matilde Torres held one end of a laminated poster depicting an intricate cave mural painted thousands of years ago in the Lower Pecos region of southwest Texas.

The ancient work contains the origin story of her ancestors, Torres explained, and the San Antonio River plays a central — and spiritual — role in that story: the headwaters of Yanaguana, or Spirit Waters, as the river was known to the Coahuiltecans, is considered the sacred spot where life began.

That conviction is one reason why Torres and other Indigenous descendants say they oppose the removal of dozens of trees from the banks of the river at Brackenridge Park as a part of the 2017 bond project.

“Those trees are alive and they’re also a part of the underworld, and the middle world and the upper world,” Torres said. “Everything that flows within that tree is water, right? Those are waters [that were] within our ancestors.”

More than just opposing the tree removal, however, Torres and others want to ensure that as Brackenridge Park is revitalized, it represents and honors the history of the people who lived along its banks for 12,000 years before the Spanish arrived.

Origin stories

The 26-foot-long cave painting, now known as the White Shaman Mural, is considered one of the most important and illuminating pre-historic artifacts of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands Archeological District. Located in Val Verde County, about 200 miles from San Antonio, researchers have been studying its many-layered meanings for decades. That includes Gary Perez, an Indigenous descendant and researcher who has deciphered crucial elements of the mural; his voice can be heard in the Witte Museum’s video exhibit about the people of the Lower Pecos.

In his interpretation, Perez sees a map of Texas — perhaps the oldest one in existence. This map includes depictions of the four great springs of Central Texas, Perez said: Barton Springs in Austin, Comal Springs in New Braunfels, San Marcos Springs in San Marcos, and the headwaters of the San Antonio River, now known as the Blue Hole.

He and Torres recently shared various aspects of their ancestors’ origin story and other cosmological myths of the Payaya people, one of the Coahuiltecan tribes of South Texas who lived along the banks of the San Antonio River, likely within the bounds of modern-day Brackenridge Park.

“Our roots go deep,” Perez said. “These trees are our teachers because the trees teach us that our roots go deep and are everywhere.”

The headwaters of the river, which spring from the Edwards Aquifer, is located on 53 acres now preserved in perpetuity and stewarded by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word through the nonprofit Headwaters at Incarnate Word. The spring was a sacred pilgrimage site for Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, Perez said.

The story goes, Torres said, that a waterbird flew into the Blue Hole, where he encountered a blue panther that lived there. Startled, the waterbird immediately flew back out, flinging water droplets from his tailfeathers. These droplets fell onto the land, and from them sprang life.

The Payaya were one of the groups upon whose sweat the San Antonio de Valero Mission was established, according to accounts kept by the Texas Historical Association. They are mentioned in records of this mission as late as 1776. 

Today, the story of the blue panther and the waterbird is loosely depicted through art and sculptures at Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair.

Torres and Perez also said they share Indigenous people’s cosmological belief that the part of the river where the bond project will be primarily focused — the horseshoe bend just north of Joske’s Pavillion — aligns perfectly with the Eridanus, a constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere, each winter solstice.

Matilde Torres, explains Monday that the shape of the San Antonio River is similar to the shape of the constellation Eridanus.
Matilde Torres points out that the shape of the San Antonio River at the horseshoe bend in Brackenridge Park is the same shape as the constellation Eridanus. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Indigenous populations native to the area, Perez said, believed a bridge between the physical world and spirit world opened there at midnight on the solstice — “much like the bridge in [the movie] Coco does on Dia de Los Muertos,” Torres added.

Both said the headwaters and the river are still considered sacred to local Indigenous people today, and they want to see that reality represented inside San Antonio’s central park.

Representation within the park

Over the last several decades, Brackenridge park has fallen into disrepair.

In an effort to reverse that slide, the City of San Antonio commissioned a master plan in 2016 “to shape the future development and rehabilitation of Brackenridge Park for many years to come.” That master plan was finalized and approved by City Council in 2017.

As a part of the process, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, a nonprofit created in 2008 to help restore and care for the park, commissioned extensive research on the park and its history. The result was the Brackenridge Park Cultural Landscape Report, which aims to understand the park’s assets and deficits, and asks how best to accurately reflect its history while also serving city residents in the decades to come.

According to the report, the occupation of the area by Indigenous people prior to written history is one of eight distinct timeframes encompassed by the parkland’s history.

In 2017, San Antonio voters approved an $850 million bond for city projects, with $116 million to improve parks. Of that, roughly $7.75 million was to be used to “repair and enhance” historic features of Brackenridge Park, including the Lily Pond, Upper Labor dam, Upper Labor acequia, the pump house and Lambert Beach.

While the coronavirus pandemic slowed down those plans, city staff went before the San Antonio Planning Commission in January seeking a project variance to remove 104 trees — including nine heritage trees — as part of the project. City staff said those trees were either damaging the historic structures, are diseased or invasive, and so should be removed. To replace the lost tree canopy, the plan has always included planting new trees.

While the planning commission approved the removal, the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission delayed making a decision after about dozens of citizens spoke passionately against the action. The city paused the project, and later announced a series of public meetings to get input from the community on the design process.

Those meetings began in March; at the last one, city staff shared a preliminary design that it called phase one of the project, and announced three more meetings to discuss phase two.

Torres has attended all four public meetings, joining environmentalists and other advocates who continue to strenuously object to any tree removal. Attendees also continue to demand that the city cease its rookery mitigation efforts in the park.

During the last meeting, city officials and project designers announced they would be able to save 19 of the trees originally slated for removal by relocating them within the park.

But like others who have shown up to every meeting, Torres was not impressed with the city’s most recent effort. Prioritizing the walls and other “built” structures at the expense of the trees favors colonial and post-colonial history over Indigenous history, she said.

She chided officials for not reaching out to any Indigenous groups before designing the project, even though three tribes (the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, the Lipan Apache Band of Texas and the Comanche Nation Historic Preservation Office) had written letters opposing the tree removal.

San Antonio Parks and Recreation Director Homer Garcia said during the meeting that while he hasn’t seen the letters, he would be happy to meet with representatives from San Antonio’s indigenous community, as did Kinder Baumgardner, managing principal with the SWA Group, the landscape architecture firm designing the project.

“We know that there are these Indigenous contributions and significance to the park,” Baumgardner said. He added he and his staff will look for ways to incorporate Indigenous history into phase two of the project.

To date, no meeting has been set; Garcia told the San Antonio Report he and his staff plan to call Torres and Perez this week to set up a time.

Torres stressed she is just one representative, and said she hopes Garcia speaks with representatives from multiple tribes.

“One thing they need to understand is that [one group doesn’t] speak for all Indigenous people,” Torres said. “I would like to see [the city] invite these other groups, invite these other tribes as well [and to] make it a day for them to share their knowledge, to share their stories.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the relationship between Gary Perez and the Witte Museum, and misattributed the owner of the land where the Blue Hole is located.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...