Each year, the National Park Service invites families descended from the original mission residents to create altars for a Día de los Muertos display in the Mission San José granary.
On view through Wednesday, a dozen altars pay tribute to relatives and ancestors whose surnames appear on street signs in Mission Road neighborhoods, on gravestones in mission cemeteries and on property deeds that in some cases date back hundreds of years.
Three photographs on one of those altars tell a story that goes back centuries, from the building of the mission in 1720 to a group of houses that once stood at 6711 San Jose Dr.
For Día de los Muertos holidays in the recent past, Brenda Pacheco has decorated an altar that pays homage to her father’s side of the family, Mission San José residents descended from the original 16 Canary Islander families that settled what is now the city of San Antonio.
This year, Pacheco left that task to her cousin Jeanette Pacheco-Garcia and decided to pay tribute to her mother’s side of the family, the Romeros, whom Pacheco recently learned were also deeply involved in the life of the mission.
When she was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Pacheco said “neither side of the family ever talked about their Native American lineage.”
When state officials came knocking on the door of the family’s newly built house in 1970, at stake was their property, located in the shadow of the mission’s eastern wall. Preservation efforts for what decades later would become part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and San Antonio Missions National Park meant homes of nearby residents would be bought and razed to make way for a new visitor center and parking lot.
The power of eminent domain meant that Texas won the property and the family would have to move.
The loss embittered Pacheco’s father, Richard Pacheco, who felt his ideal of the American Dream — to work hard and own a home — had been betrayed. Eventually he and her mother, Janie Escobar-Pacheco, divorced.
Escobar-Pacheco held on to the property as long as she could as the state met with decades of delays in building the new mission amenities. And even when the order to vacate finally came in 1992, along with a check that Pacheco said was nowhere near enough to compensate their loss, her mother decided to keep the house itself, take a reduced payment from the state and relocate the building to a property 7 miles south in the unincorporated Bexar County community of Losoya.
“And that’s where the house still sits,” Pacheco said, reminding that it once stood in the literal shadow of Mission San José.
“I still own part of that house, but I live over here, still just a couple of blocks down from San José mission” with a cousin, she said. “This is my neighborhood … and I’m going to live here until I die. I’m never going to move.”
A Romero revelation
While it was known that her father’s family had lived on the mission since the 18th century, what only recently came to light is that her mother’s side also had close ties to Mission San José.
The Arguelles-Romero family from which Escobar-Pacheco descended not only lived in Mission San José but also were among Pampopa tribal members who originally built the mission.
The family eventually found its way to a ranch in Christine, Texas, where her great-grandfather Felice Romero would work as a vaquero and live with his wife, Antonia.
Felice’s daughter Selia Romero would meet and marry another vaquero, Sequiel Escobar, and the couple relocated to Pleasanton, then finally settled in San Antonio within five blocks of the mission. Their daughter Janie and her husband would later purchase the property at 6711 San Jose Dr., housing several members of the family.
In returning to their ancestral land, her family “made a full circle,” Pacheco said, though she’s unsure whether her grandparents were aware of their family history.
On the altar inside the granary, a black and white image of her grandmother Selia Romero Escobar is displayed draped with a pink lace mantilla she wore to church every Sunday. Accompanying the photograph are a pair of ceramic salt and pepper shakers she owned and a blue enameled ladle and spoon representing her work as a cook on the Christine ranch.
In the middle section of the altar is an image of Felice and Antonia, the only picture Pacheco has of her great-grandparents.
And on the left side is Escobar-Pacheco, proudly wearing the uniform of a certified peace officer, a job she took late in life to support herself, rising to the rank of sergeant. Nearby are ofrendas including a laminated obituary from her death in 2013 at age 75, a bottle of pancake syrup from Cracker Barrel and a cassette tape of Patsy Cline singing “A Closer Walk With Thee.”
The obituary lists a long line of surviving family: Pacheco and sisters Debra Garcia and Audrey Casias, their husbands Ernest and Frank, and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Pacheco now works on behalf of that lineage, serving on several city advisory committees, including the Alamo Museum Planning Committee.
Joining the Pacheco and Romero family histories has meant the world to her, she said.
“Now I know beyond the shadow of a doubt who I am, and my legacy and my ancestors, and all of that richness that comes with being an original member of that mission, whose family helped build that mission,” Pacheco said. “Because I’m rich. I may have nothing, I may have no money, but I am rich … because of what I know now, and who I am.”
The granary at Mission San José is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and can be visited free of charge.