Ramón Vásquez and Jesús Reyes traverse the grounds at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.

In the wake of the World Heritage designation of San Antonio’s Spanish colonial Missions, a Native American advocacy group will provide tours of the Missions that illuminate the sites’ indigenous history.

Ramón Vásquez, the executive director of the local nonprofit American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions (AIT-SCM), said the tours will not only tell the history of his ancestors, but they will shed light on the indigenous descendants alive today. One of those descendants might be a Catholic attending mass on Sunday, and another might be a young woman celebrating her quinceañera.

Desiree, age 14, practices on her guitaro before a mariachi performance at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.
Desiree, age 14, practices on her guitaro before a mariachi performance at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.

When the Spanish arrived in Bexar County in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Native Americans, who primarily settled along streams and riverbanks, lived a hunting and gathering lifestyle.

The Spanish, who saw the indigenous people’s, or Coahuiltecan’s, way of life as primal, began building the Missions in the early 1700s to educate and convert the native people to Catholicism to make them so-called “productive Spanish citizens.” Those Missions in Bexar County include Mission Concepción, San Jose, Espada, San Juan, and the Alamo.

Ramón Vásquez gives a mock tour of the Missions. Photo by Scott Ball.
Ramón Vásquez gives a tour of the Missions. Photo by Scott Ball.

Vásquez will take visitors through each of the Missions except for the Alamo. He said the iconic site draws too many tourists and has too long of lines for it to fit within the time schedule of his organization’s tour.

The first tours are set for Sept. 24-27 as part of a City initiative titled “The Historic Discoveries – The Unforgettable Experience.” Starting in October, two sets of tours will be available to visitors. One will last for two and a half hours and take visitors through the four Missions. The other tour will last about four and a half hours and will include textile making, song and dance, and food demonstrations at Mission San Juan, the last stop on the tour.

Vásquez and AIT-SCM Board Member Jesús Reyes, both of whom are descendants of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, walked inside of Mission Concepción and pointed to a sun painted on the ceiling. Vasquez said the native peoples understood celestial bodies such as the moon, sun, and stars to be gods so the Spanish would incorporate these icons into the aesthetic of the Missions. The Spanish would paint the walls of the Missions with colors familiar to the Native Americans. A strip of red and yellow paint wound around one of the walls inside of the Mission. He said these colors were chosen because they were earth tones of the region.

A sun painted on the ceiling inside of Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.
A sun painted on the ceiling inside of Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.

While leaving Mission Concepción, Vásquez said his mother sang in the Mission’s choir.

“Some of us became good Catholics,” he said.

Circling the perimeter of Mission San Jose, Vásquez plucked buckeye nuts that hung down from a tree. He said the Spanish would use the nuts as rosary beads. Vásquez said the Spanish used these familial colors, objects and paintings as a method of converting more native peoples to Catholicism.

“They saw (the Native Americans) as Pagans,” Reyes said. “They thought they were saving their souls.” Spain was trying to build its empire so the goal was to convert as many Native Americans as possible.

“This is where it all began,” Vásquez said upon arrival at Mission San Juan, referring to the 1967 excavation of more than 100 mission inhabitants buried on the grounds of the Mission. The Archdiocese of San Antonio gave permission to archaeologists to dig up burial sites at the Mission for university study purposes.

AIT-SCM was formed in 1994 to retrieve those excavated remains which were reburied in 1999. Once again, 15 more bodies were unearthed in 2012 during a renovation project at an existing church at Mission San Juan. Those bodies were reburied in 2013. The nonprofit holds memorial services each year to commemorate the remains of those individuals.

Ramón Vásquez and Jesús Reyes describe the history of their Native American ancestors. Photo by Scott Ball.
Ramón Vásquez (right) and Jesús Reyes describe the history of their Native American ancestors. Photo by Scott Ball.

Following the trail that loops around the grounds of Mission San Juan, Vásquez and Reyes held their shoulders high as they came upon the plot of land where their descendants were reburied. They sat on a stone ledge and peered out over the gravesite that held the remains of their ancestors.

Reyes said the remains of the Mission inhabitants were dehumanized and he wants to use these tours to tell their stories.

“These are human beings, there is passion to what we are talking about,” he said. “People care.”

*Featured/top image: Ramón Vásquez and Jesús Reyes traverse the grounds at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.   

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Joan Vinson

Former Rivard Report Assistant Editor Joan Vinson is a San Antonio native who graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She's a yoga fanatic and an adventurer at heart....