Char Miller.
Char Miller. Credit: Courtesy / Pomona College

Throughout the Tricentennial year, San Antonians have learned that the city’s namesake river was formative in the establishment of their community. Less familiar is the idea that drought and deluge have played as significant a role in the city’s shaping.

This concept informs historian Char Miller’s view of San Antonio’s development, in his new book, San Antonio: A Tricentennial History, published as part of the Texas State Historical Association’s Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series.

At a compact 186 pages, and due out in early October, the book is billed as “the first general history of … the seventh largest city in the nation” by its publisher.

From his home in California, where he is a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, Miller calls forth former Mayor Henry Cisneros for his declaration that “bridges cost lots of money” in explaining why some parts of town have key flood-avoidance infrastructure and other areas don’t.

In the book, Miller looks deeper into the issue, untangling a web of political power, economics, and social dynamics that have consistently favored white neighborhoods in the northern parts of the city over the majority Latino neighborhoods elsewhere, which explains past, present, and future trajectories of city development.

One reason he began the project, Miller told the Rivard Report in a phone conversation, was that “critique is healthy at moments of celebration.”

Miller, who spent 26 years as a professor of urban planning at Trinity University, also said the book is his “love letter to San Antonio,” and that the city can only improve if it acknowledges its faults. “That testifies to the love I have for the city, that I want it to be better,” he said.

Thus, A Tricentennial History is intended as a “guide to thinking about the past and present, that will at least open a discussion about a more compelling, resilient, sustainable future.”

That potential future is a thread that runs through Miller’s book. He might be first to have already consistently mentioned the city’s 400th birthday, with “quadricentennial” as the last word in both San Antonio: A Tricentennial History and his foreword to the official Tricentennial volume, 300 Years of San Antonio & Bexar County.

However, the San Antonio of yesteryear is hardly a place people would have predicted would last even 100 years, he said, due to the many conflicts that raged throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Credit: Courtesy / Texas State Historical Association

“If you look back at San Antonio, you could have had no sense that this was a place that would survive much beyond that moment, it was so riven with conflict and violence,” he said. “But it has survived and become a more humane landscape in a lot of ways.”

Much history emphasizes the power elite, and the public sphere of government, Miller pointed out, but private life can be just as or more impactful.

A salient private moment from his own life informed his approach to writing the city’s history. While serving on a jury, Miller observed a Latina on the panel who had served in the military, and what a difference her status and income made to “elevate the life chances” she and her family had, he said.

This illuminated the crucial role the abstract concept of “defense spending” has played in the city’s economic development, he said, but also highlighted the rise of women, particularly Latinas, against traditional gender roles, and “the oppressive nature of life in San Antonio if you didn’t happen to be white and wealthy.” Her own, private story, he said, is one form of resistance.

Other forms include political activism, for instance Communities Organized for Public Service, an organization formed in the 1960s as a counter to the political control of white upper-class men that is now known as COPS/Metro.

“COPS was one of the most powerful grassroots organizations in the U.S.,” Miller said, and its activism helped elect many Latinos to office, including Cisneros.

San Antonio: A Tricentennial History is written for a general, non-academic readership. In his introduction, Miller suggests that subsequent books could be written to expand on subjects his book touches on, including the importance of such grassroots activism, and the lives of private individuals, in changing San Antonio’s political, social, and economic dynamics.

History doesn’t simply happen, Miller insisted, but is the result of choices people make in how they behave and treat others.

He hopes his volume “helps us see that at every moment in time, there is a lot of contestation between those who think they control the world and those who do control the world.”

Unlike much larger cities like New York or Los Angeles, he said, “San Antonio is still a place you can see what’s going on and actually have an impact on it.”

If the book has any impact, he said, “what I hope is that it will give people a way to think about a future San Antonio in its 400th year that is more equitable and just than it has been in the past 300 years.”

The book begins and ends with one of the main native tribes, the Payaya, which populated the area when Father Damián Massanet arrived and renamed their Yanaguana river after St. Anthony de Padua.

Echoing other historians, Miller writes that their impress on the missions was significant and that the culture that emerged from this period was shared. Perhaps less shared was their relationship to the environment and natural resources.

“The Payaya were hyper-alert to their place in this place,” he said, highlighting their deep knowledge of natural cycles and migratory patterns, in contrast to the land-management “blindness” exhibited by settlers up to the present day.

Though the Payaya have been essentially erased from history, Miller said their legacy remains. One example he cites is the annual Office of Historic Preservation‘s Restored by Light event that uses video to restore the mission churches to their former, painted glory, with patterns that reflect both Franciscan and indigenous cosmologies.

But by the mid-18th century, “the Payaya as Payaya were no more,” Miller writes, now just a flicker of memory in a sole surviving word from their language: Yanaguana.

History itself resembles the Restored by Light projections “because it’s ephemeral,” Miller said. “It’s one night of beauty flashed upon a façade, which then disappears” only to reappear a year later.

The projections are “striking when seen, but not lasting. In a way, that’s how the past is to the present – a thing that is there and isn’t, that is seen and not seen, and comes and goes.”

But the missions remain, and recalling the Payaya as essential inhabitants and founders of the city is a start, he said, and worth attempting, “because ours is not the only history that should be remembered.”

Miller will visit his former hometown for a book signing at The Twig Book Shop on Thursday, Oct. 18, from 5-7 p.m. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon and other sources.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...