Until just a few years ago, San Antonio native Hector Pacheco didn’t know much about his ancestors. But when he joined a local genealogy society in 2013, he soon stumbled upon leads that sparked his interest. After countless hours of studying old books, birth certificates, and other antique documents, Pacheco was able to trace his lineage back 10 generations to a woman hailing from the Canary Islands – Maria Robiana de Bethencourt.
The story of Maria and 55 fellow Canary Islanders who came to the Spanish province of Texas more than 100 years before the Battle of the Alamo is among the lesser-known chapters of San Antonio’s rich history. Recently reinvigorated efforts by locals and the Canary Island government, including a new documentary film, could change that.
Although the first major Spanish expedition gave San Antonio its name in 1691, it was not officially founded until 1718, when the mission of San Antonio de Valero (now known as the Alamo) and the first presidio were established at San Pedro Springs. Intending to Christianize and populate the province of Texas, King Philip V of Spain asked the Canary Islands to send families to the New World. They sailed some 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and reached Cuba in the summer of 1730. Twenty-five families stayed in Havana and 16 families consisting of 56 Canary Islanders continued to Veracruz, Mexico, where they hiked 800 miles north. They arrived at the Presidio San Antonio de Béxar on March 9, 1731.
“Maria Bethencourt’s first husband, Juan Rodriguez Granado, died of tropical fever after the ship landed in Veracruz,” said Pacheco, who serves as president of the Canary Islands Descendants Association San Antonio. “But she still made the trek to Texas with her five children and was granted a homestead on the southeast corner of Main Plaza and Commerce Street. A few years later, she married Martin Lorenzo de Armas, who was one of four men who had come to Texas without a family.”
Among the first actions of the Canary Islanders was laying out the site of San Fernando Cathedral, now one of the oldest cathedrals in the Unites States and the oldest, continuously functioning religious community in the state. Shortly after, they formed the first civil government in Texas, Villa de San Fernando, which later became San Antonio.
Today, signs of the Canary Islanders can be found all over the city if one knows where to look: a historic marker on Main Plaza, a small woven fabric at the Spanish Governor’s Palace listing the names of the first 16 families, an auditorium at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) downtown campus named the Aula Canaria and, most notably, San Fernando Cathedral, built in part with funds and labor from the Canary Islanders. The statue next to the retablo behind the altar at the cathedral depicts the Virgin of Candelaria, the Patron Saint of the Spanish archipelago. Nearly life-sized, the statue was brought by the early settlers and fell victim to a fire in the 1800s. The current statue, a replica gifted by former Canary Islands President Manuel Hermoso in 1986, wore traditional robes hand-knit by the women of the region. Over the years, the once luminous colors faded and the fabric frayed.
A few weeks ago, Candido Padrón Padrón, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Canary Islands, visited San Antonio and brought new gowns for the statue. Assisted by members of the Canary Islands Descendants Association, the minister himself made sure that the handmade dress and robe were put on appropriately – a well-known procedure in the Canaries, where the omnipresent Virgin of Candelaria statues receive new clothes every year.
It was Padrón’s first official visit to San Antonio, where he was welcomed by Mayor Ivy R. Taylor and recognized with an Alcalde certificate in front of City Council.
“Walking through your beautiful city, I am constantly reminded of the settlers who came here in 1731. Seeing how San Antonio embraces its Canarian heritage to this day fills me with great joy and gratitude,” the minister said, visibly moved.
He also expressed a desire to knit even closer ties between his government and the Alamo City, especially since the Canary Islands Trade and Investment Office formerly located downtown on South St. Mary’s Street was shut down during the Great Recession. Now, the newly-founded Associates of the Confederation of Isleño North American Heritage (ACINH) aims to promote existing and new partnerships in the areas of culture and commerce. One of ACINH’s first projects was a documentary film on St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans, founded by 2,000 Canarians in the late 18th century, following San Antonio’s settlement. Minister Padrón screened the documentary during a visit to the San Antonio Public Library, where he met with Library Director Ramiro Salazar to discuss an exchange database that would help San Antonians research their ancestry with the help of historic documents from the Canaries.
To the excitement of local officials and Canary Islands descendants, the minister additionally announced that two more documentary films are planned: one will showcase Miami and Florida, where the largest immigrant population from the Spanish islands lives today, and the second one will feature the story and heritage of the Isleños that first settled in San Antonio. Furthermore, after opening the 2013 San Antonio Film Festival and several screenings across Texas, the docudrama “Texas Before The Alamo” from San Antonio filmmaker Bill Millet is expected to be released on public television later this year.
“Over the years, we have had many cultural, educational, and economic exchanges with Las Palmas and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, our two sister cities on the Canary Islands,” said Sherry Dowlatshahi, the City of San Antonio’s Chief of Protocol and Head of International Relations. “Mutually beneficial partnerships require continuous fostering, which is why we welcome the Canary Islands’ plans to reinvigorate their efforts. This relationship is very important to us.”
Tenth generation Isleño Pacheco hopes that Minister Padrón’s visit and the upcoming documentary will draw more attention to the story of his ancestress Maria Bethencourt and the 55 early settlers from the Canary Islands.
“It could be the beginning of a new chapter,” he said.
*Featured/top image: Members of the Canary Islands Descendents Association the new robe on the Virgin of Candelaria. Courtesy photo.