As more than 350 cyclists dismounted, had their “Tour de las Misiones” passports stamped, and explored San Antonio’s four Spanish Colonial Missions and the Alamo during the first annual World Heritage Festival Saturday, it was hard to imagine that not too long ago, some of these cultural gems were close to ruins.

Following decades of preservation efforts and major restorations, San Antonians celebrated their rich history in a brand new way, pairing pride for their past with an enthusiasm for what the city is becoming.

“It’s a story that’s still being written today,” National Parks Service guide Helen Johnson announced over ringing bells at Mission San José, which was built the 1760s. “When those Franciscans and the Native Americans came together, they combined and birthed a new culture, the Tejano culture. And that is such a strong part of South Texas culture today. This evening the church will fill up, tomorrow morning the church will fill up, and there will be masses held here. And many of those parishioners are decendants of those (first dwellers of the) Missions.”

The World Heritage Festival bike ride was one of many activities offered to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s designation of the San Antonio Missions and the Alamo as World Heritage sites last year. The bike tour offered a 22-mile route for more ambitious participants, as well as more family-friendly 14- and 7-mile rides. Following a stint from the Mission Park Pavilion to the Alamo, the main crowd rode down South Flores to Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.

Those who have traversed European pilgrimages such as the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain or ventured through the ruins of the Incan empire in Peru will recognize the passports that participants had stamped at each destination. With an image and description of each cherished structure, the passports represent the City’s ambition to put the Missions side-by-side with the rest of the world’s precious cultural treasures.

The new World Heritage Mission Passports were inspired by the passports from the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The new World Heritage “Tour de las Misiones”passports were inspired by the passports from the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

It also encourages people to explore the distinct histories and designs that all five sites have to offer.

“People love to check things off their list, World Heritage sites included,” World Heritage Director Colleen Swain told the Rivard Report. “So this is a way for them to come to see the World Heritage sites and check off all five.”

The Spanish Colonial Missions were designed in the early 1700s by a handful of Franciscans travelling north from Mexico in the hopes of converting American Indians to Catholicism. With Apache raids, diseases, and drought threatening their survival, many tribes joined the Franciscans, providing the necessary labor to construct and sustain the Missions until the end of the century.

Carolyn Peterson, an architect who has been working on the Missions’ reconstruction since the 1960s, described the buildings as marvels whose history could be read in the very walls.

“What we’re dealing with are wonderful buildings that were built out in the middle of nowhere with some master masons and Native Americans who had never seen buildings like this before,” Paterson told the Rivard Report. “… You’d see funny little things that were corrected in how the stones were cut to make them fit right, so you can kind of see the process of teaching the people how to do this wonderful work.”

Engaging the local community – and those visiting San Antonio – with this history was the World Heritage Festival’s top priority, Swain said.

“The purpose of this World Heritage Festival is to reach people of all ages, all demographic backgrounds, (and) to get people interested in coming to see our Missions,” Swain said. “I often hear from people who haven’t been to one, let alone all five.”

While many visitors had never been to the Missions, some described the buildings as part of their personal story.

To fellow biker Daniel Pineda, whose San Antonio roots go back at least four generations, the Missions represent communal values and a place to find peace from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

“As the ancestors came before us, they had a vision,” Pineda, who frequently meditates at the Missions, explained as we biked along Mission Road. “This is a place to gather and raise our families. And still people are gathering – look at us here today.”

Living in the Southside and volunteering with the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions (AIT-SCM), which works to preserve Native American culture, Pineda was both excited and concerned about the new World Heritage Site designation. On the one hand, he hoped it would bring more attention to an area that has typically been left behind. On the other hand, he pointed to signs along the road protesting recent plans to develop apartment complexes near Mission Concepción.

(Read more: Apartments at Mission Concepción Receive Final Approval After Height Adjustment)

“This secret’s been here a long time, but it’s no secret to us,” he explained. “It’s shared among our compadres, the men who do the work here. This is our promise land.”

Raymond Hernandez, who, as tema, or chief, for the Coahuiltecan tribal community, traces his ancestry to the American Indians who constructed the Missions, also described the World Heritage status as a “double-edged sword.”

“I don’t want it to turn into a theme park,” Hernandez explained. “These are sacred, sacred sites… How the Jewish people look to their ‘Wailing Wall,’ these Missions have the same significance to us… We have people buried here.”

Preserving his community’s heritage, however, doesn’t mean stagnation, Hernandez said. He sees promise in the city being recognized on a global stage.

“Now the world’s going to know that there was a history here that pre-existed the 13 colonies and that we have contributed to this city, to this nation,” he said. “When you talk about what Americans are, we believe that we are the epitome of being an American.”

A Vietnam Veteran, whose family fought in both WWI and WWII and the Korean War, Hernandez sees no conflict in identifying himself as a U.S. American and Texan with Spanish and Coahuiltecan roots. And there is no better place to celebrate this dynamic clash of cultures than in the Missions.

The festival will continue until 11 p.m. tonight with the Mission Pachanga concert series. Special masses at each of the Missions on the Mission Reach will provide a fitting close to the celebration.

But for all those involved, this is just the beginning.

“The Missions, aqueducts, acequias, the River, and how it was all incorporated into life – all of that has a large influence on San Antonio in subtle ways,” Peterson said. “…And now (it’s) going to be experienced by many, many more people than (it has been) up to this point.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed mass will be held at the San Fernando Cathedral downtown, but no such mass will take place.

Top image: Bikers make their first stop of the World Heritage Festival Bike Ride/Tour at The Alamo.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Related Stories:

Photo Gallery: Mission San José Gets ‘Restored by Light’

Missions Accomplished: The Journey to World Heritage Designation

First Annual World Heritage Festival: ‘Something for Everyone’

Alliance Cautions Against World Heritage ‘Theme Park’

Mission Pachanga: A Musical Homage to World Heritage

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.