The King and Queen receive a tour of Mission San José hosted by the National Park Service.
The King and Queen receive a tour of Mission San José hosted by the National Park Service. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Inside the fountained garden of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, assembled dignitaries including City Council members, County officials, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg officially welcomed King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia to San Antonio on Sunday.

The Spanish Royals are visiting their former colonial settlement this weekend to honor the city’s Tricentennial, touring sites including Mission San José.

At a mere 300 years, though, the age of San Antonio and Bexar County pales in comparison to the Spanish royal line of succession, which traces its origins to 649 A.D., after the Visigoths established the kingdoms of Gaul and Spain.

In honor of the visit, the 1718 San Antonio Founding Families and Descendants, or “Los Primeros,” gathered in full costume to greet the King and Queen as they arrived at the Spanish Governor’s Palace behind City Hall. Appropriate to the era of the settlement’s founding by royal decree, Founding Families society members bore the Burgundy Cross flag of New Spain.

Accompanied by a police escort, Their Majesties stepped out of light-gold SUVs with Maryland license plates. Nirenberg approached to shake hands with King Felipe as an assembled crowd applauded and shouted “Viva España!

Michael Arteaga had waited by the barricades on Commerce Street since 7:30 a.m., hoping to catch a glimpse of the royals.

It’s good to meet royalty when you can,” Arteaga said, “and of course we’re from San Antonio so everybody’s welcome.” He proudly showed a smartphone image of his family’s ancestral castillo in Biscay, Spain.

Leading the 1691 expedition that would give San Antonio its name, Nirenberg said, General Domingo de los Rios “wrote in his diary that this area was the most beautiful in all of New Spain.”

San Antonio was last graced by a royal visit in 1987, when the father of King Felipe VI, King Juan Carlos I, visited with Queen Sofia. “And now,” Nirenberg said during his welcome speech, “we are humbled again, and grateful that that royal household of Spain is present in our city.”

A Tricentennial plaque was dedicated in honor of the King and Queen, and Nirenberg gave them the keys to La Villita, one of the city’s original neighborhoods. The plaque will replace the current plaque adorning the historic palace, said Monica Ramos, Bexar County public information officer.

King of Spain Felipe VI unveils a commemorative plaque honoring the arrival of the royalty to San Antonio during the tricentennial.
King Felipe VI of Spain unveils a commemorative plaque honoring the royal visit to San Antonio in honor of the city’s Tricentennial. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Their Majesties and the group of dignitaries next visited Mission San José to learn of its history and evolution to becoming part of the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas.

A small crowd had gathered on the mission lawn, waving plastic Spanish flags given out in church, awaiting their glimpse of the royals.

Raquel Ortiz said she and her family had traveled from Forney, Texas, simply to attend mass at San José, and were surprised to learn from the friar that they would be graced by the royal visit.

“This is such a treat. We’re so excited,” said Ortiz, who said she was especially pleased that her family shared a surname with the Queen, Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano.

The Ortiz family watch as Spanish royalty walks through the grounds of Mission San José.
The Ortiz family watch as the Spanish king and queen walk through the grounds of Mission San José. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Students from the Summer of Service program were also on hand to greet the King and Queen, in advance of their upcoming eight-day trip to Spain to celebrate the Tricentennial.

“It was a great experience just feeling the Queen’s hand,” said Theo Gunter, who attends the STEM Academy at Lee High School. “They were so tall! You look at them in the eyes, call them ‘Your Majesty.’ This was a whole new experience that I’ve never seen before in my life.”

The royal entourage traveled next to the Bexar County Courthouse downtown, for a private viewing of the Designing America: Spain’s Imprint in the U.S. exhibit, which originated at the Biblioteca Nacional de España and has traveled extensively. Designing America opens to the public Monday.

An official welcome ceremony at the Pearl Stable on Sunday evening was restricted to invited guests, including local dignitaries such as City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Nirenberg, Wolff, and Gov. Greg Abbott.

An eight-member ensemble from the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio sang the national anthems of Spain and the United States. In introducing the King, Abbott pointed out that Spanish influence is seen “in our law, our language, and our religion, ever present in our food and culture.”

In a speech to the approximately 200 guests, King Felipe commended local historians Félix Almaraz of UTSA and Gilberto Hinojosa of the University of the Incarnate Word, both present for the occasion, for keeping Spanish history in the Americas alive. “They have been pioneers in a field where they have excelled in their honesty and intellectual reach,” the King said.

He then pivoted to another well-known local figure. “How can I not mention one of our national sports heroes, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs center player, Pau Gasol? He cannot be here tonight, but I know he would have liked to join us.”

In closing, the King quoted Texas author Larry McMurtry: “We have never really captured San Antonio, we Texans, somehow the Spanish managed to hold it. … San Antonio has kept an ambience that all the rest of our cities lack … San Antonio speaks for itself, and much of its charm is in the way it embodies its past.”

During his visit, King Felipe will also look toward the future, participating in a meeting Monday between leaders of major companies from Spain and San Antonio to discuss future possibilities for trade and exchange in public education, culture, tech, energy, biosciences, and cybersecurity.

Also on Monday, Their Majesties will visit the San Antonio Museum of Art to inaugurate the Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid exhibition, which opens to the public June 23. The exhibition will feature masterpieces by well-known Spanish artists El Greco, Goya, Picasso, and Zurbarán, alongside works of distinction by artists less well-known outside of Spain.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter 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...