Native Americans and Canarians participate in the El Nacimiento rehearsal.
Native Americans and Canarians participate in the El Nacimiento rehearsal in Main Plaza. Credit: Courtesy / Paul Casanova Garcia

San Antonio’s Tricentennial provides an opportunity to weave together many stories of how the city began. On consecutive Saturdays in March, two heritage groups will stage elaborate, multimedia narratives that chart the founding of San Antonio through song, dance, and storytelling, featuring living descendants of the city’s founders.

The American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions Founder’s Day Feast will take place Saturday, March 3 at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, celebrating March 5, 1731, the day ownership of the mission was handed over to its Native inhabitants by Franciscan friars.

The celebration features a collection of oral tales of the city’s roots, told by members of the Jump Start Performance Company. Star actor and native San Antonian Jesse Borrego will also narrate a 30-minute play by Isaac Alvarez Cardenas, a local playwright and living Coahuiltecan descendant of the collection of tribes that populated the area before the era of colonialization.

Other living descendants of the Tap Pilam, and other Coahuiltecan Nation tribes, will join in with traditional deer dances, drumming, and song.

American Indians in Texas, the organizer of the Feast, will also take part in El Nacimiento, the Canary Islands Descendants Association‘s (CIDA) celebration of San Antonio’s founding taking place in Main Plaza on Saturday, March 10.

Deborah Charnes, a former board member of American Indians in Texas, said she appreciates “how the community is coming together, and how different entities are working together” to portray a more complete understanding of history.

El Nacimiento will fill the downtown plaza with performers and onlookers to celebrate the birth of La Villa de San Fernando, and the civil government that would become Bexar County and the city of San Antonio.

“One of the things we hope to accomplish with this ‘edutainment’ is to bring history alive,” said Mari Tamez, CIDA president. El Nacimiento is a collaboration between CIDA and many local heritage groups, including the Tehuan Band of Mission Indians of San Antonio and the Main Plaza Conservancy.

Texas playwright Joe Arciniega will direct and narrate the El Nacimiento “extravaganza,” as he called it, which involves 175 performers in full costume, singing, dancing, dramatizing, and playing traditional music.

Joe Arciniega directs performers during El Nacimiento.
Joe Arciniega directs performers during El Nacimiento in Main Plaza. Credit: Courtesy / Paul Casanova Garcia

Four groups are primarily responsible for establishing the 1718 settlement that would evolve into Bexar County and the city of San Antonio, Tamez said, including Native Americans, Spanish presidio soldiers and their families, Spanish friars, and the Canary Islanders – also called Isleños – sent by the Spanish Crown.

Arciniega is himself a descendant of the 56 original founding Canary Islanders. A street downtown bears his family name, and the house of his most famous ancestor still stands on the grounds of the Marriott Plaza downtown. José Miguel de Arciniega was twice the mayor of San Antonio, and a land commissioner under Steven F. Austin. The ancestral Arciniega built the little house with his father, Joe said, and will be featured in an upcoming KSAT special vignettes commemorating the Tricentennial.

Arciniega is careful to point out that his famous ancestor is one of the “19th-century guys” most people know about because of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, but that El Nacimiento is about the people who came here many years before and “made the city worth fighting for.”

Also, he said, “I love the spirit [of the El Nacimiento performance] because it includes the Native Americans who were on this land 10,000 years before any of us.”

A Canarian family participates in the El Nacimiento rehearsal.
A Canarian family participates in the El Nacimiento rehearsal. Credit: Courtesy / Paul Casanova Garcia

San Antonio is among the Top 10 cities in the U.S. for residents of indigenous descent, Charnes said, and remains an urban center for Native Americans.

“That’s why we talk about ‘Making the Invisible Visible,’” Charnes said of the American Indians in Texas tagline. “The indigenous roots [of the city] are too often ignored.”

Cardenas’ Native American-themed play, Charnes said, “will be a really good way to get a better understanding of the history,” and will touch on current events, and how the lives of natives were drastically altered by the arrival of the Isleños.

The Founder’s Day Feast runs Saturday, March 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Mission San Juan Capistrano. According to the American Indians in Texas website, the event is free to the public and open to all ages.

El Nacimiento begins on Saturday, March 10, in Main Plaza at 1:30 p.m. sharp, according to organizers, and will run approximately 90 minutes. Audience members are encouraged to arrive early and bring their own portable chairs, to gain their preferred vantage point. The event is also free for all ages and open to the public.

Both are official Tricentennial partner events.

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...