Henry Cisneros laughs with fellow panelists during the San Antonio Icons and Turning Points in Contemporary City History.
Henry Cisneros laughs with fellow panelists during a San Antonio CityFest discussion examining the city's notable turning points. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In San Antonio, history is a river that flows around and back over itself, with the past, present, and future all becoming one.

At three morning panels of the Rivard Report’s inaugural San Antonio CityFest, speakers offered various lenses through which to view San Antonio’s long history and how the city will change in the years following its Tricentennial. The Saturday events took place at Southwest School of Art’s campus downtown and were part of a full day of programs exploring San Antonio’s challenges and opportunities.

The opening panel featured authors who had contributed to 300 Years of San Antonio and Bexar County, a Tricentennial collection of essays that address what makes San Antonio a “center of American becoming,” as writer John Phillip Santos put it.

“We’re very accustomed to being at the edge of empires – the frontera, at the margin,” said Santos, a scholar of mestizo cultural studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Honors College. The city lies at the crossroads of an Anglo colonial empire that began at Plymouth Rock and a mestizo culture emanating from the conquest of Tenochtitlan, he said.

Joining Santos on the panel were Char Miller, an environmental historian and former Trinity University professor, and Claudia Guerra, the City’s cultural historian and editor of the Tricentennial commemorative book. Rivard Report arts and culture reporter Nicholas Frank moderated the discussion.

A Conversation with Contributing Authors to 300 Years of San Antonio and Bexar County.
Panel moderator Nicholas Frank talks with contributing authors to the Tricentennial book 300 Years of San Antonio and Bexar County (from left) Char Miller, Claudia Guerra, and John Phillip Santos. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

All three panelists were focused on the city’s history as a cultural echo or reverberation, where the past is constantly reflected in the present, rather than a sequence of events. Miller described how he, upon his move to San Antonio, used the famous 1764 map of the city drawn by Luis Menchaca to get to know the place.

“It helped me see the way in which the Spanish mind created a geography here,” Miller said. “This was constructed as a city. It was not some agricultural settlement that grew up because agriculture was here; it was designed as a city as part of an empire.”

Guerra said that while some stories of San Antonio’s history are told repeatedly, others are more obscured. Asked about some of her favorite pieces in the book, she talked about an essay by a young writer trying to ascribe words to a certain San Antonio sound that emerges in local music.

“It’s hard to describe it, but you know it when you hear it,” Guerra said. She also discussed her own essay, written in a journalistic tone to tell the story of San Antonio’s first Fiesta.

She didn’t get too specific; readers will have to read the book to get the whole story.

“I did not know how comical it was,” she said of that first celebration, “It did not go over well. There was mayhem.”

The next panel featured a set of local icons who witnessed firsthand many of San Antonio’s important moments over the last 50 years.

Moderated by Rivard Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard, the panel featured Rosemary Kowalski, founder of the hospitality and events company RK Group; Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary and former San Antonio mayor; Aaronetta Pierce, a longtime African-American arts advocate; and former Mayor Phil Hardberger.

All are members of what Rivard called the HemisFair Generation – leaders who witnessed how the 1968 World’s Fair transformed San Antonio from what Cisneros called a “very insular, very provincial” town into a city on the rise.

“HemisFair is what turned a little company like ours completely around and gave us the chance to be successful as, not just us, but the whole city,” Kowalski said.

A conversation with San Antonio Icons and Turning Points in Contemporary City History.
Panelists (from left) Rosemary Kowalski, Aaronetta Pierce, Henry Cisneros, Phil Hardberger, and moderator Robert Rivard discuss HemisFair ’68 as a pivotal event in San Antonio’s history. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Pierce described her experiences moving to San Antonio with her husband in the 1960s, when the city was still dealing with segregation. In the 1980s, she became a member of the San Antonio Museum of Art’s board of trustees.

“Which was pretty unheard of,” she said. “Everybody on the board was white and wealthy, and I was young and innocent.”

She also described serving as chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission in 1987, the year of San Antonio’s first official MLK Jr. March. The annual event has grown massively and is now one of the largest in the country.

Cisneros, who served on City Council in the 1970s before becoming mayor, talked about a development in 1977 that gets little attention these days but was instrumental in making City government more representative of San Antonio’s people.

That year, the city moved from electing its City Council members at large to single-member districts, in which each part of the city elected its representative.

That led to the first majority-minority City Council in modern times, Cisneros said. Several members were under 35 years old. Before then, Council members tended to be in their 60s and “have touched all the right buttons” from the Chamber of Commerce to King Antonio, Cisneros said.

Hardberger, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2009, recalled a more recent example of San Antonio showing its true nature: when the city opened its arms to thousands of refuges from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“It turned out to be a very important thing in terms of helping San Antonio find its spirit and showing as a community what we were made of,” Hardberger said.

The final Tricentennial panel on Saturday changed the focus from where San Antonio has come from to where it will go in the 21st century.

The panel featured San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans’ first female mayor. Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson moderated.

Matson asked both mayors about the challenges facing their cities, which both turned 300 this year.

Cantrell described how parts of the New Orleans have suffered from a lack of investment, both in physical assets and in human capital like education, health, and job training. She said New Orleans is investing in infrastructure, such as roads that haven’t been paved in 100 years, making good use of federal funds, and giving city employees raises.

“You hear the term ‘kick the can down the road,’” Cantrell said. “Well, I’m the one picking up the can.”

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg explore the similarities between their cities, both of which marked their tricentennials this year, on a panel during CityFest. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio faces many of the same issues.

“For years, there have been policies and practices that leave entire swaths of the community out,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg said that one of the most important changes during his tenure is the sense of equity that’s permeating through City government, including in setting the City budget. For too long, San Antonio has been among the top U.S. cities for economic inequality, Nirenberg said.

The way forward might in some ways echo San Antonio’s past, Nirenberg said.

“San Antonio story is about a confluence of cultures,” he said. “One of the things we’re trying to accomplish, which comes from the history of the community, is becoming a city that embraces everybody.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.