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San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a special place. It’s not just static buildings that tell stories of long ago. This place is alive and the story continues. The missions were some of the first settled agricultural communities in the area and they are still centers of community life, family gathering, and religious celebrations on the South Side of San Antonio.
I’ve lived in South Texas all my life, but I used to want to live anywhere but here. It took me too long to appreciate and understand where I was. The appreciation started to form when I began an internship at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park while I was in graduate school for anthropology. I thought it would just be a summer internship, but it turned out to be my career.
As an intern, my experience was so much more than talking to people about historical buildings, birds, and trees. I was able to teach visitors from around the world about South Texas culture and, hopefully, allow them to see the world through a new lens.
I am now the bilingual park guide at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, where I finally fully appreciate the deep history of South Texas. It is my job to share this history with visitors.
School groups are always a treat to talk to because elementary and middle schoolers have the best questions. They ask things that adults might be timid to ask. Where did they go to the bathroom? Did they smell? Was there a jail? Did the Native families try to escape? Were they treated badly? These are questions that we may not have a definite answer to but are important to ask.
Almost daily a visitor may ask me a question that I do not know the answer to, mostly because historical records and documents are few and far between. Most of the documents we do have are from priests and friars, so it’s impossible to know all the details of life during the mission period. That’s often what I tell visitors. The history of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution is not my forte. So, if visitors ask questions on those topics that I can’t answer, I will use my phone or iPad to look it up, and we can learn together.
The more that I learn about the indigenous peoples’ culture and the use of the natural resources available to us in this region, the more I am aware of my own ancestral roots. I am Latina with indigenous ancestry in South Texas and Northern Mexico. This makes me wonder how similar my native ancestors were to those who entered the missions of San Antonio 300 years ago. This personal connection makes my job as an educator of this story even more special.
Learning about Spanish colonization of the area gave me a new understanding of where Texas culture began, from the first vaqueros to Tejano culture and our beloved Tex-Mex food. I’ve also become interested in native plants that are both edible and medicinal, as well as other flora and fauna. I believe that knowing these things about where we live will make us understand and appreciate the ecosystem that we are part of. I like to think about the local plants and animals from the perspective of the hunter-gathers who were living on these lands long ago.
I want to know so many things, which makes my job both wonderful and challenging. I have to know all the basic history of the four colonial-era missions within the national park. If a visitor asks me to identify a flower, demonstrate the atlatl, or explain where descendants of the mission residents are today, then I want to know all the answers. That means I find myself doing research often. I am also thankful to have co-workers who love to sit and talk about history and dive deep into subjects that are often complicated, difficult, or unknown.
The daily life of a park guide at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is always changing. I see and talk to visitors almost all day. Sometimes I am inside the visitor center helping visitors get information, answering questions, answering phone calls, or swearing in Junior Rangers. Other times, I’m out on guided walks with groups of visitors.
During the pandemic, we ventured into virtual programming. I used Facebook Live from the comfort of my own home to talk about one of my favorite topics, the Spanish colonial roots of Tex-Mex food. As a park, we became more active on social media and produced more virtual programs when people couldn’t visit in person.
Now, I practice social distancing when I’m out with groups of visitors. The best part of my job is taking a group of visitors for a guided walk through a mission. I get to be creative and thoughtful while still giving historical information about the site. I love helping visitors understand the importance of where they are in relation to world history, as well as give them an understanding of the people that have lived in the region for thousands of years. Through these guided programs, I hope I help people find their own connection to these lands.