History of San Antonio

New exhibition traces San Antonio's triumphant and tragic history of immigration

Exhibition traces SA's triumphant and tragic history of immigration

Becoming San Antonio exhibition
“Becoming San Antonio: Centuries of Immigration" is on display now. Courtesy of Becoming San Antonio: Centuries of Immigration

A new — and brief — exhibition is chronicling how immigration has shaped San Antonio into the city it is today. “Becoming San Antonio: Centuries of Immigration" at the Briscoe Western Art Museum, examines both the impact of different cultures — and the institutionalized devaluation of these same cultures — within the city.

At its heart, “Becoming San Antonio" tells a story of triumph and tragedy. Launched as part of DreamWeek San Antonio, the free show runs through January 26, and is comprised of photos, poems, written accounts, and other objects that show the history of San Antonio immigrants. Hosted by the library portal, part of the San Antonio Public Library, the exhibition occupies a relatively small part of the Kampmann Library Portal inside the Briscoe, but it tells a mighty powerful story. 

American immigrants
In the early 19th century, Spain ruled the territory where San Antonio now sits. It allowed people from the young United States to enter the territory, which in turn, gradually pushed out the region's indigenous populations.

Years later, when it controlled the territory, Mexico enticed Americans and Europeans with cheap land to come live as Mexican citizens, further offsetting local Native American tribes. “Becoming San Antonio” delves into this loss of Native American culture and history in San Antonio.

Using black and white photographs, including those archived by the University of Texas at San Antonio, the exhibition explains that while several indigenous groups have been known to live in San Antonio, especially around the Spanish colonial missions, personal family stories and accounts from such groups have been lost or distorted. As a result, histories of entire generations have been wiped out through a breakdown in storytelling tradition.

The Civil War comes to San Antonio
As immigrants continued to settle in San Antonio in the 19th century, many of those people supported slavery in what would eventually become Texas. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, some San Antonians went on to fight (both literally and figuratively) anything or anyone that dare upset their way of life.

Some of the exhibition’s photos demonstrate this way of life before, during, and directly after the Civil War, including a slave family picking cotton; a “Negro” state fair in Bonham, Texas; and a black Seminole scout in U.S. Army uniform, posing solemnly with his family.

A melting pot
The exhibition also examines the many other cultures that came to San Antonio. In the 19th century, Chinese immigrants, who were employed cheaply and forced to work in unsafe conditions as they built railways and performed other laborious tasks, began to come to Alamo City.

San Antonio's melting pot of cultures continued into the 19th century. One archived photo, circa 1870, shows Jewish-owned stores in Main Plaza while yet another captures Irish men preparing barbecue on an open pit. (There’s also a vintage oil painting of Irish Flats, a literally flat area that became home to Irish immigrants beginning in the 1830s. The neighborhood, once located in what is now the northern part of the central business district, is now celebrated at La Villita.)

A new century brings new waves of immigrants
Another black and white image, also archived by UTSA, show Mexican and Chinese refugees fleeing Mexico for the United States in the early 20th century during the Mexican Revolution.

Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and others sought to leave behind the violence and uncertainty that resulted from the revolution (and America’s pursuit of revolutionary Pancho Villa). Many refugees either died at the border from the harsh conditions or at the hands of vigilante organizations such as the Texas Rangers. Still, other refugees made it into the states to make a new life.

Another picture captures the beauty of the Japanese Tea Gardens in 1945. “Becoming San Antonio” curators explain how Kimi Eizo Jingu, a Japanese-American artist, and his family managed the garden beginning in 1926. At the height of World War II in 1942, public resentment toward the Japanese forced them to leave and a Chinese family was appointed to briefly manage the garden in their stead.

Segregation and San Antonio
On display are two maps from the old Federal Home Loan Bank Board, produced decades ago show, and illustrating the beginnings of San Antonio's socioeconomic disparity. One, a “residential security map,” outlines levels of security for real estate investment around the then-San Antonio city limits.

The bank board labeled each neighborhood a type with a letter: A, B, C or D. Type A communities were newly built in the starting-to-sprawl North Side and, as such, made for the most desirable place to live.

Types C and D neighborhoods were the oldest communities. Clustered east, south, and west of downtown, these areas were deemed "in decline" and therefore least desirable. Meanwhile, the other map showed racial concentrations around the growing city, touting labels of “white,” “Negro” and “Mexican” in coordination with “desirability” of the neighborhoods, a perception still found in parts of San Antonio today.

Immigration’s modern wave
Still a hot button issue, immigration in San Antonio today is examined in Michael Cirlos' "Humans of San Antonio" project, a renowned series of images that convey the authenticity and personal meaning of culture to different San Antonians, ranging from Hispanic, African-American, Native American, white, Indian, Arab-American, young, and old.

His images include show San Antonians who have lived a rugged, long, difficult life; those who strive to make a better life for themselves and others; and honoring and preserving how their ancestors lived, worked, and played.

Ultimately, thought, Cirlos' images tell the story of San Antonio's past, one that is indelibly tied to its history of immigration. And, if one looks close enough, they also tell the story of the city's future.