Academic journal article Journalism History

Sword and Cross in San Antonio Reviving the Spanish Conquest in Depression-Era News Coverage

Academic journal article Journalism History

Sword and Cross in San Antonio Reviving the Spanish Conquest in Depression-Era News Coverage

Article excerpt

When the colonists of New England building block houses, hanging and torturing witches, and pressing stubborn old Giles Cory to death, in San Antonio, the Franciscan monks were converting the Indians, while they watched in wonder and worship the glorious façade and exquisite rose window of [Mission] San Jose . . . under the inspired chisel of Pedro Huizar. Such Spanish structures and those who erected them have furnished the background of romance and culture for San Antonio.1

Anna Ellis, San Antonio Express, February 12, 1933

More than one thousand mostly Anglo students costumed in fiesta attire, drab brown cassocks, and red paint danced in the streets as they "convincingly portrayed" Spaniards, missionaries, and Indians in San Antonio's six-day 1931 bicentennial reenactment.2 Celebrating the arrival two centuries before of the city's founding pioneers-Canary Islanders-was part of San Antonio's Depression Era-revival of its Spanish colonial past, the glories of which were socially constructed through its newspapers. By the time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first inaugural address two years later, exhorting the country that the "American spirit of the pioneer" was "the way to recovery . . . the immediate way," San Antonio, like many other communities nationwide, was already reliving that spirit.3

As historian John Bodnar noted, the 1930s were a time when recovering the past became increasingly important to Americans. With the economy in tatters, communities retrieved and remade public memories of pioneer heritage, finding comfort in memorializing past glories, conquests, and victories.4 San Antonio was no different. But the city's exultant reimagining of its early eighteenth-century Spanish-speaking founders was riddled with paradox. San Antonians' developing pride in their Spanish colonial past required them to repudiate the Black Legend, the ingrained historical characterization of Spaniards as cruel, bloodthirsty barbarians. The legend had long fueled Texans' intense vilification of the continent's first settlers, according to historian David Weber.5

This article focuses on a span, 1929 through 1934, pivotal to the creation of San Antonio's Spanish nostalgia movement. During these early Depression years, the economy was at its lowest ebb, while the San Antonio Conservation Society was at the height of its campaign against municipal agencies that failed to protect Spanish colonial architecture.6 Spanish nostalgia was not unique to Texas, and the state was not in the vanguard of the trend. In other corners of Iberia's former colonial empire, Spanish nostalgia had become chic as early as the late nineteenth century, a period in which hatred of the Spanish remained an "essential part ofTexans' self-identity."7

Walt Whitman expressed this nostalgia to Santa Fe, New Mexico, luminaries in an 1883 letter extolling the "splendor and sterling value" of "Spanish stock."8 Whitman argued that an honest appraisal of history would show that Spaniards, if anything, were less cruel than AngloNormans.'1 In the 1880s, Californians recast the image of the barbaric Spaniard as the Golden State exploited its own Spanish mission history. A decade after Whitman's salute to New Mexico's founding Spaniards, an 1893 World's Fair display romanticized the Mission Revival style of architecture, helping popularize the nostalgia trend begun in California.10 In this era, San Antonio developed its "fiesta" celebration of Spanish culture, though one folkloric municipal gala did not erase the Black Legend in the Lone Star state. "Hispanophobia lasted longer in Texas than in any of Spain's other North American provinces . . . well into the twentieth century," Weber noted." This article argues that civic volunteers, the Great Depression's economic imperatives, and the mediating role of newspapers all played a role in reframing the portrait of the Spanish empire in Texas.

While San Antonians in the early 1930s paid homage to the Spanish conquistadors, in yet another paradox, they largely stood by, as many heirs to that celebrated colonial legacy saw their welcome mat disappear. …

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