San Antonio’s Summer Homage to Spain

San Antonio is famous for its Mexican heritage including its Tex-Mex cuisine and the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

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Shivani Vora
, New York Times

San Antonio is famous for its Mexican heritage including its Tex-Mex cuisine and the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

But the city’s connection to Spain does not get the same recognition even though this metropolis of about 1.5 million residents, one of Texas’ oldest cities, was founded by Spaniards in 1718 on the banks of the San Antonio River. In fact, Texas was part of Spain from 1690 to 1821.

This summer, to coincide with the tricentennial of the city, San Antonio’s Spanish heritage is set to come to the forefront.

“The city’s 300th birthday is the ideal time to put the spotlight on the country that so strongly inspired the culture and artistic traditions of the city,” said Katie Luber, director of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Two initiatives, each four months long, are paying homage to Spain including a milestone exhibition of paintings by Spanish artists at the museum and an “Olé, San Antonio” celebration in the Pearl District, a riverfront neighborhood that is home to many restaurants, independent stores, a boutique hotel and a Culinary Institute of America campus. Many of Olé's events are affordable and free.

Spain’s early explorations of Texas began in 1521, according to Sherry Kafka Wagner, a historian and urban designer. “Parts of Spain are semiarid like San Antonio, and the Spanish were able to settle here because they were adept at water engineering and established an irrigation system along the river,” she said.

The city began with three parts, Kafka Wagner said. In 1718, there was the Mission San Antonio de Valero, now known as the Alamo, where Spanish priests presided over Native American inhabitants, and the San Antonio de Bexar Presidio, a military fort established along San Pedro Creek, on the edge of downtown San Antonio. Then in 1731, 16 families from the Canary Islands settled in the main plaza of the city and founded the civil government. That same year, these families also founded the San Fernando Cathedral, which is one of the oldest active cathedrals in the United States today.

“Spain is such a fundamental part of what San Antonio is, and that is being recognized and celebrated this summer,” Kafka Wagner said.

As home to Olé, San Antonio, the vibrant Pearl District will host a lineup of 100 events that began June 15 and runs through Sept. 16 to commemorate the city’s ties to Spain.

The noted Spanish graphic designer Ana Juan, who is based in Madrid, is among the artists whose works are on display at an exhibition of contemporary Spanish graphic art in a pop-up gallery space. Juan created a poster for the 300th anniversary after visiting San Antonio this year. “I wasn’t aware until I came to the city that San Antonio and Spain were so linked, but I have learned a lot about our common roots,” she said.

Her poster is her interpretation of the San Antonio River. She chose to focus on the river because without it, she said, “San Antonio would not exist.”

Exhibitions in the gallery by Spanish artists will continue all summer, and several of these names will be artists in residence in the Pearl neighborhood who will meet visitors. The Spanish photographer Beatrix Molnar, whose images capture the contemporary world of Spanish flamenco, is one example.

Spain’s gastronomy, too, is a big part of Olé, San Antonio.

All of Pearl’s restaurants will have a tapas menu on Tuesdays throughout Olé until September, but some spots are offering tapas daily, including the 100-seat bar at Supper, an American eatery at Hotel Emma. John Brand, the executive chef, spent a week in January on a culinary tasting tour through Spain to get inspiration for his 11 bites such as salt cod croquettes and lamb meatballs with romesco sauce.

“Tapas are so important to Spanish culture, and I want to get people in San Antonio excited about enjoying them, too,” Brand said.

On the final day, Sept. 16, Olé, San Antonio will have a performance — one of more than two dozen concerts — of the Madrid-based guitarist Luis Gallo performing with mariachi musicians from the city.

About a 10-minute scenic riverfront walk from the Pearl neighborhood, the San Antonio Museum of Art is commemorating Spain with an exhibition, until Sept. 16, of 42 artworks from Spanish masters including Picasso, El Greco and Goya. Called “Spain: 500 years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid,” the exhibition shows works from eight museums in Madrid, including the Prado, Reina Sofía and the Sorolla. In their first official visit to San Antonio, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain inaugurated the exhibition last month.

Luber, the show’s co-organizer, said that the collection she put together, along with chief curator Dr. William Keyse Rudolph, is rooted in Gothic Spain and has devotional works that reflect the dominance of the Catholic Church at the end of the Middle Ages. The exhibition then follows Spanish style through the court of Philip II to the Golden Age and ends at the dawn of the 20th century.

Many of the works are on view in the United States for the first time. Luber said a handful of the pieces in the show came from museums in the United States such as Lola by Picasso, a portrait of the artist’s sister that he painted in 1900 in Spain. It is on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Planning the show took six years, Luber said. “The San Antonio Museum of Art is not particularly Eurocentric,” she said, “so when we first came up with the idea for the exhibition, it was somewhat audacious.”

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