#ACMNetwork Blog

Brief thoughts on reinterpreting colonial accountability: Spain and San Antonio (Texas)

“With the materiality that we have, it should be our duty as heritage professionals to give voice to civil society.”

By Andrea Martínez Fernández, University of Cantabria (Spain)

Keywords: colonial heritage, AHD, Authorized Heritage discourse, San Antonio Missions


My name is Andrea and I was born in Spain, as have most of my ancestors. Coming from a country that still maintains colonial structures towards many parts of the world makes me feel like I’m doing somebody else’s job, as I have never had to suffer institutionalised xenophobia in my home country. Researching the field of Colonial Cultural Heritage has always led me to the personal need to disclaim the work and research that I do. 

When working with colonial heritage, there is a vast amount of deconstruction work (for someone like me) to be done. The narrative I grew up with—on the “discovery” and the “conquest” of the Americas—has fallen upon the material culture that I, an archaeologist, have had to research. I think about this matter not only when I’m working but the majority of the time. The poster I will be presenting at the ACMC conference does not tackle this personal dilemma directly, but it does focus on a site that got me thinking recently.

I landed in San Antonio, Texas in the summer of 2019 in order to pursue a 10-week internship with the city’s World Heritage Office under the framework of the US/ICOMOS International Exchange Programme. The World Heritage Office of San Antonio is one of the many stakeholders that are in charge of the management and preservation of the five San Antonio Missions that were declared a World Heritage serial property in 2015. The sites, San Antonio de Valero (better known as the Alamo), San Juan Capistrano, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, San Francisco de la Espada and San José, San Miguel de Aguayo, and the archaeological site of Rancho de las Cabras are managed by a series of stakeholders that all together contribute to maintaining an imaginary hosted by a series of material buildings. In particular, the World Heritage Office is doing an excellent job in managing the UNESCO declaration.

In the United States, as in many other parts of the globalised world we live in, the Alamo is a popular culture icon. The Battle of the Alamo has become a myth of American History, designating heroes and martyrs in the name of the independence of Texas. These figures’ presence in public life and pop culture has settled these mythologies for good, turning the Alamo into the most touristic site of Texas. So what happens with the other four missions located in San Antonio?

Although the Alamo is located in downtown San Antonio, the other four missions are found in the suburbs, in areas largely populated by Latinxs. Those four missions, instead of being thought of as a battlefield, still maintain some of their initial religious functions. Mass services are still being performed and the missions are, to a certain extent, part of the everyday life of the community.

Very little attention is paid to the fact that Spain has barely done anything to take accountability for its colonial past. In 1821, Texas stopped being part of Spain and became a part of Mexico to later ‘start its own history’. When Texas stopped being Spain, barely 200 years ago, Spain washed its hands of what had happened there.

The Spanish presence in Texas is seen as a reason of pride, not as a shameful or difficult colonial past. In 2018, the King of Spain, Felipe VI, visited San Antonio during the city’s year-long tricentennial celebrations, commemorating the Spanish presence in the area, the settlement of the missions, and the foundation of the city. The colonial process carried out by Spain is seen as a ‘cultural imprint’, a ‘shared history’ or an ‘everlasting impact’, a mingling of cultures that forgets the fact that this is actually a very dark part of Spanish history. The impact that Spanish culture has had is undeniable when we look at modern Texas, but the whole story has been obscured.

There was one sight that really struck me when I was visiting Mission San José; a raised flag with the Cross of Burgundy, or the Cross of Saint Andrew, still a symbol of the Spanish Monarchy, once used as the flag of the Viceroyalties of the New World. This connection is still materialised in the interpretation of the site, but not formally addressed in an accountable way. At the same time, the Spanish Governor palace is full of monarchic symbology but offers nothing in-depth on the life of the Native Americans during the colonial times.

With the materiality that we have, it should be our duty as heritage professionals to give voice to civil society. Neither Spain nor the Spanish monarchy has been held accountable for its colonial past. The influence, as I’ve said before, is indeed undeniable, but so is the forced evangelization, oppression, and plunder. The San Antonio missions are also a container of difficult heritage, which must be unveiled in order to guarantee inclusion and fairness towards all Texans. Spanish colonial heritage should also be considered as Spanish heritage to a certain extent, demanding, thus, the proper accountability.

Andrea Martínez