Exploring San Antonio’s Hispanic Heritage

A Hispanic heritage tour is almost redundant in San Antonio, which is a living testament to the role Hispanics have played in shaping the city. Casa Navarro State Historic Site, La Villita, Market Square, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and the Spanish Governor’s Palace all give visitors a feel for the city’s Spanish colonial past, while the Nelson A. Rockefeller wing of the San Antonio Museum of Art hosts this country’s largest collection of Latin American art. 

Perhaps the jewel of the city’s Hispanic culture is the old Alameda Theater (310 W. Houston St.) on downtown’s west side. A grand movie palace built in 1949, the Alameda was the largest ever dedicated to Spanish-language entertainment; it’s been described as being to U.S. Latinos what Harlem’s Apollo Theater is to African Americans. Features include a spectacular 86-foot-high sign on the marquee that’s lit by rare cold cathode technology, not neon. A major restoration scheduled to begin in 2019 is a joint effort of several local groups, including the city of San Antonio and Texas Public Radio, which will broadcast from there when the renovation is complete. 

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Cultural events and blowout festivals abound, many of them held at Market Square. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center organizes many of them. In Hemisfair Park, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano/Casa Mexicana, 600 HemisFair Plaza Way (tel. 210/227-0123), sponsored by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hosts Latin American film series, concerts, conferences, performances, contests, and workshops—including ones on art, language, literature, and folklore. The institute also hosts shifting displays of art and artifacts relating to Mexican history and culture, from pre-Columbian to contemporary (free admission; Tues–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun noon–5pm).

In 2017, the 6,000-square-foot Latino Collection and Resource Center opened on the first floor of the San Antonio Public Library. In addition to an excellent non-circulating collection of 10,000+ books about the Mexican-American experience in Texas and the Southwest, the center hosts an art gallery highlighting local and international Latino artists. Events include presentations by local authors (for example, on the history of Tejana writing and the role of newspapers) and writing workshops. This is also the place to come to do genealogical research into your family’s Hispanic roots.

A Theme Park for Everyone

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Inspired by the special needs of his daughter, who was unable to participate in most activities in traditional theme parks, Gordon Hartman created the $36-million Morgan’s Wonderland (www.morganswonderland.com; tel. 210-495-5888 or 210-637-3486 TDD), the world’s first fully accessible theme park. Spread over 25 acres in a former limestone quarry, it features rides, playgrounds, gardens, a catch-and-release fishing lake, an events center, and an amphitheater, all of which accommodate wheelchairs and other aids. The word got out about this unique playscape among the communities that most benefited from it—the park has welcomed more than 1.3 million guests from all 50 states and 69 other countries—but it wasn’t until the debut of the companion waterpark, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, in 2017, that it received wider notice: Morgan’s was named one of Time magazine’s World’s Greatest Places in 2018. For guests to enjoy such activities as splash pads and a River Boat Adventure ride, the tropically-themed waterpark offers support facilities such as access to waterproof wheelchairs and temperature-controlled areas for those sensitive to the heat and cold. Morgan’s was also designed to be more affordable to families than most mega-play lands (admission to both parks is $27 adults; $21 ages 3–17, seniors, and military—and kids with special needs enter free). It’s located in northeast San Antonio, 5223 David Edwards Dr., a half-mile west of I-35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive. Opening days and hours vary by season (it’s closed Jan–Feb); check website for current schedule.

For Military History Buffs

San Antonio's military installations are crucial to the city's economy, and testaments to their past abound. The Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland (12 miles southwest of downtown off U.S. 90, at Southwest Military Dr. exit; www.jbsa.mil) is home to the USAF Airman Heritage Museum, 2051 George Ave., Bldg. 5206 (tel. 210/671-3055), which hosts a collection of rare aircraft and components dating back to World War II. Admission is free; it's open Wednesday and Friday 9am to 3pm, Thursday 10:30am to 5:30pm, and Saturday 10am to 2pm. At the Security Forces Museum, about 3 blocks away, at Bldg. 10501 (on Femoyer St., corner of Carswell Ave.; tel. 210-671-8213), weapons, uniforms, and combat gear dating up to Desert Storm days are among the security police artifacts on display. Admission is free; it's open Wednesday and Friday 9am to 3pm and Thursday 10:30am to 5:30pm. Inquire at either museum about the 41 static aircraft on view throughout the base. With current security measures in place, the bases are sometimes restricted to retired military, their families, and those sponsored by someone who works at the base. But you can try phoning the museums or the Public Affairs Office (tel. 210/207-7235) or the visitor center at JBSA-Lackland (tel. 210/671-1457) to inquire about visitation status. In any case, phone ahead to find out if anyone is permitted on the base on the day you're planning to visit. As may be expected, the museums are closed all national holidays.

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Old Movie Palaces of San Antonio

In the first half of the 20th century, Old San Antone was a movie-going town, and four grand old movie palaces have survived. Each deserves to be an attraction in its own right. Back then theaters were in the business of selling glamour and fantasy. They were also expressions of local pride, so the fantastical decorations most often had some tie-in with the heritage of the city.

Two of the theaters — the Empire and the Majestic — have been fully restored to their former glory and now function as venues for a wide range of performances and entertainment. Unfortunately, no one gives tours of them; to see them you would need to attend an event, many of which are fun and worth seeing. Both theaters were designed and decorated with exuberance. Just to get an idea, visit the website www.majesticempire.com. The Empire is smaller and older (1913) and is on the historic registry of buildings. The walls are thickly textured with molded plaster and gold leaf. The Majestic (1929) is larger and grander. Its imaginative decoration incorporates Moorish and Spanish design. Any performance here will feel like a special occasion.

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The old Aztec Theater was built in 1926 and completely refurbished in 2006 (tel. 210/812-4355; www.theaztectheatre.com). The theater lobby is a fanciful rendition of an Aztec temple, with pre-Columbian iconography blanketing the columns and walls with great Art Deco touches.

Finally, there is the Alameda, which might be the most original of the four theaters. It was built much later than the others, in 1949, and was a center for the Hispanic community. In the late '40s, Mexican cinema was in its heyday, and big stars would come from Mexico to attend film premières. The only part of the theater you can see is the exterior decoration, including a marvelous terrazzo mosaic on the sidewalk that flows into the theater lobby, a beautiful and unique tile facade made here in the city, and a large marquee that's brilliantly illuminated at night. Inside the auditorium are two black-light murals in need of restoration. Revolutionary in their day, the murals had a deep blue background decorated in Day-Glo paints.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.