The water sparkles as it rushes over the smooth rocks of the worn riverbed, much as it did when Europeans first set foot in this area over three centuries ago. They too would have witnessed the green of the low cottonwoods competing for attention with the vivid wildflowers scattered among the tall grasses of these rolling hills. The incandescent reds of native Indian paintbrush and brilliant cobalt hues of the blue bonnets continue to herald the arrival of another spring as the days grow warmer.
Despite the similarities, there are also differences. These days this spot of ground south of San Antonio is probably quieter. Where once there was the hustle and bustle of men and horses, now the main gate sits open and rusting, the only movement under its yellowed arch is the occasional stray dog looking for some shade from the heat of the Texas sun. Just outside the main gate, you get an idea of the wilderness that once existed all over this part of Texas – before modern growth destroyed it. Walk a ways down the Yanaguana Trail to see one of the few remaining sections of the San Antonio River that remains unchanneled.
Back inside the mission, what is today a grassy field was once full of small stone and mortar cottages bustling with Indians and brown cloaked priests going about the business of daily life. The ground just beyond the exterior walls was full of corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables, while inside were fruit trees. As well as a center of teaching and refuge, the walls of the mission complex provided protection during the days of Apache and Comanche raids.
These days the tiny chapel is whitewashed, its buttresses no longer in place to support the walls after a restoration a few years ago. It doesn’t soar to great heights like the bell tower at Mission San José, nor does it have a beautifully carved facade like Mission San Francisco de la Espada. It is plain. Unadorned. Real. Authentic because it wears its scars, its hardships, and its purpose. The surrounding walls of the grounds are crumbling and completely gone in some spots. There aren’t bus loads of tourists queuing up to walk through. It sits alone, off the beaten path – much as it has always done.
It is said that in the days prior to the fall of the Alamo, when the mission was already in decline, General Santa Anna passed through the area. While there, he supposedly married a local 17 year old girl in the mission’s chapel. A normal girl whose path crossed with historical legend…much like Mission San Juan Capistrano. Once a simple outpost in the wilds of a frontier landscape, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is authentic in a way only true legends can be.
All photos by the author.