Opinion: HemisFair Park is fitting place for Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas

Historically, San Antonio has always been the cultural, economic, military and religious hub of Texas. In the late 1700s, San Antonio became the capital of Texas and the most significant city in the realm of Nueva España. Early on, the capital had been in Los Adaes, in far East Texas, but was replaced and its soldiers and citizens were moved to San Antonio upon its closing.

The land some of these first Tejano settlers were given was at a place called “Barrio de Valero,” now called HemisFair Park. This special section of land was part of the Alamo neighborhood and was surveyed by the well-known surveyor and architect Don Pedro Huizar. Additionally, it was adjacent to “La Villita” and home to the existing soldier-settlers. The major source of water that traversed the land, then called the “Acequia Madre,” is now one of the most important cultural and historical assets of the park.

As the hub of the military, economic and mission’s efforts, there were many roads emanating out of San Antonio, including the Camino to La Bahia (Goliad). This road began at La Villita and traveled through the present footprint of HemisFair Park and then south to Goliad. La Bahia was the second most important presidio and mission in Texas, located along the Gulf Coast to guard against invasions from the sea. Of note, recently the National Park Service certified this historical route, which should receive due preservation and recognition.

See pictures of the area and renderings of the potential Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas location in HemisFair Park.

In 1968, this neighborhood was condemned by the city, hundreds of families were displaced and many small businesses were closed. It was changed into a World’s Fair site known as “HemisFair '68.” The theme of this effort was called a “cultural confluence of the Americas,” which sought to be emblematic of the rich heritage and cultural ties we had with our neighbors to the South. The plans called for the enjoyment and use of the grounds by the residents and visitors to our community. It also promised to be an economic generator that would place San Antonio as an emerging city in the Southwest.

Although many countries participated and tens of thousands of visitors came to the fair, two years later it became dormant and the city had no concrete plan for reuse of the property. Mayor Henry Cisneros’s administration called for the renaming of the area to HemisFair Park, and while there was some use and minor improvements made to the park, little took place to reinvigorate it.

There have been a number of master plans conducted to revitalize the park. The last, completed in 2004, addressed the need to focus on its cultural and historic aspects. This concept emphasized the need to continue identifying the city’s history and special culture, as well as to help bridge nearby assets and make the park more “people friendly.”

This history illustrates the genesis of our community and our beginning Tejano heritage and legacy as it relates to the HemisFair Park area. Although evolving demographics changed ownership of the land over the years, one thing has always remained constant: this area has always been at the heart of the city, and culture and families have always been the life-blood of this “barrio.” 

The main tenants of HemisFair Park have been the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Tower of the Americas, Institute of Texan Cultures, UNAM, Instituto de Artes de MexicoMagik Theater, the federal courthouse and various other civic and city facilities. There are dozens of small and important historic structures that have never been used to their full potential.

In May of 2008, the concept and vision of a new Hispanic Heritage Center to be located at HemisFair Park was presented in a public forum where almost 200 people in attendance unanimously spoke in favor of the center. The center's mission would be to bring awareness and education about the lives and stories of Hispanics dating back to the early 1700s. Tejanos built the first roads, towns, ranches and laws in Texas. Yet, very little is known about them and their contributions and accomplishments to the development of the state.

Shortly after the forum, we came together to begin organizing the first ever nonprofit Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas. We are proud to have provided the initial leadership to champion the unsung heritage and legacy of our Hispanic ancestors that helped shape and form the Lone Star State’s history.

In December 2008, the center completed and submitted an application for nonprofit designation with the Internal Revenue Service. By January of 2009, the center received a notice of approval of registration for an official IRS 501(c)(3). With this important action complete, comprehensive programming for the center concluded and we launched a campaign to champion our project and proposed location at HemisFair Park.

The center's plans consist of a multinational museum that will feature display wings for Texas, Mexico and Spain; a world-class research library that will boast state, national and international data-base records; archival space that will harvest artifacts and family records; a multimedia center that will provide distant learning and other media possibilities; a conference center that will offer space for symposiums and special events; and, finally a vibrant Tejano Living History Village that will teach visitors about our past.

The programming proposed for the center will consist of educational curriculum, development, research, exhibit and symposium creation, authorship and publications, oral history collections, artifact and document collections and advocacy. There will be programming designed to develop international relations with the countries of Mexico and Spain. Lastly, a very robust outreach will be conducted to bring awareness to individuals, families and community organizations. We have contacted institutions, city, county, state and national officials and departments to participate in these efforts.

Starting in early 2009, we began meetings with civic leaders, governmental officials and corporate funders to articulate our project and location at HemisFair Park. We visited with then-Mayor Phil Hardberger, and he agreed that it was a great project. He believed this center should be in San Antonio and that HemisFair was a good location.

At a presentation with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, he commented that there should have already been a center, and that he saw HemisFair as a good location.

In midyear,  San Antonio created a new development agency known as the HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Agency (HPARC). The new mayor, Julian Castro, appointed a chairman and board members. This agency has been given power to provide a new master plan and to execute its development. Unlike city commissions and boards, the city council has given this agency autonomous authority to proceed with its self-defined needs without council approval.

From its ad-hoc start, this agency has been given city council ordinance directive to provide a mix-use business, housing and cultural redevelopment. This means that the inherent nature of the plan will have housing units with streets and parking.

The next major piece of inclusion is retail stores and an H-E-B. The downtown businessman appointees are natural champions for economic development, as reported in San Antonio Express-News. These previous River North developers have echoed their opinions for what type of business mix and environment HemisFair needs.

In early 2010 we met with Mayor Julian Castro, the City Council and City Manager representatives to inform them of our serious and much-needed community project. At these meetings we presented a sound business plan, operational needs and other financial requirements. Several supporting councilman were present and heard the mayor say he favored the project, but he would have to follow the process of HPARC. Then, we met with the chairman and other members of HPARC. The chair indicated we were well ahead of his organizational planning and ask that we be patient as they moved forward.

The current mayor, many former and current members of the City Council, civic leaders, organizational leaders and the general public have echoed strong support for this center and its proposed impact on our community. 

Henry Cisneros stated: “This is one of the most important projects in our community that will endure for generations to come.”

Ricardo Romo, president of UTSA, indicated that this was “a community effort long in coming that would provide both community and educational development.”

Scholars who have endorsed the project include Drs. Felix Almaraz, Frank de la Teja, Amy Jo Baker, Tomas Ibarra-Frausto, and Rose Zambrano.

In mid-December, we submitted a letter of intent to lease the Gulf Insurance Building for use as interim headquarters to the HPARC Agency, via the city manager’s office. In our package, we included plans for reuse, remodeling analysis and calendar of action. Part of our submittal was guided by marketing opportunities presented by the city's Convention and Tourist Bureau. We are confident of the success of this location, our business plan, our funding opportunities, our committed board of directors and community support.

We have presented to a mix of over three hundred community leaders, community organizations, corporations and foundations. We have presented and asked for support from the governor, secretary of state, speaker of the house, countless state senators, representatives and the state Hispanic and Black Caucuses. Others who have been contacted and support the center are Mark Wolf, director the Texas Historical Commission; Jerry Peterson, Texas Land Commissioner, Kent Calder, Texas State Historical Association, Kelly Rushing of the Texas Historical Foundation and many other historical institutions.

Over the past two years, the officers and board members of the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas have benefited from their outreach efforts, continual meetings and planning, and are confident in their due diligence and community support. Therefore, in early 2011, the board was able to announce their agenda for the year and for 2012.

The most important items for this year are: seeking funding from city, county and state for our interim facilities, launching our “Hispanic Heritage Matters” awareness and educational campaign, conducting a second annual golf fundraiser, and participating in conventions and National Hispanic Heritage Month activities.

Although we have worked hard, we have not been without challenges, obstacles and opposition. A major preservation group and stakeholder at HemisFair has not seen fit to endorse our project and have articulated they believe we are trying to construct an entertainment venue that needs to be on the “West Side” of San Antonio. Certain corporate leaders have assessed our efforts and project based on a failed “Hispanic” museum in our community that has left them disappointed and with no "return on Investment."

We have been unable to receive support from the City Manager’s Office, as we believe there has been an inherent conflict of interest, as the city manager has been the interim director of HPARC. In February of this year HPRAC notified us of their decision to recommend that City Council not approve our request to lease and improve the Gulf Building. Their decision was based ona new policy to not do anything until the new master plan was completed. They did, however, encourage us to participate in the public planning process.

We have been engaged with the city since 2008 for a location at the park, we have had a comprehensive plan for the project since then and we have communicated our project needs with the past two mayors and city council members. We fully understand there is a current study under way, yet that implementation will not take place for several years. During this same period, other leases and improvements have been allowed, “grandfathered," at HemisFair Park.

Therefore, we are asking the current City Council to review our request for interim lease facilities at the Gulf Insurance Building through the same “grandfathering” used in the past. We understand that leases would be on an annual basis and would cease should the building need to be removed. Regarding grant funding that the city has given to HPARC to carry out capital projects, we submit that our project be given the same consideration as others.

We ask the city council and city managers office to join us and the community to assist in the development of the long overdue Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas. We feel we are charged with championing the cultural and historical assets of the park that represent our Hispanic heritage and legacy. Especially, the Camino Real footprint at the park along with the Acequia Madre that traverses the site.  We believe the center will foster understanding of an unknown and powerful history that will provide our Hispanic community with a positive identity that will lead to a pride that will strengthen and enrich our society and state.

For more information, please contact us at (210) 892-0136.