Podcast Episodes

Four Voices, Four Missions

The Alamo is certainly San Antonio’s most famous landmark, perhaps even the most famous building in Texas, due to its pivotal role in the 1836 Texas Revolution. But the Alamo was built over a century prior as Mission San Antonio de Valero by Spanish settlers on the banks of the San Antonio River. Beginning in 1690, Spanish friars established missions in what is now East Texas as a buffer against the threat of French incursion into Spanish territory from Louisiana. The Alamo is a Texas state historic site, but right nearby, four sister missions, all still working Catholic churches, are protected by the National Park Service as the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

This episode of the podcast follows four people connected to the Missions: a stonemason, a historian, a descendant, and a former church administrator. Their stories comprise Michael Nye’s “Four Voices” exhibit on display at Mission Concepción.


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The missions were built primarily by the native people of the area. As the Spanish Missions arrived, the Couchilticon people were suffering from disease, famine, and savage attacks from Apache tribes. The Franciscan Friars saw them as easy recruits and offered them a devil’s bargain. They could join the Mission, and be fed and protected, but they would have to give up essential parts of their being, converting to Catholicism and the Spanish way of life.

The missions flourished up until the 1780s, mostly through the work of the Couchilticon people. The Spanish had a caste system that said the further from Spain you were born, the less of a Spanish citizen you were, so it was hard to recruit Spanish settlers. Then Couchilticon were essential. They built these places and they are their legacy. Not only the churches but towering stone walls and arches, defense bastions, grain storage, apartments, and an aqueduct that still stands today – the only such structure in the US.

Mission San José

Raising livestock played an important role in mission life. The common lands between the missions were used for grazing. As herds grew, they began intruding into neighboring farmland and common lands, and eating the crops, so the livestock was sent to graze further away on ranchos in an area about 20 to 30 miles to the north and south of the missions along both sides of the San Antonio River.

Mission Indian men were taught to care for the livestock, and became known as the vaqueros. In a twist of the old-west cowboys and Indians trope the first real American cowboys, were actually Indians.

Increasing hostility from the Apache the Comanche, coupled with inadequate military support, caused the Mission communities to retreat behind the stone walls they built, and the never-solved problem of new European diseases reduced their numbers, and the missions slowly declined.

In the final years of the 18th century, Spain’s interests in the area waned, and support for the missions was eliminated. The five San Antonio missions were secularized, and the remaining native converts assimilated with nearby local populations or migrated to Mexico. But the churches lived on, and people lived at the missions for many more years.

Mission Concepción

The most intact and original of the five missions is Mission Concepción. It stands today nearly as it did in the 1700s, due to the fact that it was built directly on bedrock. The church walls are 45 inches thick; however only the inside and outside facings are of solid stone – between the two layers is a filling of small stones and building debris.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park was established on April 1, 1983, in partnership with the individual churches, still owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

The San Antonio missions are unique in that they are one of the few National Historic sites that still play a major role in the regular lives of the people that call the churches their place of worship. Many of whom have descended from the Spanish, and from the Native Americans. These buildings, once shining white adorned with colorful frescos carry the whispers of the people who once lived there and who have worshipped there for centuries.

Michael Nye says that “National Parks connect our past to the present. Sometimes they illuminate natural landscapes while other times they amplify and honor historical events. Our Parks are agreements between generations, symbols of significance, care and deep reflection.”

“The stories from The San Antonio Missions represent divergent and significant points of view: 17th Century explorers – Native American groups of the Southwest – Early Texas history – Spanish colonization – Stone masons and builders of the Missions – Battles of opposing interest – There is also the point of view of the land and creeks and pecan trees and the deep blue South Texas skies above. The history of the Missions did not end in the 17th, 18th or 19th century. No. History is energetic and invites present participation. In every corner, every room, in every mission, light grows brighter or dims. New emerging voices and experiences bring life and breath into a larger understanding.”

Yes, when you visit San Antonio, you should visit the Alamo, but perhaps much more rewarding is a day or two spent touring the grounds of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, just 10 minutes south of downtown. The missions are all connected via a trail and parkway system along the San Antonio river that begins with Mission Espada on the south end and culminates in the center of downtown at the Alamo. Entrance is free, and the hours are generally from 9am to 5pm daily, but vary slightly at the different facilities. The park’s headquarters and visitor center is located at Mission San José, where you can see the park film, visit the gift shop, and take a ranger-guided tour. Parking facilities vary at the different sites, especially for large vehicles. Large RVs and tour buses can park in oversized parking at Mission San Jose, but won’t be so lucky at the other missions.

Our many thanks to Michael Nye for loaning us the audio interviews for this episode. You can hear the full audio of the interviews at Mission Concepción, along with his photographs of the interviewees. You can also view the photographs on the National Park Service website. Please also consider visiting Michael Nye’s website for info about more of his work.


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Music

Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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Podcast Episodes

Ballads of Big Bend

The shape of the southwestern edge of Texas is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. Here, the Rio takes a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Victor Valdez, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Big Bend National Park — National Park Service Website

Crossing the Border to Boquillas — National Park Service Website

Interview with Victor Valdez on NPR:

“Big Bend crossing brings new life to border town” — Houston Chronicle

Victor singing on the Rio Grande:


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

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The United States can roughly be divided into 7 different geographic regions, four of which — the coastal plains of the southeast, the interior lowlands of the Midwest, the great plains down the center, and the Basin and Ridge region of the west — all converge in one state: Texas.

The shape of the southwestern edge of the state is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. It’s along the Basin and Ridge region where the Rio take a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

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In 1994, After visiting the Mexican border village of Boquillas, on the Rio Grande just across the Mexican border at Big Bend National Park, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen wrote the song “Gringo Honeymoon.”

We took a rowboat ‘cross the Rio Grande
Captain Pablo was our guide
For two dollars in a weathered hand
He rowed us to the other side

It’s very possible that Victor Valdez could have been the man Keen was referring to as Captain Pablo. For 24 years, Valdez rowed a boat across an informal border crossing, leading American citizens to visit our southern neighbors.

The seven-minute boat ride was the easiest of U.S. Mexico border crossings, with no agents, no traffic, no lines, no documentation … just a tip for the boat captain.

The village is several hours’ drive from the nearest Mexican city, having grown from a mining operation that sent silver, lead and other mineral ores from the Sierra del Carmen mountains across the Rio Grande for distribution by train. It boasted a population of more than 2000 in the early 1900s but quickly diminished when the mining stopped. Now, just 2-300 citizens call Boquillas home, and Big Bend National Park is all that keeps it alive.

At the time that Big Bend was established in the 1930s, President Roosevelt was interested in creating an International Peace Park, joining the regions, but the plan never came to fruition. Nature finds its way, though, and the informal border crossing to Boquillas linked Big Bend with natural protected areas on the Mexican side of the border.

The crossing, of course, was illegal without an official port of entry. But Americans visiting the remote wonders of big bend came and crossed, to reach the beauty of Mexico’s nature sanctuaries or to enjoy cheap tequila shots and tacos. The people of Boquillas would cross to buy fresh groceries from Big Bend’s Rio Grande Village convenience store and to visit friends in nearby towns.

Officials had no interest in enforcing the crossing though, and Rangers encouraged visits to Boquillas, treating it almost as an annex of the park. The park even employed citizens from the town as firefighters. They were called Los Diablos and were so effective that they were sent to fight the California wildfires in 1999.

Park visitors would walk to the riverbank, where Mexican boatmen like Victor Valdez waited to take them across for a small fee. Trucks, horses and burros would then take them on the one-mile journey into town.

Valdez served as a boatman for 24 years. There were many boatmen, but Victor was well known for his enthusiasm, and for his serenades. He would sing his charming rendition of the “Cielito Lindo” for his passengers as they slowly rowed across the river. During the busy times of year — Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring break — he could make as much as $300 a day. But everything changed on September 11th, 2001.

The year after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government began enforcing the crossing. Boquillas was effectively closed off from civilization, and the tourism economy that kept it alive. Food, gasoline, mail, and friends all had previously come from the US and were now entirely cut off.

At first, Victor and other villagers squeaked out a meager living selling walking sticks, painted rocks, and other crafts to American’s still walking the Boquillas Canyon trail, but law enforcement quickly began to crack down on any sort of commercial activity.

So Victor, cunning enough, and even encouraged by Big Bend rangers, turned to his other talent. His singing voice. Every day, he and a couple of friends from town would make a mile-long walk through the desert brush and reeds to the river. They built a small shack, and they sat and waited with binoculars on the lookout for hikers making their way over the mountaintop in America. When one appeared, he would begin to stretch his vibrant tenor, permeating the canyon as if invisible borders could not contain him.

Victor was working for tips, but no longer were thousands of people visiting the canyon. Jars were set along the water’s edge, and sometimes he would make as little as $5 a day. Some hikers would wade half-way in the water to meet him and shake hands over the invisible line.

Victor used the money to care for a 94-year-old man, his disabled niece, and his wife, who lived in another town searching for work. Many residents left town, but Victor had lived in Boquillas all his 56 years, and didn’t want to leave.

People loved his singing, and Victor’s presence was more important than he would know. He was more than just a peaceful compliment to hikers’ journeys, he kept the link between Boquillas and Big Bend alive. Word spread of the Singing Man of Boquillas or the Singing Mexican, and Victor became popular. People traveled to the canyon just to hear his voice. All the while, unbeknownst to him, the US and Mexican governments were working on formalizing and re-opening the border crossing.

But the remote location was hardly anything that either government wanted to spend much money on. After nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes reviews and negotiations, the National Park Service along with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol opened a digital port of entry in 2013. It’s a kiosk, essentially, where visitors scan their passports and converse remotely with a Customs and Border Protection agent more than 300 miles away in El Paso. It’s still a bit of an honor system, but people can now cross the border quickly, and for the first time, legally.

The boats were launched once more, along with the trucks and the horses and the donkeys. The bar and restaurant re-opened. “We now hope for better days,” said Valdez. One year later, Boquillas’ population rebounded by 30 percent as tourism began to recover. Victor Valdez was no longer singing to a few hikers, he was again singing to boatloads of visitors, though now he left the rowing to his son.
Boquillas opened a new kindergarten, a clinic, and a second restaurant, and for the first time, electricity flowed through the city with a World-bank financed solar grid. Streetlights, refrigeration, TV, and kitchen appliances became a part of life for residents,130 years after the lightbulb was invented.

The relationship between Big Bend National Park and Boquillas is now viewed as a model for other border towns.

Victor Valdez died on August 10th, 2016 at the age of 65. Word of his passing from a heart attack spread far and wide through the West Texas border communities and nationwide ensuring that the legacy of the singing man of Boquillas would live on.

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Big Bend National Park is comprised of 1,252 square miles of land, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. The night skies are dark as coal, lit up by millions of diamond stars, in the temple-like canyons carved by rivers into the ancient limestone.

There’s plenty to do for visitors of all ages. You can take scenic drives, biking tours, and river floats, or hike along the150 miles of trails skirting rivers and snaking through the mountainous desert terrain. 1,200 species of plants and 450 species of birds call Big Bend home, and the geology dates back millions of years.

And of course, you can cross the border, and visit the fine people of Boquillas.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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