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Reading 2: The Spaniards and the Indians
A mission brought together two distinct groups of people. The missionaries came from Spain via training schools in Mexico and were Franciscans, an order of priests who had taken a vow of poverty in order to devote themselves to learning, brotherhood with all living creatures, and spreading the word of God.
In Texas the Franciscans mainly encountered bands of hunter-gatherers called Coahuiltecos or Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tekens). These bands ranged through what is now the Mexican state of Coahuila into South Texas. They moved from one traditional campsite to another, following the seasons and herds of migrating animals. Since the environment in which they lived was often difficult, mainly because of a lack of rainfall, the Coahuiltecans lived precariously because they rarely had a sure food supply. Though they sometimes warred against one another, all faced threats from more formidable adversaries such as the Apache and, later, the Comanche. These tribes had become mobile raiders by taking advantage of the herds of wild horses that had developed from runaways from Spanish settlements.
The Coahuiltecans were tattooed and wore a breechcloth or hide skirt, fiber sandals, and, in bad weather, a cloak of animal hide. Animal teeth, bones, feathers, stones, and seeds were worn as jewelry and sometimes woven into their intricately braided hair. Shelter consisted of small temporary huts of brush or grass, sensible structures given their way of life and the climate of the area over which they ranged.
These hunter-gatherers were willing to become part of the mission system for a number of reasons. The irrigation system promised a more stable supply of food than they normally enjoyed. Diseases brought by Europeans had depleted their numbers, making the Coahuiltecans even more vulnerable to their now-mobile enemies. The presidio, however, offered much greater protection.
Though routines did vary, the missions shared a number of practices. The missionaries, along with lay helpers and usually no more than two soldiers and their families, instructed the natives in the Catholic faith and in the elements of Spanish peasant society. The Indians learned various trades, including carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, and weaving; they also did a great deal of agricultural work.
Since mission society lasted more than 100 years, no single description can cover the entire experience. It is possible, though, to depict some of its most important elements. Religion was the most important factor in shaping the day. At dawn the church bells rang, calling the people to morning prayer, which was followed by religious instruction. At noontime the bells tolled again to assemble everyone for more prayer, and in the evening there was another service and more instruction.
What happened the rest of the day varied from person to person. Many of the men were led to the fields or to military drills by a missionary or a soldier, while others remained in the compound to work in one of the shops weaving, candle making, woodworking, or engaging in other crafts. Women and older girls often made pottery or baskets, though others prepared food or caught fish in the nearby river. Children spent their days in a number of ways: helping the adults, gathering under a tree for Spanish lessons, playing games with each other. At noontime, everyone came together to eat the day's largest meal, which was followed by the rest period known as a siesta. They remained inside for the hottest part of the day, then returned to their duties until early evening. They would have a light meal before the last service of the day, then enjoy some relaxation. Some would spend the evening dancing and singing, while others played games.
The native population reacted to the mission system in a number of ways. Some of them participated fully, mixing their traditions with those of Spain to create a new Hispanicized and Christianized culture. The Spanish then called them gente de razón, or rational, reasonable people, like the Spaniards themselves. Other Indians moved in and out of the missions, choosing to return to more familiar surroundings during a season when the natural environment was rich with food. Some Indians refused to join at all, continuing to live in their traditional ways.
In the 1790s, the missions began to change. At that time secularization--turning the settlements into civil rather than religious communities--began. The Spanish government withdrew its financial support and ordered mission lands and livestock to be divided among the mission Indians who had been converted to Christianity. Only one of the San Antonio missions, Mission San Antonio de Valero (now known as the Alamo) was fully secularized. The other four, which are now part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, were only partially secularized. Here the populations elected their community officials, but missionaries remained to act as parish priests. In 1824, after Mexico achieved independence from Spain, the remaining missions were fully secularized and all missionaries left the area. Though the buildings then fell into decline, in the 1930s restoration began. Today the four missions within the park serve as parish churches, and all five San Antonio missions are open to the public.
Questions for Reading 2
1. What features of the Coahuiltecans' way of life made them interested in participating in mission life?
2. What is a gente de razón? What does that phrase say about how the Spanish viewed the native population?
3. How would someone of your age spend a typical day at a San Antonio mission?
4. Do you believe mission Indians retained much of their original culture? Why or why not? How could you find out?
Reading 2 was compiled from Missions Education Committee, The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park: A Guidebook (San Antonio: Junior League of San Antonio, 1986); and the National Park Service visitor's guide for San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.