Tiles and Tortillas at Mission San José

There are five Missions in San Antonio. The most famous is the Alamo and my favourite is Espada, but all are captivating. Looking at their bright white facades one could be forgiven for forgetting that they were originally decorated – as author William Corner wrote of one in 1890: ‘[It] must have been very gorgeous with color for it was frescoed all over with red and blue quatrefoil crosses and with large yellow and orange squares to simulate dressed stones.

‘Gorgeous with colour’ could also describe a book that I have been reading on the old tile workshops of San Antonio. The revival of decorate tile making was made possible thanks to financing under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and a Texan called Ethel Harris. Two of the tile workshops were based for more than thirty years at Mission San José. This is the most complete of all the Missions with its handsome dome, arches and intricate carved stonework, and its granary and Indian quarters and restored mill. After its extensive restoration in the 1930s it became a State Park and Ethel Harris would not only manage the tile making but also become park warden, moving into the Mission itself as supervisor. What a wonderful life that must have been.

The red clay used to make the tiles came from San Antonio and was carefully selected by Harris, who hired talented high school student Fernando Ramos to create the designs. Ramos drew scenes such as fiestas, Mexican villages, Texas ranch life and marine life of the Gulf coast. He was also a wonderful Flamenco dancer who would sometimes display his dance skills to tourists at the Mission.

Armed with my book, I recently returned to the Mission with Ethel Harris in mind. I imagined the sheep grazing on the grass and the peacocks she brought there, the workers moulding, designing and glazing the pottery pieces, visitors turning up at the granary shop, Fernando Ramos and his partner performing a dance show, the cook preparing tortillas outside… When the last tile factory closed in the 1970s, Ethel Harris eventually moved out of the Mission prefecture into a tile-filled house on the Mission grounds, designed for her by her architect son. I was at first unable to locate her house so I entered a small shop where a Franciscan monk was selling handmade glassware. I asked if he’d heard of Ethel Harris and he said he hadn’t so I opened my book to show him a picture of her house and immediately he pointed me in the right direction. Before leaving the shop I complimented the monk on his glassware, then said, ‘Did you know there was once tile making in this Mission?’ He replied, with a surprised look, ‘No I didn’t…How marvellous!’

Her house was closed to the public but by climbing over a small barrier I managed to catch a glimpse through a kitchen window of a row of tiles with her trademark maguey, or century plant, design. Not far away was a small amphitheatre that she had had constructed for the performance of traditional Mexican plays, or pastores; I assumed its onate wrought-iron gates had been made by the German metal artisan and his son whom she employed to build tables and other items in which to display the tiles. (She also employed a former cowboy who previously had branded cattle, turning his skills to branding workshop items instead.)

Surrounded by palmetto palms and with the sound of birdsong in my ears I later followed a narrow path for three-quarters of a mile to the Riverwalk. The construction of San Antonio’s Riverwalk began in the Downtown area in the 1940s and murals of the San José tiles are displayed at various locations along it. Other tile murals still exist in a sports stadium, a high school, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the patio of the Menger Hotel near the Alamo and in various private ranches. Sadly, many have been lost or destroyed over the years.

Mike and I were in an antique shop recently and my attention was caught by a single tile in a locked cabinet bearing the image of a sleeping Mexican under his sombrero and with a wrought iron mounting. Due to the tile’s thickness and beautiful glazes, I was positive it was a San José tile. I asked the shop owner how much it was but she said it was not for sale.

Migrating Birds, Butterflies and Babies

In Corpus Christi last weekend, whilst Mike and a friend of his were replacing a fence in the back yard, I drove across Bay Bridge and parked at a busy fishing pier called Indian Point, so-called because it marks a mass grave of Native Americans who died in the hurricane of 1919. From Indian Point I walked to Reef Road which immediately reminded me of an English lane except here the ‘hedgerows’ are a mix of small acacia trees and clumps of native ochre and bright yellow daisy-like shrubs. At the entrance to Reef Road was a historical marker which pointed out that it was used long ago by Indians as the shortest route at low tide across the bay to Corpus Christi where they would travel to sell their wares. As I walked on, I looked upwards and saw two formations of about 150 white pelicans in from the north, now forming a V shape, now moving apart. When the birds were just dots in the distance, I lowered my eyes again and was struck by a butterfly hanging onto the pale buttermilk ball of acacia blossom and saw that it was a Monarch. And then I noticed more Monarchs, in fact hundreds of them, feeding and resting on the trees and plants before they would continue their journey southwards to Mexico. And not only Monarchs but Queens, too, and large black butterflies with ultramarine tips on their wings and dark brown ones and dark lemon and then a fawn butterfly with beige spots and a few tiny lilac ones fluttering here and there… Talk about a feast for the eyes. And in the fifty feet of wetlands between the lane and the bay I saw roseate spoonbills, black-necked stilts, great white egrets and a tricolored heron and in the bay itself a silver fish plopping in and out of the water.

The next morning, Sunday, Mike, who had awoken earlier than me, said he’d never seen a sunrise like it: the sky was red at first and then there were layers of blue and pink clouds and in between the layers the sky shone golden. There was still a flush of pink in the clouds as I travelled the half-hour south to North Padre Island, a national park of many miles of pristine coastline. I parked just inside the entrance, took my bike from the back of my car and began cycling towards the sea, first turning off at a sign marked Bird Island Basin, which also had the word ‘Windsurfing’ on it although on this morning the water was so calm it looked like a sheet of glass. The mile long route to the basin was lined on both sides with coastal prairie laced with dewy cobwebs and small birds flittering and twittering; a caracara looking like a sentry perched motionless on a sandy mound. It was completely silent and empty of people. At one point I got off my bike and spent several minutes looking around me. I was surrounded by a sea of grasses in shades of maroon and pink, tan, green, burnt orange and mustard. And the sky was made up of all different types of cloud formation depending on whether I looked north, south, east or west, and of all different shades of blue ranging from the palest of blues to cut-outs of bright turquoise; even the small ponds shone an inky blue. As I got on my bike again and continued riding to the basin I could see a row of higgledy-piggledy humps of off-white sand dunes.

Back in San Antonio on Monday morning, I arrived at the Children’s Shelter where my first thought is always, I wonder who has gone this week? And immediately I could see that little eleven-month old Heaven, who had just learned to walk, had gone, so too baby Elias. Teresa, who is in charge of the nursery, announced that little Enrique would be going into foster care that Thursday; plans for him to go back to his family had evidently failed. ‘You’ll miss him terribly,’ I said to her and she nodded sadly. Enrique, now nine months, was the first baby I met in the nursery when I began volunteering in August and the only one left from that time. He is the sweetest of little ones with such a sunny, gentle temperament and as I stroked his little cheek I thought, what a long journey he had ahead of him.

Peacocks in the Fort

There is a historic (and still active) military base that dates from 1845 in San Antonio called Fort Sam Houston. Until recently, I only ever had a glimpse of it through iron gates but last week, on a rainy Saturday morning, I decided to pay the base a visit. Only those with US-issued IDs are allowed in and it took me about 15 minutes to obtain my pass at a small visitor’s hut. I then drove through the main gates and about a mile to the Quadrangle, an 8-acre area that consists of numerous stone structures, including a former quartermaster supply depot. The courtyard is filled with ancient oaks and in the centre stands a tall tower which was originally a water tower and is now a clock. One of the Quadrangle buildings is used as a museum, which details the history of the US army.

But what first caught my attention in the Quadrangle were the peacocks, about 30 of them, and 20 or so peahens, mostly brown, a few white. As I walked past the fowl, they made noises which reminded me of someone playing on the lower notes of a piano. Then, from the tips of the tallest oaks came the cries of red-tailed hawks. I looked up as one swooped down from one tree to another. There were six whitetail deer grazing on the grass. Various waterfowl in a small pond completed the tableau. As for humans, apart from me there were only five others walking around, avoiding the puddles.

Back in 1886, tents in this courtyard held Apache Chief Geronimo prisoner with about 30 other Apache men, women and children whilst their fate was being decided. They eventually ended up at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

The sun had come out and back near the car park I had a clear view of Downtown San Antonio in the distance. I also noticed a large manicured stretch of grass, like a small park, about half a mile long sloping southwards and bordered all round with very tall palm trees. Two caracaras perched in a lordly manner in the middle of the grass. It was very peaceful as I now strolled around the perimeter, past handsome old houses built in the southern style. Outside each was a sign with the name of the current officer occupant – I imagine they were all in the medical field given that Fort Sam Houston contains the premier military hospital in the US and is also the main Army medical training centre. As I left this ‘park’ I found myself walking along narrow, traffic-free roads still within the historic mile of the Quadrangle. I passed by galleried, two-storey buildings that had once housed officers including John J Pershing, and an old Infantry Post where Dwight Eisenhower once lived. The old Post Hospital was being painted and a sign indicated that now it was a lodging place for visiting VIPs. A chapel not far away was dedicated by President Taft in 1909.

My pass allowed access to a medical museum as well but by then I was feeling quite tired and I knew I wanted to come again for another lovely walk – I wonder whether anyone else in San Antonio visits Fort Sam Houston for this reason?

The Children’s Shelter

I’ve recently begun volunteering one morning a week at a local Children’s Shelter. It is one of three in San Antonio that temporarily house children in need until they are either fostered, adopted or go back to a family member. The building I help out at is bright orange in colour and a stone’s throw away from Woodlawn Lake Park on the near west side of town where I sometimes go for a walk and feed the many ducks. At the Shelter there is a small school, a number of dormitories each with six small beds, and a canteen and dining area. The children range from newborns to 17. I’m sure it’s not perfect there but one thing that always strikes me on entering the place is the pleasant atmosphere and the friendliness apparent between staff and the children.

My plan was to help the school-age kiddies here read and do sums, but as the little school doesn’t open until August 13th I’ve been assisting with the toddlers and newborns. These little ones are all from San Antonio and are mostly Hispanic with just a couple of Anglos and African-Americans. They are freshly scrubbed and dressed in nice clothes that are either donated or bought from Walmart using vouchers donated to the Shelter. On first seeing them I couldn’t help thinking of Mattie and the case of second-hand clothes she brought with her when she moved in, most of which were far too large!

The nursery has room only for six cots. Baby Scarlett, at one month old, is the youngest there at the moment and Baby Enrique, at 6 months, the oldest. All of the babies love to be picked up and cuddled of course. Sadly, we’re not allowed to pick up the toddlers on the basis that the others will feel left out. My morning is taken up playing with them, taking them to the bedrooms to have diapers (nappies) changed and to the dining room for a snack and later, lunch. On my first morning the snack was a sno cone, a paper cup full of crushed ice which is topped with a syrup like strawberry or bubble gum. The children loved it and I thought back to the many times, whilst Mike was working, when little Mattie and I would drive over to the swimming hole at Burgers Lake in Fort Worth and how she loved going to buy herself a sno cone. Funnily enough, lunch at the Shelter on my first day consisted of ground beef (mince) with carrots and potatoes – the same meal I remember Mattie eating when I was first invited to her foster home for lunch. Helping out at the Shelter has made me wonder, again, how Mattie, as a 2 year-old, felt on arriving at her new foster home all alone. Here, at least for the time they spend here, families are kept together.

Whilst writing this, I looked up some reviews of the Shelter online and one child wrote: I lived here for a few months before I got adopted about 8 years ago. The staff were kind and never mistreated us. One of the staff members would straighten my hair if I asked. We went trick or treating and got presents on Christmas.

San Pedro Springs Park

There are several state parks and state natural areas not far from San Antonio, some of which are simply gorgeous. The city itself sports a number of parks and one of them, in sight of Downtown, is, I think, rather special.

San Pedro Springs Park is not only the oldest park in Texas but almost the oldest municipal park in the United States. The springs and surrounding area were designated as public land by King Philip V of Spain in 1729, but the earliest recorded inhabitants were the Payaya Indians, who referred to their village as Yanaguana and are known to have practised ritual ceremonies here.

Due to all the spring water flowing underground, the trees in this park are huge, especially the live oaks; I have rarely seen such thick trunks and long, sprawling limbs in other parks here. Some of the limbs have dropped to the ground making the trees look sculptural – dinosaur trees, I call them. A creek runs through the park and there is also a small spring-fed pond where a night heron occasionally lounges. A bandstand with a rather handsome dome sits before a small library and a popular theatre, all three built in the late 1920s.

For many, the highlight of the park is its huge swimming pool, which is free to the public and open every summer to coincide with school holidays. There are about 30 such pools in San Antonio but this one is gorgeously lined with tall, overhanging cypress trees so that you can lie coolly in heat that might touch a hundred degrees on an off during the hottest part of summer. The pool has been rebuilt twice since it first opened in 1922 and is still spring fed. The water temperature is perfect, not too warm, and it was lovely to see and hear hordes of children having fun when I went there the other day during some construction work at our house. All children under 18 are allowed a free meal as part of the San Antonio summer meals program, thus ensuring that the many who receive free meals at school do not go undernourished during the summer months; San Pedro Springs Pool is only one of many locations where such a service is provided. It was touching to see the kids lining up at the counter and I thought of all those currently stuck at the border or already separated from their parents.

The park is surrounded by a small block of attractive south-western style buildings that house a lawyer or two, and many small, some not so small, houses that mostly belong to poorer folk. But like similar neighbourhoods in San Antonio – now Texas’ fastest growing city – already there are signs of the area becoming gentrified, like the nearby flower shop and a small restaurant with tables outside that advertises organic meals.

Our Refugee Friends

I was waiting with Mattie in the doctor’s surgery the other day. We were the only ones there except for a couple in their early thirties, or so they looked, who had a baby carrier by their side. I strained to get a look at the baby, a cute little girl with a pink dress and patterned socks that looked like she was wearing little shoes, and Mattie laughed, saying, ‘You love looking at babies!’ ‘She’s cute,’ I said to the mother, who nodded and then brought the baby carrier closer to us so that we could see the baby clearly. ‘She’s got beautiful eyes,’ said Mattie. They were almost black and sparkling. I asked how old the baby was and the husband replied, ‘4 months.’ We began to chat and I asked him where they were from but he appeared to flinch and then he quietly responded, ‘Africa’. ‘Where in Africa,’ I asked, curiously, and he replied ‘Eritrea’ and thus began a conversation as to how they migrated to America (7 years ago) as refugees and about Eritrea and its problems. Mattie and I filled them in on our own immigration background. ‘You’ve been here longer than us,’ I smiled at the couple. The husband then proudly showed us photos of their country. They hadn’t been back since emigrating, he said, due to the political situation there. He later added that many Eritreans, himself included, still speak some Italian. Mattie asked him what religion the country was and he told us it was Christian.

(Later I looked up Eritrea on the internet and discovered that it has one of the worst human rights record in the world and the least press freedom. It had once been ruled by the Italians and was called Italian Eritrea but following their ousting, Ethiopia annexed the country, leading to a long drawn out armed struggle until Eritreans finally regained their independence.)

I later reminded Mattie of a similar encounter we’d had with an Afghani couple in the same doctor’s surgery a year earlier. I recalled the Afghani mother’s black, flowing costume sparkling with silver sequins and Mattie reminded me that her baby had green eyes. As I had with the Afghani couple, I felt the same level of discomfort now during our conversation with the Eritreans, given Trump and his allies’ opposition to legal as well as illegal immigration and his disparaging comments about the countries from whence came non-white refugees. When it was our turn to see the doctor, I wished the Eritrean couple good luck and said I was glad they had been able to come here as refugees and they both beamed at me. Their story gave me a warm feeling and Mattie said it did her, too. ‘They were able to come here and have their first baby,’ she said, and I thought of all the refugees in countries like Syria who will not have the same luck.

Letter Home

Corpus Christi, 11 March 2018

Dear Mum and Dad,

Thought I’d drop you a note. Can hear Mike mowing. I’ve just done some weeding. Yet more plants went in this weekend – mainly seedlings transferred from San Antonio. Mike thinks we’ll have a jungle here soon. The grapefruit tree blossom has a delightful fragrance that wafts over as you pass by. I discovered a myrtle tree I thought had died (it was a new tree that I’d put in a difficult spot). Unexpectedly it has sprouted and is a foot tall. It will be a light purple blossom. I hope it’s not too near the pomegranate tree we transferred from San Antonio as it was in too shady a spot there. When I’m done and (hopefully) the gardens front and back blossom as they should do, I think I could write a book!

I’ve been trying out my new binoculars. There are lots of starlings around, doves and the odd great kiskadee which I’ve only seen on the Mexican border. These birds are medium-size, have a lemon belly, and a white head with what I think of as a lone ranger mask around its eyes. They have a lovely call.

It’s very humid today but lovely temperature (80s). We saw a wild turkey on the way here, so pretty, and more wildflowers are out.

Well, must go. Lots of love to you both.


Valentine’s Day 2018

This Valentine’s Day morning, it struck me that 13 Valentine’s Days ago I first saw a photograph of Mattie!

Even without having seen a photo of the little four year-old, I had already made my decision to meet her, with a view to adoption, but for some reason her social worker had failed to put her photo in the post (those of you who have read Dear Mummy, Welcome might remember this). I haven’t read my book since it was published in 2011, fearing it might perhaps be too emotional, but I remember exactly how I felt the moment I saw that large, brown paper envelope on the hallway carpet, and thinking that in only a matter of seconds I would see the face of my future daughter, a face I would know for the rest of my life. And how thrilled I was when I saw her! That adorable little face with the big, brown eyes, the mop of dark hair, the cheeky smile, the flowery dress. I remember placing the three photos of her around my kitchen and as I cooked a meal I couldn’t stop looking round and beaming at her.

Unfortunately for many, this Valentine’s Day will be a day they wished had never happened. I am talking of course about the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. When I think back, it must have been happening as Mike and I were eating our Valentine’s meal in our favourite Italian restaurant. It was a cold day and there was a fire in the grate and I had commented to Mike that several of the women seated at tables around us wore tops with hearts on them. When later we arrived home and learned of the high school shooting, it was sickening to hear the usual prayers and condolences and ‘now is not the time to talk about guns’, etc. I forecast to Mike that after two days of news reporting this mass shooting would disappear off the radar, as usual.

Luckily, I was wrong and almost two weeks on, the High School shooting still finds itself in the headlines. Finally, the National Rifle Association and all those hypocritical congressmen who have been their lackeys for so long, might possibly have met their match in the brave, articulate, passionate high school student survivors and their families.

I woke up this Valentine’s Day thinking of my joy on first seeing Mattie’s photograph on a Valentine’s Day 13 years ago. I cannot but wonder how many times the parents of the slain children must have looked back on this Valentine’s Day morning, the morning they last saw their sons or daughters alive.

Let It Snow!

Mattie called us around seven o’clock a few days ago and exclaimed, ‘Look out of the window, it’s snowing!’ Mike and I rushed to look out and lo and behold large, fluffy flakes were falling rapidly over our patio and pool and soon it was a winter wonderland: our house was covered in at least an inch of snow.

Although snow is not unusual in far west and far north Texas, I believe the last time it snowed like this here in San Antonio was 30 years ago. More surprising was the fact that it snowed on the Gulf Coast, too – the last time it snowed in Corpus Christi, I was told, was 1947. ‘Was your daughter excited about the snow?’ I asked our workman, Roberto. ‘Oh yes!’ he grinned, ‘I told her to go out and play in it!’ In fact, most of the schools in Corpus Christi were closed that day anyway – I think more out of shock than due to hazardous conditions on the roads.

The snow there soon disappeared and freezing temperatures must have been short-lived judging by the blossoming oleanders, jatrophas and frangipanis in the front gardens, but I did wonder how the birds reacted to the snow. I took a walk along Oso Bay Sunday morning after Mike and I had enjoyed a rather large breakfast in a nearby Mexican restaurant. I saw roseate spoonbills, white ibises and a blue heron merrily paddling together and thought, Shorebirds at least are colour blind in this complicated country.

On the bay is a little bar/restaurant called Oso Grill where Mike and I like to listen to live music (in a previous blog I mentioned that most of its fishing pier had been destroyed in the recent hurricane.) On this weekend, still pretty chilly, I doubted there were would any music but Mike said, ‘You never know,’ and after we had enjoyed a meal downtown, we turned up to see a small gathering of people and a country singer belting out old country songs. Usually the singer or band performs on the outside deck and you can enjoy looking at the moon and stars while they play but at this time of year the deck is closed off and owner Mario had a large gas grill blasting out heat. ‘I don’t think the regulators would be too happy to see that,’ Mike grinned, in a whispered aside.

Besides the music, Mike and I are always amused by the place which might best be described as electic/eccentric, filled as it is with pieces of seafaring and fishing paraphanelia, car and cinema seats, traffic lights, a stuffed owl and the odd Christmas decoration. The star of the show, I always think, is the parrot that perches in a large, open cage by the cash till and who sometimes chatters away and sings as the music plays. Mario’s wife often has the parrot on her shoulder as she cooks burgers and fried shrimp in a small kitchen near the ‘stage’ but on this particular evening she emerged as a cheer went up amongst the small crowd. I looked over and saw Mario arriving with a small man the size of a jockey but with a big smile on his face who reminded me of a small Mick Jagger (without the lips). The country singer soon left the ‘stage’ and lent this man his guitar who played to tumultuous applause and when he later signed the country singer’s guitar I said in a low tone to Mike, ‘Perhaps he’s famous.’ Then someone belted out, ‘Johnny Rodriguez!’ and Mike looked amazed: ‘I would never have recognized him’ he said.

Johnny Rodriguez, it turned out, was a famous Latin American country singer in the 1970s and 80s. In his career he released 26 albums, was honoured by three US presidents: Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush and George W Bush, and played at the latter’s inaugural ball. At the Oso Grill that wintry evening, Johnny Rodriguez’ voice might not have been what it was in his earlier career but it was such a sweet evening and you could have heard a pin drop as he played. As each of us went home later, I think we all felt touched by a little bit of magic.

Tree of Life (Arbol de la Vida)

These last few weeks I have become involved in a community public art project under the direction of artist Margarita Cabrera. San Antonio residents of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, have been encouraged to build a ceramic piece depicting their own story in San Antonio. Each piece will be fired and then suspended on a large steel ‘tree’ on the San Antonio river bank, not far from Espada Mission. The resulting large-scale sculpture, an enormous tree of life, will celebrate the World Heritage site of the Espada mission and bring focus to the natural and cultural environment that surrounds it.

I have mentioned in previous blogs my joy of walking and cycling in the area around the Espada Mission. It is the smallest of the four Missions and my favourite. I have sometimes sat on a bench under the shade of a live oak tree, wishing a sick, or troubled, loved one well, or inside the tiny church where there is the faint chanting of monks singing and candles burning, a place of peace. So I was thrilled to take part in this project and also to work with Margarita whose work I have seen not only in local galleries but in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

Yesterday, I put the final touches to my own ceramic piece. It is a pot about 22 inches tall and 15 inches wide which I have been making it as part of a small group in Artpace, a contemporary art gallery that also hosts resident artists from Texas and around the world. All the ceramic pieces are being made out of local clay which is quarried just a few miles away. The clay is dark brownish-red and there are tiny bits of Saltillo tile grit mixed into it which makes it a little difficult to handle – quite unlike the very malleable clay I was used to during my school years. Normally this clay is used to build sewage pipes and it was chosen because of its ability to be fired at extremely high temperatures. The enormous kilns that will be used to fire the pieces are on the same site where the clay is quarried.

On the outside of my pot I have applied sculptures of objects that I notice and love during my cycle rides. These include the prickly pear cactus, a century plant, a small house or casita, lily pad, pecan nut, date palm and turtle. There is also a bell and a candle representing the Espada Mission, and an airplane depicting the journey Mattie and I took to emigrate here, as well as visits back. There is, too, a heart (Mattie’s signature theme in her own art creations) and a rosebud to represent the country, and people, we left behind.

The pot itself represents the pots that are lovingly tended outside the Espada Mission. When there, I always glance over at the magnificent leaves and blooms, and to see which new plants they might have added since my previous visit.

The ceramic pieces are on target for their completion but due to Hurricane Harvey, the delivery of steel for the tree itself has been delayed. Things happen.