The History That The Ofrendas Built

To tie back to my blog, “Westside Stories”, I’m writing this blog in lieu of social memory, family, and local history.  I had discussed the importance of remembering family history because it helps make up who we are, helps us understand our antepasados and what they did to get us where we are today.

Ah, Antepasados. Just the word sends chills through my bones and a warmth in mí corazón. I remember the first time I got that feeling.  I was extremely nervous to present my capstone presentation and my professor explained, when you get up to speak you have the love and the strength of all the mujeres in your family inside of you.  She said if I relax I could feel all of my antepasados standing behind me, with me.  It is something I still practice and encourage all to try as well.

But I digress

Recently the holiday, Día de Muertos passed on November 1 and 2.  I had the privilege of celebrating with the Esperanza Center of Peace and Justice at their Rinconcito de Esperanza location.  This was just beautiful I met so many amazing people when I was helping decorate and then attending the event.  It was exciting and happy for all those attending.  It is hard to explain the connection that death gives to all of us.  There were many ofrendas thoughtfully decorated with photos of the deceased and their favorite foods, music, and knick-knacks that served as reminders to the living.  I spoke with one woman about her ofrenda.  She explained she had been celebrating for years and her children never participated and then not wanting to celebrate this year because of a close relative recently passing. She then explained it was her children who encouraged her to set up the ofrenda.  They had found a new interest, with the help of the Disney movie, “Coco” and had began to take an interest in participating in the holiday.   I explained in empathy of a mutual feeling and experience then shared I was grateful she did and complimented her photos.   We then got into an in-depth conversation about how everything she placed was intentional because of its history.  She explained that all of the alters, ofrendas and memories are the histories of where we live.  I honestly, wish I could have recorded her voice because my snapshot of the evening does NOT do her any justice.  

I was also fortunate enough to meet two of the brothers that grew up in the old house on the property of Rinconcito.  One of the brothers set up an altar inside his old home, recollecting all the different events that occurred and stories of his family. He was wanting to share all these emotions with almost any that he came into contact with. However, the brother seemed less keen on the idea of sharing this space and history.  Both explained to me that their home IS history but one wanted to share the space with the public and the other did not.   One thought it was exploitation and the other saw it as an opportunity to teach and share his history.  I thought this agreement was interesting and it made wonder about certain things we have learned about space, place, and representation.  A home is a very intimate space that takes on many identities that cannot always be shared with another.

I could not get the thought out of my mind about the brothers not seeing eye to eye but agreeing it is a piece of history. I could not get the idea out of my mind when a woman and I had connected about different objects on the alter then giving me a hug before we departed.  The repetition of the ideas of remembering family and this being history was very somber.  It reminded me of why I am doing what I am doing.  Why I chose the path I have chosen.  

Día de Muertos is a day of remembrance and history.  Retelling the stories we heard during tamaladas from las chismosas or from our abuelitos cuando we were niños.  Just as in the holiday everything has two deaths: Once, when it physcially dies and the second when it was forgotten.  Just as the ofrendas, public history helps prevent the final deaths occurring so that local histories are not forgotten, so that the ivory towers of museums that have exploited different indigenous groups can be corrected, so that we remember where we come from in all our pains in privilages.


St. Mary’s University and the Westside: How Our Closest Neighbors Have Been Overlooked – Term Project Update

So, my term project took a rather interesting turn. Initially, I was going to be focusing my efforts on determining the nature of St. Mary’s University activism and outreach programs, and how they relate to other local universities. After that well ran dry, (and it did rather quickly), I turned to look more at how universities became more actively involved in their communities during the 1960’s as a result of a changing economic climate, the Chicano movement, (at least in San Antonio), and as a result of emerging grassroots organizations dedicated to improving local communities. Finally, I settled on an argument that the research i’d been doing actually supported. This came about almost by accident – while browsing through microfilm that documented issues of The Rattler, I became more and more aware that something was missing. There was discussion of local outreach programs and sponsorship of politically oriented committees, but there was almost no mention of any of the locales frequented by Chicano activists during the 1960’s. Further digging revealed an almost deliberate omission of any material documenting this area and St. Mary’s involvement there. I then turned my attention to learning more about local universities here in San Antonio, and the communities they reach out to in general. It became apparent that this wasn’t a rare scenario. It seems as though universities wanted to associate themselves with institutions that were considered of a higher caliber than those in the Westside, at least by popular conception. I became fascinated with the idea that universities can advocate social justice and outreach to local communities in need – but not to those the most desperate for aid. I was also made aware of the omission of information pertaining to the Chicano movement’s role at St. Mary’s. It’s almost as if the university was trying to disavow its role in the development of this group, and distinguish itself from the community around it. While I personally felt this was a bit appalling, I can understand it from ‘their’ perspective – or those who ran the university during the 1960’s. Catering to the needs of the community that saw the rise of a social activist party that utilized revolutionary rhetoric and possessed anti-establishment ideals certainly wasn’t their first priority. In more recent years, St. Mary’s has thankfully become more cognizant and supportive of its identity as an Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). St. Mary’s has recently, (in the last 20 years), undertaken efforts to assist local school districts in need and help the working class of the area. However, this is a recent development and again – not their first priority. So, at the end of this very verbose discussion of my project, if I were going to break what my term project is all about into one sentence, it’d be something like the following:

St. Mary’s University has a long and illustrious history of outreach to communities in need, but has until recently publicly disavowed themselves of involvement in the Westside, and is only recently openly expressing pride and support of their identity as a Hispanic Serving Institution.

This topic is very interesting to me, as it is a discussion of our university. Furthermore, while we may possess relatively liberal views in contrast to those of the 1960’s on society and ethnicity, it is interesting to see just how much St. Mary’s perception of itself has changed over the years.

The Best Museum That is Not a Museum.

Medieval European technology is shown off for a modern audience.

There is a place where you can walk among history, or at least a facsimile of it.  A place where you can see a Gutenberg printing press in use, or see how people long ago turned wool into yarn.  Blacksmiths and glass blowers work their crafts just down the path from the weapons master holding school for both young and old.  Musicians playing timeless music can be heard about the grounds as barkers alert you to the start of a comedy show or a Shakespeare reciting Nubian who is about to perform.  Weapons, armor, and clothing of all kinds are on display for admiring or purchase.  Chandlers and soap makers display their products next to shops selling foods from all over the world.   This is the world of the Texas Renaissance Festival.   Part carnival, part living history, part street market, and part party the Texas Renaissance Festival, or Ren Fest to its fans, is considered by many to be the top Renaissance Festival in the country.  Although it was created for entertainment purposes, there are educational opportunities when you walk through the gate.  I have been to Ren Fest many times, but this time I wanted to look at it as if it were a museum.  Does the museum label fit, and if so how does it compare to serious collecting institutions?

History for Entertainment Purposes

A craftsman working on his latest piece of pottery.

At its core the Ren Fest is an entertainment event, there is no denying that.  However, just because its main purpose is to entertain does not mean there is no educational value there.  A museum educates by telling the stories of the artifacts it has collected over the years.  At Ren Fest the exhibits are not artifacts, but craftsmen and women who will gladly chat with you about the skills they apply to their work.  There are people displaying all kinds of skills.  With a short walk you can find potters, chandlers (candle makers), printers, leather workers, glass blowers, and weavers.  You can see first hand how they apply their trade.  For most of the day they are demonstrating how they work.  They are also open to answering any questions that you have.

Spinning wool into thread to be woven into cloth.

For those who are really interested  they will take you step by step through the process.  They are not just making these items for display.  Festival goers have the chance to purchase the items they are making.  This is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who is interested in these craft works.  If trade crafts are not your thing there are still other things to learn.  For those who are looking for something more physical the Ren Fest has something for you too.  


Swords, Bells, and Bagpipes

For people who need a little more action in their learning experience, Ren Fest has you covered.  Visitors can learn the art of sword fighting from the

Oskar Hasslehoff giving a sword fighting lesson.

weapons master Oskar Hasslehoff.  Four times a day he instructs adults and children in the class art of sword fighting.  Observers can see demonstrations of a wide variety of swords.  He gives lessons for everything from 2-handers to rapiers.  He is a great source of historical sword fighting, often pointing out how Hollywood gets it wrong.  For something less violent there are many musical acts to be enjoyed.

The drum and bagpipe experience of Tartanic.

You are not going to find any rock bands or line dancing here.  Lutes, drums, and bagpipes are the instruments of choice here.   The music here is played in a historic style.  Regulars have their favorites, but all musicians are quality acts.  This is a great chance to hear music played on instruments that you might not be able to hear in a regular setting.  The most unusual being the Carillon played by a performer called Cast in Bronze.  Imagine a piano made of bells instead of strings.  It produces a very distinct

Cast in Bronze is the only act in the world that features the Carillon.

sound you won’t find anywhere else.  You can also catch dancers who perform in old world styles, but these are more entertaining than educational.    

A Museum or not a Museum, you be the Judge

You are not going to find a mission statement at the Texas Renaissance Fair.  No big idea will be disseminated on exhibit labels hanging next to well preserved artifacts.  What you will find is a chance to immerse yourself in history, or what people believe history to be.  The biggest resemblance to a museum that you will see is in the people who visit.  There are people who come to be refreshed, there are people who come to learn a thing or two, and there are people who come as a family outing.  Yes, it is more entertainment than history, and it’s not a place where I would come to do historical research.  However, it does have the ability to inspire people to learn more or to take up a hobby they may not have known about before their trip, and isn’t that the goal of any good museum?



Evolution of Frankenstein’s Monster

In honor of Halloween, I decided to write about the history of a Halloween icon — Frankenstein’s monster. Most everyone is familiar with Frankenstein, as he is featured heavily in pop culture and media nowadays, especially during this time of the year. But where did this creepy creature come from? Frankenstein’s Monster has undergone a considerable change from its inception to the contemporary figure. Let’s take a look at how the Monster evolved to the Frankenstein we know and love today.

Frankenstein the Novel

In 1818, English author Mary Shelley published the novel “Frankenstein” about a mad scientist named Victor Frankenstein who creates the Monster in a terrible science experiment with the goal of “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” This has led to people mistakenly referring to the Monster as Frankenstein, when that name actually belongs to the creator. The novel came about from a parlor game in which Mary, her future husband/poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, and poet Lord Byron competed to see who could write the best horror story. The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley in a nightmare and a few years later, Frankenstein was born. It is theorized that Shelley drew inspiration from Frankenstein’s Castle, located in southern Hesse, Germany, as Shelley was traveling through the region before she wrote her novel. And the rest is history, Frankenstein was a spectacular success and spawned an entire genre of horror stories, films, and plays. The novel has also made its way into high school English classrooms all over the world, which is where I first encountered it. Compared to contemporary adaptations, the original version of the Monster is quite eloquent. Speaking to his creator, Victor Frankenstein, the Monster says “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel”.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein | Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition

 Frankenstein the Movie Star

Frankenstein made its cinematic debut in 1931 with Boris Karloff starring as the Monster. There have been scores of film and television adaptations on Frankenstein since then. In 1935, Karloff reprised his signature role in “The Bride of Frankenstein”, incorporating a love interest into the story for the tragic Creature. In 1974, “Young Frankenstein“, starring Peter Boyle, Gene Wilder, and Mel Brooks hit the silver screen in a hilarious spoof of the original Gothic tale. In 2012, Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” had an adorable take on the classic story. In this version, Victor Frankenstein is a young boy who conducts an experiment to revive his beloved Sparky, a Bull Terrier who was struck by a car and killed.

Frankenstein as portrayed by Boris Karloff in 1931
The Bride of Frankenstein

Frankenstein the Cereal?

Beyond film and television adaptions, Frankenstein’s Monster has made its way into pop culture and consumerism. Frankenstein’s image is plastered on all kinds of products from clothing to cereal. That’s right, everyone’s favorite re-animated corpse is a cereal mascot. General Mills produces a line of monster breakfast cereals seasonally including Count Chocula, Boo Berry and Franken Berry. Franken Berry is a strawberry flavored frosted cereal with marshmallows which was introduced in 1971. Every autumn you can snag these monster cereals at your local grocery store for a limited time release.

Franken Berry monster cereal

As you can see, Frankenstein’s Monster has made its way into many different avenues since its original inception in 1818. All of these varied adaptations are different ways to interpret the classic product. Mary Shelley is known as the “mother of the horror genre” for inspiring so many people around the world. One reason that Frankenstein has retained its popularity is because it explores themes that are still relevant today. “Frankenstein reflects the deeply felt concerns of an age conflicted over religion and science. The novel explores the boundary between life and death, and the potential dangers human arrogance might arouse when trying to play God.”

What is your favorite interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster? Please share in the comments!

The Tejano Monument is a Cop-Out, and Here’s Why

After reading a Publicly Historians blog post by my colleague Gabriel Cohen, I knew that if I ever just so happened to be in Austin, Texas, and hanging around the capitol building, I may as well take a gander at the Tejano Monument. I didn’t think I’d meet those conditions during the Fall of 2018, but lo and behold, I did. And I have a few things to say about it.

A Few Things to Note

The Tejano Monument is well-deserved, and I’m glad that it exists– don’t get it twisted on that account. Representation is important, and Tejanos are the foundation of Texas. Credit should be given where credit is due, and I think we have quite enough Civil War statues. It’s shameful that we waited so long to give the measliest credit to the true pioneers that settled Texas long before any anglos set foot in what is now the Lone Star State. What I don’t appreciate is the manner that it was executed, and although this is common practice, it undercuts what should be a huge celebration.

The Passive Voice

Using passive voice when describing historical events doesn’t always make the parties involved or happenings unclear. We know what happened, and we know who did what simply because we are able to infer using the information provided and our prior knowledge in most cases. Passive voice does not turn history into gibberish, but it lets the speaker get away without admitting fault. That is exactly what the five plaques at the Tejano Monument does.

“…resulting in injustice and violence, and many experienced the loss of their lands.” I wonder who took their lands?

On the five plaques that accompany the statues of the monument, it seems that misfortune befalls the Tejanos as the anglo settlers arrive. They lose their land, “injustice and violence” happen, and rebellions break out for some reason that I just can’t place. I can’t help but wonder who was instigating this violence, taking the land, creating the injustice. Who were the Tejanos rebelling against? I don’t think anyone genuinely doesn’t know who was doing all of this, but I can’t help but think modern Texans should own up to it.

Anglo settlers stole the land of Tejanos. Anglo settlers subjugated Tejanos. Anglo settlers created gaps in equality that we are still atoning for to this very day. “Tejanos and Texans in the U.S.” reads “At times, change came too fast for Tejanos…” Yeah, that’s putting it lightly.

The Takeaway

You do not atone for historical injustice until you admit that what happened was wrong. Modern Texas is not built on the ideal of an equitable society, it is built on the backs the Tejanos that had everything ripped from them, including their humanity. To heal our society in all cases, we have to look back and try to understand what happened– who reaped the benefits, and who those benefits were snatched from. Someone has to say it, and it is painfully clear that our state monuments won’t.