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San Antonio Missions preserve Native American history in Texas’s first World Heritage Site March 10, 2016

Posted by Tracy in : Civil Rights travel, Historical preservation, Indigenous culture, San Antonio , add a comment


Story and photos by Tracy L. Barnett
for the Washington Post

Two weathered gravestones sit in a small, dusty rectangle in front of the grand Spanish church at the heart of the nation’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the San Antonio Missions. I’ve been to Mission San Jose many times — to attend the lively Mariachi Mass, to photograph its antique majesty, to reflect on the history of this place and its role in the settlement of the American Southwest. But this is the first time I’ve thought of it as a cemetery.

I’m seeing it through the eyes of two direct descendants of the missions’ original inhabitants, members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, whose ancestors inhabited this part of what is now Texas for thousands of years. Some 300 years ago, they helped to build these missions, and their descendants maintain a vital connection to them.

Last year the five missions, spread out over about 12 miles along the San Antonio River, received the coveted designation of World Heritage Site. Four of them are still active Catholic parishes, attended by some of the original Native American descendants; the fifth, Mission San Antonio de Valero, went on to become a military garrison — the legendary Alamo, now converted into a memorial to the battle fought there.

Ramón Vásquez, a straight-talking Texan with a dark ponytail, and the soft-spoken Jesús “Jesse” Reyes Jr., an anthropologist in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, are my guides today. Ramón, executive director of a nonprofit organization called the American Indians in Texas, has teamed up with Jesse to create Yanawana Mission Tours — named for the pre-Hispanic name for the San Antonio River — which offers an eye-opening perspective not just on the missions, but also on American history itself.

Read the rest of the story here

Feet on Fire: Get immersed in San Antonio’s hot flamenco scene February 1, 2016

Posted by Tracy in : San Antonio , add a comment


Tracy L. Barnett
Photo by Wyatt McFadden
For Texas Journey magazine

Teresa Champion was just 6 years old when she heard a sound that 
would change her life forever. She was the leader in line to go to 
catechism class in her South San Antonio barrio when a sharp click-click-click reached her small ears and piqued her curiosity. The next day, she stood last in line, and when the group rounded the corner, she hung back and returned to the place where she’d heard that sound. She peered into a window and stood transfixed.
“I saw this older lady, heavy size, and she was …”— here Teresa stops to demonstrate the motion and sound of the castanets, wooden clapping instruments—
“I had no idea what I was seeing. I stood there, and I forgot about the catechism.”
Every day she did the same, slipping away from her class to go back and watch the 
lady dance. After a week, the woman came out and spoke to her.
“Are you a dancer?” she asked in Spanish.
“‘I’ve never danced,’ I told her, and she asked if I’d like to try,” Teresa says.
So began the initiation of a gypsy soul.

Read the rest of the story here

San Antonio’s Missions declared a World Heritage site July 6, 2015

Posted by Tracy in : San Antonio, Spain, Texas , add a comment

Alamo with Moon (Al Rendon photo, courtesy San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Tracy L. Barnett, Special for USA TODAY

Five cherished portals to America’s Spanish colonial past have just been elevated to the stature of Machu Picchu, Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal with Sunday’s decision by the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to grant World Heritage status to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

“We are thrilled,” said San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, calling from Bonn, Germany, soon after the announcement was made. “The decision came right after Independence Day and we felt we were representing the United States on a world stage, so it was very exciting.”

What kind of traveler are you? San Antonio Trips for 5 Types of Travelers May 1, 2014

Posted by Tracy in : San Antonio , add a comment


By Tracy L. Barnett
Special package for USA Today’s Experience Weekend site

Remember the Alamo? Well, San Antonio has a whole lot more to offer visitors these days, almost enough to make you forget about that iconic shrine to Texas liberty. Miles and miles of newly developed spaces along the River Walk, an irresistible selection of fine dining experiences, a diverse and vibrant music scene, a sizzling nightlife – all of it colored by that special cultural blend that you’ll only find in America’s most Mexican of cities. Nowadays you’ll need at least a week to explore the best the city has to offer. But here’s a warning – once you’ve gotten a taste of the Alamo City, you may not want to leave.

San Antonio for First-Timers

San Antonio for Families

San Antonio for Foodies

San Antonio for Romance

San Antonio for Hipsters

Mixtli: A culinary journey through the heart of Mexico January 30, 2014

Posted by Tracy in : Food, Uncategorized , 1 comment so far


SAN ANTONIO, Texas — It was only the second night that they were open for business, and the two young chefs worked madly. Barely had they had a chance to break in their new cookware when the news came: They were to have three icons of Latin American cuisine at their table: Rick Bayless of Frontera in Chicago, Maricel Presilla from Cucharamama in New Jersey, and Roberto Santibanez from La Fonda in New York City, accompanied by the Culinary Institute of America’s Latin Cuisines Advisory Board – the leadership from Diego’s own alma mater.

“That was incredibly nerve-racking,” confesses Mixtli co-founder Diego Galicia. “Trial by fire.”

The pair passed the test with flying colors; the room full of chefs ate and drank their fill, admiring the various offerings and conversing and sharing until nearly 1 a.m.

San Antonio is in the heart January 9, 2010

Posted by Tracy in : San Antonio , 2comments

Yes, I know it’s the tourism board’s sentimental slogan, and I am now nowhere near the River Walk, 700 miles to the south in Mexico City. But nostalgia dies hard, especially when it comes to San Antonio, and so I was pleased to be asked to write a story about my former hometown for the Houston Chronicle. The story appears in today’s travel section. San Antonio Express-News travel readers will get a treat from my former Houston Chronicle colleague, Harry Shattuck, detailing some of the finer points of the Bayou City.

Here’s a little taste of my San Antonio story, together with a slide show and a link to the full story, for those who don’t have access to today’s Chronicle. If you’d like to see more of my San Antonio ramblings, click here for a beyond-the-Alamo tour guide.


More to love in the Alamo City

If you liked San Antonio before, get ready.

The Alamo City is just about to give you a whole lot more to love.

From the revitalized Main Plaza at the heart of the city to the restored Mission Concepción in the south, from the newly polished gem of a Japanese Garden in Brackenridge Park to the hip and happening Pearl Brewery complex, there’s already more to see in San Antonio than you may have suspected.

The city’s crown jewel — the famed River Walk — is undergoing a $384.5 million expansion that will increase its reach by several orders of magnitude. This 13-mile linear parkway is unfolding in stages until late 2013, transforming a neglected, weed-choked drainage ditch into a word-class attraction. In the process, the project is transforming the city itself.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Beyond the Alamo in San Antonio August 26, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in : San Antonio, Texas , 4comments
San Antonio's West Side is alive with color, culminating in a collection of murals that tell its stories.

San Antonio's West Side is alive with color, and scattered with murals that tell its stories.

There’s a touch of irony in the Alamo’s stature as the No. 1 stop on the San Antonio tourist trail. The Alamo was all about the battle to wrest Texas from Mexico. Though Santa Anna lost the war, he won the battle in San Antonio, and the Mexican spirit has prevailed – which is the other part of what people come to see. Hispanic influence touches everything: the art, the literature, the music, the cuisine, the activism. And that’s a huge part of what makes San Antonio so special.

Tracy and Peter on the River Walk

Tracy and Peter on the River Walk

In honor of Travel Detective Peter Greenberg, who has invited me to appear on his excellent travel show, Peter Greenberg Worldwide, I’ve put together a list of my favorite off-the-tour-bus San Anto sights and experiences. Listen to the podcast here, and browse Peter’s site for a wealth of travel news. Peter’s logged more miles than anyone I know, and amazingly, he finds time to serve as a volunteer firefighter in Long Island on the weekends. And please add your favorite San Antonio haunts in the comment section below.

To begin, you need to find out what’s going on in town when you arrive and drop in on an art opening, a poetry reading or a concert before diving into the sumptuous restaurant scene. Check the Downtown Blog and the Events Calendar by downtown denizen Ben Olivo of the SA Express-News and the events calendar of the San Antonio Current to be in the know.


* Main Plaza, scene of many free concerts, San Fernando Cathedral and the historic town square

* La Villita, another concert, festival and gallery venue amid San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood.

* Hemisfair Park, a lushly fountained and landscaped park created for the 1968 World’s Fair, is a quiet getaway where you can explore spectacular public art, drop by the Institute of Mexican Culture and take a ride up in the Tower of the Americas to have a drink and watch the sunset at The Chart House restaurant.

* Museo Alameda, the Hispanic Smithsonian, right on the corner of Market Square – don’t miss the gift shop, the quirky, kitschy creation of San Antonio artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz.

King William District – The city’s German heritage and history is concentrated here, with mansions, galleries, and eateries (Azuca, La Foccacia, Cascabel, Gunther House, Mad Hatter Tea Room).

West Side:

The West Side has a reputation that comes from its long history as a low-income area. But it’s also the birthplace of a vibrant arts scene, and the casual visitor will find a colorful, welcoming community full of Mexican and Chicano culture, authentic pride and some of the world’s best tacos. For me, the West Side is the true heart of San Antonio.

Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a beautiful arts venue and culture center. Everything from the Tejano and conjunto music of San Antonio native Flaco Jimenez to the Latin American film festival to live teatro campesino can be seen here, and the gift shop is full of great finds. Here is where you’ll find the supersized Virgin of Guadalupe candle, a spectacular mosaic created by San Antonio artist Jesse Trevino. The artist, a veteran, lost his painting hand in the Vietnam War, and his struggle to express his vision has made him the beloved artist laureate of San Antonio.


SA chefs vie for trip to Tahiti July 31, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in : Food, San Antonio, Texas , add a comment

On a May visit to San Antonio, I happened by the new Bistro Bakery, the latest offering by the prolific and popular French chef Damien Watel. He had brought in his mother to help run the place, and the two were running hither and yon to keep up with the overflowing crowd.

Damien, a descendant of a chef who served French King Louis XIV, has been my favorite San Antonio chef since he turned an old laundromat into Ciao Lavanderia, which serves infallibly fabulous cuisine. I liked him even better when he converted the neighboring nail salon into Ciao Vino, perhaps the city’s best wine bar. Since then, he’s opened two new restaurants in the exclusive Stone Oak development on San Antonio’s upscale north side.


His project made headlines recently when he got into trouble with the Stone Oak property association for installing a sculpture of a fork without authorization. Watel responded to the censure by erecting an also controversial “Wall of Censorship” partially obscuring the offending fork.

Little wonder, given the hyperactive Watel’s peripatetic pace, that he’s thrown his hat into the ring for a free getaway vacation in Tahiti.

Today I received this item in a press release from Tahiti Tourisme North America:

“Damien Watel and his girlfriend Lisa of San Antonio are battling it out with more than 20 other couples for a trip to Tahiti.

The couple (both professional chefs) entered Tahiti Tourisme’s “Invest in Your Love” video contest by submitting a video, Recipe for Tahiti, on why they need (and deserve) an escape to the beautiful islands of Tahiti.”

What’s even more fun: You can vote for Damien’s vacation here:

“Now it’s up to the public to decide who gets to move on to the finals.  Voting for this round is open to the public and runs from July 25 through August 8.  Videos that receive the highest number of public votes by August 8 move on as finalists and then the winner will be selected from an expert panel of judges.

Visit investinyourlove.com to watch the videos, vote and for information on how to enter to win a trip to the South Pacific island paradise of Tahiti.   There are four more contest periods to submit a  video for a chance to win, running until the end of November.”

I don’t know about you, but I think he’s earned it.

SA hotels make "World's Best" list July 17, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in : Food, San Antonio, Sustainability , add a comment

Recently I was in San Antonio to visit the new stretch of the famed River Walk, and to visit with chef John Brand, the culinary wizard behind the remake of two River Walk classics, Pesca and Las Canarias.

Brand has distinguished himself with a cuisine that is both cutting-edge and creative, while being an active adherent to farm-to-table and sustainable harvesting practices. Here’s an interview I did with Brand at Las Canarias after a memorable lunch in May.

Pesca and Las Canarias and their parent hotels, the Watermark Hotel and Spa and Omni’s La Mansion del Rio, have more to celebrate this month than a new stretch of the River Walk. Both hotels made Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best Hotels” list — the only hotels in Texas to have received this honor.

Here’s the story in the San Antonio Business Journal.

Of course, it can’t hurt that they’ve got a world-class chef at the helm of their two restaurants. Congrats, y’all.

John Brand: From Farm to Kitchen June 1, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in : Food, San Antonio, Sustainability, Texas , add a comment


It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.

His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.

“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.

Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.

“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”

It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.

“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”

Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.

He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.

“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”

Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.

Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.

What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.

Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.


The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.

Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.

It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.