Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Riviera of Texas

America’s Gypsy explores
Tejano Culture in San Antonio, Texas
America’s Gypsy takes audiences on a journey through multi-cultural America, often stepping back in time and creating short escapes within U.S. borders. This time, she explores the Riviera of Texas - San Antonio.

As the strains of a mariachi band played over the airport loudspeaker, my mission became clear: experience margaritas and mariachis in America’s Little Mexico, otherwise known as San Antonio.

The sun was out, the heat was on, the tequila awaited my lips, and the music awaited my hips. Being close to the border of Mexico and even closer to large cities like Austin, Houston, Fort Worth and Dallas, San Antonio is a city where history meets industry.

Famous for historic spots such as The Alamo and Spanish missions that date back to the 1700s, it is also filled with distinct new innovations like the River Walk, the Tower of the Americas (a 750-foot-tall tower with a restaurant on the top), Six Flags Fiesta Texas, and the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo (one of the largest in the country).

Walking down stone steps, I entered the Paseo del Rio, the Spanish translation for the River Walk, where the waters of the San Antonio River spring forth into a Venice-like canal circling dozens of bars, restaurants and hotels for more than 3 miles.

Along the banks of the river, a small Mexican restaurant, Boudros, boasts guacamole made tableside—the only way to eat it, in my opinion. Sitting along the river watching the riverboats pass by, I heard a sensual melody from a single guitar.

A short, handsome, dark-skinned man, adorned in a black velvet suit with red and white lapels and a wide brimmed hat, stood alone stroking the Spanish guitar with his fingers, creating the most delicate and beautiful melody.

With in seconds, two other men joined him and began to harmonize their guitars, singing emotional Spanish lyrics that would make anyone’s heart stir. I sat in bliss sipping my prickly pear margarita (which became even more meaningful when I learned that prickly pear is a cactus from the desert bursting with vitamins and used to help ease hangovers).

But it was at La Villita’s Historic Arts Village, that I was able to experience true Tejano culture. Tejanos are Hispanic Texans, named for their ancestors who fought on the side of Texas independence forces.

Strolling through the dozens of old churches, homes, and jacals (thatched roof huts covered with clay) that have been renovated into local art and imported good shops, I couldn’t help but smile. While America has been independent from Mexico since 1821, its passionate and colorful culture is strong and vibrant thanks to the large Tejano and Latino communities that make up about 60 percent of the city’s entire population.

With the southern sun beating and inspired by the Tejano influences, I purchased a nice green cowboy hat as I went across the street to the famous historical landmark, The Alamo. There, I heard the magical music of three mariachis singing a song of happiness on the corner of the cobblestone streets.

Though the Alamo seemed much smaller than I imagined, its presence brought forth the importance of this historic mission for both Americans and Mexicans. With 189 defenders on the side of Texas, such as folk hero Davy Crockett, Colonel William Travis and Jim Bowie fighting the 13-day battle against Mexico’s Santa Anna’s army of 4,000 ending in the favor of Mexico until they moved up north and met the forces headed by Sam Houston. Today, The Alamo is known as the Shrine of Texas Liberty.

This one building created what is now Texas and it stands still today; 173 years later … filled with curious tourists who might not ever know all that went on in this divided land.

After experiencing tradition at La Villita and The Alamo, I got a great taste of just how well San Antonio blends the old with the new at the Pearl Brewery complex. The space functioned as a brewery from 1883 until 2001, but is now being transformed into a culinary and cultural gathering space centered on the restored brew house, stables and cable cars.

One of the highlights in the Pearl Brewery complex is Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina (Things for the Kitchen). Visitors are greeted with a huge sign saying Mi Casa es Su Casa (“My home is your home”), and the interior feels like an authentic Mexican kitchen. Mexican spices fill the racks, dried peppers hang from the ceiling, and hand-painted plates lined the tables. The only thing missing is an abuela (grandmother) making fresh tortillas. (Fortunately, the store also sells tortilla makers!)

This salivating vision of homemade tortillas inspired me to wander over to the Culinary Institute of San Antonio, also located in the Pearl Brewery. Here, several “enthusiast classes” for aspiring chefs and food lovers focus on Latin American cuisine, with two-hour, weekend and boot-camp courses available.

I signed up for the Taste of CIA Cookbook class and spent all day grinding paprika, chopping vegetables and flipping tortillas. By the end of the class, I had prepared an authentic Mexican meal: chicken mole topped with sautéed peppers, mushrooms and onions with hot homemade tortillas.

Though often overshadowed by its neighbors, San Antonio is akin to a well-balanced meal: the sweet memories of history blended into the savory sauce of culture topped with the strong meat of industry and innovation.

The hot sunny days, the crystal green river, the smiling tan faces and unlimited salsa and margaritas add the perfect spice to a journey along the Riviera of Texas. ¡Ole!

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