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Party like it's 1718 — or '31


San Antonio Express-News (02/12/2005)

by Amy Dorsett

When is a birthday not a birthday? Maybe when no one can agree how many candles should be on the cake.

Last week, when a contingent of Canary Islanders, elected officials and San Fernando Cathedral leaders announced that a yearlong celebration of the city's 275th anniversary would begin today, citizens may have been left scratching their heads.

After all, for the past two au-tumns, a Founders Day has been hosted at San Pedro Springs Park, which organizers envisioned as a birthday party to honor the city's origins and cultures. So when last week's plans for a celebration of the 275 milestone were announced, organizers were quick to call it an anniversary, not a birthday.

Confusion comes from two different dates and which one people consider to have been the genesis of modern-day San Antonio.

Some think the city began in 1718, when Father Antonio Olivares dedicated the original mission of San Antonio de Valero near San Pedro Springs. It was moved twice, ultimately landing in what is now called Alamo Plaza.

Others believe the official start came in 1731, when Canary Islanders arrived with orders from the King of Spain to establish a municipal government and the formation of "La Villa de San Fernando," which led to the construction of what is now the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the United States.

Father David Garcia, rector of San Fernando Cathedral, admits that history can be a bit, well, messy.

"We've been confused all of our lives when it comes to the history of the city," he said.

Jesus F. de la Teja, chairman of the history department at Texas State University, said that by the time the Canary Islanders arrived there were 200 to 250 people living in the area, plus more living at the missions.

"The Canary Islanders arrived in a community that had been in existence since 1718," he said, denying that Canary Islanders established the city. "It's fiction.

"They're essentially occupying an area that had already been settled. They're not coming into a wilderness and establishing a town out of nothing."

De la Teja understands where Canary Islanders and their descendants are coming from.

"They're very proud of their heritage," he said. "It's the equivalent of the descendants of the Mayflower who take pride in their ancestry."

Dr. Alfonso Chiscano, president of the Friends of the Canary Islands, agrees that San Antonio was populated by 1731.

"What the Canary Islanders did was the official creation of the city government," said Chiscano, who is a native of the Canary Islands. "There were settlers, but they weren't organized by government."

Frank W. Jennings, who worked to form Founders Day, said that event didn't want to try to pin a birth date on the city by choosing between the two years.

"I hope we don't create any conflict. I think things are working out pretty well. There's room for everybody," he said, adding Founders Day acknowledges 1718, 1731, 1836, when the Battle of the Alamo occurred, and 1968, the year of the HemisFair. "These dates have affected the character and identity of San Antonio."

Jennings did admit there can be animosity between competing groups.

"There is a constant misunderstanding of when San Antonio began," he conceded. "It can be contentious."

Larry Kirkpatrick, a member of the Bexareno Genealogical Society, said his group firmly believes San Antonio got its start in 1718.

"The Canary Islanders have a very strong position," he said. "To me, the Canary Islanders believe God created this area for them in 1731 and that nothing was here before them — that's not the whole story."

Garcia is confident all interested groups can come together for a communal celebration, whether it's the anniversary of the municipal government or Founders Day.

"I think questions will always be raised as to when the city's birth date is," he said. "It's confusing. These differences make sense to historians, but San Antonio has never let confusion get in the way of a party."