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Victoria, Mexican town share common heritage (slideshow)

By Jessica Puente
Aug. 4, 2012 at 3:04 a.m.
Updated Aug. 6, 2012 at 3:06 a.m.

About 250 people ride in the Cabalgata de los Caballos, the Ride of the Horses, to the San Bernardo Mission in Guerrero, Coahuila, for the third annual watermelon festival.

Important dates

•  1685 - La Salle establishes colony on Garcitas Creek.

•  1688 - Major Diego Ramon and Gov. Alonso De León enter what is now Texas on an expedition to find the La Salle colony and arrest one of the known survivors, Frenchman Jean Gery.

•  April 1689 - Using the Frenchman as a guide, De León find the fort on the banks of Garcitas Creek and name the Guadalupe River.

•  1690 - De León leaves Texas for the last time.

•  1691- De León dies in Coahuila.

•  1716 - Diego Ramón sees son Domingo off for eastern Texas at the head of a new mission-founding expedition, accompanied by St. Denis as commissary and the younger Diego Ramón.

•  1721- Diego and Domingo establish a mission and a fort for its protection on the site of old Fort St. Louis, thus reclaiming the soil for Spain.

•  1722 - Capt. Marqués de Aguayo establishes Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission across the creek from St. Louis mission.

•  1726 - Indians and disease are too much for the Spanish, and both the mission and the fort move to Mission Valley on the Guadalupe River, where there was only irrigation and cattle raising.

•  1749 - The mission is moved to the north bank of the San Antonio River, near the site of present Goliad in Goliad County, and the presidio to the south bank.

Source: Texas State Historical Association

A shared heritage

Victoria's history runs straight through Guerrero.

In 1688, Spain's fear of a French-inspired Indian uprising sent Maj. Diego Ramon, who established the mission sites in Guerrero, and his childhood friend, Gov. Alonso De León, into what is now Texas on an expedition to find the La Salle colony and arrest the Frenchman Jean Gery.

It took De León three expeditions to find the Frenchman, who took residence among the Coahuiltecan Indians. Using Gery as a guide, De León found the fort in April 1689 on the banks of Garcitas Creek, just 45 minutes southwest of what is now Victoria.

It was during that final expedition that De León buried eight French cannons at the site and named the Rio Guadalupe after the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Roman Catholic icon. Seven of the eight cannons are on display in the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria.

De León, an experienced explorer credited with blazing much of the Old San Antonio Road and thought to be kin to Victoria founder Martín De León, left Texas for the last time in 1690. In 1726, Ramon's sons, Domingo and Diego Jr., took command of the fort, renaming it Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahia Presidio, which would eventually become Presidio La Bahia in Goliad.

George Nelson, a San Antonio archaeologist who has excavated around the San Bernardo mission in Guerrero, participated in the trip with Victoria's Mayor Will Armstrong.

"There were Indians and no gold, so Spain claimed it and forgot about it. But then France came so they wanted to take it back. That land was fought for," Nelson said.

Presidio La Bahia solidified Spanish territorial claims against the French and became the principal military post between San Antonio and the Rio Grande. It is one of the major links between Mexico and Texas.

GUERRERO, Coahuila - Swift rapids rush over slippery, moss-covered rocks as a crane flies through tall grass.

This is the border between the United States and Mexico across the Texas border, a setting much more majestic than the tiny blue line on a map that fuels heated immigration debates.

A small beach on the banks of the Rio Grande is filled with colorful seashells and stones softened by the surging river, where Mexican Gen. Santa Anna is thought to have crossed. The scene resembles the pebble beach hidden 270 miles to the east in Victoria's Riverside Park. An arrowhead lodged inside a seashell reflects the Texas history time has not yet fully washed away.

Recently, Victoria Mayor Will Armstrong and a handful of city residents stood on this spot after being driven down a dusty, bumpy trail. The delegation traveled to Guerrero, Coahuila, to meet with Mexican officials about the union of these two towns and to tour historic mission sites.

Victoria may soon join 44 other Texas cities that have forged sister city alliances in Mexico. This alliance would be an effort to unite culturally, enhance business opportunities and ensure economic growth in both communities in the future.

"We stood on the Rio Grande watching the rapids, and I could envision Santa Anna's troops crossing there," Armstrong said.



A NEW JOURNEY

The idea of joining these two cities was spurred by film director Bill Millet, who contacted Armstrong about a PBS special he is filming, documenting Texas history before the Alamo.

"Our film is really making a case for why we are more Spanish influenced than French," Millet said. "The basis of Victoria comes from Guerrero. Victoria is the sea gateway to Texas and Guerrero is the land."

The historic significance of the area captured Millet's attention. The tan stacked stones, iconic square window openings and a roofless nave in San Bernardo, one of the three mission sites founded by Maj. Diego Ramon in Guerrero, would be familiar to any of the 2.5 million people who annually visit The Alamo.

A windowless room attached to the entrance hall may have been where the Franciscan priests slept after a day of teaching their religion to the Indians, town historian Enrique Cervera said.

Most of the original mission materials are in place, but lightning struck part of the entrance roof and was rebuilt by University of Texas architects, who also leveled the site, Cervera said.

"A lot of people think those holes on the wall were for cannons, but that's not true. They would pull sticks through there and hang bells off of them," Cervera said, in Spanish, about the square openings on the walls of the missions.



TEXAS BEFORE THE ALAMO

The PBS special scheduled to air later this year, Millet said, will help bring attention to Victoria and will serve as a valuable piece of information to promote the community. Millet has traveled to Mexico every month to film different historical sites and events that capture the Mexican culture.

On this trip, he documented the third annual Festival Internacional de la Sandia - or International Watermelon Festival - which takes place in San Bernardo.

About 600 Guerrero residents rode on 250 horses and buggies from La Candelaria ranch, where more than 45,000 tons of watermelon and melon are harvested annually, to the mission site.

The assorted caravan composed of children and seasoned riders alike, traveled for two hours, seizing the opportunity to rest under the shadows of trees found sparingly along the dirt road. The faces of travelers, shining with sweat from the prolonged heat, broke into smiles as they jumped off their horses and found the nearest watermelon slice.

Sitting in plastic, red chairs under shade by the mission, with watermelons on every table, they watched folkloric dancers twirl traditional dresses to the tune of folk songs.

After judging the watermelon sculpture contest in the dome-covered section of San Bernardo believed to be the church, the mayors made their way to the outside edge of the mission. They waited as a small boy, straightening his cowboy hat, and a young girl arranged themselves under the mission archway while carrying small planting pots holding 18-inch olive trees.

Historians say Franciscan priest planted olive trees at all of the mission sites. Both mayors each planted a tree, signifying the beginning of a relationship between their two cities.



BACK TO VICTORIA

"I'm excited about Victoria and this opportunity," Armstrong said. "This early part of our history puts us on the map. We wouldn't be here without our forefathers and building this piece around the early Texas expeditions is special."

Guerrero Mayor Francisco Garcia Castells, a Texas A&M graduate, echoed the optimism: "By becoming sister cities, we can strengthen bonds between Texas and Mexico by the shared history of people and entradas from Guerrero to Victoria that established El Camino Real and founded missions."

Victoria's Convention and Visitors Bureau is working on the details of this project. O.C. Garza, communications director, is working to set up a visit to Victoria by Guerrero officials on Aug. 24-25.

Armstrong said he hopes the PBS documentary will promote historic tourism in Victoria. Although hotel rooms are in short supply now, two new projects are scheduled to open in the coming year.

"All of this falls together. I don't think we could have written a script that would be more beneficial to us than what is happening through this PBS special," Armstrong said.

The Presidio La Bahia in Goliad attracts 28,000 visitors every year.

The mayor said some have discussed promoting historic tourism even more by rebuilding the three mission sites in Victoria County, but he is not aware of any actual plans.

About a third of the 5,000 annual visitors to the Museum of the Coastal Bend are from out of the area, said Sue Prudhomme, museum director. "Many are touring the La Salle museums. We are one of seven with artifacts."

The city is planning to build a visitors' center downtown that could serve as a guide for tourists wanting to explore the region's history. The plans will be discussed during the city council meeting Tuesday evening.

"The historic downtown, the museum, the different restaurants that we have, the entertainment downtown - before we build something that would be a tourist attraction, I see us promoting what we already have," Armstrong said.



GROWING BUSINESS

The historical connections between the two communities also has attracted the attention of Jim Henry, olive tree farmer and founding director of Texas Olive Oil Council, who plans to plant a large commercial orchard in the Crossroads by next year.

"Part of the motivation we have is trying to put this new orchard in a place that is accessible to a tourist trade. We want Texas people to know there is a new Texas agricultural business and visit it," Henry said about choosing the Crossroads as the location for the orchard.

A large commercial olive tree orchard is roughly 300 acres and consists of 200,000 trees. Henry is still in negotiations about where in the area to plant and is unable to release the exact locations.

The climate in the Crossroads exhibits temperature variations favorable for planting olive tree orchards, Henry said.

"Our objective is to start planting this next spring in 2013 and put in a processing center in 2014. The demand for quality olive oil is at an all-time high. We currently can't keep up with the demand so we're trying to expand," Henry said.

Henry will accompany the mayor and city officials in welcoming the mayor of Guerrero and his delegation during their visit later this month to Victoria. He will be planting olive trees by the rose garden just like the ones Armstrong and his counterpart planted outside the mission San Bernardo in Guerrero.

The second mission site established by the Spanish in Victoria County is on Tonkawa Bank, a pebble beach found inside Riverside Park near the rose garden. A few miles away, the Museum of the Coastal Bend offers a view of the missions, starting with a 16-point star-shape carved in orange in front of the doorway. The star re-creates the Spanish floor plan for the missions.

Inside the museum, subtly hanging among other bronze jewelry, is a Spanish religious medallion depicting the passion of Christ.

Historians believe this medallion was worn by a priest from Guerrero who would travel to visit the missions.

The longtime ties between Mexico and Texas continue to be unearthed, just as this relic was during an excavation of the ruins in Victoria's Mission Valley.

Armstrong gave a silver replica of this medallion to Garcia Castells' wife to symbolize the continuation of Mexican-Texan relations. Later this month, the two mayors will venture to Mission Valley and Victoria's two other mission sites, taking a journey like the one Spanish officials embarked on more than 300 years ago in what was to become Texas.

Their destination could be as uncertain as the path of the Guadalupe from the vantage point of the Mission Valley ruins surrounded by anaqua trees 100 feet above the river banks. Nearby in Riverside Park, the two delegations will plant olive trees, just like the ones outside of San Bernardo in Guerrero, serving as a reminder that, although old relationships may fade, new ones can be regrown.

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