Each year, the National Park Service invites descendant families of original mission residents to create altars for a Día de los Muertos exhibit in the attic of Mission San José.
Until Wednesday, a dozen altars honor relatives and ancestors whose surnames appear on street signs in Mission Road neighborhoods, on headstones in Mission cemeteries and on title deeds that, in some cases date back hundreds of years.
Three photographs on one of these altars tell a story that stretches back centuries, from the construction of the mission in 1720 to a cluster of homes that once stood at 6711 San Jose Dr.
For the Día de los Muertos holiday in the recent past, Brenda Pacheco decorated an altar that pays homage to the paternal side of the family, the residents of Mission San José who are descendants of the 16 original Canary Island families who settled in the current city of San Antonio. .
This year, Pacheco left that task to his cousin Jeanette Pacheco-Garcia and decided to honor the maternal side of the family, the Romeros, who Pacheco recently learned were also deeply involved in mission life.
When she was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Pacheco said “none of the family members ever talked about their Native American lineage.”
When state officials came knocking on the door of the newly built family home in 1970, what was at stake was their property, located in the shadow of the mission’s east wall. Efforts to preserve what decades later would become part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and San Antonio Missions National Park meant the homes of nearby residents would be bought up and razed to make way for a new visitor center and parking.
The power of eminent domain meant that Texas won the property and the family had to move.
The loss embittered Pacheco’s father, Richard Pacheco, who felt that his ideal of the American dream – to work hard and own a home – had been betrayed. Eventually, he and his mother, Janie Escobar-Pacheco, divorced.
Escobar-Pacheco retained ownership for as long as she could, as the state suffered decades of delays in building the mission’s new facilities. And even when the order to leave finally came in 1992, along with a check that Pacheco said was nowhere near enough to compensate for their loss, his mother decided to keep the house herself, to take a reduced state payment and move the building to a property 7 miles south in the Bexar County unincorporated community of Losoya.
“And that’s where the house still is,” Pacheco said, recalling that it once stood in the literal shadow of Mission San José.
“I still own part of that house, but I live here, still a few blocks from the San Jose Mission” with a cousin, she said. “This is my neighborhood…and I’m going to live here until I die.” I will never move.
A Romero Revelation
While his father’s family was known to have lived in the mission since the 18th century, it was only recently discovered that his mother’s side also had strong ties to Mission San José.
The Arguelles-Romero family from whom Escobar-Pacheco was descended not only lived at Mission San José, but were also among the members of the Pampopa tribe who originally built the mission.
The family eventually found their way to a ranch in Christine, Texas, where his great-grandfather Felice Romero would work as a vaquero and live with his wife, Antonia.
Felice’s daughter, Selia Romero, would meet and marry another vaquero, Sequiel Escobar, and the couple moved to Pleasanton, eventually settling in San Antonio less than five blocks from the mission. Their daughter Janie and her husband would later purchase the property at 6711 San Jose Dr., home to several family members.
Returning to their ancestral land, her family “come full circle,” Pacheco said, though she’s not sure if her grandparents knew of their family history.
On the altar inside the attic, a black and white image of her grandmother Selia Romero Escobar is displayed draped in a pink lace mantilla she wore to church every Sunday. The photograph is accompanied by a pair of ceramic salt and pepper shakers she owned and a blue enameled ladle and spoon representing her work as a cook at the Christine Ranch.
In the central part of the altar is an image of Felice and Antonia, the only image Pacheco has of his great-grandparents.
And on the left side is Escobar-Pacheco, proudly wearing the uniform of a certified peace officer, a job she took late in life to support herself, rising to the rank of sergeant. Nearby are ofrendas, including a laminated obituary of her death in 2013 at the age of 75, a bottle of pancake syrup from Cracker Barrel and a tape of Patsy Cline singing “A Closer Walk With Thee.”
The obituary lists a long line of surviving family members: Pacheco and his sisters Debra Garcia and Audrey Casias, their husbands Ernest and Frank, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Pacheco now works on behalf of this lineage, serving on several city advisory committees, including the Alamo Museum Planning Committee.
Joining the stories of the Pacheco and Romero families meant the world to her, she said.
“Now I know beyond a shadow of a doubt who I am, and my heritage and my ancestors, and all of this wealth that comes from being an original member of this mission, whose family helped build this mission” , said Pacheco. “Because I am rich. I may have nothing, I may not have any money, but I am rich…because of what I know now and who I am.
Mission San José’s granary is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily and can be visited for free.