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San Antonio founders escaped islands in distress, and now those same islands face volcanic danger

Legend holds that the drought and starvation the Canary Islanders endured in the early 18th century foreshadowed an earth-shattering event. Those hardships compelled them to emigrate to the Spanish colony of Texas. Five months later, a volcano on the islands exploded, and the crisis continued for almost six years.

Once again, Canary Islanders face an extreme eruption event. For more than a month, the Cumbre Vieja volcano has spewed ash and released lava on the island of La Palma. This is one of eight Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago that starts 62 miles west of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean.

So far, lava has covered 1,833 acres of land and destroyed almost 2,000 buildings. That number will only continue to rise as scientists believe there is no end in sight. There are no known casualties, and about 7,000 people have been evacuated. Besides the lava flow, air quality remains a large concern. Scientists recommend that residents in districts closest to the eruption remain indoors and preferably wear masks.

The Canary Islands Descendants Association (CIDA), based in San Antonio, wants to help people affected by this eruption, and it started a campaign to collect donations.

For members of CIDA, this destruction is personal. Mari Tamez, who was the president of CIDA for six years until January 2020, reminded San Antonians of this connection between the two locales.

“We're just reaching out to assist our ancestors, and we know that these are difficult times, but there is the history that ties us together,” Tamez said.

Of course, humans have created settlements around the area’s springs for millenia, but the village founded by the Canary Islanders would directly sprout the modern city of San Antonio. When they arrived here, there was already a Spanish presidio, which was a colonial military fort, and a mission, now called the Alamo. But they were responsible for finally creating a settlement for Spanish civilians.

To take a tour of downtown is to see the fingerprints of these emigrants all over the city’s founding. The original name of Main Plaza was Plaza de las Islas, a reference in Spanish to the Canary Islands from which these settlers came.

Between this plaza and the presidio, San Antonio de Béxar, they platted out their village grid. They called their new town San Fernando de Béxar. Here, they built a church, the original structure expanded upon to become what is now San Fernando Cathedral. They even had the irrigation ditches emanating from San Pedro Springs, the acequias, extended into their new settlement.

Daniel Ramirez | Texas Public Radio
Daniel Ramirez
Texas Public Radio
This figure of Our Lady of Candelaria, the patron saint of the Canary Islands, sits in the original portion of San Fernando Cathedral. A plaque nearby reads, “Donated in 1984 by the City of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands in memory of 56 Canary Islands immigrants who came to San Antonio in 1731 and founded San Fernando.”

The current president of the Canary Islands Descendants Association, Freddie T. Bustillo, excourages San Antonians to recognize the depth of this history.

“So many people think there was nothing here before the Alamo,” he explained, referencing the battle that happened in 1836, over 100 years after the Canary Islanders arrived. “Well, we were here long before that, and we want to tell our story because it’s important.”

For instance, he noted that Canary Islanders established a civilian government, something that had yet to exist for Texas settlers of European ancestry. Soon after their arrival in 1731, they formed acabildo, or city council, and were ruled byalcaldes, or something equivalent to the combination of mayor, judge, and sheriff.

Bustillo also urges people to recognize the connection to their own genealogy.

“I couldn’t even put a number on it, but there are thousands and thousands of people that are relatives (here of the original 56 people that left from the Canary Islands,)” he said.

Bustillo can personally trace his lineage back many generations because that knowledge was passed down through his family.

Tamez also grew up hearing about that ancestry. She said that her grandmother regularly expressed pride in this connection, especially since her great-grandmother was chronicled in the book With the Makers of San Antonio by Frederick Chabot.

Not all descendants grew up hearing about this ancestry; some discovered it later. Julia Lopez of Austin found out about her Canary Island connection 12 years ago from a cousin. Since then, she has delved into research of her forebears, visiting the Bexar Archives at the Briscoe Center of American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

She takes special pride in being directly descended from three orphans that made the trek, first over ocean then over land. Having lost their parents along the way, they walked with the group to San Antonio all the way from the port of Veracruz, Mexico. She recognizes the resilience that allowed them to endure such an arduous voyage, or “stubbornness” as she called it, as a family trait.

“You can’t help but fall in love with this story, especially the story of three children who mostly walked across Mexico and then to San Antonio,” Lopez said.

Both of these women have made the pilgrimage to the Canary Islands in order to connect with an ancestral homeland. They speak of a place of stark oceanic beauty, warm souls, and palpable connections to the past.

When Lopez visited, her encounter with a cronista, or town historian, on the island of Lanzarote proved especially impactful. Initially mistaken as a bellman since he was offering to porter their luggage, he guided Lopez and her family to spots of the island where they could directly connect with their relatives. One highlight of his tour was the church where her direct descendants received a final blessing just before setting sail to a new life.

Speaking of this moment, Lopez said, “To tell you it was emotional is an understatement.”

One current San Antonio resident knows intimately the volcanic nature of La Palma island. Dr. Chris Packham, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, spent four years on the island doing research at the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes. Stationed 1.5 miles at the top of a mountain, Packham commuted up to the telescopes every workday. Along the one hour route, he witnessed a dramatic change in landscape.

“As you drive from sea level, you see a kind of craggy coast which has been eroded away with its ocean waves washing up against it. And you get a stand of palm trees,” he explained. Beyond that, a passenger rides through very dry environments, pine forest, and even rainforest all in one trip.

Perhaps even more notable than his awe for the landscape was his affection for the island’s “absolutely wonderful” inhabitants. His sense of connection to this “close-knit” community in which “everyone knows each other” makes it even harder for him to witness the loss of livelihood and property.

He explained that the scientific community is mostly stationed on the other side of the island and is not currently threatened by the eruption. Even still, he noted that a sense of “solidarity” currently pervades the entire island, no matter the side.

How to make a donation via CIDA:

There is a PayPal account set up for online donations at this link.

People can also donate by personal or cashier’s check or money order. Those should be made out to the Canary Islands Descendants Association with “La Palma Volcano Donation” in the memo line. Then sent to this address: Canary Island Descendants Association, P.O. Box 12618, San Antonio, TX 78212.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Editor's Note: Mari Tamez is a Texas Public Radio board member.

Daniel Ramirez writes about community connections and the local environment. Although he has lived throughout the contiguous U.S., he is a native San Antonian. He can be reached at danielramirez85@gmail.com.