Community Connect

Office of the Vice President for Community Services


Los Tejanos

A new format for exhibits is helping the UTSA–run Institute of Texan Cultures teach Texans about their own history and heritage

There’s no point coming to a museum if you can find the same information with Google,” says Brian Howard, director of exhibits and research at the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures. “The museum has to create a unique experience.”

That’s why as exhibit designers prepared a new exhibit on the Spanish and Mexican influences on Texas they emphasized integrating more artifacts and interactive elements. They had to change the way the museum presents information to the public. When it came time to create the Los Tejanos exhibit, the developers knew they had a challenge on their hands. Namely, how to fit 500 years of history into just under 2,000 square feet—about the size of a lunch room at the average burger joint.

“So how do we do it?” exhibit cocurators Lupita Barrera and Sarah Zenaida Gould asked themselves as they conceptualized the layout and sheer volume of material that 500 years would cover.

Breaking away from the earlier model of mounting numerous historical pictures and texts on the museum’s walls, the designers found a way to make Los Tejanos accessible to multiple audiences: local citizens, travelers, students or scholars.

Photo Gallery
Click to view slideshow.

Recognizing that space would not accommodate a thorough chronology, the predominant format in the museum’s original design, Barrera and Gould needed another approach. They reviewed contemporary research and feedback from peer institutions as well as input from experts and community members. The process led to a thematic approach to the new exhibit and themes that would resonate across cultural barriers.

The Tejano Experience

Los Tejanos is an in–depth study of the Tejano experience: identity, conflict, perseverance, cultural exchange and contributions from the 18th century to the present. It starts in a small entrance gallery with a video introduction featuring San Antonio native and ABC News personality John Quiñones.

The entrance includes a 25–screen video wall, alternating between animated graphs of migration patterns into Texas and a montage of nearly 1,000 photos. Facing this wall, a digital time line takes visitors on a journey from pre–Spanish Texas to today. Stepping into the main gallery, visitors find five distinct settings addressing aspects of the Tejano experience.

In one vignette, a modern kitchen is the backdrop for a conversation on the cultural encounters that created Tejano culture. Gould describes it as a place for thinking about food customs, how food contributes to a cultural identity and how Mexican–influenced Texas foods have entered the mainstream. The kitchen engages all the senses, including inviting visitors to smell spices such as cumin, chili powder and Mexican oregano. Visitors are encouraged to poke around the kitchen shelves and drawers to explore food origins and traditions.

The second thematic area, a late–1700s ranch house, lets visitors explore the legacy Tejano ranchers left to future generations. Early Tejano culture and presence in Texas is tied to Spanish land grants in South Texas. Vaqueros working the enormous ranch lands introduced many of the concepts and methods for managing livestock. They left a legacy that became the framework for a massive portion of the Texas economy, with an influence that can still be felt today.

Next is a 1940s–era classroom based on a Mathis, Texas, school that was segregated for Mexican immigrants. As visitors immerse themselves in the classroom experience, they can consider Tejano struggles for inclusion. Scouring through student desks, visitors can learn about Mexican American participation in the civil rights movement as well as earlier revolutionary movements led by Tejanos that are not commonly mentioned in school.

Adjacent to the classroom is a small enlistment office, which highlights Tejano participation in the U.S. military–an opportunity many Tejanos understood as a way to gain access to education and inclusion in larger society.

The Tejano experience continues in a late–20th–century doctor’s office based on the workplace of Clotilde “Cleo” Garcia of Corpus Christi, one of Texas’ earliest Tejana doctors. Visitors explore how Tejanos have made a living. Barrera says that while images of Tejanos in fields or on a construction site might come to mind, Tejanos have made a living in a range of careers, including professional and white–collar jobs.

A 1930s plaza serves as a backdrop for considering the many ways in which Tejano artistic traditions have contributed to Texas culture. A bandstand with musical instruments and a newsstand with printed works highlight architectural, musical and literary traditions.

One final gem for Los Tejanos is a rendering of an original work painted by noted Tejana artist Carmen Lomas Garza. The scene depicts a busy South Texas plaza on a Sunday afternoon, with people of all ages enjoying the sights and sounds. Developed with teaching and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills in mind, the installation is both decorative and educational, offering students an opportunity to interpret what they see in the image.

Los Tejanos ushers in a new philosophy and a way of presenting stories that the ITC hopes to implement on the main exhibit floor in the future. Just as the Tejanos influenced the story of Texas, the new exhibit will influence the way the museum tells the stories of Texas and Texans, and the way students learn that story.