My father was born in San Antonio, Texas. It isn’t a grand city, but then neither is my family very grand. I know very little about my family history, but I do know that when my father was born my grandfather was a stock boy at the hospital’s pharmacy and my grandmother was a salesgirl at Joske’s, the city’s best department store. They were young and poor, so they lived in a garage apartment on the southeast fringes of downtown, near the house where my grandma grew up.
They moved several times during my dad’s childhood between apartments before my grandpa got a job with the postal service that gave them the security to settle in a house across town. I imagine all the places they lived were small and simple though, of the kind no one would think twice about. Family members must have always been running in and out of their days, bringing food, cleaning, talking. (Although my father was only one of two children, it’s a big, loud family. When my great-grandmother died recently she left behind almost two hundred and fifty living descendants.) Home must have meant a lot to my grandmother, because when she returned from the hospital she buried her newborn son’s umbilical cord in the dirt outside her childhood house by the biggest tree in the yard. I imagine her praying for her new family as she placed a little bit of herself in the earth. It’s a Mexican tradition, I think, ensuring that children like my father will set down deep and lasting roots, ground themselves in the community, and never stray too far.
Time was passing. When my father learned to talk, he asked questions. When he learned to read, he spent all summer in the library. I think of him tottering about the house precociously, bothering my grandparents incessantly. But like my father, San Antonio was growing, too. While my dad was taking his first steps, the city was preparing to host the most brilliant of birthday parties: World’s Fair 1968, a celebration of 250 years of life. Preparations for the party were extravagant; everyone participated in the efforts. So when the city wanted the land under my grandparents’ apartment, the land my grandmother had knelt upon those years before, there was no use protesting. If San Antonio was to stand as an equal next to the Fair’s previous hosts, cities like Paris and New York, sacrifices had to be made.
San Antonio’s crowning achievement, the symbol of the Fair, was to be a new tower. A 750-foot-tall structure, it would soar above the skyline as a prophecy of future growth and a memorial to the distance the city had come since its inception as a Spanish mission. It was to be called the Tower of the Americas. Its ridged trunk seemed disproportionately thin compared to the cylindrical crown it bore, as if the whole structure were a lanky weed growing too fast for its own good in an effort to reach the sun. I do not know for sure if it is true, but my father swears they built that tower exactly on top of my grandparents’ old apartment—on top of the house and the yard and the trees and the umbilical cord.
I wonder what it was like growing up in the shadow of the Tower of the Americas. Wherever he went in the city, when he looked up he could always see the shiny disk on a pillar of concrete marking exactly where he came from. The city said it was a monument to “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” but to my father it must have felt more personal than that. And really, if someone were to embody the confluence of Mexican and American cultures in San Antonio, he was as good as choice as anyone. But I’m not sure he would have wanted to be constantly reminded of his first home. Especially as he grew up, it must have at times felt like an anchor, weighing him down, holding him back.
But when I ask my dad about what he remembers from the Fair, it isn’t the Tower of the Americas at all. It was different sort of American tower that captured his imagination, one that recalled the wonders of a culture slowly being phased out by the relentless pace of progress.
I must have been eight at the time, and we were at the opening day ceremonies. And this one image made such an impression on me that I’ve never forgotten it. There was a lot of new technology there but that’s not what I really remember. In honor of the day, high up on a pole, Mexican men in brilliant costumes were suspended in the air by their ankles, swinging and dancing above me like birds.
When he graduated from high school, my father’s parents took him to dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Tower, a fancier restaurant than they would ever normally go to. The restaurant rotates slowly, so over the course of the evening the family saw the entire city lit up, with all its imperfections hidden in the darkness. Gone was the pound where my grandfather worked once a dogcatcher. Gone were the public schools my grandparents worked hard to keep their children out of. Gone was the blight that managed to escape the great pre-Fair purging. Even the library where my father spent his summers and the shoe store where he worked afterschool must have seemed muted and distant. All was peace and blackness. In the fall he was going to New York City for school, never to move back. He would raise his own family in Connecticut, not Texas. He would save only the inky footprints the hospital makes for their newborns from the day of my own birth. In the end we choose our own lives, and he wanted opportunities that his hometown could not give him. But I imagine he knows that he can never completely leave San Antonio. That city raised him. And San Antonio can never disown him either. Its greatest symbol, the Tower of the Americas, was built in the ground that holds the very essence of our family’s bonds. Man and city, blood and concrete, forever linked.
Elizabeth Villarreal is from Wilton, Connecticut but really considers anything along the Metro North train line her hometown. She loves reading and writing letters, so send her one at email@example.com.