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How World Politics Could Deliver a Blow to the Alamo

<p>A decision by the U.S. to cease funding UNESCO leaves the designation of some landmarks as world heritage sites in question.</p>
Image: The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, in 2013.
A member of the San Antonio Living History Association patrols the Alamo during a pre-dawn memorial ceremony to remember the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.Eric Gay / ASSOCIATED PRESS file

Congressman Joaquin Castro would like a lot more people to remember the Alamo. But world politics may get in the way.

In January, the building constructed by the Spanish as a mission that was later the site of the doomed Texas independence battle was nominated for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Fund site, along with four other 18th century Spanish missions in San Antonio. If granted, the designation would put the Alamo and the missions in company with the pyramids of Egypt, the Grand Canyon, Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China -- and also provide it crucial funds for restoration.

But last fall, UNESCO, a United Nations international agency, recognized Palestine as a state, and the U.S. stopped paying its UNESCO dues, which help support the World Heritage Fund. As a result, the U.S. lost its voting rights in the organization.

“It hasn’t slowed things down, just put a question mark or a wrinkle into the efforts because when we found out the United States was not paying its dues to the UNESCO organization, we weren’t sure we’d be given a fair shake by the World Heritage Fund people,” said the Rev. David Garcia, a Catholic priest who is in charge of restoration at the mission churches.

Castro, whose district is in San Antonio, tried to include a provision in spending legislation that would allow the U.S. to pay World Heritage Fund dues without having to pay the larger UNESCO fees. But the omnibus bill passed in January did not include the provision.

Joaquin Castro
Texas Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro wants to make sure The Alamo is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

The missions, picked for nomination by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in June 2012, still must be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee. Castro is hoping their history is enough to win the designation.

“The Alamo and the rest of the missions deserve to be recognized for their cultural and historical significance,” Castro, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Reassurances have been given by UNESCO that the U.S. decision to stop paying its dues won’t affect the nomination process, which includes a hearing. The decision must be made before next year.

Marking Hispanic Heritage

Built in the 1700s, the missions are examples of Spanish colonial work whose construction defied the natural resources of their location.

“Imagine coming to South Texas and it’s hot and dry and there is not much here and they built these structures,” said Garcia. “They were the beginning of the whole coming of Western civilization.”

The largest mission is San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, which holds 250 people. There is also Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, which holds 125, San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada, which hold about 80 each.

Founded by Franciscan friars, they are all working churches with regular Mass and services and are often used for weddings and quinceañeras.

The Alamo was built about the same time and originally served as a mission. It is better known for the 1836 battle when it was besieged by Mexican forces who defeated Texas patriots. The defeat became a rallying cry -- “Remember the Alamo!” -- for future Texas independent battles and now is considered a shrine to its Texas heroes.

Native people of the region lived at the mission and learned skills from Catholic clergy within it. But not all native people accepted the missions and the structures often were attacked, Garcia said.

“If this (nomination) gets approved, for the U.S., this would be the first one that really has a Hispanic heritage to it. None of the others are in any way connected to the Hispanic history of this country,” Garcia said. A fortification in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is among designated sites.

A study by the Harbinger Consulting Group on the economic impact of the missions found that the missions and the Alamo will help support $397 million in economic activity for San Antonio and Bexar County through 2025.

The designation has the potential to add to that impact. In ten years, the region's economic activity could add another $44 million to $105 million, add from 468 to 1,098 jobs and increase hotel revenue another $800,000 to $2.2 million,according to the study. That would come with active promotion of the missions as a World Heritage site. The more promotion, the greater the impact, the study said.

A couple of more U.S. sites are in line for nomination in coming years, one in Louisiana and and another in Ohio, the home state of Republican House Speaker John Boehner.