April 21, 2020

Rosita’s Bridge Connects San Antonio to its Mexican American Roots

San Antonio is rich with history of both the United States and Mexico, and most visitors choose to visit the Spanish-style buildings that dot the city in order to experience this rich blending of cultures. However, it might be surprising to know that an unassuming bridge named after Rosita Fernandez stands as a testament to the intersections of these cultures along the area known as the San Antonio Riverwalk.

A Latina musician, Rosita Fernandez (1919-2006) attained international fame for her singing. She sang for two popes, eight presidents (five U.S. presidents, two Mexican presidents, and one Pakistani president), princes, and kings. Fernandez was also one of the first Tejano musicians to tour the world and to record, establishing Tejano as a genre with an international following. (Tejano music, otherwise known as Tex-Mex music, is a style of music that blends Mexican, European, and American influences, with many songs combining Spanish and English lyrics.)

From 1937 to 1984, Fernandez frequently performed for a more common audience as well: her neighbors in San Antonio. She became the primary musician at the Arneson River Theatre during the ongoing Night in San Antonio series of events (which was later renamed Fiesta Noche Del Rio). Fernandez became such an icon in San Antonio that Lady Bird Johnson named her San Antonio’s First Lady of Song.

When Fernandez sang at the Arneson River Theater, she crossed the footbridge as part of her entrance. Her big skirts and her strong voice captivated the audience, and so the Arneson River Theater bridge became synonymous with Fernandez’s performances. It linked both sides of the river and connected the San Antonio public to Tejano music.

A view of Rosita's Bridge in San Antonio, Texas. Named after Tejano musician Rosita Fernandez.

photo by: Lee Bennett via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Rosita's Bridge on the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas.

When the city renamed the bridge in Fernandez’s honor, Rosita’s Bridge became a symbol. Just as Fernandez connected the cultures and languages of Mexico and Texas through her music, the bridge connects current San Antonio visitors and residents to a history based on architecture, art, and multiculturalism.

Fernandez blended cultural influences in her songwriting. Similarly, Robert Hugman—the architect behind Rosita’s Bridge and other parts of the San Antonio River Walk—was inspired by a variety of cultures in his design work. When Hugman visited New Orleans in 1924, he was captivated by the city’s French influences. In 1927, after Hugman moved back to San Antonio and started his architecture business, he began drafting his vision for what would become the River Walk. He imagined making a space in San Antonio that celebrated its Spanish history and connection to Mexican culture. Nearly a decade later, Hugman successfully lobbied San Antonio to hire him and other architects to revitalize the River Park area into one of the iconic features of this remarkable city.

La Musica de San Anto Mural by Lead Artist David Blanca in San Antonio, Texas

photo by: Wally Gobetz CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

La Musica de San Anto Mural by Lead Artist David Blanca in San Antonio, Texas features Rosita Fernandez.

During World War II, the River Walk was neglected as San Antonio (along with the nation) prioritized the war effort. However, a conservation battle in 1952 sparked public awareness about the long-forgotten community asset. The San Antonio Conservation Society petitioned against building a new bridge to a parking garage. While the organization was ultimately unsuccessful at preventing the new bridge, they inspired the city to adopt stricter restrictions that ultimately saved the River Walk.

The public campaign to prevent the new bridge, ironically, rekindled San Antonio’s love of the theater, the theater bridge, and the other architecture along the River Walk. By the 1968 World’s Fair, Rosita Fernandez had become an established performer on the River Walk. Her fame and her role as a cultural ambassador encouraged San Antonio residents to celebrate their connection to both American and Mexican heritage. This interest in bridging cultures reflects the original mission that inspired Hugman to build the River Walk in the first place. The city removed the newer bridge to the parking garage and instead worked to revitalize the original fixtures on the River Walk, including what we now know as Rosita’s Bridge.

San Antonio River Walk During Fiesta in 2014

photo by: Nan Palmero via Flickr CC BY 2.0

View of the River Walk in San Antonio in 2014.

Rosita’s Bridge demonstrates how San Antonio’s diverse history influenced its architecture and arts. Robert Hugman designed the River Walk to blend Spanish design and American design, and Rosita Fernandez celebrated her Mexican American roots through music. The limestone bridge demonstrates how even everyday objects can contain amazing histories.

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Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

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