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Heritage event focuses on healthy lifestyles and reaffirming traditions.

By L.A. Shively -- Today correspondent

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - The low reverberation of Spanish mission bells underscored laughter, music and the colorful traditions that highlighted the 4th annual Missions Heritage 5K Run/Walk and South San Antonio Indian Market on the grounds of Mission San Jose Sept. 16.

Sponsored by the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, the event drew runners from all ages while celebrating the community's 3,000-year connection with indigenous peoples who originally lived in the area. The event also promoted healthy lifestyles and physical fitness.

Originally founded in 1994 to secure return of a total of 200 remains excavated from Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1969, AIT-SCM won the 30-year struggle. In 1999, the families reburied their relatives.

The organization then refocused on efforts at educating others in San Antonio and Texas about the Mission Indian people. ''We are still here and should be treated with the respect other cultures have in Texas,'' said Ramon Juan Vasquez, executive director of AIT-SCM.

''We have a history here,'' said Xelena Gonzales, Coahuilteca, who ran the three-mile race.

''People think Native Americans are extinct and we are labeled as historical. We're not reservation, we're not Mexican, we're not big city; but although we're not federally recognized, we're still here and this event helps bring awareness of indigenous people to San Antonio,'' Gonzales said.

Jennifer Nieman, a junior at the University of Texas in San Antonio, said the run was a lot of fun and gave her the opportunity to meet new friends. ''Everyone was really supportive,'' she said.

Awards were given in several categories. Maria Louisa Sanchez Caro, awarded a first-place trophy in the female category for ages 70 - 99, took the opportunity to encourage others in the audience, explaining that elders are a resource for youth. She said the event lets youth see who their elders are and connect with them.

''The best gift to give children is time,'' said Gloria Vasquez, an elder in the Coahuiltecan Nation and a member of one of the founding families of AIT-SCM. ''This event gives youth a sense of community and family values and a chance to share with others who are participating.''