Why do Spanish Mexicans & Tejanos want to set themselves apart? What is it they want?
Simply not true. These are two of the greatest misconceptions that need to be put to rest from the beginning. They are two very unfair reactions from mostly Anglo Americans who do not understand the significance of the long Spanish Mexican history in Texas. Tejanos and Spanish Mexican (Mexican American) U.S. citizens do not want to set themselves apart, no more than the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh people want to set themselves apart from the English.
In answer to the second question, all that Spanish Mexican U.S. citizens want (and have always wanted since 1836 when they helped Sam Houston win independence for Texas) is fairness in the telling of Texas history. However, in many ways, the issue goes farther than this betrayal. A false premise has endured in the minds of Anglo Americans that only Anglo Americans are responsible for building our country and our state. Some of them even pretend that Texas was like the pristine wilderness of the Massachusetts coastline when the Anglos crossed over the Sabine into Mexican Texas. That is the mental picture that we seek to change. After all, it was the vibrant communities of our Spanish Mexican ancestors that first attracted the Anglos to emigrate from the U.S. to Mexican Texas. Continuing to ignore the facts is folly, as illustrated below:
To start, the new generations of school children in this country must learn in school that much has been kept from history. Specifically, they need to know that:
UPDATE: We are pleased to report that progress is being made. The Collegiate Church (Reformed Dutch Church) in New York State has officially apologized to the Lenape Indian nation. In a “reconciliation” ceremony the Reverend Robert Chase apologized for the unprovoked brutal killing of defenseless Lenape men, women, and children so that white settlers could take over their lands. The attrocities occurred over 400 years ago. Hopefully, the Collegiate Church has set a standard that others will follow in doing the right thing for the right reasons. (Source: San Antonio Express-News, November 28, 2009.)
That Spanish Mexicans in Texas and in the Southwest appear to be set apart is not by their choosing, but rather it is because they are ethnically and culturally different. Ironically, they are “white” due to their Spanish blood, but they are also “brown” (Mexican) due to their Native American blood. It should not be a sin to be both. It is time to stop the long-standing abhorrent caste-system in Texas and the U.S.
Long before Anglo Americans migrated to Texas and the Southwest, Spanish Mexican communities were established and thrived for generations from the Texas-Louisiana border to California. They set up strong self-sustaining communities. They built the first roads and trade routes. It was they who first met the threat of hostile natives. It was they who worked out their differences and ultimately blended in with the indigenous people. That contact between the two diverse cultures resulted in the Spanish Mexican culture that we have today. It was these strong Spanish social centers that the Anglos first relied on for survival when they immigrated here from the U.S.
Shortly after the 1836 revolution, the Anglos tried to exterminate Mexican culture in Texas. At its most basic nature, Texas independence from Mexico was similar to a death warrant for the Spanish Mexican culture. They may not have been made to wear distinctive marks on their clothing, but their “Mexican” appearance was enough for them to endure the cruelest forms of discrimination by the Anglo majority. Tejanos looked like the 1836 enemy; they spoke Spanish like the enemy, and worshipped as Roman Catholics like the enemy. Thus, they were treated like the enemy. It must be noted that not all Tejanos consented to losing their heritage. Using the same tenacity that their ancestors showed in surviving in the harsh early Texas wilderness, they withstood the persecution that followed after the 1836 Revolution and have been able to salvage the Spanish Mexican culture in Texas to this day.
Thinking that they could repeat the extermination steps they had taken against Native Americans in the U.S., the growing Anglo majority first tried to get rid of all Spanish Mexicans in Texas by conducting ethnic-cleansing drives. When they realized that was not possible, the Anglos enacted crafty laws and regulations that were antagonistic to Tejanos in all respects. Many Tejanos fought back. Facing incessant prejudice, they held on to their language and heritage under the threat of death. Tejanos represented a subculture and invisible class of people. Countless Spanish-surnamed citizens lost their land through manipulation of unscrupulous government agents and lawyers. Spanish Mexicans in the Southwest were unwanted and blatantly ostracized from mainstream society in the only homeland they had ever known.
It must be noted that there is no other ethnic group that has been more loyal to Anglo Americans. Continuing to the present day, the bravery and patriotism of Tejanos and Spanish-surnamed U.S. citizens in all its wars is well documented. So many Tejano patriots have shed blood for the "Stars and Stripes" that Tejanos are in the Union to stay! A case in point is the story of Jose M. Lopez who was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. (See Summaries Section for the bio on Sgt. Lopez.) Looking “Mexican” didn’t seem to matter when Lopez single-handedly saved his entire unit from an advancing German Army force. It is quite obvious that his fellow Americans in his unit didn’t care that he spoke with a heavy Spanish accent when he saved their lives. In a very real sense, Spanish Mexicans use the same passion in preserving their heritage and on the battlefield. Pride in our Spanish Mexican heritage should never be used to question our patriotism or loyalty to the U.S.A. In short, the service of Spanish Mexicans in the military as a group is synonymous with the Medal of Honor!
As discussed above, their extended hand of friendship to their fellow Americans goes back to the American Revolution. Yet, their loyalty has not been equitably rewarded in history books. For over 150 years many Tejanos have been forced to shed their unique heritage to the point that they now feel uncomfortable to discuss and feel proud of their heritage. Sadly, they have sacrificed their rich history to blend in with mainstream Anglo society. Others have not given in to the incessant pressure. Withstanding generations of taunting, ridicule and ostracizing, they have been successful in maintaining their centuries-old culture to this day. It has not been easy. Spanish Mexicans find their feet firmly planted in their ancestral home, while at the same time are treated as foreigners in their own land. That is the dilemma. However, is there proof that the Anglo majority in Texas ever discriminated openly against Spanish Mexicans and Tejanos? The answer is yes.
Recently, public television aired a program that answers that basic question. Coincidentally, the film was entitled “A Class Apart” referring to the fact that while considered “white” people by law, Mexican Americans have traditionally been officially ostracized from mainstream U.S. society for generations. The PBS story involved the efforts of three young Hispanic lawyers brilliantly handling a court case in order to bring justice to this distinct class of white Americans (Mexican Americans). The case was the first to ever involve Mexican American lawyers addressing the U.S. Supreme Court. The “class apart” was controlled by the Anglo majority through a series of official and unofficial means. Although little known, this obvious discrimination had progressed to the point that it was common in Texas for Hispanics not to be allowed to serve on juries. While many Hispanics felt powerless and accepted the inequality, others didn’t. Spanish-surnamed Texans were also discriminated against in the areas of housing, education, and employment. They were ostracized even in death. Although considered “white” by law, it was common practice for Spanish-surnamed citizens not to be allowed burial in “white” cemeteries well into the 1950s. Until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it was common in Texas (with its Spanish Mexican roots) to see “No Mexicans Allowed” signs in many establishments. Oddly, they were, and in many ways still are, victims of discrimination for being born Spanish Mexican.
Specifically, the case, “Hernandez vs. Texas”, was about assuring equal justice by having Spanish-surnamed Texans considered in jury selection. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1954, the Court ruled that Mexican Americans were indeed discriminated against and had been held back by the Anglo majority for many years. Sadly, through generations of enduring blatant discrimination against their ancestors, many modern-day Mexican Americans have thus learned to accept the status quo. They find it hard to get out of their vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation. It is this attitude that we need to change. The problem is that even though the doors of opportunity were opened wide since 1954, few Hispanics have taken advantage of the guarantees provided by the Supreme Court.
It has been a long time since 1954, but not much of consequence has happened to improve the plight of the large numbers of Spanish-surnamed citizens. They seem to be entrenched at the bottom layers of the education, social, political, and economic ladders. Part of the answer to this problem is the way Spanish Mexican U.S. citizens are perceived by the larger Anglo society. Our task is to change that perception.
Why should anyone want to hold on to the Spanish language and heritage in the U.S.A. where English is considered the official language and England is the mother country?
Answer: It may come as a surprise, but in the U.S.A, New Spain is more than twice as large as New England. In that sense, Spain is more of a mother country in the U.S.A. than England. Not many citizens know that the Southwest is the only part of the U.S.A. that was taken by conquest. As such, our ancestors, their communities, pueblos, ranchos, missions, and presidios “came with the real estate”. No other part of the U.S. can claim that they were once part of a sovereign nation (The Republic of Mexico) before being subsumed into the U.S. While “pioneers” from England that landed on the East Coast are highly respected in U.S. history books, Spanish Mexican pioneers do not seem to enjoy the same respect and dignity. Our ancestors were not “immigrants” to the U.S.; nor were they brought here against their will. They arrived as pioneers. They were the first Europeans to set foot in Texas. They just happened to speak Spanish, a language other than English. It should be remembered, as mentioned earlier, that Spanish has been spoken in Texas for 490 years, while English has been spoken for only 173 years. It is these Spanish Mexican roots of Texas that we cherish and hope to maintain forever.
Therefore, educating others about the speaking of the Spanish language and Spanish Mexican history in the U.S. is about fairness. Just as the U.S. Northeast is also known as New England, the U.S. Southwest is New Spain. Of course, English is our primary language due to the fact that Texas is now part of the U.S.A. As a matter of survival, many Tejanos have learned to speak both languages well. Most are good at it! English is necessary if we and our children are going to compete and be successful in the world of work in this country. By the same token, Spanish is necessary if we are to continue to preserve our rich and important heritage, so vital in building this great place we call Texas. While pride in our heritage is often misinterpreted by Anglos as being unpatriotic, unquestionably Spanish Mexican citizens from the Southwest and Texas have proven themselves in the defense of our country. That level of suspicion has no place in a society that brags about its “melting pot” of racial and ethnic groups. The prized words of “liberty” and “freedom” are meaningless unless they stand for something. If we, as Native American and Spanish Mexican U.S. citizens cannot freely express our centuries-old and unique heritage that existed prior to our land becoming part of the U.S., then we are not free.
Why do Tejanos like Independence Day so much?
Answer: Because they have FOUR of them. (l) September 16, 1810, (2) April 6, 1813, (3) March 2, 1836, and (4) July 4, 1776.
(l) September 16, 1810. This is the mother of all Texas independence days. On this day, “El Diezyseis de Septiembre” Father Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed in his “Grito de Dolores” that Mexico was an independent country. In Texas, Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara answered Father Hidalgo’s call and lit the spark of the independence movement in Texas. He was the first person to envision an independent Texas.
(2) April 6, 1813. Lt. Col Gutierrez de Lara led his army from Louisiana to Texas and took possession of San Fernando (San Antonio) and the Presidio of the Alamo on April 1, 1813. On April 6, Don Bernardo declared that Texas was independent. He established the First Republic of Texas, becoming its first President. This is the most glorious independence days for Tejanos for it was on this day that Texas became independent for the first time. Don Bernardo read the words from the first Texas Declaration of Independence on the steps of the Spanish Governors Palace to jubilant crowds enjoying the first taste of freedom in Texas.
(3) March 2, 1836. This is the day that Texas declared independence from Mexico. This is the saddest and most ironic of all four independence days for Tejanos. Sam Houston relied heavily on his friendship with and support of influential Spanish Mexican (Tejano) leaders in organizing his revolt. In reality, Tejanos, as native-born Texans, were the ones who legitimized the word “revolution” for Sam Houston. That is so because neither he nor any of his Anglo Americans were native-born Texans. As such, they had no legal right to declare a “revolution” in a foreign country. In other words, without the Tejanos, Sam Houston and his Anglo Americans were illegal aliens with guns in a foreign country (Mexico). It should be noted that the idea of revolution was not new to Tejanos. They had been fighting for liberty since September 16, 1810. Tejanos had tasted freedom twice before. The first time was when the First Republic of Texas was established by Lt. Colonel Gutierrez de Lara in 1813. The second was as a result of Mexico’s independence in 1821, combined with the approval of the 1824 Constitution. As such, they mistakenly thought that Sam Houston’s revolt would finally result in equality, freedom, liberty, and justice for all in Texas. Many Tejanos had died during the period between 1810 and 1836. They were ready for the peace and tranquility that independence and the restoration of the 1824 Constitution would bring them. They were ready to get on with their lives as ranchers and family men with a fervent independent nature. However, that was not to be. After the war, Tejanos were deceived by their Anglo friends. Redefining the focus of their revolt, the émigré Anglos in Texas abandoned their fight for the restoration of the 1824 Constitution and pursued total independence from Mexico. As such, the winning side had both winners and losers. The Anglo Americans were the winners. Tejanos were the losers and doomed in the only homeland they had ever known. The “Friendly Betrayal” damage to the Tejano psyche continues to this day.
(4) July 4, 1776. On this date, the English colonists declared independence from England. Because Texas was part of New Spain, the events did not have an impact in Texas other than to serve as a model for Creole Americans to establish the Republic of Mexico. This is the ‘4th’ Independence Day for Tejanos. (Texas was admitted to the union in 1845.) Although it’s their adopted independence day, Tejanos celebrate July 4th with as much fervor and pride as any other group in the U.S.
Why is it important to preserve Spanish Mexican history in Texas?
1. To carry on the unique history of our Spanish Mexican ancestors as true Texas pioneers, inventors of the ranching and cowboy ways of life. They were the first Texas citizens.
2. People need to know that native-born Tejanos were the first to have a vision of an independence Texas. They legitimized the 1836 revolt by Sam Houston as a Texas “Revolution”.
3. Filling in these missing Tejano pieces will complete the Texas history puzzle.
4. No one else is going to do it for us.
5. Future Tejano generations (our children’s children) need to know where they came from.
6. Texas history without Tejanos is like a story with no beginning.
What can we do to preserve Tejano History?
Ten things we can do to preserve Spanish Mexican Texas history:
1. First, be proud to be a Tejana or Tejano. (Remember: Many Tejanos/Tejanas have Anglo, French, Irish, German, and other non-Hispanic names.)
2. Learn English and get to be very good at it! However, preserve the speaking of Spanish, the language of Cervantes and the language of the first citizens of Texas.
3. Teach your children about the Spanish Mexican culture in New Spain (now the U.S. Southwest).
4. Wear a green ribbon on April 6, the anniversary of Texas’ first Declaration of Independence in 1813, and green and black ribbons on August 18th, date of the Battle of Medina.
5. Visit the Alamo and Spanish Governors’ Palace every April in honor of Don (Lt Colonel) Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara and members of the Army of the North (First Texas Army). Important: Tell the Alamo guides why you’re there!
6. Respectfully dispel the myth that Spanish-speaking Texans are all recent immigrants. (Spanish has been spoken in Texas for 490 years, while English has been spoken for only 173 years.)
7. Join a Hispanic Genealogy organization. (You don’t have to be Hispanic to do so.)
8. Interview your parents and older relatives; write down their oral stories.
9. Save old pictures and keepsakes or donate them to a university or museum for safekeeping.
10. Stop the Texas history robbers from continuing to steal our Tejano history. “Viva Tejas!”
Who are the Tejanos? (Standard Version)
Tejanos are Spanish Mexican pioneers that settled the northeastern region of Northern Mexico known as “Tejas” starting from the late-1600s to the mid-1700s. As such, their culture and language make Tejanos the first citizens of Texas. For this key reason, Tejanos should not be confused with other “Hispanic” (Spanish American) sister groups that immigrated later to the United States. Tejanos, Spanish Mexicans in the Southwest, and Native Americans never immigrated to the United States since they were already here when Texas became a U.S. state in 1845. Then in 1848, the Southwest was subsumed into the U.S. by military force.
Where did the Tejanos come from? The first Tejanos were very brave and independent-minded pioneers who came here from various cities in Mexico, such as Monclova, Saltillo, Monterrey, Queretaro, Zacatecas, and Veracruz. As such, today these cities are home to Tejano extended families. For that reason, Texas and the Southwest are forever linked with Mexico. Names of great colonizers are Don Martin de Alarcon, Governor of Coahuila y Texas who supported the settlement of Texas. Father Antonio Olivares founded San Antonio de Valero in 1718. Another hero is the Marquis de Aguayo who in 1721 led the first cattle drive in Texas.
Other great colonizers were Don Gil Ybarbo who settled Nacogdoches in East Texas, and Don Jose de Escandon, founder of the Villas del Norte on the Rio Grande. Martin and Patricia de Leon deserve their own place in Texas history in the settlement of Victoria and the surrounding area. Of very special note is the story of Don Bernardo de Galvez and his major role in the American Revolution. Few non-Anglo Americans have done more for colonial America than General Galvez. Many respected historians are beginning to recognize that his moral and financial support to the thirteen colonies and military action against British troops helped the colonies maintain their independence from England. There are many more important Spanish and Spanish Mexican figures who settled the state of Texas in the early 1700s. No list would be complete without adding the name of the first Texas citizen, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. He is the father of firsts in Texas: the first merchant, historian, chronicler, geographer, ethnographer, cartographer, doctor, and the first social worker. More importantly, he was ahead of his time. He is the first person to advocate for the equal treatment of Native Americans.
There are other early settlers: Fathers Margil and Hidalgo, Ramon, Vásquez Borrego, de Leon, and many more. There are those who participated in the establishing the first Republic of Texas in 1813, such as the family names of, Gutiérrez de Lara, Menchaca, Ruiz, Seguin, Navarro, de Zavala, and many more.
The legacy continues to this day with numerous modern-day heroes in the Tejano educational, social, and political arenas. These include, but are limited to, Laredo’s 1890s Mexican Mutual Aid Societies leaders such as the Idar Family, Sara Estela Ramirez, and Jose Maria Mora.
Add the organizers and many participants of El Plan de San Diego. Although the story is ridiculed and treated unfairly and with suspicion by most U.S. historians, the “plan” was a courageous reaction to the very ugly and vicious racism that persons of Spanish Mexican descent had endured for generations in their ancestral homeland of Texas. In a way, it represented a Spanish Mexican “line in the sand” announcing to the world that they would no longer tolerate inhumane treatment and discrimination by the Anglo majority. It is a very misunderstood movement, with many twists and turns to the story. However, every Tejano and Spanish Mexican American in the U.S. should take the time to familiarize themselves with the story for one main reason. It was one of the first organized movements to end discrimination against citizens of Spanish Mexican descent in Texas.
Trini Gamez is one of the many social/political activists of the 1960s that dared challenge the mistreatment of Spanish Mexican field workers. Dr. Hector Garcia took the lead in doing the same thing for returning Spanish-surnamed veterans after WWII. Also, the historian Carlos Castañeda, author Americo Paredes, Jovita Gonzales, Gus Garcia, Carlos Cadena, Dr. Andres Tijerina, and many, many more Tejanos and Tejanas have earned their place in history. Although they may not have seen action on a battlefield, they just as bravely fought for the equal treatment and recognition of Spanish Mexican U.S. citizens in the Southwest.
Early Tejano leaders were peninsulares (those who had been born in Spain) or criollos (Spanish people who had been born in Mexico), but their rancho families also included mestizos (those who were both Spanish and Native American), mulattoes (those who were Spanish and Black, and Native American and Black), and indigenous people (Native Americans). For example, in South Texas, they settled both sides of the Rio Grande in the mid-1700s and therefore many of their ranchos and pueblos extended south of the river, beyond the present U.S. Texas-Mexico boundary.
As citizens of New Spain, the first Tejanos swore allegiance to the king of Spain. Then, all Tejanos became loyal Mexican citizens when Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. As the only native-born Texans, Tejanos were key participants in the Texas War of Independence in 1836. Because none of the Anglos were born in Mexico, the native-born Tejanos are the ones who legitimized the revolt as a “revolution”. They became citizens of the 1836 Republic of Texas. When Texas was admitted to the union in 1845, Tejanos in Texas became U.S. citizens. Sadly, the new political boundary became a permanent Mason-Dixon Line that forever split families in two. Tejano families on Mexico’s side of the Rio Grande remained Mexican citizens. Even today, many Mexican citizens can trace their families to the time that they lived in Texas.
Early Tejanos belonged to a rare breed of people. They heavily relied on their Roman Catholic faith. Strong of body and mind, they were men and women of principle and discipline.
Of great faith, strength of character, and determination, they willingly ventured into the unknown harsh wilderness of present-day South Texas and thrived. Those are the Spanish Mexican pioneer qualities that make Tejano descendants very proud of their unique heritage.
Modern-day Tejanos are those people whose family roots go back to the first Tejano families (1700s–mid-1800s).
While a significant number of their descendants and culture remain in Texas, especially South Texas, Tejanos now live around the world.
Still have questions? Please contact us anytime! We look forward to hearing from you.