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Historian reveals the forgotten role of Tejanos in fostering Anglo immigration to Texas

LatinaLista — Today is Texas Independence Day. It celebrates the adoption of the Texas Declaration of Independence which occurred on March 2, 1836.
It’s a significant day in not just state history but the nation’s because it explains the backstory behind U.S. and Mexico relations.
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Plan of the Port of Galveston, Made by order of the Mexican Government, By Alexander Thompson, Of the Mexican Navy, in 1828.
(Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

The following is an article by historian Frank de la Teja regarding the role of Tejanos in Texas history.

Thank you for your invitation to address you today on the issue of Tejanos and the coming of Texas independence. At this time of year, when the names of Travies, Bowie, Crockett, Houston, and Austin are prominently on display, I’d like to talk about men such as Navarro, Ruiz, Veramendi, Músquiz, and Seguín. These and other prominent members of the Tejano community were as important in their time to the creation of the Republic, however, unlike the first group of names, they were all natives of Texas.
First, some definitions. A Tejano is merely a Texan whose ethnic and cultural heritage are linked to the country we now call Mexico. Texas on the eve of its war of independence included only the area north and east of the Medina and Nueces rivers, all the way to the Sabine, where between the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and 1819, U.S. and Spanish authorities had established a temporary line of demarcation pending a resolution of the boundary in Washington and Madrid. Today’s South Texas belonged until 1848 to Tamaulipas and Coahuila. Today’s West Texas belonged to New Mexico and Chihuahua.
What this means is that the history of Texas in 1820s and 1830s has direct relevance to the shape that the United States ultimately took, to the presence of an indigenous Hispanic population in the region, whether Tejano, Nuevomexicano, or Californiano, and to the love-hate relationship that has characterized Mexican-U.S. affairs for 150 years.

In this story, the role of Tejanos has largely been marginalized, although central to the turn of events. True, there were not many Tejanos, but small numbers does not necessarily mean small influence. Tejanos were instrumental in shaping Texas history, but as a decreasing proportion of the population throughout the nineteenth century, their role almost completely disappeared at the hands of triumphalist Anglo-American writers, particularly after Frederick Jackson Turner.
Let me explain: in 1821 there were approximately 3,000 Tejanos. Although the population had been nearly twice as large in 1800, the onset of the Mexican War of Independence, which reached Texas twice, devastated the province. Tejanos who sided with the insurgents were killed or fled to Louisiana or Indian controlled areas. Among these were Juan Martín Veramendi, who would go on to serve as interim governor of Coahuila y Texas in 1832-33 until he died in a cholera epidemic sweeping the southern U.S. and Mexico. Erasmo Seguín, who was accused of treason lost all his property and was forced to take his family, including his son Juan, the future war of independence hero, to Saltillo. Nacogdoches was almost entirely deserted and other recently established settlements were abandoned in the face of Indian attack, floods, and neglect. Spanish control of Texas extended little beyond the immediate confines of the town of San Antonio and the presidio community at La Bahía-today’s Goliad.
Under such circumstances Tejanos faced a variety of problems at Mexican independence: First, they faced chronic Indian warfare without adequate military support from the national government-a situation they felt went well back into the eighteenth century, and which prevented the safe movement even in the immediate area of the surviving communities. Second, they faced economic disaster: the Spanish government had been unable to pay the garrisons at San Antonio and La Bahía with any regularity, so that soldiers and their families were destitute, with obvious consequences for the merchants, farmers, and artisans who depended on military payrolls for their business and the soldiers’ service for protection. Third, without safe conditions or economic activity beyond the subsistence level, there was little chance of population growth, particularly on the part of people of means unwilling to take the risks involved establishing themselves on hostile Indian frontier.
Newly independent Mexico appeared ill-equipped to meet the needs of far off and unproductive Texas. Mexico had lost over a million souls to the war of independence. 75% of its mining production had been lost through deliberate destruction, flooding, collapse from inattention, and the unavailability of labor.
Similarly, agricultural land went barren for lack of labor. The tax system relied almost exclusively on import and export tariffs, an inadequate funding situation even if corruption and waste were not rampant and a healthy chunk of available funds not spent on a bloated military.
Although Texas representatives to the national congresses in the 1822-24 period were gladdened by the political autonomy and new social compact that independence had produced, they were sobered by the knowledge that the national government could do little on its own to improve the lot of Texas and Tejanos.
Texas’ first representative in Mexico City, San Antonio native and parish priest Refugio de la Garza, had written home that divisions among Mexicans based on race or status had ended.
Of course, the reality was very different and Texas’s representative to the second constitutional congress struggled to find a place for Texas in the emerging federal nation state. In the spring of 1824 Erasmo Seguín managed to reach an alliance with Coahuila, Texas’s poor neighbor to the south, in order to avoid becoming a federal territory.
At least union with Coahuila promised greater local autonomy for Texas. It was the least bad of the scenarios that confronted Seguín, but it would prove to be an unworkable marriage. In the meantime, Tejanos sought solutions to Texas’s ills elsewhere.
In stepped the Americans. Already on the eve of Mexican independence Moses Austin had come to San Antonio to ask for permission to establish a colony of Roman Catholic Americans for whom he would serve as empresario. Like his biblical namesake, Moses Austin was destined not to enter the promised land with his people, a task that fell to his son Stephen, who soon changed his name to Esteban to fit in.
He learned Spanish, sent his brother Brown to live with the Seguíns so that he might learn the language and the customs of the people with whom he would be working for the rest of his life. Stephen Austin also set about establishing good working relations with other Tejanos.
Instrumental to the success of Austin’s early colony was José Antonio Saucedo, a long-time public figure who was serving as chief administrative officer of Texas in the 1823-25 period, when Austin was getting himself organized. It was Saucedo who kept Austin within the law and offered advice on how to establish rules for the colony. Austin later employed the services of San Antonio businessmen Gaspar Flores and Miguel Arciniega. He later worked closely with Political Chief Ramón Músquiz, another native of Coahuila who was attempting to establish his economic interests in Texas.
Soon other Anglo Americans seeking opportunities in Texas joined Austin in the land speculation business. Texas was about land and Tejanos understood that Anglo Americans had access to the labor, capital, and business contacts necessary to bring about development. Francisco Ruiz famously wrote that “I cannot help seeing advantages which, to my way of thinking would result if we admitted honest, hard-working people, regardless of what country they come from . . . even hell itself.”
With few people and lots of land, the first order of business for Tejanos was to get the land settled and the Indian frontier defended. Anglo Americans brought an uncompromising attitude toward native peoples that promised to solve the long-running problem of insecurity for Hispanic communities. Tejanos did not have the resources to defeat Apaches, Comanches, and other aggressive autonomous tribes, the Anglo Americans did.
There were not enough Tejanos or migrants from the interior of Mexico to cultivate Texas commercially, but Anglo Americans were hell-bent on exploiting international cotton demand by expanding production everywhere possible. Tejanos saw incoming cotton interests, people whom they referred to as “capitalists” because they had access to financial resources unavailable to Mexicans, as exactly what Texas needed, never mind that they brought slaves to a country that had renounced human bondage.
At every turn then, the vast majority of the Tejano leadership favored, promoted, encouraged, and defended Anglo American immigration. At the state congress in Saltillo and later Monclova, Tejanos such as José Antonio Navarro defended the practice of slavery in Texas as necessary to economic development.
Properly regulated under more humane Spanish-Mexican laws, slaves in Texas could serve the interests of development. When the state legislature opted for emancipation, it was the Tejano delegates who presented Austin’s plan to allow the practice of indentured servitude. By this ruse, slave owners would manumit their slaves on paper before crossing over into Texas on condition that the freedmen paid for their freedom with 99 years of labor.
For a while it kept the doors open to Anglo American immigration. When the Law of April 6, 1830, threatened to stop almost all immigration from the U.S., Tejanos such as Political Chief Ramón Músquiz and Texas representatives to the legislature Rafael Antonio Manchola and José María Balmaceda raised such complaints that Balmaceda was expelled from the legislature and Manchola censured.
There were some Tejanos who were actively engaged in establishing new communities and economic activities. Martín De León, the only Tejano empresario, founded the town of Victoria and, until his death in the cholera epidemic in 1833, attempted to establish good working relations with Americans and European immigrants settling in the coastal region. His son Fernando and son-in-law Plácido Benavides continued their warm relations with the Anglos and identified themselves with the Tejano federalists.
Just to the south, in the Goliad area, Carlos de la Garza, a member of an old presidio family, established one of the largest ranching communities in the region. He counted among his friends various of the Irish and Anglo families that moved into the area in the early 1830s.
As the presentation so far makes obvious, Texas did not lack for Hispanic leadership, and I might argue that without that leadership, Anglo American immigration might well have gone far more slowly.
In 1831-33 Tejanos were still much farther away from rebellion than the growing Anglo American population, which less and less had reason to conform to Mexican practices. Although they had taken an oath to be good Mexicans, Anglo settlers, in the absence of Tejano neighbors or Mexican authorities, had recreated Southern society in Texas.
Beyond the Tejano zone along the San Antonio and lower Guadalupe rivers, Anglo Texas communities increasingly resembled places in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Whites ran their affairs in English and blacks (although technically free) were treated as slaves, with little thought to the fact that they lived in Mexico. In 1834, an inspector from the national government, Juan N. Almonte, wrote that the Anglo Americans all carried in their back pockets a copy of the Constitution of the U.S. as if it were the law of the land.
As the political situation in Mexico deteriorated in 1834 and 1835, Tejanos faced increasingly difficult choices. Juan Seguín, who had assumed the office of Political Chief in January 1834, had to announce the news that Stephen Austin had been arrested and taken to Mexico City under charges of sedition. Later in the year he attempted to call a convention in San Antonio of representatives from all the municipalities of Texas to decide on a course of action, given the fighting that had erupted between the opponents and supporters of Antonio López de Santa Anna’s reactionary takeover of the national government.
In Coahuila the anti-Santa Anna controlled state legislature sitting at Monclova, faced off against the pro-Santa Anna politicians in Saltillo, who called on Mexico City to support their efforts to brand the Monclova government illegal. For Tejanos, these disputes required taking sides, and Seguín saw Texas as naturally in the anti-Santa Anna, pro-states’ rights camp. A large number of Texians, that is Anglo American settlers, wanted no part of the that struggle. Increasingly they had come to see Mexican politics as mired in personality disputes, corruption, militarism, and superstition (as they liked to call the Catholic Church).
Thus, in the fall of 1835, when rebellion broke out in Texas, it may have done so in the Anglo portions of the province, but Tejanos were more than ready to take part for their own reasons. Juan Seguín raised a company of Bexareños to defend Texas against government aggression.
Plácido Benavides did the same in Goliad. Only in the spring of 1836, when the rebellion against Santa Anna’s rule turned into a war for independence did Tejanos have a new choice to make, assume responsibility for their portion of the fight or remain loyal to Mexico, even if to an increasingly despotic government.
Most chose the path of independence. José Antonio Navarro and Francisco Ruiz signed the Texas declaration of independence along with the Mexican nationalist Lorenzo de Zavala. Juan Seguín and his men fought during the Runaway Scrape and at San Jacinto.
Not all Tejanos sided with the cause of independence. Carlos de la Garza organized a company of men loyal to Mexico and assisted General Urrea in his coastal campaign. Nevertheless, Garza was unwilling to see his Texian friends persecuted and lent aid to a number of them. Perhaps because of this he was unmolested in his property following the war and lived to establish as sizeable progeny in the Goliad area.
Plácido Benavides, unwilling to cross the line between rebellion against bad government and rejection of Mexico, went home to sit out the rest of the struggle when he found out about the declaration of independence.
In the long run, the problem for Tejanos was that their few numbers, their mixed racial background, their Catholic heritage, and their Spanish language combined to isolate them within a society dominated by Euroamerican, protestant, English-speakers.
Because of their Mexican cultural heritage Tejanos were looked upon as Mexicans, and Mexicans were foreigners and the enemy. Nevertheless, men such as José Antonio Navarro, Juan Seguín, and Antonio Menchaca, made a lasting impression on their fellow Texans — the names of a county, and a couple of towns attest to their status — but, overall, there was little interest on the part of an increasingly Anglo American population to remember the significant role that Tejanos had played in fostering immigration and protecting the rights of Americans in Texas.
It is left to us today to recover that memory, and to make sure that all Texans today and tomorrow appreciate the roles of their Tejano forebears in bringing modern Texas into being.
Thank you.

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  • Joe Ortiz
    March 6, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Movie The Alamo Provides
    Clue for Racial Unity
    By Joe Ortiz
    Mr. Teja’s fine article is timely, in that I recently saw the movie The Alamo last weekend and walked away with something I have always known. Half way through it, an extremely important message concerning racial unity was uttered by one of the actors, and many people will probably miss it.
    Promoters of the movie before it came out touted it as being more historically accurate than the former version, starring John Wayne, Richard Widmark and other legendary actors. This version, starring Billy Bob Thornton (as Davy Crockett) and Dennis Quaid (as Sam Houston), supposedly would include much fact that native Tejanos (Mexicans born in Texas) played a significant role in defending the Alamo, and contributed greatly to Texas becoming a republic and eventually becoming the 28th state in the Union on February 29, 1845. One of those heroes was Juan Seguin.
    Seguin was born in 1806 into a long-established Tejano family in San Antonio, Texas. History records little of Seguin’s early life, but he was a staunch critic of Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, the despot leader of Mexico who had a strangle hold on Texas in the 1830’s. Santa Ana personally led the slaughter of a group of Texas patriots at a former mission turned mini fortress in San Antonio called the Alamo. Seguin was a strong political ally of William Travis, the Lt. Colonel who valiantly died defending the Alamo while commandeering its volunteer and military forces. Seguin played an active role in the Texas revolution. He served as provisional mayor of San Antonio and led a band of fellow Tejanos against Santa Ana’s army in 1835. He was also at the Alamo for the first part of the siege, and survived that massacre because he was sent to gather reinforcements. Later, Seguin and his Tejano Company fought at the battle of San Jacinto, helping to defeat Santa Ana’s army.
    Seguin, however, would soon feel the sword of betrayal by the aftermath of the Texas Revolution. Many cities in Texas moved to expel all of their Tejano residents and, even in his hometown of San Antonio, many anglos seriously favored such a move. But his most devastating pain came when Seguin helped defeat a Mexican expedition against San Antonio in 1842. In an effort to turn anglo Texans against him, Seguin was publicly accused my some that he was more loyal to Mexico than Texas. Although Seguin was the mayor of San Antonio at the time, anglos who had been his former comrades suddenly turned on him. They drove him from the city where he had been born and forced him to flee to Mexico. Seguin’s dream (that the Texas revolution would mean freedom for all Texans) was shattered.
    Seguin was forced to seek shelter in Mexico amongst those whom he had fought against seeking Texas’ independence. He became separated from his homeland, parents, family, relatives and friends. The Mexican government didn’t welcome Seguin with open arms. Upon his arrival in Nuevo Laredo in 1842, Mexican authorities arrested him and told him to choose between serving in the Mexican army or face imprisonment. He reluctantly chose to join the army, and fought in the Mexican-American war against the United States.
    After the war Seguin received permission to return to Texas. However, in 1867 Seguin was the victim of further racial harassment that forced him back to Mexico. He died in Nuevo Laredo in 1890, right across the Rio Grande from the land for whose independence he had fought so bravely for. The movie didn’t reveal this aspect of the heroism and dilemma experienced by many patriotic (American) Tejanos.
    Sadly, this untold account of one of the most valiant Tejanos engaged in the Alamo serves as a grim reminder to many Americans of Mexican descent. Many find themselves experiencing the same agony. Thousand upon thousands of Mexican Americans (and other Latinos) have sacrificed their lives for America’s freedom on foreign land. During the Second World War, Hispanics received more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group. A close look at today’s news reports reveal that many Latinos (some who weren’t even born in the United States), are still placing their lives in Harm’s Way to defend America. Yet, while most Latinos are proud, hard-working and tax-paying Americans, many still face derisiveness to one degree or the other. Sadly, they are also castigated by Mexican nationals who still call Mexican Americans pochos, a Spanish word which translated means sick or impure. Like Seguin, many Mexican Americans still find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
    However, the movie did contain a line delivered by Billy Bob Thornton, which rang ever so loudly in my mind and heart, as a cure for racial unity. As the story unfolded, Santa Ana’s large army was encamped about a half a mile across from the Alamo. The Mexican soldiers pointed their giant cannons towards the Alamo, and continuously fired its thunder balls to chip away at their resolve. Each time before they launched their immense fire power at the hapless few defending the small mission turned into a symbolic fortress, the Mexican army’s drum and bugle corps preceded the cannon volleys by playing a gruesome sounding tune to psychologically instill terror in the hearts of the volunteers. Right before one of those attacks, Billy Bob Thornton (as Crockett) stood up and said, “I know what’s missing.” He quickly got up to one of the Alamo’s towers and began playing a patriotic tune on his violin. As the violin sounds wafted loudly towards the Mexican encampment, both adversaries stood in stunned silence as the Mexican bugles’ and drums’ blaring cacophony melded with Crockett’s music to form a melodious and quieting sonata. After a few moments, the volunteers manning the Alamo nervously waited for the cannons to start pounding them again, but nothing happened. The next scene shows Billy Bob Thornton musing at what had just happened, and he uttered probably the most profound line in the entire movie, one that can bode well for racial unity in this country:
    “It’s amazing what a little bit of harmony can accomplish!”

    [Joe Ortiz has the distinction of being the first Mexican American in US history to host an English-language talk show on a commercial radio station. He currently lives in Redlands, California and is the author of two recently published books (by Author House) that challenge the “Left Behind” notions of many right-wing evangelicals. The book titles are “The End Times Passover” and “Why Christians Will Suffer Great Tribulation.”
    Web site:

  • Angel Seguin Garcia
    June 30, 2009 at 12:25 am

    DR. De la Tejas
    Your research has always been very interesting and informative when it comes to our ancestor Col. Juan Seguin. Now your work on getting other Tejanos their due recognition must be commended. The Seguin Descendants Historical Preservation would like to say thank You for your work and efforts getting the Tejano his proper place in Tejas/ Texas History.
    Through education we all have the power to make a new tomorrow
    Angel Seguin Garcia 6/30/2009

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