SAN ANTONIO, July 23 - The rewarding response to my recent articles and presentations continues to open up a renewed desire in many people to learn more about early Texas history.
For example, some readers were surprised to learn that those of us who originate in South Texas (Villas del Norte) did not become Tejanas and Tejanos (Texans) until 1848. That is simply because the southern border of Texas was the Nueces River; not the Rio Grande.
It was not until then that the U.S. forcefully moved the Texas southern border to the Rio Grande and also took over half of Mexico’s sovereign land. In fact, it is this aggressive land grab by the U.S. that makes its Berlin Wall-type fence on the southern border offensive for two reasons: (l) they’re building it in the middle of Old Mexico; and (2) they are splitting the Native American Tohono O'odham Nation’s homeland in two.
It is in regard to the second point above that I’m asked about the earliest residents in Texas, our Native American brethren. It is with that thought in mind that I offer the following:
By the time Spanish Mexican pioneers began arriving in the early 1700s; several indigenous groups had lived here for thousands of years. The first Americans crossed the ancient Asia-America land bridge (Beringia) between 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. It’s estimated that hundreds of groups existed across America. Dozens of them called Texas home, each with its own language and culture. In the earliest recording of Texas history, indigenous people are mentioned at least three times – in 1528-36, 1554, and 1629. Following is a brief summary of each of these accounts.
As a result of a 1528 shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico, Cabeza de Vaca and three shipmates washed ashore onto the upper Texas coast. There, they began an eight-year adventure (1528-36); walking across Central and South Texas. At times, they were held as slaves and brutally treated. At other times, they were allowed to wander on their own, as when they established reputations as healing shamans. For example, Cabeza de Vaca is considered the first doctor in Texas.
De Vaca writes about living among various tribes; the Capoques, Hans, Caddo, Karankawa, Charrucos, and Quevenes, to name a few. In fact, de Vaca identifies nearly 20 different groups in the small coastal area between the Guadalupe River and Rio Grande alone. Of interest to folks in South Texas, Cabeza de Vaca crossed the Rio Grande through present-day Zapata County.
Observing that some of the tribes lived with long-term animosity toward each other, de Vaca became useful. He volunteered to mediate in disputes between warring clans. Also, since each side had items that the other needed for survival, he soon excelled as a trader of goods, thus becoming the first European-descent merchant in Texas.
Once he was rescued in 1536, de Vaca wrote about his ordeal in his Relación in a most objective manner. In his famous report, he was not bitter and described Texas natives as fellow human beings. As a result, Cabeza de Vaca is recognized as the first advocate for Native American human rights.
The second time indigenous people are described in Texas occurs in 1554. A four-ship flotilla loaded with families sailed from Veracruz bound for Cuba and Spain. A violent storm rammed three of the ships onto the Texas coast near the north end of Padre Island. Close to 200 survivors began walking the shoreline back to Veracruz. Sadly, hostile natives picked off the tired, frightened stragglers one by one. All perished, except Brother Marcos de Mena, a lay priest, who had been left for dead. He recovered, walked back to safety and told the sad story. Upon hearing of the savage attack, the Spanish authorities sent soldiers to punish the natives. However, the terrain was still so menacing that the Spanish accomplished little success. The poignant story of the shipwreck survivors is yet another inspiring Spanish Mexican rendering of bravery, determination, and endurance that is missing in mainstream Texas history books.
The third time we hear about native people in pre-Spanish Texas happens in 1629. In that year, the Isleta, New Mexico Convent Abbot was stunned! A group of Jumano Indians from Texas had just arrived unexpectedly after walking many miles. They asked for a mission to be built in their village. When the priests asked why, the Indians replied that “The Lady in Blue” had sent them.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Spain, Nun Maria de Jesús de Agreda, reported to her religious superiors that she had often visited the indigenous people of Texas and New Mexico to pray with them. What makes the story so intriguing is that Maria never left her convent in Spain. From all indications, while in prayer, she put herself in a deep trance. It appears that in that state, her spirit left her body and traveled many miles to America. The Native Americans welcomed her apparition as a miraculous sign; and tell of a legend that Bluebonnets began appearing in Texas when the Lady in Blue last appeared.
A question remains. What happened to the original Texas residents? The short answer is that they (we) are still here. The reason is that as more Spanish Mexican pioneers moved into Texas, the nomadic lifestyle of the individual clans slowed significantly. For example, many found work in pueblos. Weaker tribes threatened by stronger ones found refuge in Catholic missions where they became the first cowboys and cowgirls. So, natural absorption into the Spanish culture through marriage was inevitable.
Some chose their independent lifestyle. However, after Texas joined the union, the U.S. introduced the Reservation system. Hence, the U.S. Army hunted down the last remaining independent tribes, conducting constant raids in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, throughout the west, and Northwest Territories. The intentional, brutal dislodgment by the U.S. of innocent Native American families from their homes to virtual prison life in Reservations gives the world one of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
As regards Native American-Spanish relationships in the Southwest, what was first an intense culture clash soon turned into a crucible where a new Mestizo race was formed, claiming both brown (American) and white (Spanish) genealogies. True to the spontaneity of DNA in each individual, some descendants look white European in every respect, while at the same time, their blood-related relatives have brown Native American features, whose natural beach tan-like skin ties them unequivocally to America. In truth, the blending continues; pointing directly to José Vasconcelos’ theory of the birth of a new race of “gente de bronce,” more specifically, “La Raza Cósmica,” or simply “La Raza.”
Finally, if you’re a citizen of Mexican-descent, the next time someone asks you what happened to the original Texas and Southwest people, tell them we are still here (over 30 million strong in the U.S. alone and growing!) We are the end-product of the solid fusion of Spanish and First American bloodlines beginning in the early 1500s. Likewise, when loony loud-mouth extremists whine that they “want their country back,” tell them that America was never theirs in the first place.
José Antonio (Joe) López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of three books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas),” and “The First Texas Independence, 1813.” Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.