SAN ANTONIO, April 6 - One of the best rewards in sharing early Texas history with a wide variety of audiences is the dialogue it generates.
Our 2013 cycle of presentations was no exception. For example, many Mexican-descent Texans are learning for the first time of our ancestors’ inspirational, historic struggle in founding Texas and declaring independence in 1813. Also, most folks do recall that Mexico lost “some” territory to the U.S. after the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-48, but few know of Mexico’s catastrophic loss! The U.S. took over half of Mexico’s (a sovereign republic) land; and as the victor, the U.S. also wrote the peace treaty. For an idea as to the vast amount of land involved, readers must realize that today’s contentious Border Fence is being built right in the middle of northern New Spain (Mexico). Below are some of the most common topics of 2013.
Was this land called Mexico when the Spanish arrived? Yes. Many folks wrongly believe that the 1824 Constitution created the term “Mexico”. In that document, New Spain adopted its new name United Mexican States, a Federal Republic organized along the same government lines as the U.S. The fact is that the term “Mexico” is an ancient word and much older. Albeit, how old?
To start, the very first European map-makers (early 1500s) depicted the Spain domain in North America as “America Mexicana” from coast to coast. Logical; since Spanish explorers and religious had travelled all along the entire east coast by then. Active settlements extended from Florida to the Carolinas; some exploring further to Virginia and Maine. Historian David J. Weber writes that when French explorer Jacques Cartier first explored the St. Lawrence River area, native Americans reportedly welcomed him with Spanish words. That’s because the natives believed the Frenchmen were Spanish explorers returning to the region.
On the west coast, the Spanish journeyed all the way to present-day Washington State and beyond, establishing the first European settlements near the current U.S. Canada border. By then, Spanish territory included the land from Florida and Carolinas; west to the Pacific Ocean (over half the land of present-day U.S.). According to Historian Weber, America Mexicana was larger than Western Europe. Yes, that’s the reason the gulf is named The Gulf of Mexico.
Many inquiries deal with names. In Texas, for example, Hueco (Hollow) became Waco. In the same way, Florida’s Cayo Hueso was Anglicized to Key West and San Agustín became St. Augustine. North on the east coast, the Merrimac River was first named Rio San Antonio by the Spanish. Cabo de las Arenas was later changed to Cape Cod. Santa Catalina was renamed St. Catherine’s Island. Spain’s provinces of Ajacán, Orista, and Guale were respectively re-named Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia by English émigrés who illegally settled in Spanish territory.
Another area of increasing interest is Texas’ connection to Mexico. Before the arrival of Europeans in Texas, there was contact, solidarity, and significant trade among Texas and Central Mexico people. Most experts believe that the Nahuatl language of the Mexica is a Uto-Azteca dialect born centuries earlier in the wide area stretching from Canada, through the western U.S., and throughout Mexico. The language of the Comanche people whose Plains territory included the Texas Panhandle and North to Central Texas is Uto-Azteca. Still another Texas’ natural connection to Mexico is its inclusion in Aztlán, mythical homeland of the Mexica. Sufficient to say that native American blood still flows robustly through the veins of today’s Mexican-descent U.S. citizens originating in Texas and the Southwest.
Historian Hugh Thomas notes that the people of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) conquered by Hernan Cortés called themselves “Mexica”. Cortés didn’t call them Aztecs and neither did the natives use the label. They referred to their land as “Mexico” and included other tribute-paying independent tribes. In fact, it’s reported that after Cortés’ landing, several major war lords tried to organize. Powerful chiefs of allied tribes were asked to join because “We Mexicanos (pronounced Mechicanos) have to stick together to fight the European enemy”. Regardless, history tells us that Cortés ably used the divide-and-conquer method by allying himself with other native tribes and defeated the Mexica.
One of the most popular topics of 2013 involved Álamo myths. The building in downtown San Antonio that we are told is the Álamo is actually an Iglesia (church). Mission San Antonio is equal to its sister missions of San José, San Juan, Espada, and Concepción. Many are quite surprised to learn that “Álamo” doesn’t mean “fortress” in Spanish. Rather, it’s the Spanish name for the cottonwood tree. So, where does the Álamo-in-San Antonio connection come from?
First, Álamo has organic roots to Coahuila, not Texas. Second, the term relates to soldiers and families from Álamo de Parras, Coahuila (totaling about 200 souls) stationed in San Antonio in 1803 and living at the Presidio. As a result, Bexareños began to refer to the Presidio as “el lugar donde vive la gente del Álamo” (the place where the Álamo de Parras people live). Soon, the long phrase was shortened to “Álamo”. Sadly, the San Antonio Presidio no longer exists. In the early 1900s, its residents were evicted; the place was torn down by city officials; and the property rezoned for commercial use. Long marketed to tourists and residents as the Álamo “fort”, the historic building is a church and fittingly enough, its official name is Mission San Antonio.
In summary, the fact is that inquisitive citizens (especially of Mexican-descent) are beginning to revisit Texas history that up to now has been presented through an Anglo Saxon (post-1836) lens. The truth? First, Texas is in Old Mexico and is part of New Spain, not New England. Second, Spanish Mexican/native American pioneer settlers of the early 1700s are the first to establish the first towns “Deep in the Heart of Texas” (San Antonio, Nacogdoches, La Bahia (Goliad), and Villas del Norte). Their blood, sweat, and tears founded this great place we call Texas and gave Texans their first taste of freedom on April 6, 1813. Let’s celebrate the historic event by visiting the Spanish Governors Palace, Missions San Antonio, San José, San Juan, Espada, and Concepción, the Tejano Monument in Austin, La Bahia Presidio and Mission Espíritu Santo in Goliad, and related points of interest. Let’s not forget to tell the docents why we’re there. Happy First Texas Independence Day!
José “Joe” Antonio 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 two books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” and “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas).” 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.