|SAN ANTONIO, May 12 - Mother’s Day was first officially celebrated in the U.S. in 1914. Mothers are remembered for their important role as diligent homemakers on this special day of the year.
That said, most of us would agree that every day is Mother’s Day. Even so, we don’t usually think of women as leaders outside the home. For example, here in Texas, the traditional passive, stay-at-home Spanish Mexican women in early Texas shown in the media is incorrect. Tejanas were strong, independent and many were self-sufficient. They were granted rights by Spanish law. They enjoyed a level of equality unheard of in other colonial societies. They were literally “head and shoulders” above the status of Anglo women in the U.S. during colonial times.
On their own initiative early Tejanas effectively combined their role as parents and day-to-day rancho operations. They performed particularly well in settings that are usually attributed only to men. Many early ranchos were owned and managed very effectively by women. The following offers a small sample of the true story of Spanish-surnamed women in the history of Texas and the Southwest.
Sister Maria de Agreda (Early 1600s Inspirational Leader)
In reality, Sister Agreda is responsible for the Spanish exploration in Texas. In 1629, the abbot and the priests of the Convent of Saint Anthony, Isleta, New Mexico were stunned! A group of about 50 Jumano Indians from Texas had just arrived unexpectedly at their doorstep. They asked for a priest to build a mission in their village. When asked why, the Indians replied that the “Lady in Blue” had sent them.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Spain, Sister Maria de Jesús reported to her religious superiors that she often visited and prayed with the indigenous tribes of America in Texas and the Southwest. What makes the story so intriguing is that Maria never left her convent in Spain. While in prayer, she put herself in a deep trance. It was in such a state that she visited America.
It was in following through and checking out the story that the Spanish monarchy endorsed plans to explore and settle Texas. An Indian legend in Texas tells that when she last preached to them, her spirit disappeared into the nearby hills. The next morning, they awoke to a cloak of small blue flowers (Bluebonnets) covering the spot where she last appeared.
Manuela Sánchez (Early 1700s Explorer)
Manuela was a granddaughter of Diego Ramón, commander of Presidio San Juan Bautista, on the Rio Grande, across modern-day Eagle Pass. She is the first powerful Spanish female in early Texas history. Manuela married Louis St. Denis, a French explorer and trader who swore allegiance to Spain. She was the first European woman to travel across Texas. Manuela and Louis had seven children and lived in Natchitoches, Louisiana. As many other early Spanish European females in Texas, Manuela was not only beautiful, she was strong of body, mind, and very resourceful. She continued her husband’s business activities after his death, supporting her young family. She died in 1758.
Ignacia Gutiérrez de Lara Uribe (Early 1800s Pioneer)
Doña Ignacia was born in Revilla, Nuevo Santander, just across the Rio Grande from present-day Zapata. She was a true pioneer woman of early Texas. Left a widow when her husband died, she decided to cross the Rio Grande on her own. Her late husband, Don José Dionisio, owned property on the northern side of the river (now in the San Ygnacio, Texas area), she went to live there with her two surviving small children, Blas Maria (11), and Juan Martin (9); to make a new start. Doña Ignacia built a raft herself; put her two young children and her meager belongings on it. She then maneuvered the craft to the other side of the treacherous river.Once there, she made her brave stand in the middle of the South Texas brush country, single-handedly fighting off constant Indian raids, enduring droughts, storms, and other hardships. Many of her descendants still live in the area, now modern-day Zapata and Webb Counties.
Patricia de León (Mid-1800s Pioneer, Empresaria)
The de León family settled the Victoria area in the 1820s. Patricia and her husband Martin set up large ranchos in the area and along the Guadalupe River. Sadly, the credit for East Texas settlement has gone to another impresario, Stephen F. Austin. In reality, Martin and Patricia were Austin’s mentors in Tejas. The de Leóns stoically endured under four different governments (Spanish, Mexican, Texas Republic, and the U.S.) After Martin’s death, Doña Patricia suffered greatly. Under violent political and anti-Mexican hatred after the Texas Revolution, she was forced into exile in New Orleans and Mexico. Returning to Texas, she fought in the courts and won a partial victory winning only a portion of her land.
Jovita Idar (Early 1900s Teacher, Journalist, Political Activist)
Jovita was a teacher, journalist, and political activist. She was born in Laredo in 1885. Jovita attended school in Laredo; earned a teaching certificate in 1903. She then taught at a small school for Mexican children. Inadequate equipment, horrid conditions, and her inability to improve them, frustrated her. She resigned and joined her father's weekly newspaper, La Crónica. She wrote critically of social injustice toward Mexican-descent citizens and lack of education opportunities. Jovita was a key organizer of the Congreso Mexicanista in Laredo in 1911, the first attempt in Mexican-American history to organize a feminist social movement. She soon offended the U.S. Army and Texas Rangers with an editorial protesting President Woodrow Wilson's sending U. S. troops to the border. She also complained about Ranger brutal atrocities against Mexican-descent citizens. When rangers arrived to close down El Progreso, Jovita stood in the doorway to keep them from entering. Her courage gives new meaning to an old cliché – One Jovita Idar equals an entire Texas Ranger Unit. Jovita got married in 1917 and died in San Antonio in 1946.
Trini Gamez (1900s – Present. Equal Rights, Labor Organizer)
Trini is a true Mexican American activist in labor, education, civil rights, and voter registration in Texas. Taught by her parents and grandmother to stand up for her rights, she saw as unfair working conditions of Mexican Americans in Hereford, Texas. When she noticed that the same Anglo landowners who hired them also possessed ugly anti-Mexican prejudices, she decided to fight the bigotry by organizing laborers and faced death threats for doing so. She was an active voice of the 1960s-70s Mexican American civil rights movement. Trini Gamez is truly an unsung heroine in Texas and U.S. history.
In summary, when it comes to the role of women in early Texas, the “macho” persona is way over-rated in movies and paperback western books. Tejanas left their share of footprints in Texas history because they had the same vision as men in the development of our state. Tejanas fought for freedom at the Álamo! It is time to recognize that women had an active hand in shaping this great place we call Texas. To all women in Texas, ¡Feliz dia de las Madres! (Happy Mother’s 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.