Hispanics have always enjoyed a penchant for education, and especially for endowing their children this love of learning.
Long before Spain began the colonization of the Americas in 1521 it had developed top universities noted for their excellence in all aspects of university life.
During the Middle Ages, King Alfonso X had already outlined the different segments comprising these institutions of higher learning when he wrote his “Las Siete Partidas.”
We know that the oldest known university in Spain is the Universidad de Salamanca, which was established in 1218 by King Alfonso IX. In 1929 it developed a Spanish Language Department for International Students where UTRGV and its legacy institutions have enjoyed a Summer Spanish Program for years.
The Universidad de Oviedo (where I had the privilege of presenting on “Colonial Spanish Texas: Its Contributions” last year) was founded in 1608, and offered instructions in Arts, Canon, Law, and Theology to its students at that time.
Nursing this love for education in their citizens the Spanish Authorities brought to the Americas that penchant for learning first established in the Iberian Peninsula. We know that the Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City was established in 1551 by a Royal Decree of King Carlos V, King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
It was first known as the Royal Pontífice Universidad de México, and in 1910 became the present one known as the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or UNAM.
So when the call came from the Spanish Authorities seeking faculty members and well-trained priests, hundreds of young men left Spain to dedicate their entire lives to establishing schools designed to educate the Native Americans, Spanish soldiers and their children. They followed the Queen Isabel and King Fernando decree which, during the Age of Discovery in the 15th Century, had declared a desire to convert newly discovered civilizations to the “Santa Fe,” and made them loyal subjects of the Spanish Crown. Thus, was born the Spanish Christian Missions in Texas and other parts of the then Spanish Southwest, where educational components were established.
Max Berger in his “Education in Texas during the Spanish/Mexican Periods” tells us about the efforts by the citizens of Colonial Spanish Texas to establish the first system of public schools. Thus, every mission had as its component an industrial school for instructions in industry and agriculture. The first mission with its educational component was established in Texas in 1690, and within five or more years 25 more were also erected. The first settlement in Texas by Spanish families and soldiers was the founding of San Fernando de Béxar (later San Antonio) in 1718. The first such non-mission school began its operation in San Antonio, Texas in the year 1746. Another such school was opened in San Antonio in the year 1789, but closed 1792.
In 1802, the Spanish government of Texas called for a school to operate that prescribed compulsory attendance, penalizing parents for any failure to comply, tuition free, and providing for a small salary that set the stage for, later on, the “Public Free Primary School” that Mexican authorities supervised after 1821.
At La Bahía, a soldier named Galán taught a class of 18 children, receiving donations of meat, lard, salt, and the small salary he received as a soldier. It was difficult to sustain an educational system during the turbulent years of unrest between 1810 and 1821, when Texas was also liberated by the Independence Movement – El Grito – of 1810. In 1828, the then governor of Texas José María Viesca encouraged parents to send their children to the best schools possible.
Classes were held from six to ten in the morning during the summer, and seven to 12 in the winter months; with classes held in the afternoon from two to six during the whole year. The instructor was to open the school with a prayer, and observe religious events. The lessons included the “three R’s”, with lessons in manners, morals, and religion. The teacher was hired on a four-year contract at a salary of $500 a year, payable in monthly installments.
These early schools in Spanish/Mexican Colonial Texas existed until the year 1834. A teacher from the north was hired, but was soon released for lack of proper documented passport to be in the Texas of that time. Northerners arriving with Stephen F. Austin after 1821 were required to erect schools in each new colony, and all instructions were to be given in Spanish.
Early advocates of schools after 1836 were such Tejano patriots as Lorenzo de Zavala, Antonio de Navarro, and Juan Seguín; with Zavala introducing legislation to establish the first system of higher education in Texas; and both Navarro and Seguín attempted to donate thousands of their own land for the purpose of establishing the first university .
Today, Hispanics students presently make up 52 percent of all students enrolled in Texas Public Schools, well forecasting the future workforce now taking shape, and we can thank the early Spanish/Mexican efforts in establishing institutions of learning that now benefits all Texans.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows the Biblioteca Central building at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.