Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15) was wisely declared by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan many years ago.
It honors U.S. Spanish-surnamed citizens’ combined contributions to the success of our nation.
The homage is deserved, and the numbers are impressive – over 60 million (roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population). Yet, the group is multi-faceted, meaning that individual segments under the large umbrella have distinct identities. Thus, the celebration also highlights our many diverse country-of-origin cultures.
In the case of those of us who originate in Texas and the Southwest, we are indeed blessed, as shown below:
- We are members of the largest branch (Mexican-descent – nearly 40 million).
- Most of us have dual-bloodlines (Hispanic European-Native American).
– That is, as Mestizo people, we are descendants of the First Americans.
- Our deep roots in America is the reason why we get to celebrate our heritage year-round.
- About half of today’s U.S. has unmistakable Spanish and/or Mexican origins.
Generally, our ancestral land mass includes almost the entire bottom half of the country. That fact alone explains why Spanish Mexican historical footprints are everywhere — in the names of states, cities, towns, rivers, geographic regions, and mountain ranges.
Significantly, there’s this remarkable reality: the state of Texas acquired its trademark ranching and vaquero (cowboy) ways of life from our Spanish Mexican forebears. As well, the state retained several laws (women’s community property rights, land/water, legal, public education, etc.). Mexican food and Tejano/mariachi music add spice and tempo to the early Texas story.
Alas, conventional Texas history is written with a pronounced post-1848 Anglo-centered perspective. Thus, no wonder dominant U.S. society holds a negative attitude of Mexico and Mexican-descent U.S. citizens. Perhaps no one has expressed that realization better than Walt Whitman in 1883:
“We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents… Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only … which is a very great mistake.”
Indeed, this is the time to reflect on, reaffirm, and preserve the distinctiveness of pre-1836 Spanish Mexican people, places, and events.
Truly, the strong threads of Spanish influence have been interlaced in the U.S. national fabric since the U.S. War of Independence. In short, early Texas history must no longer be contained.
To that end, in 2012 the Texas General Land Office (GLO) finally realized that there’s more to the fabled 1836 Battle of the Álamo. It was then that state officials began to recognize Mission San Antonio de Valero’s pre-1836 history (read more below).
Also in 2012, the unveiling of the Tejano Monument in Austin is most probably the best major example of reviving the Spanish Mexican origins of Texas and the Southwest. Likewise, Tejano History Online is now part of the Handbook of Texas History.
As well, historians of different backgrounds support a seamless telling of Texas history. They recognize the fact that the early chapters of Texas history may be written in Spanish, but nevertheless, they represent the fundamental foundation of this great place we call Texas.
Why is that important to Mexican-descent students? Because only by learning about their intrepid ancestors can they (a) cease being treated in school curricula as strangers in their own land;and (b) reclaim their founding share (ownership) of Texas history.
Most certainly, the general public must learn forgotten aspects of Texas history. For example,
- Mission San Antonio de Valero (erroneously labeled the Álamo by biased historians and overzealous tourism officials) may be the most popular tourist attraction in Texas, but it’s also the most disappointing. Why? Because first-time tourists are discernibly disappointed to learn that the small sanctuary is not at all the military fort implied by the movie industry and in tourism advertising material. (The Mission is an indigenous symbol of peace and worship; no fighting took place inside.)
- In addition, the 1836 Battles of Goliad, Álamo, and San Jacinto are chronological chapters of Mexico’s history, not the U.S. That’s because the U.S. didn’t take Texas from Mexico until 1848.
- Classroom lesson plans must clearly teach students that Stephen F. Austin (1) abandoned the U.S. and immigrated to Mexico; voluntarily agreeing to become a Mexican citizen. (2) He is not the Father of Texas because Texas was already 130 years old when he arrived.
Albeit, what else must Texas students learn about early Texas in the classroom? What follows is a shortsynopsis of key dates to remember:
1691. Texas is born. First Governor, Domingo Terán de los Rios.
1810. “El Grito” by Father Miguel Hidalgo; Lt Colonel Gutiérrez de Lara begins his push for an independent Texas province.
1813. (April 6th), 1st Texas independence; 1st Declaration of Independence & Constitution. Battle of Medina ends Texas independence; still, the independence drive continues.
1821. Mexico’s independence from Spain.
1824 – Establishment of the Republic of Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United States of Mexico).
1829. Mexico is first country in America to abolish slavery.
1835. The first U.S. Anglo immigrants initially join Tejanos in rejecting a centralist government;
– Exploiting Mexico’s political unrest, Anglo expatriates demand slavery be reinstated in Texas and unlawfully choose to separate from Mexico.
1836. Tejanos who allied themselves with Gen. Sam Houston were soon betrayed.
– Tejano leaders (i.e., Col. Juan Seguin, et al) were driven out of Texas.
1845. Only nine years later, Anglos trade their independence to join U.S. as a slave state.
– In response, gallant Mexico defends its sovereignty, resulting in the 1846-48 U.S.-Mexico War.
1848. Mexico loses the war and the U.S. takes Texas, South Texas, and the Southwest.
1954. Official anti-Mexican bigotry ends in Texas (over 100 years after 1848);
– U.S. Supreme Court “Class Apart” Decision terminates colonial-style Anglo rule over Mexican-descent people in Texas.
If you are of Spanish Mexican-descent and haven’t participated in preserving our heritage because you were unaware of your roots (or afraid to say something), this is the time to join one of the many statewide Hispanic genealogy/history groups (search for them online); learn about pre-1836 Texas history; and share the details with others.
Gone are the days when Spanish-speaking students in South Texas were terrified the first day of school because they weren’t allowed to be themselves. Mexican-descent Texans in their eighties and seventies remember that sting of humiliation too well.
Step by step, we are making progress. Equally, Mexican-descent parents must let their voices be heard at the next PTA and/or school board meeting. Tell your children’s teachers that students of all backgrounds must be taught the reason why everything historically old in Texas is named in Spanish.
Yet, not everyone will willingly come on-board. Skeptics raised on movie-based Texas folk history remain recalcitrant and hard to convince. Even so, the evidence is too robust to be kept hidden.
Only by telling the seamless story will the Texas GLO be able to deliver on its promise to present the proper account of Álamo Plaza and the surrounding area as the only way to beat legends and myths.
Lastly, regarding state education decision-makers’ insistence on continuing to force-feed a New England narrative on Texas history, the words of Boris Pasternak seem appropriate to end this article: “As for those in power, they are so anxious to establish the myth of infallibility, that they do the utmost to ignore truth.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a bust of José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez de Lara (August 20, 1774–May 13, 1841). Gutiérrez de Lara was an advocate and organizer of Mexican independence and the first constitutional governor of the state of Tamaulipas, and a native of Revilla, today Ciudad Guerrero, Mexico.
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