In remembering Veterans Day, it’s important to know that Spanish Mexican-descent South Texans have military role models that not only go back to the founding of Texas, but also to the birth of the U.S. itself.
Thus, on this, the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year, please allow me to share with you, summaries of three individuals who have not as yet been fully recognized as U.S. history military heroes.
Regrettably, Texas students in general have missed out on learning about early Texas because it doesn’t fit post-1836 mainstream Texas history. Sadly, that viewpoint perpetuates a troublesome myth pushed by conventional history books and “western” movies that devalues historically-significant Spanish Mexican people, places, and events.
For instance, let me share the following example. Some years ago, my wife and I were visiting with students at a South Texas elementary school campus. As I showed them pictures of Count José de Escandón, General Bernardo de Gálvez, and Colonel José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, a young boy raised his hand and asked, “Mr. López, why are they dressed like George Washington?” My response was, “That’s because your ancestors also dressed like George Washington.”
Immediately, wide smiles lit up the entire room. Then, the other students joined the young man in an impromptu cheerful chorus of “Really?” Indeed, they were pleasantly surprised that their ancestral founders of Texas (and Southwest) were not unskilled servants as typically featured in Hollywood movies. Rather, they were proven leaders; equal in stature to New England counterparts. Now, on to the summaries:
Colonel José de Escandón (1700-1770):
Escandón was a brilliant military leader in New Spain. For a job well done, the Spanish King awarded Colonel Escandón the title of Conde de Sierra Gorda, an immense fertile territory from the Guadalupe River in Texas to the Rio Pánuco in Veracruz State.
He initiated his Villas del Norte in 1749. Eventually, over 20 cohesive communities spanned both sides of the Rio Grande from Laredo to Villa Refugio (now Matamoros – Brownsville). Escandón’s successful enterprise was all-civilian, free of military (presidio) presence. Count Escandón also relocated La Bahia (Goliad) Presidio and mission to their present location. Many citizens today trace their roots to Escandón’s Villas del Norte. Sadly, in today’s Texas classrooms, Escandón is virtually unknown.
General Bernardo de Gálvez (1746-1786):
Few U.S. history personalities surpass the brilliant career of Spanish General Bernardo de Gálvez who did so much more for U.S. independence than Monsieur Lafayette. That is, until 2014 when he received honorary U.S. citizenship, few folks in the U.S. knew about him. So, who exactly was he?
Born in Spain, General Gálvez’ leadership career in America began in Sonora and Nueva Vizcaya. In 1776, the 29-year old Gálvez became Governor of Spanish Louisiana. He was an astute military thinker, a savvy diplomat, and championed the thirteen U.S. colonies’ independence from England.
Soon after arriving in Louisiana, Governor Gálvez organized a Spanish Army (7,000 troops) and attacked the English all along the Gulf of Mexico.
At the Battle of Pensacola, General Gálvez took command of one of the Spanish ships, raising his own coat of arms on its mast. With two gunboat escorts, he entered the unfriendly harbor himself, facing fire from several land positions. Watching Gálvez’ incredible single-handed act of courage compelled hesitant senior naval officers to join him. His brilliant strategy banished the British from the Gulf of Mexico.
King Carlos III gave Gálvez the prestigious title of Count, general field marshal, and given command of all Spanish expeditionary forces in New Spain, and granted the motto “Yo Solo” to be placed on Gálvez’ Coat of Arms.
In 1785, his father died and Bernardo replaced him as Viceroy of New Spain. He had great plans for New Spain. However, in 1786 he became ill and died on November 30 of that year.
Although Bernardo de Gálvez was only 40 years old when he died, his life proves that it’s not necessarily how long one lives, but it is in what one does while living.
Colonel José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara (1774-1841):
José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara was a product of Revilla, one of Las Villas del Norte. Shortly after Father Miguel Hidalgo’s “Grito”, Don Bernardo answered the call; beginning his military career (see below):
1811: Commissioned a Lt Colonel in Mexican Revolutionary Army; Chief General, Army of the North (First Texas Army). He also became the First Mexican Ambassador to the U.S.
1812-1813: Commanded his troops in five successful battles: Nacogdoches, La Bahía, Rosillo, Béxar, and Alazán.
April 1-2, 1813: Takes possession of Texas capital, San Antonio. On April 6, 1813, he became Texas’ First President; read the words of Texas’ first Declaration of Independence to jubilant Bexareños. April 17: issued the first Texas Constitution. Sadly, forced to resign, he moved to Louisiana in exile.
1815: While in exile, he helped General Andy Jackson and led Tejano troops at the Battle of New Orleans. In 1820, he served as Vice-President of the 2d Texas Republic under Gen. Long.
1824: Returned to Mexico; became the First Governor of Tamaulipas; received other honors.
Alas, in 1825 Don Bernardo was forced to medically retire to his Revilla home. He had lost all his wealth. His request for a pension was denied. Showing no bitterness, he never blamed anyone for his loss. He lived his life to the fullest doing what he loved best: serving others. Colonel José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, the first President of Texas, died in Villa de Santiago, Nuevo Leon, in 1841.
In summary, all three heroes “stood tall in the saddle.” For Spanish Mexican-descent youth who are searching for pioneer personality inspiration, José de Escandón is their model. If they want to be motivated by a true founder of U.S. independence, they must learn about Bernardo de Gálvez. If they seek a Texas independence spirit, José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara offers a superb example.
Sadly, we seem to be taking a step backward in our country where patriotism has taken on undertones of racial identity and political partisanship. Small pockets of bigotry, encouraged by coded rhetoric of some public figures, bring to mind 18th century writer Samuel Johnson who warned that patriotism is the last hiding place of scoundrels. So it is with today’s racist movements hiding behind symbols of liberty.
As a military veteran of Spanish Mexican-descent (one of eight in my family), I find it repugnant that intolerant groups wave the U.S. flag while spewing hatred toward those who don’t look like themselves. Staining other parts of U.S. society, such as our military forces and university campuses, their toxic tone has even soiled the competitive spirit of secondary school district sports events.
For example, some high schools with mostly white Anglo/Northern European-descent student bodies use “USA” chants to taunt visiting schools with predominantly brown-skinned Mexican-descent student bodies, essentially implying that one has to be “white” to belong in the U.S. Yet, the youngsters aren’t to blame for their hateful behavior because as we say in Spanish, “Lo aprenden en casa” (they learn it at home).
Still, in spite of such attacks, being a member of our U.S. military family is an honor; a basic right (duty) of every citizen, regardless of race, creed, or color.
Lastly, representing all major branches of military service, Spanish Mexican-descent U.S. military veterans have pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America from its very beginning.
That’s why we nobly proclaim: “Aim High – Fly, Fight, Win” (USAF); “This we’ll Defend” (U.S. Army): “Not Self, but Country” (U.S. Navy); Semper Fidelis (Marines); Semper Paratus (U.S. Coast Guard); “Always Ready, Always There” (National Guard of the U.S.). Simply stated, “We’ve earned our stripes!” Happy Veterans Day 2017!