As a result of the U.S. Mexico War of 1846-48, the lower Rio Grande stopped being a local river settled by the same Spanish Mexican families on both sides. Instead, it became the political boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.
Up to 1848, the southern border of Texas was the Nueces River. However, the U.S. demanded (as conditions to end the war) that Mexico: (l) cede its northern provinces (the entire Southwest), and (2) that Texas’ southern border be moved south to the Rio Grande. That resulted in the State of Tamaulipas losing its northern part; today known as South Texas.
One thing is clear. Laredo residents never stopped celebrating their rich heritage. No two dates represent that strong bond than September 16th, Mexico’s Independence Day, and May 5, Battle of Puebla.
Growing up in 1950s Laredo, I recall fond memories of my elders openly referring to themselves as Mexicanos and Mexicanas. They did so justly because their family tree roots were planted in ground that is former Mexican land.
Equally, I remember that “el diezyseis and el cinco de mayo” were still observed. Although, based on what I learned from my parents, not as much as they once were. There’s a reason why.
While the first Anglo-descent newcomers to Laredo fully understood and embraced the region’s rich history, those arriving in the late 1800s-to-early 1900s were not as understanding. According my elders, anxious Anglos misinterpreted the historical celebrations as political allegiance to Mexico. Thus, they showed zero-tolerance toward citizens displaying any Mexican attribute, including speaking Spanish.
In order to suppress Laredoans’ enthusiastic family traditions, Anglo town leaders chose George Washington’s Birthday (February 22d) as their tool of choice. Centered on a formal fancy ball that prominently features English-style colonial court regalia, it includes, among other activities, a parade for common folks. Thus with specific intent, this event had a pronounced New England influence, rather than highlighting Laredo’s own colonial New Spain heritage.
Wanting to add Native American entertainment to the parade, the Anglos added insult to injury. That is, they ignored South Texas’ strong Coahuilteca people. (Incidentally, most Laredoans’ family trees include strong southwest indigenous roots.) Instead, organizers imported the character of Pocahontas, a Powhatan Indian princess from the east coast to lead the parade on horseback, which in itself is historically inaccurate.
The reason is that the Powhatan and east coast native populations were not familiar with the horse, while those in the Southwest were, thanks to cross-culture Spanish influences.
Regardless, the Anglos took calculated steps to deliberately diminish (destroy) local customs.
The result was devastating to heritage preservation. As such, many Laredoans and Mexican-descent Texans today are unaware of their rich history, and/or avoid discussing it altogether.
In summary, while “el veintidós de febrero” festivities have become part of Laredo’s economic base, few folks know of its true Manifest Destiny aim to end el Diezyseis and
Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Now, to part two of this article. Equally, Mexican-descent Texans living far from the border commemorated these occasions. My good friend, Geneva Sánchez, founding member of the Tejano Genealogy Society of Austin, has written the following about how they marked the events in her hometown of Lockhart, Texas.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by José Antonio López.
Celebrating el Cinco de Mayo in Texas
By Geneva Moya Sánchez
Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in history. It may be because historical events are true stories and so, I tend to prefer reading about them instead of fiction. In fact, my home library consists mainly of history books, especially early Texas history.
I was raised in Lockhart, Texas, by my mother. We always had people come over to our house. Most of the time they came over to ask my mother for help or favors. Growing up in a small town, I was lucky enough to learn history from conversations my mother and I had with our neighbors.
Conversations were always in Spanish. Also, I happened to live in a neighborhood with a lot of older, wiser people. I noticed that they tended to talk about an event by starting with the year the event happened. For example, “En 1920, me acuerdo…..”, and proceeded to share their oral history.
The biggest celebrations in Lockhart were “Cinco de Mayo” and “Diezyseis de Septiembre.” Each is discussed below.
The “Diezyseis” Celebration. This event lasted from two to four nights. The orchestras were usually from the big cities and the music was always great and first-rate. On the night of the 15th , orators would take turns at the podium and recite poems telling the Diezyseis story.
The orators were always older gentlemen who recited very long poems describing the feats of our valiant ancestors who fought for our freedom in Mexico. They would recall the heroes’ names, dates, and places, and are definitely the most impressive orations I would ever hear.
Although lacking formal education, the speakers knew their history and to tell it through poetry is amazing. It’s remarkable how they were able to retain and share so much information. For that reason, I wondered if the audience really appreciated the history lessons we received at these events, which by the way, we weren’t taught in the classroom.
Please note that at one time, Texas and the U.S. Southwest were in Mexico and is the reason why we could celebrate both holidays in my hometown of Lockhart and throughout Texas.
The “Cinco de Mayo” Celebration. Although this event wasn’t as big as the “Diezyseis”, it was still a great occasion. The orator made sure we knew that it was about the overthrow of the French at the Battle of Puebla, Mexico, on May 5, 1862.
The Bailes (Dances). The dances were held in the biggest dance hall and packed with local people and surrounding small towns. It was the perfect setting to meet new people.
Going to dances in our small town was a big event for young people. I loved to attend the dances, and probably got that trait from my parents. My mother always worked for a living and as a single parent, life was hard for her. Doing my part, I did chores around the house, such as washing, ironing, cleaning, and baby-sitting my brother. In other words, I was in charge when she wasn’t home. As my reward, Mother took me to the dances each Saturday.
Dances were conducted in a very organized and formal manner. All the young girls sat on one side of the hall and our mothers sat on the opposite side.
The young men waited by the entrance of the hall. If they wanted to dance, they would have to walk across the hall and ask the girl of his choice to dance. Girls would mostly agree. In fact, it was considered rude to turn down a young man, unless it was for a good reason.
During both celebrations, event organizers gave young ladies the opportunity to raise money by selling tickets (votes). The one who raised the most funds was elected as the celebration’s queen.
The promoters would pay for the rental of the dresses, trains, tiaras, and similar things. The winning candidate and her court were then presented on the big night of the celebrations. All in all, they were always beautiful presentations with girls in lovely formal dresses and young men in suits and ties.
A major part of the festivals consisted of the food. That is, members of the community would erect puestos (food stands) all around the hall to sell the most wonderful food. This was probably the only place where people would buy prepared dishes that would otherwise not be prepared at home on a daily basis. The delicious dishes included picadillo, tacos, enchiladas de queso/carne, tamales, menudo, and sometimes hamburgers.
My most memorable experience happened one year when my mother received a call from a gentleman from Corpus Christi. He had been referred by one of the business men in Lockhart. The man said he was an empresario and had come to Lockhart to promote the celebration of “Cinco de Mayo”. He wanted to know if my mother would let me be the queen of the celebration.
This time, it wasn’t about getting votes. The empresario would take care of everything, and offered to take me to San Antonio to get what I needed. I felt really special to have been selected. My mother agreed. However, since she couldn’t go with me, she asked one of her friends to accompany me to San Antonio. It was there that I chose a beautiful white dress, a navy blue train with exquisite sequin work, and a stunning tiara. The dance was a dance to remember. It’s an experience that I will never forget.
Lastly, in sharing my experiences as a young Texas girl in Lockhart, Texas, I am only doing my part in preserving these celebrations in Texas.
Writers’ Closing Comments: Existing cultures in conquered lands (whether here in America or elsewhere) don’t disappear with the re-drawing of the political map. Residents remain as an ethnic minority and typically face hostility from the predominant society. Sadly, today’s intolerant Anglo-descent citizens are unwilling to accept the truth. They wrongly believe that the vibrant cultural Spanish Mexican traditions that surround them were brought here by recent immigrants. Indeed, it’s time for U.S. mainstream Anglo society to stop believing the myth-based entertainment industry (western movies, et al). Instead, they must learn the true origins of U.S. Southwest history.
Bottom Line: We celebrate our Mexican roots strictly in a heritage sense, not political loyalty to Mexico. After all, it is the founding history of this great place we call Texas. “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.” (Cesar Chávez)
Editor’s Note: The above guest columns were penned by José Antonio López and Geneva Moya Sánchez. López is an author and historian. Moya Sánchez is a founding member of the Tejano Genealogy Society of Austin. The guest columns appear in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the authors. López can be reached by email via: [email protected]. Moya Sánchez can be reached by email via: [email protected].
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