When our Las Villas del Norte pioneer ancestors arrived in the late 1740s, they found the lower Rio Grande territory unfamiliar and strange.
So, more than likely, knowing which plants to eat and which ones to avoid was one of the first survival lessons they learned from Native Americans living along the Rio’s banks.
Luckily, the native Coahuilteca and Carrizo people they encountered were approachable and willing to share their survival knowledge. Thus, our ancestors quickly adapted to sustain themselves in their new home. The body of knowledge may have included details of annual weather patterns, hunting methods, and identifying areas of the river prone to flooding that the newcomers could avoid when building their homes, corrals, fields for planting, etc.
Born and raised in San Ygnacio, Zapata County, Texas, my mother often credited indigenous people for ensuring survival of our family in the wild and rugged countryside. A particular theme of growing up in San Ygnacio involved tagging along with her aunts on almost daily trips to the water’s edge of the Rio Grande.
Truly, the Rio was the lifeline of the several villages straddling its banks. Whether it was to haul water for drinking, cooking, and other purposes, she also helped to gather wood and edible plants.
The collecting of herbs and plants is one of the activities that fascinated Mother the most. She was awed by the way her aunts selectively picked only those plants they could use. In asking who had taught them to tell the difference between a good (buena) from a bad (mala) plant, they would simply reply that their elders had taught them, having learned those skills from “los Indios”.
Indeed, there is much that we Las Villas descendants owe to the “Indios”. However, who exactly were they?
The first mention of South Texas hunter/gatherers comes from the Spanish castaway Cabeza de Vaca, who recorded in his Relación that seventeen different groups occupied the territory just between the Guadalupe River and Rio Grande. During his eight-year journey, including passing through central and southern Texas, it’s believed that sometime around 1535 Cabeza de Vaca crossed the Rio Grande within today’s Zapata-Guerrero location, more than likely through a part of the Rio now under the waters of Falcon Dam. (Don Chipman, “Spanish Texas”).
Bordered to the north by several sister tribes and to the east and northeast by the Gulf of Mexico and the upper coast territory belonging to their brethren the Karankawa, Coahuilteca hunting grounds spread extensively to the west, where they were linguistically linked to other groups. Although, information on their origins is limited, there is significant research indicating that Coahuilteca people were not aggressive toward the Spanish arrivals.
At this time, we must note that our Las Villas del Norte ancestors suffered much as a result of “Indian” attacks, including loss of life. However, it’s unfair to generalize and blame all Native Americans. Those assaults were mostly the work of Comanche tribes, whose hostility, it’s believed, was the result of being pushed out of their homeland in the north by French and Anglo invaders.
The small groups of Coahuilteca and Carrizo clans that our ancestors met when they arrived in the lower Rio Grande portion of el Seno Mexicano, quickly learned to co-exist with the townspeople. A good reason is that they sought protection from the hostile Apache and Comanche tribes. Thus for safety, they set up their satellite camps near the white villages.
Doing so resulted in a win-win setting. It was a win for the indigenous people who could now stand their ground against unfriendly tribes. Conversely, by enlarging the labor pool, it was also a win for our ancestors. The agreeable arrangement permitted the filling of the many jobs available in area ranchos. In a fairly short period of time, Carrizo tribe families embraced their new Christian faith and became solid Villas del Norte citizens.
Interestingly enough, my grand uncle Mercurio Martínez wrote in his book, “Kingdom of Zapata” that an identifiable community of Carrizo families was still in existence in the 1950s, though the small group eventually merged into the larger Villas on both sides (ambos lados) of the Rio Grande. The blood blending is now part of the mestizo roots of our collective family tree in America.
In explaining his strong belief that Native Americans haven’t disappeared in South Texas, Dr. Lino Garcia, Jr., Professor Emeritus, UTRGV, has a clear manner of speaking: “If you wish to speak to a Native American, talk to a Mexican-descent resident of the Southwest.”.
In summary, for much too long, we’ve neglected to acknowledge our Coahuilteca connections. Sadly, in writing about Las Villas del Norte history, we give credit only to our European-descent ancestors. In my view, the selfless effort put forth by “los Indios” in assuring the survival of our Spanish pioneer ancestors made the difference between success and failure.
How can we fix the oversight? First, every South Texas community with Las Villas del Norte roots should grant Coahuilteca and Carrizo people the dignity and respect they deserve. This can be done through appropriate ceremonies and proclamations of each community’s choosing.
In my view, as the only surviving Villa on the east bank (South Texas), Laredo can take the lead by incorporating local Native American history into their annual George Washington’s Birthday celebration.
For those unfamiliar with the occasion, Anglo-descent organizers initiated this annual function in the late 1890s, because they were either (l) unwilling to appreciate and/or accept Laredo’s rich colonial and Native American history; or (2) deliberately rejected Laredo’s past due to its New Spain Spanish Mexican origins.
Instead, they imported New England-based traditions and force-fitted them in New Spain’s Laredo. Still, the celebration’s backbone is steeped in symbolism, consisting of elite formal galas and a central parade featuring a young lady portraying a horseback-riding Pocahontas.
In the first place, featuring Pocahontas is historically inaccurate. She had nothing to do with our first president or his birthday. In the second place, being a member of an east coast Algonquian tribe, horses were unavailable to her people. Thus, it is unlikely Pocahontas ever rode a horse.
On the other hand, horses of Spanish-origin were plentiful in the Southwest, including territories of the Laredo-area Coahuilteca and Carrizo people, who learned to master superb riding skills. As a result, local indigenous people in the villas, pueblos, ranchos, and missions became the first Texas cowboys and cowgirls (vaqueros y vaqueras).
Thus, with all due respect to my family and friends in Laredo, there’s no reason to borrow a Native American stand-in from 1,500 miles away. It’s time: (a) to return Pocahontas to the state of Virginia; and (b) that Laredo honor its very own legacy of Native American roots and recognize the crucial role they played in the success of our Villas del Norte ancestors.
Lastly, since many Coahuilteca and Carrizo descendants still reside in the region, it’s the right thing to do for the right reasons. Simply stated in the words of another Founding Father, Samuel Adams, “Give credit to whom credit is due”.
Editor’s Note: The images accompanying the above guest column come from a You Tube video of Jesse Reyes, Danny Hernandez, Ramon Vasquez, and Julian Reyes performing a Coahuiltecan song within the walls of San Jose Mission. Click here to watch the video.