As my siblings and I were growing up in Laredo, Texas in the 1950s, we were truly blessed to receive a strong sense of our South Texas Spanish Mexican ancestry.

My mother took particular interest in teaching us at-home lessons about our unique heritage because she knew we weren’t getting the information in the classroom.

She did so because even though Spanish-surnamed students occupied most desks at our neighborhood school (affectionately called La Escuela Amarilla), the teachers weren’t allowed to instruct us about our ancestral people, places, and events.

Equally unkind, speaking Spanish on school grounds was forbidden. Ironically, most of our teachers and staff were local Mexican-descent Laredoans who primarily spoke Spanish. For example:

  • We were taught about New England pioneers from the east coast, but nothing (nada) about our founding pioneers who settled today’s South Texas. Though, they’re the ones who named the towns, rivers, and regions; drew the maps and built the roads that U.S. immigrants later used to immigrate to Mexico’s Texas.
  • Lessons included learning about Native American tribes from Virginia (such as John Smith’s Pocahontas fable), but not about the local indigenous people, first described in 1537 by Cabeza de Vaca in his manuscript, Relación.
  • November’s Thanksgiving Day holiday was (is) typically presented as the first formal European contact with Native Americans, without recognizing that it was our Spanish forebears who were the first to break bread with our Native American brethren in Florida and New Mexico.
  • Sam Houston’s revolt and simultaneous U.S. Anglo immigrants’ influx still serves as the core of the mainstream Texas school curricula pitch that unfairly presumes that official Texas history begins in 1836.

It is this last item that’s interested me since elementary school. Bluntly, it didn’t match the oral history I was receiving at home. Indeed, one of my favorite stories was the inspiring saga of great (3) grand uncle, José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara Uribe, the first champion of Texas independence (1813) and the first Texas President.

José Bernardo and his brothers José Antonio and José Enrique were born and raised in Revilla, (today’s bi-national community of Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Zapata, Texas). Following is a short sketch of each:

José Antonio (the oldest) became a priest. In those days, it was customary for a family to encourage one or more of their children to enter religious orders. In the Joseph Santiago and Maria Rosa (Uribe) Gutiérrez de Lara family, that honor fell on José Antonio. Yet, being a priest didn’t keep him from voicing his opinion as a true warrior priest who passionately advocated for human rights.

His search for justice was unequalled. Threatened with arrest because of his provocative sermons and support of Padre Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 independence call, he fled to the mountains. He spent two years living as a hermit, constantly eluding Spanish Army patrols who threatened anyone suspected of helping him.

He could have continued his sacrifice for much longer. However, learning that his mother and sister-in-law (Don Bernardo’s wife) were in poor health, he wrote a letter to the bishop asking for forgiveness. The bishop then facilitated a meeting with the military commandant who agreed not to prosecute him on the condition that he stop supporting his brother José Bernardo and the revolutionary cause.

Although he outwardly kept his promise to the bishop and the commandant, he covertly backed the revolution. After Mexico’s independence in 1821, he was elected to congress.

Of historical note is the fact that Padre José Antonio gave ousted Emperor Agustín de Iturbide his last rites. For the record, Iturbide had returned to Mexico to reclaim his throne. Expecting to be greeted by reported widespread support, he was arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad, July 19, 1824, Padilla, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

José Bernardo grew up to become an enthusiastic community leader. He was a rancher and blacksmith (herrador) by trade. Strongly resenting restrictive viceroyalty policies, he joined fellow creole ranchers and local business community in a secret resistance movement. It is believed that his brother José Antonio influenced José Bernardo’s revolutionary passion.

Don Bernardo’s career is most impressive. In 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo’s “Grito” was heard loud and clear in Revilla, Nuevo Santander. As a result, he offered his allegiance to Mexico’s independence, additionally seeking autonomy status for the Provincia de Texas.

Members of Father Hidalgo’s senior staff were so impressed with the young man from Revilla, that they commissioned him as a Lieutenant Colonel on-the-spot. Also, they tasked him to organize Mexico’s Army of the North (First Texas Army). In 1811, as Mexico’s first ambassador to the U.S., he travelled to Washington, D.C. and requested help from the U.S. for Mexico’s (and Texas) independence drive.

Allowed by President Madison to organize his army in Louisiana, the first Texas independence revolution began in 1812 in Nacogdoches. After defeating the Spanish Army in five battles, Colonel Gutiérrez de Lara entered San Antonio, the regional Spanish capital on April 1, 1813. Shortly, he became the first President of independent Texas. Then, on April 6, he signed Texas’ first Declaration of Independence and first Texas Constitution.

Sadly, some of his soldiers took revenge and executed the Spanish governor and his staff. As an accountable commander, Colonel de Lara took responsibility for the actions of his troops and resigned. He then moved to Louisiana in exile.

While living in Louisiana, he and his fellow Tejano exiles helped General Andrew Jackson win 1815’s Battle of New Orleans. He continued to support Mexico’s revolution and was amply rewarded when he returned to a free Mexico in 1824.

He became the first Governor of Tamaulipas and given additional positions: Colonel of the Cavalry and Active Militia; Commandant General of Tamaulipas; Commandant General of the Eastern Interior States (Texas, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon).

As for Enrique (my direct ancestor), he stayed to take care of the Gutiérrez de Lara homestead. His life as a civilian was not easy. He may not have been an activist priest or a military man as his brothers, but he suffered greatly, nonetheless. The Spanish authorities viewed the entire Gutiérrez de Lara family as revolutionaries. Not only did Spanish colonial forces ransack their home, but soldiers vented their anger on Enrique, who endured as best he could.

Clearly, all three brothers were valiant. As such, if only mainstream Texas curricula taught these learning facts in a chronological manner in Texas school curricula, it would accomplish two things: (a) explain why everything historically old in Texas and the Southwest is in Spanish, and (b) eliminate the general population’s confusion regarding the fundamental Spanish Mexican influence in Texas.

The question is, why are these fascinating details omitted from the conventional narrative? Simply stated, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) fears that pre-1836 Texas history upends their Anglo Saxon-slanted Sam Houston/Stephen F. Austin model.

Finally, it’s imperative that Spanish Mexican-descent people originating in Texas and the Southwest rediscover, preserve, and share our pre-1836 Texas history. In the wise words of historian Don Chipman: “Hispanic Texans and their descendants have played and will continue to play a major role in Texas history. Understanding their past is a vital component of the state’s collective experience.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a statue of José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara Uribe, erected at his place of birth, Guerrero (Revilla), Tamaulipas.