While most of us have grown to appreciate the present-day Texas map, the story of the bottom portion of Texas has a rare narrative of its own.
Its origins are not in Texas, but in Nuevo Santander (Tamaulipas). Anchored by vibrant Villas del Norte roots on both sides (ambos lados) of the Lower Rio Grande, it’s the wedge of land located below the Nueces River, south of the east-west direction of U.S. Highway 59. In my view, it’s our version of “Texas Down Under”.
Key to its ambiance is that the Rio Grande was initially a local river where Spanish Mexican pioneers settled on both sides of the river to raise their families. As a bonus, many early Villas pioneers were of Sephardic Jewish ancestry (mine included). Thus, it’s through that lineage that residents still practice countless Jewish customs without even knowing it.
In his book, “Colonial Spanish Texas and Other Essays”, Dr. Lino Garcia, Jr., professor emeritus, UT-Rio Grande Valley, writes that the delicious semita and cuernitos pastries, capirotada, cabrito, and caldo de pollo, as well as our cherished Quinciañera customs, all derive directly from our early South Texas Jewish heritage. He adds that if your name is Adán, Abrán, José, Josué, David, Raquel, Israel, Ezeqiel, for example, and originate in South Texas, it’s almost certain you descend from Villas del Norte Sefarditas (Sephardi Jews).
Sadly, such notable basics of our South Texas lifestyle are mostly unrecorded in mainstream Texas history books. As a consequence, most Spanish-surnamed Texans who originate in South Texas and Rio Grande Valley are generally unaware of their fascinating history. For that reason, I provide details below concerning the mid-1700s adventure called Las Villas del Norte.
At the time, the Spanish monarchy wished to protect the Provincia de Texas from hostile indigenous tribes and a perceived French invasion. So, out of a number of submissions, Count Escandón’s recommendation for the Villas was approved.
Beginning with Spanish and Mexican (Native American) families he recruited in Queretaro, Count Escandón set up over 20 communities on both sides of the Rio Grande during the years 1749-1755. The following summary involves those established on both banks of the Lower Rio Grande that have a direct, natural impact on today’s Texas. Also, it’s important to note that this venture was the only purely civilian (no military or presidios) enterprise in New Spain.
1747-49. The founding of Las Villas del Norte begins. Count José de Escandón was planner, architect, and administrator of this Herculean effort. It was the largest and most complicated Texas settlement. Easily, he was the most industrious land empresario in what is now Texas!
1749. The first Villas were Camargo (Villa de Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana de Camargo), Reynosa (Villa de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Reynosa), and Refugio (San Juan de Los Esteros Hermosos) was settled the same year. For the record, Camargo families came from the state of Nuevo León; that is, Cadereyta, Cerralvo, Monterrey, and Pesquería Grande. Reynosa families came from Monterrey, Cadereyta, Cerralvo, and Montemorelos (Rio Pilón). The same year, some Camargo and Reynosa families settled Refugio (Matamoros/Brownsville), initiating the vaquero cattle raising industry in the area. Soon, the rest followed:
1750. Revilla (Villa del Señor San Ignacio de Loyola de Revilla) was established with over 50 families from the state of Nuevo León. Renamed “Guerrero” for Vicente Guerrero, 2nd President of Mexico, it served briefly as capital of the Republic of the Rio Grande (1840).
Dolores (Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores) was established by Captain José Vásquez Borrego, a wealthy rancher from Coahuila who had expanded his ranching enterprise to include the Lower Rio Grande region.
1753. Mier (Estancia de Mier). (Established by families from Camargo and named for Nuevo León Governor Francisco Mier y Torre.)
1755. Laredo (Villa de San Agustín de Laredo); named in honor of St. Augustine of Hippo and Laredo, Cantabria, Spain (Count Escandón’s hometown). Its founder, Don Tomás Sánchez, brought his brothers and their immediate families, plus other families from Nuevo León to his new Villa de San Agustín de Laredo. (Note: Dolores and Laredo are the only two sites established on the east side of the Rio Grande.)
When completed, the number of Villas del Norte families totaled nearly 1,500 with a combined population of over 6,000, plus nearly 3,000 Christian Native Americans who provided most of the muscle in the region. Inclusion of local indigenous people is very important. That is, local Native American tribes (clans) living in the area didn’t disappear. They gradually assimilated and inter-married with Villas inhabitants, becoming the first Texas cowboys/cowgirls. This beautiful blending of Old World (European) and New World (American) bloodlines created today’s Mexican-descent Texans.
Like a string of pearls, the Villas shined, radiating faith in God and family unity for 100 years. The Spanish Mexican pioneer settlers built a system of roadways (Caminos del Rio) connecting the Villas. Today’s descendants must take pride to know that our Villas ancestors built parts of today’s U.S. Highway 83. On the Camino Real, Dolores and Laredo served as midpoint welcome stops between Monclova and points north in Texas.
Please note that when Escandón’s group arrived in South Texas, they were the first European-descent inhabitants. For example, when the original residents began building their homes in Dolores and Laredo, for example, they were the only Europeans living on this side of the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico to El Paso and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In fact, the Dolores ruins contain the foundation of the oldest European-built structure on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. (Sadly, the Texas Historical Commission has yet to duly act on its historic value.)
As a result of the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-1848, life in the Villas abruptly changed in 1848. The close-knit communities were broken in two. People whose homes were located on the east side of the Rio became the U.S. towns of Laredo, San Ygnacio, Zapata, Rio Grande City, Roma, Mission, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, Edinburg, McAllen, Harlingen, and places dotting the riverbanks all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Sadly, a permanent Mason-Dixon Line in U.S. history, continues to divide blood-related families to this day. Yet, despite its political implications, the area has an organic connection to Texas’ sister Provincias Internas states in Northern Mexico; Coahuila, Nuevo Léon, and Tamaulipas. Common heritage, social, and vital economic links continue to embrace the region as one. That’s why many “Borderlands” families still maintain strong family ties, proving that “el agua del Rio Grande” (water of the Rio Grande) doesn’t separate, but rather unites them.
To learn more of Las Villas del Norte (Texas Down Under), its essential Jewish heritage, plus indigenous, Italian, and other cultural influences, please join us at the 36th Texas State Hispanic Genealogical and Historical Conference in Laredo, Texas, October 8-11, 2015.