Born and raised in Laredo, Texas, I consider myself blessed to have been reared in this historically rich “Gateway to Mexico.”
In fact, I should say growing up in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. That’s because the combined communities (Los Dos Laredos) are in reality a bi-national metropolis whose transcendent arms embrace pre-1848 family ties and a robust international commerce partnership.
Yet, in discussing my beautiful hometown with others, some folks have trouble understanding its uniqueness.
For example, as a Rio Grande Guardian newspaper columnist, author, early Texas historian, and public speaker, some U.S. citizens find it hard believing that I grew up as an ESL child (English-as-a-second-language). That’s probably because they don’t know that Spanish-speaking descendants still thrive in South Texas and throughout the Southwest. As the following anecdote demonstrates, the confusion has a long history:
After my honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force (1962-66) and returning to my birthplace, I entered federal service at Laredo AFB in 1967. One day, a puzzled military newcomer in our office asked me, “Why would the U.S. build a city like Laredo this far south?”
My answer? “That’s because Laredo was already here when the U.S. took the land from Mexico in 1848.”In fact, as a native Laredoan, I often answered similar questions from base military personnel. For example, “Why do some people in Laredo answer the phone in Spanish?”And, “Why is Spanish the language of choice in Laredo and not English?”
Indeed, due to rigid emphasis on post-1848 history, few U.S. citizens know that the Southwest character maintains a Spanish Mexican flair because it’s in New Spain, not New England. Readers must take into account that the Southwest is the only part of the U.S. mainland that was militarily conquered from another sovereign nation (Mexico).
To put it bluntly, its enduring Spanish Mexican and Native American character is a testament to the fact that Texas and the Southwest states are in fact Mexico’s former Northern Provinces. As a result, many Mexican historians consider the territory as ancestral lands, because Mexican historical footprints are still visible today.
Truly, there is much to learn about the roots of the Southwest’s Spanish Mexican-descent U.S. citizens and their distinctive makeup “on this side of the border.”
In his book, “Tejano South Texas”, Dr. Daniel D. Arreola writes that Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to officially visit Texas in the 1600s. Further, he says that San Juan Bautista Presidio (“Gateway to Texas”) in Coahuila was the focal point for travel into Texas. Built in 1699/1700 south of today’s Eagle Pass, no European travelers could enter Texas without going through the presidio to receive the commandant’s permiso(permit).
Hence, before Texas was designated a territory, it was a despoblado (unexplored) region, reserved for later investigation. Texas also has New Mexico roots, since El Paso and west Texas were once located within its boundary. Equally important, the bottom triangle of Texas south of the Nueces River was part of the state of Tamaulipas (Nuevo Santander) until 1848.
In 1691, when Texas became a provincia (state), it slowly took shape with settlements taking root in San Antonio, Los Adaes (Nacogdoches), and La Bahia (Goliad).
What about South Texas? It was unaffected until 1848, when the U.S. arbitrarily moved the Texas southern boundary from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande. As such, the Villas del Norte communities that José de Escandón planted along the Rio (1749-1755), such as my hometown, were split in two and have remained separated to the present day.
Please take note that when Mr. Arreola describes the Texas lower Rio Grande region as culturally Mexican, it’s not a political statement. Rather, it’s a testimonial that the U.S. may have absorbed the region, but it is imbued with a world-renowned, distinctive Mexican-infused essence. Below are some examples.
First, where are the major bi-national border communities in Texas? Beginning at the Gulf of Mexico: Brownsville/Matamoros, Edinburg/Progreso, Zapata/Guerrero, Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, Del Rio/Ciudad Acuña, Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras, and El Paso/Juárez.
Second, these Spanish Mexican-origin population centers are as distinct as other diverse regions accepted and admired throughout the country, such as — English- (New England), French- (Louisiana), German-descent (Fredericksburg/New Braunfels, Texas), and Scandinavian/German-descent (Minnesota).
The big difference? As mentioned earlier, our Mexican-descent and Native American ancestors living in the Southwest (and their culture) were already here in 1848. As such, they’ve continuously resided in communities established by their ancestors in the mid-1700s.
Third, while it’s possible to live on the U.S. side of the border speaking only Spanish, resourceful residents have learned to adapt by becoming bilingual.
Adding breadth and scope to the contiguous Spanish Mexican homeland, long standing cross-border family connections continue west through the bi-national Sonora and Chihuahua desert homelands of our Native American brethren, all the way to San Diego/Tijuana.
In summary, the millions of Mexican-descent citizens living on the U.S. side are people of faith, have a strong work ethic, they vote, pay their taxes, are law-abiding citizens, and patriotically serve in the military.
Moreover, they are increasingly more educated, embracing higher education for themselves as well as their children, and economically self-reliant. These are all opportunities that were once deliberately denied to their elders.
Ironically, the border as a prospective purchasing power resource is well-known to the U.S. business community. U.S. companies have long nurtured the borderlands lucrative pesos-and-dollars gold mine by intentionally aiming Spanish language TV/radio ads at buyers living on both sides of the Rio.
Lastly, the beneficial big picture of this cross-border interdependent region must prevail over the negative press coverage. Thus, we must discard the U.S. media outlets’ tendency to paint the border with the dark colors of drug trafficking and anti-immigration contempt.
Although the incessant intolerance attacks keep some Mexican-descent people raised on the border from discussing their heritage altogether, some of us refuse to be intimidated. We will continue to stand our ground and defend the place we still call home.
Putting it all in perspective, Novelist Luis Alberto Urrea, born in Tijuana and now living in Illinois captures the true feelings of Borderlanders: “There is beauty in our roots. Sometimes we think our roots are shameful, and people tell you that you’re no good, or your ancestors are no good or that you come from a neighborhood of no hope and terrible crime. But it’s about the beauty of those places, and I carry that with me.”