The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was approved by the Texas state legislature in 2013.

This truly “dream come true” is having a tremendous positive impact on Valley students and parents, although, in truth, its effect is much greater.

José Antonio López
José Antonio López

In essence, this new university will complete a triangular-shaped, mega-sized campus for South Texas students, including Texas A&M-Kingsville on the east, Laredo’s Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) to the west, and now, UTRGV; in Edinburg and Brownsville, to the south.

No longer will local students have to travel long distances to attend fully-accredited, world class campuses with challenging curricula. This includes the new UTRGV School of Medicine. (It has taken 167 years for Austin to level the playing field for the Valley. All they need now is a full-service RGV Veterans Hospital, the completion of I-69, and extension of I-35 from Laredo to Brownsville.)

By the same token, Texas pioneer descendants and early Texas history aficionados are overjoyed by the UT Board of Regents’ approval of the name Vaquero as the mascot for the new university. Unfortunately, not everyone embraced the decision. That was especially true with a segment of the younger generation in the Valley. Generally, the negative feelings expressed by those opposed centered on a faulty premise. That is, that the Vaquero image is stereotypical, linking university students with a disparaging way of life. In truth, honorable vaqueros and vaqueras founded the Rio Grande Valley. The question is why don’t Valley youth know more of their “forgotten” South Texas history? To answer that basic question I offer the following insight:

To start, it’s not the young people’s fault. Living through generations of being told their heritage was unimportant, some good-intentioned Mexican-descent parents began to reject their long history in Texas just to cope in mainstream society. Unknowingly, they failed to pass on to their children the fact that they actually have clear ownership of Texas history. For example:

In the early 1700s, San Antonio, Los Adaes/Nacogdoches, Goliad, and the Villas del Norte in the Lower Rio Grande) were the first Texas regions to be settled. Thus, the earliest roots of the Rio Grande Valley come from Las Villas del Norte, the first European-descent settlements. They were towns created by José de Escandón on both sides (ambos lados) of the Rio Grande. (Note: Until 1848, South Texas was part of the state of Tamaulipas (Nuevo Santander), not Texas.)

With skills they brought from Central and Northern Mexico, Spanish Mexican pioneers set up the original ranchos as self-sustaining communities. These first citizens of Texas perfected the vaquero (cowboy) way of life. That’s why basic cowboy terminology is of Spanish language origin and why most of today’s cowboy attire and traditions have Spanish Mexican origins.

After 1848, some of the Spanish words were Anglicized, such as: Sombrero Galoneado became Ten Gallon Hat, Chaparreras (Chaps), Rancho (Ranch), Vaquero (Buckaroo, Cowboy), Lazo (Lasso), La Riata (Lariat), Cincho or Cincha (Cinch), Rodeo (Rodeo), Corral (Corral), Jaquima (Hackamore), Mesteño (Mustang), Juzgado (Hoosegow), bronco (bronc), etc.

By the way, the word “buckaroo” has a curious beginning. In 1811, when Lt. Colonel José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara travelled to Washington, D.C., seeking White House help for the First Texas Revolution, he became an instant VIP. That’s because English-speaking people in the U.S. had heard about the amazing horsemen (vaqueros) from the wilds of Texas, but had never actually seen one in person. He was the first. However, when trying to say the word “vaquero”, the pronunciation sounded like “buckaroo” and that’s how that funny word was invented.

In 1721, Marqués de San Miguel Aguayo and his crew of intrepid vaqueros from Coahuila conducted the first cattle drive in Texas. Soon after, herds of wild horses and cattle roamed the Texas terrain. Remarkably enough, padres at the missions became the first Texas ranchers and our ancestor Native American congregations became the first Texas-grown vaqueros and vaqueras.

By mid-1700s, large ranchos dotted the Texas landscape. Several contained huge herds. Of local interest regarding their vaquero past is the fact that Rio Grande City began as Rancho Carnestolendas, the enormous rancho established by Capitán Blas Maria Villarreal de la Garza Falcón. Key to the development of these towns was the team of dedicated vaqueros who were so skillfully adept on the saddle that in my view, earn the designation “Cossacks of Texas”.

Few people in the general public are aware that vaqueros from Mexico and its provinces (like Texas) came to the rescue of the U.S. in its War of Independence (1775-1783). In managing herds of cattle numbering over 9,000 head, vaqueros ensured that General Bernardo Gálvez fed his army of 7,000 troops helping the U.S. to fight the British. The vaqueros’ job was difficult, but they were able to complete it although the battle line stretched from the Texas-Louisiana border to Florida. Sadly, their Herculean efforts and those of Mexican-descent soldiers in General Gálvez’ army are forgotten and ignored in mainstream Texas school books.

With those credentials, it’s easy to see how and why the vaqueros’ work ethic set the tone of their unwritten code of conduct: Faith in God; love of family; hard work; and honesty.

It’s sincerely my hope that Valley young people are now finding out why the rest of us in South Texas are so passionate about preserving the vaquero image. There’s no doubt that the Vaquero mascot is the right choice for the new UTRGV, because hopefully people of the Rio Grande Valley are now more aware that theirs is a unique heritage. There’s no need for young Hispanic teenagers in Texas searching for identity to borrow from other racial groups’ manner of dress. The cowboy/cowgirl persona is their inheritance. Cowboy hats, cowboy dress and gear (belts, buckles, & boots) were developed by their Spanish Mexican ancestors. Stated clearly, Mexican-descent youth now have a perfect opportunity to reclaim their legacy.

Young people of the Valley, those of you who still need convincing must allow yourselves a chance to learn more. Please consider joining a genealogy/history group in your area, such as, Las Porciones Hispanic Genealogy Society in Edinburg, Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Genealogical Society in Harlingen, Zapata County Genealogy Society, or La Villa de San Agustín de Laredo Genealogy Society (VSALGS).

Lastly, as a poet once wrote, connecting ourselves to our heritage acquaints us with the best the world has to offer – our roots. Your ancestors left you a strong pioneer spirit. Tap into it. It’s yours. Please remember this – preserving the honest vaquero tradition is only the beginning.