We were taught in our American history books that the English colonists landed on the Atlantic coast in 1607. As they conquered the frontier, they developed their democratic spirit and in 1776 declared their independence from England.
The American frontier drove westward from the Atlantic toward the Pacific, from sea to shining sea. And it was their grandchildren who arrived here in Texas with Stephen F. Austin in 1821 to settle new empresario land grants from the Republic Mexico. Fighting at the Alamo and at San Jacinto, the Texans also developed a fierce individualism. We stand on the shoulders of those great men today.
And today we pause to remember that those Texans also stood shoulder to shoulder with their Tejano patriots. That when Stephen F. Austin got his land grant it was a Tejano who gave it to him. Texas Governor Antonio Martinez and later Governor Agustín Viesca welcomed Anglo-American settlers to come and partake of the beauty of Texas lands. Viesca dedicated his whole political career at great sacrifice to sponsor American capitalism and American technology into Texas. His legacy stands today as part of the greatness of modern Texas, just as his direct descendants stand alongside the other proud modern Texans in this very crowd.
When it came time to fight for freedom from an oppressive dictatorial regime, it was Gov. Agustin Viesca who issued the clarion call to all Tejanos. “Arise in arms,” he proclaimed. And when Texans made their decision to fight to the death in the Alamo, again they stood shoulder to shoulder facing sure death. They had the choice to retreat, but they chose to fight. Tejanos like Gregorio Esparza from San Antonio de Béxar chose instead to leave a legacy of courage for his family, for his children, and for his descendants. It was a good choice, because his descendants are still here in this very crowd today, carrying on the proud Esparza legacy of freedom. Fighting alongside with Esparza was the cavalry commander of the Tejano company at the Alamo and at the Battle of San Jacinto, Col. Juan Seguin, whose descendants have erected a statue to his honor just down the road. And when Texas took the independent status of the Republic of Texas, Tejanos like José Antonio Navarro not only signed the Declaration of Independence, but served as a congressman in the fledgling republic. The Navarro were one of the first families in the founding of Texas, but they are still here with us carrying pride of their great state of Texas.
It was nothing new for Tejanos to fight for independence in Texas. They were a pioneering people who established la frontera across the rugged expanses of Texas. So by the time the Anglo-Americans arrived in Texas 150 later, Tejanos gave them not only Texas lands but a unique Tejano culture. Here, the Tejanos drew on their Spanish and Mexican traditions of family and community laws to establish a unique body of frontera law. They wrote the first land-grant laws of Texas, the first homestead laws, the first pre-emption laws, and the first community property laws to give women the same property rights as the men. Tejanos needed community property laws because Tejanas lived longer than the men. The women had to keep the ranch and the family functioning in frontier society.
Tejanos came as families. When Victoria was established, it was founded by whole families like the De León who are still in Victoria today. When the ranches of the Villas del Norte and Laredo were founded, the explorer Don José de Escandón brought thousands of the world’s largest and most successful ranching families to the Rio Grande frontier. Escandón intentionally recruited the Hinojosa and the Guerra families because they had horses. The Guerra family brought the longhorns, and they still preserve the original DNA sock on their ranches today. They also are in the audience today. They had cattle, and because they had arms to defend themselves. Con todas armas. Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Ballí was not just a woman in the founding family of Ballí. She was the first Cattle Queen of Texas who lorded over hundreds of thousands of acres of ranch land, commanded hundreds of vaqueros, and helped to establish the unique longhorn breed of Texas cattle. Her son, Father José Nicolas de Ballí, owned the island that carries his name, Padre Island. These are the families who founded the North American cattle industry–who gave us the mustangs, the longhorns, and the concept of el rancho grande. The Ballí came in the 1700s and they’re still here in this audience today.
These are the Tejanos who perfected the skills of horsemanship that are still seen today as trick roping and bronc busting in the modern rodeo performances. When Tejanos rode a horse, however, it was not a rodeo performance. It was a life-and-death struggle. Indeed, it was on the Texas frontier that Tejanos adapted their horsemanship to law enforcement in the development of the unique Compania Volante or flying squadron. A unique, light mounted cavalry that rode offensively on long-range patrols across the state, armed with a pistol a knife, a rifle, and para-military warfare. They had authority to deputize, to prosecute in any jurisdiction, and to execute summarily in the field. So when the Anglo Americans arrived, they quickly learned to ride the Tejano mesteno horses, to rope the Tejano longhorn, and to patrol the range as “Texas Rangers,” wearing the same accoutrements as the Tejano flying squadron. Like the Texas cowboy, the rangers simply adopted the Tejano clothing, methods, and vocabulary. The boots, the spurs, the chaps, and the Tejano hat—lock, stock, and barrel.
Tejanos gave us our Texas vocabulary of Mexican words adapted to English, like lasso, corral, patio, rancho, and barbacoa. They named our rivers like the Brazos, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the Trinidad. We call it Tex-Mex, but our food is not Mexican, it’s Tejano because Mexicans don’t eat jerky, flour tortillas, and huevos rancheros. Anglo Americans learned to eat Tejano food like tacos, enchiladas, and carne guisada. They dressed like Tejanos with boots, chaps, spurs, and a Tejano vaquero hat. They learned Tejano skills of making ropes, throwing the rope, branding, the round-up, the cattle drive, and open-range ranching. That’s why we call a rope a lasso. We don’t call a corral a stockade. It’s why a Texan today gets in a car he calls a pinto or a bronco, he drives down a street he calls Guadalupe across a river named Colorado, and sits on a patio next to a corral to eat his barbacoa. The Mexican-Tejano culture is so ingrained into our modern Texas life that many Texans take it for granted. They fail to see the Mexican in their own laws, culture, and value system. Everything that Texans brag about—the longhorns, mustangs, and chili—is Tejano. If it were not for its Tejano heritage, Texas would be Ohio. Have you ever heard of a Ohio Ranger?
The contributions of Tejanos to Texas are monumental and seminal. And it is why this Tejano Monument stands so tall. It stands in stone and bronze because it tells the story of all those Tejanos whose story was, in many ways, silenced in the pages of Texas history books. This story was not written on paper today. It was written in the blood and sacrifice of those Tejanos who fought here for freedom. Whether they fought in the Battle of the Cinco de Mayo for Mexican independence or at San Jacinto for Texas independence, Tejanos fought for their families and for freedom in Texas. Freedom knows no borders. It is not bound by race or ethnicity. Tejanos fought in all the wars of this state and of this nation. They shed their blood at Iwo Jima. They left their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. And today, you know that the casualty lists coming back from Afghanistan are Tejanos, standing shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Americans. But in many ways, their service and Tejano contributions have been an unrequited loyalty.
Allow me to share some examples of this from the depths of archival research I have done through the decades in Texas history. Elena Zamora O’Shea, a school teacher from Alice, was the first Tejana to publish a book about Tejano history in 1922, El Mesquite. Her father, Porfirio Zamora, was the Tejano cavalry commander who helped to defeat the French army in the historic Battle of the Cinco de Mayo. He was under the command of Commanding General Ignacio Zaragoza of Goliad, Texas. If you ever wondered why we celebrate the Cinco de Mayo more than they do in Mexico, it’s because the battle took place in Mexico, but Tejanos were the commanders of the Mexican Army. That what makes the Cinco de Mayo the National Holiday of Texas.
In her book on Tejano history, Elena Zamora O’Shea said she wondered why the sacrifices of the Tejanos “have been entirely forgotten.” She ended her book, musing, “In my old age, I hope that [someday] they… will teach all children that this is OUR GRAND Lone Star State.”
Likewise, Fermina Guerra, a Laredo school teacher, wrote in her Master’s Thesis in 1941 at the University of Texas, that she had to write the history of the Tejano ranch families because unless she did it, she feared that their history would be “lost forever.”
In 1944, a labor contractor driving 80 Mexican-American migrant cotton pickers through the back roads of Lubbock County, wrote a letter, appealing for the civil rights of his workers to Governor Coke Stevenson. In his unpracticed handwriting, Esteban Valasco pleaded, “Now Mr. Coke, I tell you, do we have the rights of any Americans or are we just like nothing?” Yes, Elena, some day the Tejano Monument Education Curriculum will incorporate Tejano history into the history of the Lone Star State. No, Fermina, your Tejano history will not be “lost forever.” And no, Mr. Velasco, you are not “just like nothing.”
This Tejano Monument tells the story for all those thousands of Tejano families who received land grants from the King of Spain and the Republic of Mexico. It speaks for the millions of Tejanos who worked the construction sites, building a metropolitan Houston. It speaks for thousands of Tejanos who labored the grapefruit packing sheds of the Rio Grande Valley, the mines of El Paso, and the migrant cotton field workers of Lubbock. It also tells the history of the thousands of Tejanos who went on to become bank presidents, award-winning medical doctors, senators and legislators, distinguished scholars, and public policy leaders across this great state of Texas today.
But the discourse today is not about the bronze and the stone of the past. The Tejano Monument is a statement. It is testament to the legacy of a modern Texas and living Texans. It’s about the school children here in the audience today. They come not here today to ask if they can be Texans; it is because they are Texans that Tejanos are here today to RECLAIM their place in Texas history, and to CLAIM their place in the future of Texas.
The above commentary was prepared for the official unveiling of the Tejano Monument at the state Capitol in Austin, Texas, on March 29, 2012. Professor Tijerina gave this speech at the ceremony and a video of the speech was posted online on YouTube. However, the text has never been published before. Dr. Lino García, a columnist for the Rio Grande Guardian, asked Professor Tijerina if its first publication could be made in the Rio Grande Guardian and Professor Tijerina gave his blessing.