Understanding Tejano History
Armando Alonzo, an associate professor in the Texas A&M University Department of History, researches Mexican American, Texas and Spanish borderland history. The College of Liberal Arts spoke with Alonzo about the importance of Tejano history, as well as the history of Texas and North Mexico between 1700-1865.
Who are Tejanos?
Tejanos are descendants of the Spaniards. Texas history and the Southwest are very intricately linked to the Spanish colonial period. Initially, Spanish settlers referred to themselves as “vecinos,” meaning citizens of Spain. The general requirements to be a vecino were that you were male, that you were over 21, that you were an adult, a property owner, and that you lived in a fixed residence in a town. The Spanish settlers in Texas lived in a small part of what they called “New Spain.”
In the beginning, Tejanos were the older generations of people in Texas or descendants of these Spanish vecinos. At one point they actually used the word Tejano as a self-designation, or Tejana for women. They even used (Tejano) in a formal document in the early 1800s, but they still saw themselves as citizens of Spain just as everyone else within this Spanish empire here in the New World.
When Spanish rule ended in 1821, Mexico was born as a new nation. Overnight, these people who were Spaniards had new sovereignty, a new authority. Their allegiance is now to the United States of Mexico, and so they call themselves “Mexicano,” meaning Mexican. Because they are resilient, the Tejanos went along with the changes in government and became citizens of Mexico.
The word Tejano is still in use to the present day, and so the older generations of the descendants of the Spaniards and the Mexicanos in Texas refer to themselves as “Tejanos.” If you go to California, there will be a Tejano community there, and if you go to Wisconsin there will also be people from Texas who say “we’re originally from Texas, we’re Tejano people.” So Tejano is still a popular term of identity. It’s not a race, but it’s a social construction of identity.
What made you interested in studying Tejano history?
I myself am trained as a U.S. historian, but I began to take courses in the histories of Mexico and Latin America and then basically self-trained in the history of the U.S. and Mexico, the Spanish borderlands, and now the Mexican borderlands. There wasn’t a natural discipline for these fields that I work in.
On a personal level, I knew that I wanted to undertake a graduate program in history. I grew up in South Texas in the lower valley and I would see some of my relatives including my great grandmother. One day I said, “Abuela, where are you really from?” She said, “We’re from the river valley,” referring to the Rio Grande Valley. From then on I had an interest in finding out more about my own personal history and the roots of the people, not just of me and my family but the roots of what we call the Tejano people and the Mexican American people — I’m using both terms interchangeably here. This got me interested in the research that I do, so I began to research and write about it and did a dissertation that focused on the settlers in South Texas, both the Tejanos and the non-Tejano people, the Anglos, and the Europeans that came to settle in what is now South Texas.
What made you interested in studying the history of Texas and Northern Mexico in the period of 1700-1865 specifically?
I became interested in understanding how the history of Texas is very strongly connected to the history of northern Mexico.
We had small rail lines in the Houston area before the Civil War. The railroad mileage in Texas was very small. After the Civil War, the railroads expanded, and then in the 1880s, we had the national railroads move into Texas and expand to the Rio Grande, to the border. At the same time, the American capitol in Mexico built railroads in Mexico, which cemented this connection between Texas and northern Mexico.
It wasn’t really to let people get on the train and move to Texas; Mexico had riches, particularly very valuable minerals like silver, magnesium, zinc, lead, copper. The American nation was industrializing very strongly at the end of the Civil War, so we needed all those minerals, and merchants wanted to sell in Mexico because they had money and were the leading producer of silver in the world. So the merchant class in the U.S. and Europe wanted to trade with Mexico, but because Texas had no significant railroads, the links are all overland from Texas to northern Mexico and northern Mexico to Texas, and the goods go out through ports like Galveston, Corpus Christi, Brownsville and then ports below Brownsville. For this whole period, in the late 1800s, the bulk of the trade went to the Atlantic world economy. Northern Mexico and Texas are linked through this Atlantic world and of course, the merchant class in Texas profits a great deal from that. No state in the union had more economic links than Texas.
In a nutshell, Texas and Mexico are very closely linked because we have historical ties, cultural ties, economic ties, and at times, political ties. Texas has always been the number one state to receive the benefits of our connections with the modern nation-state of Mexico.
What are some of your favorite moments in Tejano history?
Tejano history is complicated, like a lot of history, and depending on what time period you look at, you’re going to see Tejano leaders. For example, when we look at the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, we see there were Tejano heroes on both sides. Some of the Tejanos sided with the revolution against the dictator Santa Anna. Yet, there were a few folks in Texas that fought on the side of Santa Anna.
Another famous Tejano was Juan Seguin, who was the leader of the Tejanos at the battle of San Jacinto and was a mayor of San Antonio. He became quite controversial because during the period of the Texas Republic, he then left San Antonio with an army saying he was deeply disturbed and bothered by the behavior of Anglos in San Antonio. But later, he came back to live the rest of his life in Texas. He was truly a Tejano hero and political leader even though others saw him as a traitor to Texas.
And then, if you look at political history, some of the Tejanos in the early 20th century began to organize civil organizations to advocate for their community. Eventually, they formed the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) at Corpus Christi in 1929, which is the oldest civil rights advocacy group. Their basic ideology was assimilation into American life and politics, and even though they hired lawyers and would go into court, they hardly won anything. It took a long time before LULAC and another organization got a very important victory in the Supreme court case Hernandez v. Texas 1954. It was the first case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Mexican American lawyers who worked on it were hailed as heroes. The main significance was that treating Mexican Americans as a class apart from others was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Why is it important to study Tejano and Mexican history?
It’s important to study the history of our homeland; Texas, in this case. It gives us a vantage point to see what it is that took place in the past, what people were able to do, and what struggles and successes they had. Whether it was in the colonial period or the period of the Texas Revolution or in the 20th century, history is a good way to look at that. It also allows us to understand how people sometimes have to struggle to see themselves as equal citizens in this evolving, complex society. It gives us an opportunity to learn about the past and issues that took place and how leaders — social, political, and educational leaders — are able to resolve those problems and move forwards. This is a story that continues to evolve.