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Alamo's Unsung Heroes—Remember the Tejanos


National Geographic News (04/12/2004)
By Stefan Lovgren

In The Alamo, the new movie about the famous 1836 battle between the Texas revolutionary forces and the Mexican Army, the usual gringo heroes all play starring roles: Jim Bowie, William Travis, and, of course, the king of the wild frontier, Davy Crockett.

But another group of men fought alongside the Texas independence fighters: the Tejanos, Mexicans who had lived in Texas for generations. Their fight for Texas began long before the battle cry “Remember the Alamo” was heard. Yet their part in the shaping of the Lone Star State is often ignored.

“ In the mythological story of the birth of Texas, the intricacies and complexities of the Tejanos just didn't fit. So they were essentially purged from the story,” said Jim Crisp, a Texas-born history professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Tejano history dates back to 1731, when 15 families from the Canary Islands came to settle in San Antonio in what was then northeastern Mexico, which in turn was under Spanish rule. The Spanish-ruled Canary Islands are an archipelago off northwest Africa.

The Tejanos were an independent frontier people who developed a ranching community and a culture that was separate from the rest of Mexico. While some of the Tejano elite prospered, most of the 2,000 Tejanos by the end of the 18th century were subsistence farmers.

“ Originally, [Texas] wasn't occupied for any economic purpose,” said Jesus Francisco de la Teja, a history professor at Texas State University-San Marcos. “It was occupied for strategic considerations of the [Spanish] crown. So it didn't develop.”

In 1813, when the Spanish government decreed that wild livestock was the property of the crown, many Tejanos lost their means of survival and revolted against Spain. However, their rebellion against the Spanish government was easily crushed.

Rebel Alliance

Things changed in 1821 as Mexico gained independence from Spain. The new federalist Texas government invited U.S. settlers to Mexican-controlled Texas. The Tejanos, recognizing the economic benefits of this immigration, welcomed the new settlers.

The territory was rich in fertile land. By 1830 there were 30,000 U.S. settlers and slaves living in Texas, compared to just 4,000 Tejanos.

But in 1834 the new president of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, abolished the federalist system and concentrated power in Mexico City. Both Tejanos and the Anglo settlers saw this as a severe blow to Texas sovereignty. “Their principles were the same,” said de la Teja. “They wanted local rule.”

The Tejanos and the Anglos joined forces, and by the end of 1835, they had succeeded in driving all Mexican soldiers out of Texas. What ultimately became a movement to separate Texas from Mexico actually started as a civil war.

In late 1835 the Anglo-Tejano rebels defeated and evicted Mexican forces from the Mission San Antonio de Valero. This mission was built by Catholic missionaries in 1718 and symbolized Mexican authority on the Texas frontier. It later became known as the Alamo.

President Santa Anna's response was swift. He personally advanced into Texas with 4,000 men. Inside the Alamo fewer than 200 rebels, including a handful of Tejanos, awaited the inevitable attack.

After a 12-day siege, Santa Anna's men attacked the Alamo on March 6, 1836, killing every male defender of the mission.

While legend holds that Davy Crockett was the last man standing and killed several Mexican soldiers with the butt of his rifle after running out of ammunition, most historians believe he was actually captured and executed by Santa Anna.

Six weeks later, however, the rebels, including several dozen Tejanos, surprised Santa Anna near a river called the San Jacinto. As Sam Houston, commander of the Army of Texas, urged his men to “remember the Alamo,” they slaughtered the Mexicans and captured Santa Anna. This ended the war, and led to the creation of the independent Republic of Texas in September 1836.

Tejano Leaders

While recognizing that the Anglo settlers drove the independence movement, some historians argue it was the Tejanos who envisioned the revolution's framework. The Tejanos, these historians contend, had been fighting for independence for such a long time that they simply invited the settlers to the cause.

“ The myth is that Anglos brought liberty to Texas, when in reality Tejanos initiated the struggle with the authoritarian government of Santa Anna in Mexico,” said Andrés Tijerina, a history professor at Austin Community College, Texas.

Other historians stress that, while the Tejanos wanted Texas to have its rights restored, they didn't necessarily want to break away from Mexico.

“ The Texas revolution originates in the context of the Mexican civil war, but it becomes something very different by the time it's over,” Crisp said.

One of the central Tejano characters was Juan Seguín, who served as a captain for the independence-minded Army of the People. He and his Tejano company helped to conquer the Mexican-held Alamo in 1835. Three months later, during the Mexican attack to recapture the Alamo, Seguín crossed enemy lines to ask for reinforcements.

“ In the first part of the war, the Tejanos are very, very important because they're essentially the eyes and ears [of the rebels],” Crisp said. “They're the scouts, they know the territory, and they can pass secret information.”

There were also important Tejanos off the battlefield, the most prominent being José Antonio Navarro. Educated and well connected, he was elected mayor of San Antonio at age 26.

A shrewd diplomat, Navarro backed the Anglo settlement in Texas, and ushered a bill through the state legislature that circumvented Mexican anti-slavery laws and allowed U.S. plantation owners to bring their slaves to Texas.

On February 1, 1836, Navarro was elected to represent the Tejanos at Texas' Independence Convention, where he signed the Texan Declaration of Independence. He later helped to write the new country's first constitution.

“ Navarro was an intermediary between the Anglo-Americans and the Tejanos,” Tijerina said. “He was courageous and played a tremendous leadership role for the Tejanos.”

Driven Out

At the 1845 convention to admit Texas to the United States, Navarro succeeded in having the word “white” stricken from the requirements for voting in the new state. But he failed to secure the rights to ancestral lands that had been granted to Tejanos under Spanish rule. More than a million acres (400,000 hectares) of land had been transferred from Tejanos to Anglo-Americans.

“ Ultimately, Navarro was not successful to the degree he wanted,” de la Teja said. “He would have preferred that many more Tejanos had found a more equitable place in society.”

Later settlers who arrived in Texas were unaware of the Tejanos' contribution to the territory's independence, and many hated all people of Mexican descent. The new settlers drove many Tejano people from their homes.

When the classical versions of Texas history were written in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Tejanos were virtually erased.

“ Their role became difficult to explain or understand,” Crisp said. “When you run into things that are difficult to explain or understand, they are often swept under the rug and ignored.”

Growing up in Texas, Crisp says he never even heard of Juan Seguín until he went to graduate school at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.