An American Family

It was 1914. The Mexican Revolution had turned their world upside down. They made a momentous decision, a decision millions had made before them. They would move to America, to begin a new life.

On the afternoon of All Souls’ Day, 1979, Walter Martínez and his wife, Martha, left their office on Buena Vista Street in San Antonio’s West Side barrio and set off through the gusty weather for Grandfather Cecilio’s house, taking an indirect route to see the flower stands. The rain and cold of late autumn always left the barrio bare, austere, revealed. The banked rows of flowers that had emerged almost overnight on the street corners and blanketed the San Fernando Cemetery provided welcome splashes of color. Elsewhere the barrio appeared seamed and sere.


The previous night, congregations from many barrio churches, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, where Martha and Walter had been married in July, had marched through the streets to the cemeteries, carrying candles and singing hymns to honor the memory of those who had gone before. Walter and Martha did not march in the processions, nor did they regularly attend mass. Like other young Mexican American couples, they have ambivalent feelings about religion, are pulled between secular America and the enveloping Church of their ancestors. The collision of cultural values has affected many areas of Walter and Martha’s life. They have had to determine what in their Mexican heritage should be put aside and what is of value for the way they live today.


Often the choices are basic. Are they Mexican Americans, Mexicans, Hispanics, Americans of Mexican descent, Chicanos, Spanish Americans, Latin Americans, or Spanish-speaking Americans? What language do they speak and to whom? In a single afternoon on the West Side one can use English; proper Spanish, with its stilted forms, to the elderly; middle-generation Spanish, laced with anglicisms, to businessmen; and the pachuco patois of the street, with its secret slang words and double meanings. The great-grandson of a man who grew up a Mexican peasant, Walter is college educated, a seasoned political worker, an American; yet even his name—part English, part Spanish—is a constant reminder that he is a person of two cultures.


In many ways Martha and Walter are like everyone else in America: descendants of immigrants. But they are also in some ways unique. Their forefathers did not make an abrupt transition, did not strain or sever ties with the home country by crossing an ocean as had the European and Asian minorities. They crossed the Rio Grande to a semiarid, largely treeless desert country with basins, mountain ranges, and coastal plains like those of northern Mexico. They settled with millions of their compatriots in an isolated border region 150 miles wide that stretched from Los Angeles to the Texas Gulf Coast. There they kept their traditions, their religion, their language, and their ties to Mexico.


At the same time, the two cultures did mingle to produce much of the cultural richness of Texas. The Anglo influence on Mexicans in Texas has been great; the imprint of the Latin marks the state’s political institutions, language, economy, architecture, and customs. The Mexicans brought the Longhorn and the first brand—the three Christian crosses of Cortez. Everything the Texas cowboy used, except his six-gun, came from the Mexican vaquero: terminology, clothing, utensils, equipment. The first Texas homestead law, enacted in 1839, was patterned after the Mexican version. Irrigation practices, geographical names, adobe architecture, and the first goats, pigs, horses, hoes, wheels, peaches, olives, plows, and cottonseed all came from Spanish and Mexican settlers.


Uniting the Latin and Anglo cultures in those days would have been as difficult as combining their neighborhoods today, and for the same reasons. One was the language barrier. In addition, Mexicans knew little of Anglo law or self-government, Catholics and Protestants barely tolerated each other in the nineteenth century, and even though many Mexicans had worked under a peonage system, most were violently opposed to slavery. These differences produced cultural shocks, not unlike those in the Middle East. For many Mexicans the Texas War of Independence and the U.S.—Mexican War of 1846 remained for decades bitter and humiliating memories. There was a vaguely expressed feeling among Mexicans that the Anglos had taken their land. That grand tourist shrine and symbol of liberty, the Alamo, was not popular in San Antonio’s huge barrio, El West Side.


El West Side is the urban equivalent of the colonia in the Southwest’s small towns—the other side of the tracks, where Mexican communities grew up because of nearby industries or cheap land or lower rents. Although the urban center of San Antonio was settled by Spanish soldiers and priests, it has been the Anglo power base since the coming of the German immigrants in the 1840s. El West Side is the geographical and spiritual home of the Mexican in San Antonio, as are Loma in East Austin, Quinto in Houston, Segundo in El Paso, and El West Side in Denver.


The history of Texas is the history of Anglo and Mexican together, inseparable, but mixing usually only a little, like oil and water. Today one in four Texans is of Mexican descent, and their numbers are increasing every year. To understand the life of Walter Martínez, American, is to understand much of the cultural history and future direction of Texas. And to understand Walter, we must begin south of the Rio Grande, in Mexico.


The Uprooted

On a beautiful day Pedro Martínez and his family left the state of Jalisco for a new home, far to the north, in the United States. They left in a hurry, as did so many others. Four years of revolution had made living in Mexico impossible. The Martínez family had felt the shock waves of the revolution more than the other villagers at Hacienda de Languillo. One day in 1905 Pedro had been overseeing the field-workers as always. The next he was gone, conscripted into the Mexican army, not to return home for five years. Those were terrible times for the Martínez family, but the owner of the hacienda, their patron, was understanding and friends brought food and clothing and helped keep them together. Often the family would go to

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