The True Meaning of the Tejano Monument

A $2 million bronze monument honoring Tejanos was unveiled at the Capitol last week. Here's why it's historically significant to all Texans.

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Jeff Wilson

In June 2010, soon after my nephew Cristóbal had turned seven, I took him on his first visit to the state Capitol. Cris, as we refer to him affectionately, has always been inclined toward grand things, so the pink-granite marvel was a perfect adventure for the soon-to-be-second-grader. He was transfixed by the long hallways and the rows and rows of portraits of the men and women who once served the Texas Legislature. He seemed awed by the thought that, at a good bit under four feet tall, a little boy like he could form part of such a vast human continuum. 

Then we arrived at the Senate Chamber, the stately place where, I explained, our laws actually get made. The room was restored to reflect how it looked in 1905, and his eyes grew wide as they swept across it, contemplating the  walnut desks and ornate brass chandeliers. But it was two enormous canvases against the back wall that caught his attention. They are the Irish-born painter H. A. McArdle’s “Dawn at the Alamo” and “The Battle of San Jacinto,” depicting the two most famous battles in the Texas Revolution. The latter, which is a bit larger than the first and to which Cris gravitated, depicts the military attack that ended the war on April 21, 1836 and gave birth to Texas.

Although the battle was won in eighteen minutes, the Texas troops pressed forward another hour to avenge the death of their compatriots in Goliad and the Alamo. The final death count was nine Texans against 630 Mexicans. The present-day monument on the former battleground in the Houston Ship Channel recognizes the battle as a decisive one that freed Texas and led to the Mexican War, by which one-third of the present-day American nation, nearly one million square miles of territory, changed hands. McArdle’s mural, subtitled “Retributive Justice,” serves as an allegory of good ultimately conquering evil–while the cowardly General Santa Anna flees on a horse, the Texians continue to stab the Mexicans, leaving them wounded or dead in pools of their own blood.

Cris had walked up to the painting in the chamber and was so transfixed the guard had to ask him to step back from the protective ropes. He seemed disturbed by its gory mess, and wanted to know who was fighting who, and why. I told him it commemorated the day that Texas seceded from Mexico, later becoming part of the United States. He hadn’t learned this part of history, and I could see his little mind shift into overdrive as he digested the fact that his home state was once part of another country. “That’s just wrong,” he blurted. “And that’s just weird that America always wins.”

I realized I’d opened up a can of worms and he wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easily. He grew flustered, demanding to know “how it all got started, I just don’t understand!” I explained in the simplest terms possible that some people here had not been happy with the rules of the Mexican government. “But just some!” he protested. Then he asked what had happened to those who stayed behind after independence. I told him they became Texans, and subsequently also Americans. He figured out that not all would have been Anglo. “And the Mexicans,” he wanted to know, “did they get alone with everyone else?” I told him they were discriminated against for a long time because they were different, but that they, too, became American citizens. And then his face lit up as he put all the pieces together and recognized his own reality: “Oh, Mexican Americans!”

Cris is the son of Mexican Americans from Brownsville and El Paso who are now successful lawyers in Houston, and he embraces both parts of his identity with reverence and passion. First and foremost, he is a die-hard American: he is  enamored with NASA, devoured the entire Harry Potter series in the second grade, and, during our Thanksgiving dinner in 2008, chose to give his thanks to God “because Obama won for president.” But he attends a private school with an international curriculum that celebrates cultural difference, and his parents have taken extra care to instill pride in his Mexican roots and brown skin especially once they saw that at three years old, his pre-K classmates were already talking about race. He loves Spanish music, the Mexican children comedy show Chespirito, and adores Nacho Libre because it’s an American film set in Mexico.

His troubled encounter two summers ago with the artwork in the Capitol had, I think, as much to do with its graphic content as it did with the fact that it disturbed his sense of himself and darkened his place in history. The story of Texas that generations of us have read in school textbooks and consumed in the Capitol is far too black-and-white, leaving no room for us to understand who we are or where we come from in a fuller and more enriching way. But the unveiling last week of a $2 million bronze monument honoring Tejanos, Texans of Mexican ancestry who were here even before our state came to be, offers one chance to complicate the narrative a little.    

A descendant of two of those founding Tejano families, I have to admit I almost missed the event. For years I’d heard about this monument that Mexican American leaders were determined to bring to Capitol grounds, where eighteen other memorials on 22 acres honor everything from Confederate soldiers and Texas Rangers to peace officers, war veterans, firemen, Texas cowboys, women and children–-even the Statue of Liberty and the Ten Commandments. But it wasn’t until a day or two before it happened that I learned the details of Thursday’s ceremony. I sent last-minute emails canceling my classes at the University of Texas and arrived that morning at the soggy south lawn a good half hour after Governor Rick Perry, who’d signed the project into law in 2001, had proclaimed that “this is an important monument because it reflects a larger truth about the origins of Texas, about the contributions of so many Hispanic citizens to the creation of the state we love, and the lives we share.”

By then, Eva Guzman, the first Mexican American woman on the Texas Supreme Court, had taken the podium and was recalling her own experiences touring the Capitol as an elementary school student, as tens of thousands of children still do every year. I scanned the grounds for a good spot and surveyed the crowd of more than one thousand Texans who had defied the gray skies that threatened to dump on us at any moment. Immediately I began to spot a number of people I recognized: Cousins Oscar and Cindy Casares, novelist and media columnist; Rene Lara, a public schoolteacher lobbyist; Jerry Vaquez, a Houston television producer; Emilio Zamora, a UT colleague and historian who is helping lead a monument-related effort to develop a fourth-grade Tejano curriculum for Texas classrooms. It was an accounting of the fourteen years I’ve spent in my home state since leaving to California for college, and a testament to the social and educational advancement of Texas Mexican Americans and our contributions across the professions. There were men in smart-looking business suits and women in tasteful dresses and pumps.

But mostly what I saw was a sea of working-class Tejanos I’d never witnessed in a mainstream public space. They’d come in carloads from cities and rural counties throughout the state to witness what they considered a deeply symbolic event for their communities and families: Middle-aged mothers with teens in tow; burly men with boys propped onto their shoulders; widowed women friends in groups of three, four, five. A frail older couple in their seventies shuffled in slowly, holding each other by the hand, taking in the whole scene with tiny smiles on their face.

The humid air was impregnated with pride, and it was predecessors and place that held sway here. One elderly gentleman in baggy jeans, ropers and a felt cowboy hat held up a white poster that featured a faded photo of himself as a boy sitting atop a horse with his father: “Juan Favila, El Dorado, Texas, 1912-2001.” A rowdy contingency of women from Laredo–-where Armando Hinojosa, the artist who sculpted the eleven-piece monument, is also from, claiming lineage to founder Tomás Sánchez-–posed behind a blue-and-white “Laredo Proud” banner as they laughed and waved at onlookers’ cameras. The Webb County Heritage Foundation was also in attendance with an even more elaborate getup that included flags of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande. What mattered, in any case, was situating oneself by family and genealogy.

When Professor Cynthia Salinas took the microphone to describe the Tejano history education initiative at UT, she began by saying, “Me llamo Cynthia Salinas y soy la hija de Juan y Eva Salinas de Hebbronville, Texas!” (“My name is Cynthia Salinas and I’m the daughter of Juan and Eva Salinas of Hebbronville, Texas!”) The crowd clapped and cheered loudly. 

So caught up was I watching everyone else live the moment that I momentarily forgot this was my experience and upbringing, too. Though my sisters and I grew up with very little (like so many other Tejano families, my mother and father spent ten years migrating to California to work in the fields and other menial jobs), we were reminded that we carried not one, but two, special last names, and there lay our treasure. Both the Ballís and Hinojosas, our maternal family, came to present-day Tamaulipas and South Texas with colonizer José de Escandón, who was tasked by the Spanish crown with founding more than twenty towns and villas that made up the colony of Nuevo Santander, and partitioning vast tracts of land to each family. The families established large, sometimes prosperous ranches where they raised horses and cattle and developed the vaquero ranching traditions that Anglo cowboys adopted more than a century later.   

The eventual fall of most of those families from wealth and prominence is a fabled one I once chronicled for TEXAS MONTHLY, in the case of the Ballís (“Return to Padre,” January 2001). With the dawning of the Texas Revolution and the end of the Mexican War, new settlers arrived, economies and power shifted, and many Tejanos eventually were robbed, coerced, or tricked into selling their lands. Anglos became the new ranchers (the Ballí line I come from once owned part of what became Mifflin Kenedy’s ranch). Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican Americans suffered persecution and even lynchings by the Texas Rangers, racial segregation and beatings for speaking Spanish, and generalized discrimination and impoverishment. What’s more, Texas erased the Tejanos’ experience. In the new narrative that emerged, history began in 1836, after Mexicans were ousted from the state in San Jacinto. Unfortunately, this is the only story we learned once we faced compulsory Texas history classes in the fourth and seventh grades, and the one we regurgitated on tests and from which we fashioned our identities and sense of belonging. Developing a valued sense of self as Mexican Texans required a different education-–one that fell on our families, outside of public life and official discourse.   

And this is what gave the monument’s unveiling its weight: What more symbolic place and space to officialize our own telling of Texas history? As Thursday’s ceremony inched closer toward the culminating moment when state legislators and some of the Tejano founding families would yank the green tarps that now covered each of the bronze statues, historian Andrés Tijerina, who authored two of the seminal books about Tejano life under Spanish and Mexican rule and co-led the monument’s movement from its inception in 2000, offered a different telling of events. “I feel like when you teach and talk about Tejano history before this group, it’s like preaching to the choir,” Tijerina said. “But you know what? We need it. We need to hear Tejano history. We need to hear Tejano history at the state Capitol.” The audience cheered, and a few people yelled, “Woo!” 

The twenty-minute speech that followed traced the role of Tejanos in founding the oldest settlements in Texas, fighting for independence, designing its laws, breeding its livestock, building its architecture and developing its economies. He began: “We were taught in our American history books that the English colonists landed on the Atlantic coast in 1607, the pilgrims in 1621…”

“. . . Tejanos didn’t come as individuals,” he recited. “They came as familia. They came as families, whole families. When Victoria – Victoria, Texas – was founded, it was founded by whole families, like the De León, who, incidentally, are still in Victoria today, and are still here today. De León, where are you?”

A woman in front of me with a caramel-colored flower in her hair that matched her dress jacket waved, and another one called out, “Y-e-e-e-a-h!” 

“When the ranches of Las Villas del Norte around Laredo were founded, the explorer Don José de Escandón brought thousands of the world’s largest and most successful ranching families right here, to the Rio Grande Frontier. Escandón intentionally recruited the Hinojosa and Guerra families, because they had horses! The Guerra family brought Texas longhorns. And they still preserve the original DNA longhorn stock on their ranches in South Texas, around Linn, Texas. They’re in the audience. Where are the Guerra?”

Again hands waved, and again, the audience clapped. 

“The Guerra had cattle. And they were recruited because they had arms to defend themselves. Con todas armas llegaban. Rosa María Hinojosa de Ballí was not just a woman of the founding family of Ballí here in Texas. Rosa María Hinojosa de Ballí was the first cattle queen of Texas who lorded over hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland. She commanded hundreds of vaqueros every day, and she helped to establish the unique longhorn breed of Texas cattle. Her son, Father José Nicolás de Ballí owned the Island that now carries his name, Padre Island. These are the families–-these are the Tejano families who founded the North American cattle industry. Who gave us the mustangs, the longhorns, and the concept of el rancho grande. Not a farm. Not a ranch. Rancho grande! The Ballí came in the 1700s with Escandón. They’re still here today. Ballí?”

The mention of both my families was unexpected. I held my camera in one hand and lifted my left arm and waved, a small knot forming in my throat.

Later: “Anglo Americans quickly learned to eat Tejano food, like the tacos and the enchiladas and the guacamole, that’s true! Carne guisada. They dressed like Tejanos with the boots and the chaps. They wore the Tejano vaquero hat. They learned Tejano skills: to make a rope. To throw a rope. Branding. The cattle round-up. The cattle drive and open-range ranching. That’s why we call in Texas a rope, a ‘lasso.’ We don’t call a corral a ‘stockade’! It’s why a Texan today gets in a car that he calls a ‘pinto’ or a ‘bronco,’ and he drives down a street that he calls ‘Guadalupe.’ And he crosses a river that he calls ‘Colorado.’ And he sits on a ‘patio’ next to a ‘corral’ and eats his barbacoa!”

Loud laughter and cheers. “W-o-o-o-o!”

“In so many ways, the Mexican-Tejano culture is so deeply ingrained in our daily Texas life that many Texans take it for granted, or they just don’t even know that. They fail to see the Mexican in their own lives. In their own culture. In their own diet. In their own values of everyday life. In fact, every thing that Texans brag about – the Texas longhorns, the Texas mustangs, the Texas chili – everything they brag about today is Tejano. Come to think of it, if it wasn’t for the Tejano heritage, Texas would probably be Ohio! Have you ever heard of an Ohio Ranger?!

“Texas is unique. And her story cannot be told without the Tejano.”

As proud a tejana as I am, I have to admit there are times I worry Tejano pride has become its own form of nationalism. Throughout the rest of the weekend celebrations organized around the monument’s unveiling, it was a good feeling to have people shake my hand with respect or say “felicidades!” after I introduced myself and they learned my last name. “Oh, one of the original Tejano descendants!” a man who called himself “Rudy Tejano Peña” told me. “It’s an honor to meet you.” Foundational stories of any sort are dangerous; they can easily turn into exclusionary myths that merely further the social divide. For one, the Tejano monument does nothing to recover the story of a number of indigenous groups that already roamed these lands when José de Escandón set foot, or of the long history of African Americans and people of African descent, some of whom accompanied the Spanish into the Southwest since the sixteenth century. And what about the many more residents who have no longstanding ties to Texas, including millions of Mexican immigrants who some Tejanos are quick to distance themselves from? How do we create narratives that make it possible for all Texans–-old Texans and new Texans-–to claim our place in this state and create a valued identity?

The project of writing and rewriting our story is an endless one. But hopefully, at the very minimum, movements like the Tejano monument one help us to appreciate the importance of history and reprioritize its role in public life. That was ultimately the lesson that my nephew Cris, who coincidentally turned nine the day the monument was unveiled, took from his first visit to the Capitol. For after turning his attention to the painting of the Alamo and learning that Mexico had won that battle, his exasperation with Texas’ story seemed to fade. “I just can’t believe it, Mexico finally won!” he said with a satisfied smile as we filed out of the Chamber. “I never thought…” His voice trailed.

“That Mexico could win?” I suggested. 

“No! I never thought that history could be so interesting!”

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