Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, reminds us that Hispanics — specifically of Tejano or Mexican origin — are, and have always been, an integral part of Texas. With a Hispanic population of 40 percent and growing, it’s impossible to imagine the future of Texas without Hispanics in it.
But this living legacy and vibrant culture are made up of much more than just margaritas, tacos and lively conjunto music. It is the people — their lives, dreams and struggles — who add richness to the Texas story and are part of the American experience.
There are stories of valor like those of Simón de Arocha, who led Tejano vaqueros on the first cattle drives through 600 to 700 miles of hostile territory to feed hungry American patriots fighting for independence during the American Revolution. There are more stories from the War for Texas Independence, when Tejanos joined with Texians to fight for freedom.
Tejano heroes such as Lorenzo de Zavala, José Antonio Navarro and José Francisco Ruiz signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Fighting alongside Texians, often reconnoitering and fighting rear-guard actions, were Col. Juan Seguín and the valiant Tejano Volunteer Company — which included the Fighting Flores brothers, Trinidad Coy and night rider Blas Herrera, one of the “Paul Reveres” of the Texas Revolution.
Likewise, we should not forget the brave Tejanos who died at the Alamo: Juan Abamillo, Juan Badillo, Carlos Espalier, Gregorio Esparza, Antonio Fuentes, José María Guerrero, Damacio Jimenez, José Toribio Losoya and Andrés Nava. So influential were Tejanos at this time that de Zavala went on to help draft the Constitution of the Republic of Texas and became its first vice president. Navarro helped draft the Texas Constitution of 1845.
As the American Civil War raged in the 1860s, Tejanos, too, were divided and served on both sides — brother fighting brother. In Confederate gray was Col. Santos Benavides, who commanded the 33rd Texas Cavalry. In Union blue were the Enganchados, Tejano Union guerrillas such as Octaviano Zapata and Cecilio Balerio.
Hispanic valor has been shown on many battlefields. There are 15 Latino Medal of Honor winners from Texas, including José M. Lopez, a sergeant with the 2nd Infantry Division, from Brownsville, who in Belgium in 1944 single-handedly killed more than 100 German soldiers and prevented his company from being enveloped by the enemy. And Cuero native Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez of the 5th Special Forces, whose heroic exploits in Vietnam could put even the fictional Rambo to shame. Richard E. Cavazos of Kingsville became the first Hispanic four-star general in the U.S. Army in 1982.
Some of these stories are unpleasant — like that of the 1918 Porvenir Massacre in Presidio, where 15 men and boys of Mexican American background were killed by members of Company B of the Texas Rangers.
Some stories are of resilience, like that of the formation in 1929 of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the largest and oldest U.S. Hispanic organization. Ben Garza, Alonso Perales and others organized proud Hispanics, mostly World War I veterans, to oppose ethnic discrimination.
Some stories are of law and order, like that of Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Alberto Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice who become the first Hispanic U.S. attorney general.
Some stories are of entrepreneurship, such as that of Mama Ninfa Laurenzo, a Houston restaurateur credited with popularizing fajitas. Other stories are of entertainers. We all cried when Freddy Fender sang, “until the last teardrop falls.” We all dance to the conjunto sounds of the world’s greatest accordionist, Flaco Jiménez. And we all fell in love when Selena sang, “I could fall in love.”
But the real stories are those of ordinary people who live their lives, raise their children, build our economy, protect our streets and serve in uniform.
We are not Hispanic Americans as much as we are Americans of Hispanic descent. Hispanic heritage matters because it is part of the Texas DNA — it is literally in our blood.