How Texans of Mexican ancestry have established a cultural province in this Texas-Mexico borderland that is unlike any other Mexican American region.
Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Five
On the plains between the San Antonio River and the Rio Grande lies the heartland of what is perhaps the largest ethnic region in the United States, Tejano South Texas. In this cultural geography, Daniel Arreola charts the many ways in which Texans of Mexican ancestry have established a cultural province in this Texas-Mexico borderland that is unlike any other Mexican American region.
Arreola begins by delineating South Texas as an environmental and cultural region. He then explores who the Tejanos are, where in Mexico they originated, and how and where they settled historically in South Texas. Moving into the present, he examines many factors that make Tejano South Texas distinctive from other Mexican American regions—the physical spaces of ranchos, plazas, barrios, and colonias; the cultural life of the small towns and the cities of San Antonio and Laredo; and the foods, public celebrations, and political attitudes that characterize the region. Arreola's findings thus offer a new appreciation for the great cultural diversity that exists within the Mexican American borderlands.
John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize
Association of American Geographers
Publication Award Winners
San Antonio Conservation Society
- Chapter 1. Borderland Culture Region
- Chapter 2. Land beyond the Nueces
- Chapter 3. Territory Shaped
- Chapter 4. Homeland Forged
- Chapter 5. Texas Mexican Spaces
- Chapter 6. Texas Mexican Small Towns
- Chapter 7. Texas Mexican Cities
- Chapter 8. Texas Mexican Social Identities
- Chapter 9. Tejano Cultural Province
- Figure Sources
The United States-Mexico border is the most extensive geographical area in which two of the principal cultures of this hemisphere actually meet. More than half of that border, approximately one thousand miles, is also the southern boundary of Texas.
—Pauline R. Kibbe, Latin Americans in Texas, 1946.
There can be no doubt that the Spanish-speaking constitute a clearly delineated ethnic group. But one must also recognize that there is no more heterogeneous ethnic group in the United States than the Spanish-speaking.
—Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico, 1948.
No one can quite remember how long the Mexican flag has hung alongside the United States flag in the city council chambers in Brownsville, Texas, but during the Texas sesquicentennial in 1986, a non-Hispanic resident of this Rio Grande Valley town contested the propriety of that display. "We are Americans," he said, "the Mexicans are people who live on the other side of the river." In Brownsville, as in dozens of communities across South Texas, resident Mexican Americans contend, however, that ancestral, cultural, and even economic ties are far stronger across the Rio Grande to places like Matamoros, Mexico, than to most northern American cities.
That the eagle and serpent banner stands next to the stars and stripes in this border town is not an isolated example of bicultural expression in the region. In San Antonio, some four hours by auto north of Brownsville, the city's leading daily is the only major American newspaper with a weather map that shows all of Mexico as well as the United States. Along the Rio Grande between Brownsville and Laredo upriver, some 140 parteras or midwives service Mexican women who flock to South Texas to give birth on American soil and thereby confer U.S. citizenship upon their newborn. If raised in Mexico until the completion of elementary school, then such children must be bused to secondary school in the United States, because the Mexican government prohibits the registration in public schools of children born in the United States.
In this southernmost periphery of the mainland United States rests what may be America's largest ethnic subregion, Mexican South Texas. South Texas is the southeastern edge of what has been identified as the Hispanic American borderland. To the Spanish-speaking population of this region, the borderland includes parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado as well as Texas, the states where some 83 percent of Americans of Mexican ancestry reside. One historian called the area a lost homeland, the conquered northern half of the Mexican nation. Mexican Americans, along with Hispanos (Spanish Americans) and Native Americans, are unique among southwestern ethnic groups in that each is a territorial minority, having occupied land before the arrival of Anglo American colonists.
At the close of the nineteenth century, a writer observed that South Texas is "terra incognita to the rest of the United States" where the Rio Grande, which figures as the southeastern boundary of the United States on most maps, "can in no sense be regarded as fulfilling any of the conditions of a line of delimitation" between Mexico and Texas. Regional ambiguity and confused political and cultural demarcation have long been associated with South Texas, and still, today, the region remains an enigma in the popular imagination. Typically, South Texas is lumped together with other parts of the borderland, sometimes called "MexAmerica." A feature story in a national newsmagazine labeled the entire region "Selena Country," after the celebrated slain pop singer from Texas.
But Mexican South Texas is a distinctive borderland, unlike any other Mexican American subregion. That assertion is the underlying thesis of this book. The reasons for this distinctiveness are many and complex, and they have roots in a distant past. In the chapters that follow, I make the case for geographical distinctiveness, and from several perspectives. First, however, I need to set the context for a cultural geographic view of this region. Because this work is a cultural geography, I begin with that idea and that point of view.
Cultural Geographic View
Cultural geography is a subfield of geography with a scholarly tradition that is some seven decades old in the United States. Its conventions and standards of analysis have been declared and interpreted by geographers and researchers in cognate fields. Plural research themes characterize cultural geography, yet there is ambiguity still about the nature of culture and its application in this widely defined subfield. Despite a lack of definitional consensus, culture is part of everyday lives, and it gives meaning to those lives. It is the search for meaning, as Clifford Geertz suggested, that makes the study of culture an interpretive exercise, not an experimental science. Cultures can be seen to change, and they can be contested. Ultimately, cultures are produced and reproduced through a range of forms and practices that are embedded in spaces. Cultural geography, like the discipline of which it is a part, is less easily defined by its subject of study than by a point of view. If geographers are concerned with the study of phenomena and ideas from a spatial perspective, then cultural geographers are interested in studying aspects of culture, spatially represented. Three spatial abstractions have chiefly concerned how cultural geographers assess cultures, and each of these is significant to the present study; they are region, place, and landscape.
Region is the highest resolution of abstraction that concerns cultural geographers. The modern culture region idea stems from the Annales School in early twentieth-century France and especially the writings of Paul Vidal de la Blache, who argued that genre de vie or way of life is represented best through the study and exploration of regional personality. In the United States, Carl Ortwin Sauer and his students at the University of California at Berkeley carried out regional studies of culture areas, what Sauer termed "the oldest tradition of geography" and "a form of geographic curiosity that is never contained by systems." Other cultural geographers have argued for a perspective that emphasizes how regions act as forms of communication and how regions are shaped in the geographic past. In North America, there has been a resurgence of interest in assessing cultural regions from both scholarly and popular points of view.
The concern for regional understanding is not unique to geography. In the study of Mexican Americans, borderland historians especially have examined the varied regional experiences of this large ethnic population in Southern California, southern Arizona, West Texas, and South Texas. While regional history informs substantially about the relationships among ethnic subcultures, its goal is not geographic explanation. The intent of regional cultural understanding is to analyze the meanings behind the region. These can include knowing the ancestral geographic roots of the residents, how the region came to be formed politically and demographically, how identity is vested through cultural representations, and how the region is emblematic of a particular identity and, therefore, different from other cultural regions. Cultural geographers study these varied meanings through the process of place making and the symbolic attachments that cultures create in landscape.
Place making is the process of settling, and eventually bonding, to place. It is a universal human quality but with variations that are specific to people and their place. Yet, cultural geographers have demonstrated that traditions established through long residence in one place can be transferred and to some extent replicated in another setting. Cultures, then, have particular ways to make a place, and understanding that process is part of the contribution geographers bring to cultural and regional studies. Place making is typically understood as a synthesis of various components, and charting the arrangement and significance of those elements is a complex exercise. Cultural geographers adhere to diachronic analysis in their study of place and believe that understanding of the human-place bond requires reconstruction of critical pieces of a past, whether institutional, material, or popular. The ground level analysis of place typically involves an assessment of a culture's landscape, the physical manifestation of ideas in space. Landscape analysis has figured as one of the distinguishing hallmarks of cultural geography.
The idea of landscape as a political visual concept and scholarly subject has been assessed and reviewed by geographers. That landscape can have multiple meanings to different groups as well as individuals has been explored, and several geographers have articulated systematically how landscapes can be read, providing insight into place and social situation. Most cultural geographers accept the fact that landscapes are socially constructed. For example, the notion, cited above, that regions can be considered communicative devices studied by cultural geographers has been applied to the study of landscape as a representation of social identity. Landscape can act as a signifying framework through which a social system is communicated, reproduced, experienced, and explored. Signification typically implies more than the practical and thus is grounded in symbolic representation. Dwellings, for example, are primarily for shelter, but in some—perhaps many—cultures, dwellings can become so elaborate, like palaces, that the signifying factor of the structures exceeds the primary factor. Understanding a culture's landscape, then, becomes more than recognition of signatures: it is a reading of the meaning behind the signatures, an unraveling of a social code.
Social codes are most elaborately presented in written texts that become allegorically reproduced in a landscape. However, many vernacular cultures and subcultures lack elegantly written texts that might reveal a landscape code. In such instances, landscape meaning must be sifted through deep reading of people and place, an examination of folk cultures long resident in particular habitats. Nevertheless, cultural geographers have begun to study industrial and postindustrial landscapes, especially urban and suburban environments, a departure from more traditional cultural geographic studies of folk cultures.
The practice of cultural geography, then, has evolved to mean the prioritizing of culture in scholarship through emphasis on the study of cultural systems and their signification, and especially how culture is represented in space, place, and landscape.
Mexican South Texas
Cultural geographic study of ethnic variation at the scale of subregions in the United States found early direction by Wilbur Zelinsky, who outlined the rudiments of twelve major groups during the 1960s and created a structure for classifying regional units by culture area. Hispanic American culture region study was pioneered by Richard Nostrand, whose 1970 paper "The Hispanic American Borderland: Delimitation of an American Culture Region" created the foundation for further inquiry of this regionalization. Nostrand's historical and cultural geographic study of the Hispanos or Spanish Americans of north-central New Mexico suggests that this subgroup is culturally distinctive among Spanish-speaking populations in the United States, and that their four-century occupancy of this region has created a homeland that is stamped with attributes of that distinctiveness. While cultural geographers like Nostrand and others have continued to elaborate the geographical personality of Hispanos, little effort has been made to distinguish geographically other Hispanic subgroups of the borderland.
As described in the opening of this chapter, Mexican South Texas regionally and culturally is a distinctive part of the Hispanic American borderland, and this book assesses the nature of that geographical condition. My methods include areal analysis to delimit Mexican South Texas and place-landscape interpretations to analyze ethnic identity of the region. Regional bounding is a time-honored tradition of geographical study, but it is neither absolute nor constructed without inherent bias. Geographers classify regions at many scales, and I am principally concerned with meso-scale analysis to study phenomena between local and national resolutions. Geographers continue to debate the adequacy of the regional concept, yet the concept and methods of regionalizing persist. Why region continues as a useful concept may suggest that it is not simply an end in itself, but rather a descriptive and analytical tool that facilitates the spatial organization of ideas.
In Chapter 2, I lay the basis for considering South Texas as a distinctive cultural region. I demonstrate that this area was not seen as a differentiated region until quite recently, and that its earliest historical identity lacked clarity. The association of the region as a Hispanic area is even more recent, despite early evidence of Spanish colonial settlements. This delayed perception of the region as a human-settled environment may have been influenced by its early identification as a wild land that was without potential human use. In Chapter 3 I construct the historical geography of South Texas as a Hispanic cultural framework, first through political claim and boundary alignment, then via colonization and transformation to Mexican American territory. Culture regions are not always coincident with political borders, but political process can be significant in setting an areal perimeter and in exercising control and authority over space. Finally, Chapter 4 charts the geographic evolution of South Texas as a Mexican American homeland. Demographic and cultural data are structured into four temporal cross sections to reveal the changing dominance of this ancestry group in the region, from early-twentieth-century expansion and immigration to a veritable stronghold condition by the end of the century.
Beyond culture region, I assess cultural representations of place and landscape to investigate aspects of Mexican American identity in South Texas. Cultural representation, like region, is an abstract concept, yet it too is complex and never absolute or neutral. Representation is a symbolization of the material and ideological, and place and landscape are vehicles for its interpretation. While nongeographers typically accept place and landscape as unambiguous and self-evident, geographers realize that these concepts allow cultures to shape space into place through various experiences and from varied points of view. In the second part of the book, I examine this active place-making process as it involves Mexican Americans in the region. The goal is to understand how South Texas Mexican society became a specific regional subculture, rooted in nearby northeastern Mexico yet wed to the social and economic circumstances of South Texas and its hinterlands. That interpretation provides the basis for further support of my thesis that Mexican South Texas is a unique Mexican American cultural province, similar to but unlike Mexican American regional cultures in other borderland areas.
In Chapter 5, I evaluate place at the scale of lived spaces like the rancho, plaza, urban barrio, and colonia. These spaces have become the emblematic expressions of local Mexican American settlement in South Texas, and they figure prominently in Mexican American identification. I then investigate specific places and their landscapes as vignettes in Chapters 6 and 7. While South Texas has become a predominantly urban region, small town life continues to be significant to local identity. Chapter 6 explores three examples of Texas Mexican small towns. These are San Ygnacio on the Rio Grande south of Laredo, San Diego on the coastal plain west of Corpus Christi, and Cotulla along the railroad and highway corridor that connects San Antonio on the northern edge of South Texas to Laredo on the Mexican border. Significantly, these communities are dominated by Texas Mexicans and the towns are more than a century old, so that each has a legacy of many generations of Mexican American attachment to place.
In Chapter 7, I explore the two largest Texas Mexican cities of the region, San Antonio and Laredo. Demographically, economically, and culturally, San Antonio is the capital of South Texas. One of the oldest settlements in the borderland, San Antonio has a long association with Mexican American cultural ways, yet it has emerged most recently as the cradle of Texas Mexican identity. Laredo on the Rio Grande is almost as old as San Antonio but for much of its history has been in the shadow of the larger city. Laredo's historic gateway identity as a bridge between Mexico and Texas has been invigorated with the windfall of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Nevertheless, Laredo may be the most Mexican American medium-sized city in the country, symbolic of Texas Mexican places that have risen from relative obscurity to subregional notoriety.
Finally, social identity among South Texas Mexican Americans is inspected through foodways and public celebrations in Chapter 8. Here Texas Mexican culture is studied through the lenses of folk and popular culture to assess how social practices become specific among Mexican Americans. In Chapter 9, I return to the thesis of regional distinctiveness and summarize how Mexican South Texas is a cultural province, connecting Mexico and the United States in a hybrid form that is unique in the borderlands.
"Mexican" and "Mexican American" are appellations used interchangeably in this book, as are "Texas Mexican" and "Tejano/a." Since these terms are fluid, distinction is made by the context in which each is used. For example, although persons referred to as "Mexican" are usually citizens of Mexico, at times they may be citizens of the United States. And while "Mexican Americans" usually refers to persons of Mexican heritage born in the United States, it may also refer to U.S. citizens originally from Mexico. "Texas Mexican" and "Tejana/o" are generally used to distinguish Mexican Americans who are Texans by birth from, say, Mexican Americans born in Arizona or California.
Throughout the text I follow the convention of using Spanish-language spellings and accents as they appear in standard and cited sources. Mexican place names generally follow the usage of topographic maps published by the Dirección General de Geografía, while Spanish toponyms in the United States follow the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. For example, I use the English spelling "Rio Grande," whereas in Mexico the watercourse is called the "Río Bravo del Norte."
“For over twenty years Dan Arreola has been writing imaginatively about ethnic landscapes, Mexican-American geography and the character of Borderland cities. In his latest book, Tejano South Texas, Arreola offers a fascinating look at a small but vital vernacular region within this vast state, exploring what makes its rural and urban features geographically distinctive. He portrays a changing region that has had different personalities at different times. In the best traditions of cultural and historical geography, he uses two approaches—impeccable field work and thorough archival research, and all in two languages. The book treats the land occupied, the spaces created by Texas-Mexicans in town and country, their social identities, and the essence of the region as a cultural province. It draws in findings in anthropology, folklore, sociology, urban design, and architecture but makes them serve geographical ends. It employs diverse sources in innovative fashion—local terminology, phone books, menus, even the author’s outstanding personal collection of borderlands postcards—to tell an intimate and engaging story of people and landscape. And above all the book is highly readable. Written in an approachable style that will appeal to scholars, business owners, farmers, ranchers and anyone with curiosity, Tejano South Texas represents the very kind of geographical writing that the late J. B. Jackson so encouraged and applauded.”
Association of American Geographers
“Arreola's major contribution...is that he is the first to argue explicitly that this particular delineated region of Texas is a Tejano homeland.... His book will find a readership among geographers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and the general reading public.”
Andrés Tijerina, author of Tejano Empire: Life on the South Texas Ranchos