José Tomás “J. T.” Canales, lawyer, judge, legislator, landowner, author, philanthropist, and a founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the son of Andreas and Tomasa (Cavazos) Canales, was born on a ranch in Nueces County, Texas, on March 7, 1877. His mother was a descendant of José Salvador de la Garza, the recipient of the Espíritu Santo grant, an enormous Spanish land grant that occupied most of what is now Cameron County. His mother's family still retained extensive holdings of ranchland in Nueces County at the time of Canales's birth. As a child, Canales lived with his parents and with several relatives and attended a variety of schools in Nueces County and at Tampico, Matamoros, and Mier, Tamaulipas. From 1890 to 1892 he attended a secondary school in Austin called Texas Business College. After accompanying cowboys delivering a shipment of cattle to Oklahoma he befriended a cattle dealer and moved to Kansas City, Kansas, to live with the man's family and complete high school. He may have been a Crypto Jew but left the Catholic Church and took up several Protestant denominations. In fall 1896 he attended the University of Michigan, where he received a law degree three years later. After practicing law in Corpus Christi and Laredo from 1900 to 1903 he settled in Brownsville, where he worked in the county assessor's office.
Over the next two decades Canales made his mark as both a lawyer and a politician. With the support of the Cameron County Democratic machine under the control of James B. Wells, Jr., he served from 1905 to 1910 in the Texas House of Representatives, where he represented the Ninety-fifth District (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Zapata counties). He worked in irrigation law, education, and judicial and tax reform. His cooperation with Wells ended when Canales embraced prohibition in 1909 and campaigned unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for county judge in 1910. Two years later he returned to the Democratic party. In 1914 he served as county judge.
From 1912 to 1914 Canales served as county superintendent of public schools in Cameron County, where he stressed the use of the English language, United States patriotism, and rural education. Canales returned to the Texas House as a representative of the Seventy-seventh District, Cameron and Willacy counties, and served from 1917 to 1920. As chairman of the House Committee on Irrigation, he promoted legislation to organize public irrigation districts. He embraced prohibition and woman suffrage.
During the Mexican border raids of 1915 and 1916 Canales organized a company of Mexican American scouts to collect intelligence for the United States Army. In 1917, during World War I, he helped to prevent Mexican immigrant workers from fleeing to Mexico to escape the draft and the high cost of living. He stood out as the only prominent local Democrat to call for an end to sanctioned state racial violence by the Texas Rangers of the Mexican-descent population of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. His most dramatic maneuver came on January 31, 1919, when he filed nineteen charges against the Texas Rangers and demanded a legislative investigation and the reorganization of the force. In 1918 Ranger Frank Hamer threatened the legislator because of his criticism of the force, as did committee chairman William H. Bledsoe of Lubbock. As a result of the reaction by state legislators against Canales's challenge to the Rangers, the Tejano legislator declined to seek reelection in 1920. He was also vocal against the Ku Klux Klan.
He was a Democrat throughout his life but campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower in his Republican presidential bid. He supported anti-Communist Martin Dies and did not support labor unions. He maintained relations with politicians such as Governor Miriam Ferguson and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
After he retired from state office, Canales played an active role in the incipient Mexican American civil rights movement. He was in contact with the Order of Sons of America in San Antonio in 1923 and with its Corpus Christi chapter in 1925. In 1927 at the Harlingen Convention he played a prominent role in the exclusion of Mexican citizens from the organization formed there, the Latin American Citizens League, for which he served as president. He was a major founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and wrote most of its first constitution. He also served on its first board of trustees and acted as LULAC national president in 1932–33. He played a major role in LULAC’s expansion into New Mexico, and in 1939 he revised the constitution to accommodate its national reach; he quit LULAC around 1941 due to ideological differences with the leadership. He was critical of the Texas Good Neighbor Commission, and in 1951 he was temporary chairman of the Texas Council on Human Relations established by Governor R. Allan Shivers.
Canales practiced law from 1900 to 1976 in Corpus, Laredo, Rio Grande City, McAllen, and Brownsville. He worked as Brownsville city attorney from 1930 to 1940. In 1931 he served as an attorney in Del Rio ISD v. Salvatierra. He was a member of the State Bar of Texas Committee on Latin American Law.
He was also a wealthy landowner. Around 1900 his family was engaged principally in cattle raising, but by 1930 the emphasis had shifted to raising crops, especially cotton. That year the family owned 30,000 acres. After 1925 oil was produced on the ranch. Canales provided numerous donations and scholarships, often anonymously. He donated to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. In the mid-1950s he established the Canales Foundation which supported the J. T. Canales School of Nursing at Mercy Hospital in Brownsville and the National Jewish Hospital in Denver. He also donated funds to the University of Michigan and Baylor University. During the Great Depression he helped create jobs for the unemployed in Brownsville and he supported the homeless. He also served on the boards of Texaco and Humble Oil.
Canales was a charter member of the Brownsville Historical Society. He wrote books (mostly privately published), pamphlets, and articles on history, law, and religion. His historical works focused on Mexican Americans; he believed that an understanding of that history could foster better racial relations. He wrote Bits of Texas History in the Melting Pot of America, published in two parts in 1950 and 1957, and two books about his great uncle, Juan N. Cortina—Juan N. Cortina: Bandit or Patriot? and Juan N. Cortina Presents His Motion for a New Trial, both published in 1951. He penned Ethics in the Profession of Law in 1953. Perhaps Canales's best historical works are his "Personal Recollections of J. T. Canales," written in 1945, an account of the economic development of South Texas, and "The Texas Law of Flowing Waters With Special Reference to Irrigation from the Lower Rio Grande," written in collaboration with Harbert Davenport. He wrote numerous articles for LULAC News in the 1930s. Canales offered a manuscript to son-in-law Charles Goldfinch for his master’s thesis on Juan Cortina. Canales also mentored academic/relative Carlos Larralde.
Canales corresponded with Carlos E. Castañeda and numerous historians in Mexico. He also served as the driving force to get William Crawford Gorgas, whose medical and sanitation efforts successfully battled against yellow fever in Brownsville in 1903, elected to the New York University Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1958 Canales chaired the committee to plan a memorial for Francita Alavez, as provided for by a legislative resolution.
Canales promoted higher education. He initiated the college scholarship tradition by LULAC in the early 1930s. In 1939 he co-wrote a LULAC resolution calling for a Latin American culture and literature chair at every U. S. university. He also helped to establish and sustain Texas Southmost College in Brownsville.
Canales was a member of the Fraternal Order of Red Men, the Elks Lodge, the Woodmen of the World, and the Boy Scout Council. He married Anne Anderson Wheeler on September 1, 1910, and the couple adopted one child, Elizabeth. Canales died on March 30, 1976, in Brownsville. He was buried in Buena Vista Burial Park in Brownsville. The Canales Memorial Library in Starr County courthouse maintains his law books. A Texas Historical Marker was erected at his house in 2009 while a 2019 conference acknowledged his work to reform the Texas Rangers.