José Tomás "J. T." Canales, lawyer, legislator, landowner, and a founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens, 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 at Austin called Texas Business College. After 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. There Canales left the Catholic Church and became a Presbyterian. 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 laws, 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 and from 1912 to 1914 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. In 1914 he served as county judge. 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. 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.
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. At the same time, he stood out as the only prominent local Democrat to call for an end to Texas Ranger and vigilante oppression of the Hispanic 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. While defending the rights of persons of Mexican descent against the abuses of the rangers, Canales sought White support by embracing such causes as prohibition and woman suffrage. 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.
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 the 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. Over the years he was extremely influential in the League of United Latin American Citizens. He addressed its founding meeting in 1929 and later wrote most of its first constitution. He also served on its first board of trustees and was LULAC president in 1932–33. In 1939 he revised the constitution to accommodate the organization's westward expansion as a national organization. Canales was Brownsville city attorney from 1930 to 1940. In 1931 he served as an attorney in Del Rio ISD v. Salvatierra. In 1951 he was temporary chairman of the Texas Council on Human Relations established by Governor R. Allan Shivers.
Canales wrote numerous articles, pamphlets, and books, mostly privately published, on religion, law, and history. He wrote for the LULAC News in the 1930s and penned Ethics in the Profession of Law in 1953. His historical works focused on Mexican-American history; he believed that an understanding of that history could foster better racial relations. He also 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. 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. In 1958 Canales was chairman of a committee to plan a memorial for Francita Alavez, as provided for by a legislative resolution.
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. The family owned 30,000 acres in 1930. Canales was a member of the Fraternal Order of Red Men, the Elks' Lodge, and the Woodmen of the World. He was also a charter member of the Brownsville Historical Society. He married Anne Anderson Wheeler on September 1, 1910, and the couple had one child. Canales died on March 30, 1976, in Brownsville.