Mexican Americans

By: Arnoldo de León

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: December 3, 2020

People of Mexican descent in Texas trace their biological origins to the racial mixture that occurred following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 1520s. During the Spanish colonial period, population increases occurred as Spanish males mixed with Indian females, begetting a mestizo race. By 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, the mestizo population almost equalled the size of the indigenous stock and that of Iberian-born persons. Mexicans advanced northward from central Mexico in exploratory and settlement operations soon after the conquest, but did not permanently claim the Texas frontierland until after 1710. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the French became increasingly active along the Texas Gulf Coast, and in response, the viceroy in Mexico City made preparations for the colonization of the Texas wilderness. The first expedition in 1716 peopled an area that subsequently became the town of Nacogdoches; a second in 1718 settled present-day San Antonio; and a third established La Bahía (Goliad) in 1721. During the 1740s and 1750s, the crown founded further colonies along both banks of the Rio Grande, including what is now Laredo. At this early time, the crown relied primarily on persuasion to get settlers to pick up and relocate in the far-off Texas lands. Those responding hailed from Coahuila and Nuevo León, though intrepid souls from the interior joined the early migrations. In reality, few pioneers wished to live in isolation or amid conditions that included possible Indian attacks. They feared a setting that lacked adequate supplies, sustenance, and medical facilities for the sick, especially infants. Frontier living inhibited population growth so that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Spanish Texas neared its end, the Mexican-descent population numbered only about 5,000.

Between then and the time of the Texas Revolution in 1836, the number of Hispanics fluctuated, but then increased perceptibly, so that the first federal census taken of Texas in 1850 counted more than 14,000 residents of Mexican origin. Subsequently, people migrated from Mexico in search of agricultural work in the state, and in the last half of the century, moved north due to a civil war in the homeland (the War of the Reform, 1855–61) and the military resistance against the French presence (1862–67). But they also looked to Texas as a refuge from the poverty at home, a condition exacerbated by the emergence of President Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911), whose dictatorial rule favored landowners and other privileged elements in society. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) increased the movement of people across the Rio Grande. Mass relocation persisted into the 1920s as agricultural expansion in the southwestern United States also acted to entice the desperately poor. The total Mexican-descent population in Texas may have approximated 700,000 by 1930. The Great Depression and repatriation efforts (see MEXICAN AMERICANS AND REPATRIATION) and deportation drives undertaken during the 1930s stymied population expansion. Growth resumed during the 1940s, however, as labor shortages in the United States induced common people from Mexico to seek escape from nagging poverty in the homeland. Many turned to Texas ranches and farms, but also to urban opportunities, as the state entered the post-World War II industrial boom. Their presence, combined with births among the native-born population, augmented the Spanish-surnamed population to 1,400,000 by 1960. Though economic refugees from Mexico continued to add to the expansion of Tejano communities after the 1960s, the majority of children born since that date have had native-born parents. The 1990 census counted 4,000,000 people of Mexican descent in the state. Fewer than 20 percent of that population were of foreign birth.

In 1836, when Texas acquired independence from Mexico, Tejanos remained concentrated in settlements founded during the eighteenth century, namely Nacogdoches, San Antonio, Goliad, and Laredo. Other communities with a primarily Mexican-descent population in 1836 included Victoria, founded by Martín De León in 1824, and the villages of San Elizario, Ysleta, and Socorro in far west Texas. Spaniards had founded these latter settlements on the west bank of the Rio Grande during the 1680s as they sought to claim New Mexico, but the villages became part of the future West Texas when the Rio Grande changed course in the 1830s. Population dispersals until the mid-nineteenth century occurred mainly within the regions of Central and South Texas. In the former area, Tejanos spread out into the counties east and southeast of San Antonio seeking a livelihood in this primarily Anglo-dominated region. In South Texas, they pushed from the Rio Grande settlements toward Nueces River ranchlands and still composed a majority of the section's population despite the increased number of Anglo arrivals after the Mexican War of 1846–48. In the years after the Civil War, Mexicans moved west of the 100th meridian, migrating simultaneously with Anglo pioneers then displacing Indians from their native habitat and converting hinterlands into cattle and sheep ranches. By 1900, Tejanos were settled in all three sections. They formed a minority in Central Texas and a majority in South Texas; they held a demographic advantage along the border counties of West Texas, but were outnumbered by Anglos in that section's interior.

The rise of commercial agriculture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries summoned laborers for seasonal and farm work, and both recent arrivals from Mexico and native-born Tejanos answered the call by heading into South and Central Texas fields. During this period, they also made for Southeast Texas and North Texas, searching out cotton lands as well as opportunities in large cities such as Houston and Dallas. Between 1910 and 1929, migrant workers began what became a yearly migrant swing that started in the farms of South Texas and headed northward into the developing Northwest Texas and Panhandle cottonlands. They settled in smaller communities along the routes of migration, and by the 1930s the basic contours of modern-day Tejano demography had taken form. With the exception of Northeast Texas, most cities and towns in the state by the pre-World War II era had Tejano populations. Tejanos relied on a wide spectrum of occupations in the nineteenth century, though most found themselves confined to jobs as day laborers and in other unspecialized tasks. They worked as maids, restaurant helpers, and laundry workers, but the great majority turned to range duties due to the orientation of the economy and their skills as ranchhands and shepherds (pastores). A small percentage found a niche as entrepreneurs or ranchers. After the 1880s, Texas Mexicans turned to new avenues of livelihood, such as building railroads and performing other arduous tasks. During the agricultural revolution of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, many worked grubbing brush and picking cotton, vegetables, and fruits, primarily in the fields of South Texas, but also migrated into the other regions of the state as farmhands. In the urban settlements, an entrepreneurial sector—comprising shopowners, labor agents, barbers, theater owners, restaurateurs, and the like—ministered to Mexican consumers in familiar terms. Even as Texas society experienced increased urban movements following World War I, Tejanos remained preponderantly an agrarian people. In towns, many faced labor segregation and took menial jobs in construction work, city projects, railroad lines, slaughterhouses, cotton compresses, and whatever else availed itself. After World War II, however, increased numbers of Tejanos left agricultural work and found opportunities in the industrializing cities. Most found improvements in wages and working conditions in unskilled or semiskilled positions, though a growing number penetrated the professional, managerial, sales, clerical, and craft categories. Presently, the great majority of Tejanos hold urban-based occupations that range from high-paying professional positions to minimum-wage, unskilled jobs. An unfortunate minority remains tied to farm work as migrating campesinos (farmworkers).

Since the initial settlements of the early eighteenth century, a sense of community has given Tejanos a particular identity. On the frontier, common experiences and problems forced Texas Mexicans to adjust in ways different from those of their counterparts in the Mexican interior. Tejanos fashioned an ethic of self-reliance, wresting their living from a ranching culture, improvising ways to survive in the wilderness expanse, and devising specific political responses to local needs despite directives from the royal government. In barrios (urban neighborhoods) and rural settlements in the era following the establishment of American rule, Tejanos combined tenets of Mexican tradition with those of American culture. The result was a Tejano community that practiced a familiar folklore, observed Catholic holy days and Mexican national holidays, spoke the Spanish language, yet sought participation in national life. But Tejanos faced lynching, discrimination, segregation, political disfranchisement, and other injustices. This produced a community at once admiring and distrusting of United States republicanism. The arrival of thousands of Mexican immigrants in the early years of the twentieth century affected group consciousness as now a major portion of the population looked to the motherland for moral guidance and even allegiance. Recent arrivals reinforced a Mexican mentality, as they based familial and community behavior upon the traditions of the motherland. Many took a keener interest in the politics of Mexico than that of the United States. By the 1920s, however, birth in Texas or upbringing in the state produced newer levels of Americanization. Increasingly, community leaders sought the integration of Mexicans into mainstream affairs, placing emphasis on the learning of English, on acquaintance with the American political system, and acceptance of social norms of the United States. In modern times, a bicultural Hispanic community identifies primarily with United States institutions, while still upholding Mexican customs and acknowledging its debt to the country of its forefathers.

In truth, Tejanos are a diverse group, even divided along social lines. During the colonial era, a small, elite group that included landowners, government officials, and ambitious merchants stood above the poverty-stricken masses. Though the American takeover of Texas in 1836 reversed the fortunes of this elite cohort, Mexican Americans devised imaginative responses in their determination to maintain old lands, buy small parcels of real estate, found new businesses, and develop political ties with Anglo-Americans. This nineteenth-century social fragmentation remained into the early 1900s, as even the immigrants fleeing Porfirio Díaz and the Mexican Revolution derived from different social classes. The lot of the great majority of Tejanos remained one of misery, however. Most Mexican Americans lived with uncertain employment, poor health, and substandard housing. Out of the newer opportunities developing in the 1920s, however, emerged a petit bourgeoisie composed of businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals; from this element descended the leaders who called on the masses to accept United States culture during the 1920s. According to the 1930 census, about 15 percent of Tejanos occupied middle-class positions. After World War II, social differentiation became more pronounced as numerous Tejanos successfully achieved middle-class status. By the 1990s, nearly 40 percent of the Tejano labor force held skilled, white-collar, and professional occupations. The majority, however, remained economically marginalized.

Tejanos faced numerous obstacles in their efforts to participate in the politics of the nineteenth century. Anglos considered them unworthy of the franchise and generally discouraged them from voting. Where permitted to cast ballots, Tejanos were closely monitored by Anglo political bosses or their lieutenants to ensure that they voted for specific candidates and platforms. Members of the Tejano landholding class cooperated in this procedure. The status quo for them meant protecting their possessions and their alliances with Anglo rulers (see BOSS RULE). Despite efforts to neutralize Tejanos politically, Texas Mexicans displayed interest in questions of regional and even national concern. Especially in the counties and towns along the Rio Grande and in San Antonio, they joined reform movements and attempted to mobilize people behind economic issues that bore on the wellbeing of barrio residents. Some held offices as commissioners, collectors, or district clerks. Moreover, they took stands on the divisive issues of the 1850s, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age politics. During the early decades of the twentieth century and continuing until the late 1940s, political incumbency took a downturn. The Democratic party institutionalized the White Primary during this period, the legislature enacted the poll tax, and demographic shifts occurred that diluted the majority advantage held by Tejanos in South and extreme West Texas. The nineteenth-century bosses who had compensated Mexican voters with patronage suffered setbacks from the Progressive challenge and were removed from power during the teens. Some Mexican-American politicians in the ranch counties of South Texas—Webb, Zapata, Starr, and Duval—did manage to retain their positions, however.

In the post-World War II years, Anglo political reformers solicited Mexican-American cooperation in efforts to establish improved business climates in the cities. Due to a more tolerant atmosphere and political resurgence in the barrios, Tejano politicians once more gained access to political posts; in 1956 Henry B. Gonzalez became the first Mexican American to win election to the Texas Senate in modern times. In the mid-1960s a liberal-reformist movement spread across Tejano communities, led by youths disgruntled with barriers in the way of Tejano aspirations and inspired by a farmworkers' march in 1966. Anglo society became the object of militant attacks. Out of this Chicano movement surfaced the Raza Unida party with a plank that addressed discriminatory practices and advocated the need for newer directions in Texas politics. For a variety of reasons, this political chapter in Tejano history ended by the mid-1970s and was succeeded by more moderate politics, led by leaders wanting to forge workable coalitions with liberal Democratic allies. The 1970s and 1980s saw a dramatic rise in the number of Tejano incumbents. Federal legislation and court decisions, a more open-minded Anglo society, and the impact of the Chicano movement brought successes.

Clubs with political leanings existed throughout Texas in the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, although no large successful organization appeared on the scene until 1929, when activist members of a small but growing Tejano middle class founded the League of United Latin American Citizens. Though LULAC was nonpolitical, it sought to interest Texas Mexicans in politics (by sponsoring poll tax drives, for instance) and worked to change oppressive conditions by investigating cases of police brutality, complaining to civic officials and business proprietors about segregation, and working for a sound educational system. Along with the American G.I. Forum of Texas , which was founded in 1948, LULAC utilized the judicial process to effect changes favorable to Mexican Americans. During the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, these two organizations turned to the federal government to get money for needy Mexican-American communities in the state. Both pursued a centrist political position after the Chicano period. In 1968, civil rights lawyers founded the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to fight for legal solutions of problems afflicting Mexican Americans. By the 1970s, MALDEF had gained distinction by winning judicial victories in the areas of diluted political rights, employment discrimination, poor educational opportunities, and inequitable school finance.

As descendants of Spaniards who brought their religion to Mexico, the majority of Texas Mexicans belong to the Catholic faith. Generally, Texas-Mexican Catholics have observed doctrine and received the sacraments by marrying in the church and having their children baptized and taught religion, though their adherence to Catholic teaching is far from complete. Recent surveys indicate that many Mexican-American Catholics view the church as a place for worship but not an institution readily responsive to personal and community needs. Close to 60 percent believe themselves to be "good Catholics." Protestants have proselytized among Texas Mexicans with general success. Many barrios in the larger towns featured Protestant places of worship by the 1870s, and newer enclaves in the twentieth century had several "Mexican" Protestant churches. Protestant work among Mexican Americans has been constant in the twentieth century; Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Jehovah's Witnesses have made special efforts to convert Mexican-American Catholics. Approximately 20 percent of Mexican Americans in the United States belong to Protestant communions.

Anglo-American society in the nineteenth century did not concern itself over the education of Texas-Mexican children, since farmers and ranchers had little need for a literate working class. Where public schooling might exist, however, Tejano families urged their children to attend. Those who could afford it, on the other hand, enrolled their youngsters in private religious academies and even in colleges. Select communities established local institutions with a curriculum designed to preserve the values and heritage of Mexico. Not until the 1920s did government take a serious interest in upgrading education for Tejanitos, but even then, society provided inferior facilities for them. Texas-Mexican children ordinarily attended "Mexican schools" and were discouraged from furthering their education past the sixth grade. Attendance in these schools, however, did have the effect of socializing and Americanizing an increased number of young folks whose parents were either foreign-born or unacculturated. Though Texas Mexicans had protested educational inequalities since the second decade of the century, it was not until the 1930s that they undertook systematic drives against them-namely as members of LULAC, but also through local organizations such as the Liga Pro-Defensa Escolar (School Improvement League) in San Antonio. Before World War II, however, the educational record for Tejanos proved dismal, as poverty and administrative indifference discouraged many from regular attendance. The children of migrant parents, for example, received their only exposure to education when the family returned to its hometown during the winter months. After the war, the G.I. Forum joined in the struggle to improve the education of the Mexican community with the motto "Education is Our Freedom." With LULAC, the forum campaigned to encourage parents and students to make education a priority. Both organizations also worked through the legal system and successfully persuaded the courts to desegregate some districts. During the 1950s, indeed, Tejanos witnessed slight improvement in their educational status, though this may have been partly due to the rural-to-urban transition of the time. City life meant better access to schools, better enforcement of truancy laws, and less migration if heads of families found more stable employment. The gap between Mexican-American and Anglo achievement remained wide, however, and after the 1960s, MALDEF leveled a legal assault on issues such as racial segregation and the inequitable system of dispersing public funds to school districts. Concerned parents and legislators also strove for a better-educated community by supporting such programs as Head Start and bilingual education. In more recent times, however, Mexican-American students still had the highest dropout rate of all ethnic groups. In part, this explained the fact that Mexican-American students average only ten years in school.

Within the social space of segregated neighborhoods or isolated rural settlements, Tejanos carried on cultural traditions that blended the customs of the motherland with those of the United States. They organized, for instance, an array of patriotic, recreative, or civic clubs designed to address bicultural tastes. Newspapers, either in Spanish or English, informed communities of events in both Mexico and the United States. Tejanos also developed a literary tradition. Some left small autobiographical sketches while others wrote lay histories about Tejano life. Creative writers penned narratives, short stories and poems that they submitted to community newspapers or other outlets; some were in Spanish, especially those of the nineteenth century, but works were also issued in bilingual or English form. Civic leaders compiled records of injustices or other community concerns, and academicians wrote scholarly articles or books. Among the latter may be listed Jovita González de Mireles, Carlos E. Castañeda, and George I. Sánchez, who published after the 1930s. Painters, sculptors, and musicians have made some contribution to Tejano traditional arts, though not much is known of such contributions before the 1920s. During the 1930s, Octavio Medellín begin a career as a sculptor of works with pre-Columbian motifs. After World War II, Porfirio Salinas, Jr., gained popularity as a landscape artist, and during the 1960s some of his paintings hung in Lyndon B. Johnson's White House. More recent is José Cisneros, known for his pen-and-ink illustrations of Spanish Borderlands historical figures. The workers of Amado M. Peña, a painter from Laredo, and the sculptor Luis Jiménez of El Paso reveal a border influence but go beyond ethnicity. Numerous musicians have established legendary careers in Spanish; several Tejanos have topped the American rock-and-roll charts, and some have earned Grammys. Folklore, much of it based on the folk beliefs of the poor in Mexico, flourished in Mexican communities in Texas. While reflecting many themes, it especially served to express feelings about abrasive confrontations between Tejanos and Anglos. Corridos of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, for example, criticized White society for injustices inflicted on barrio dwellers or extolled heroic figures who resisted White oppression.

In the nineteenth century, the dominant language in the barrios and rural settlements was that of Mexico, though some Tejanos also attained facility in English and thus became bilingual. Various linguistic codes characterize oral communications in present-day enclaves, however, due to continued immigration from Mexico, racial separation, and exposure to American mass culture. Some Texas Mexicans speak formal Spanish only, just as there are those who communicate strictly in formal English. More common are those Spanish speakers using English loan words as they borrow from the lexicon of mainstream society. Another form of expression, referred to as "code-switching," involves the systematic mixing of the English and Spanish languages. Another mode of communication is caló, a "hip" code composed of innovative terminology used primarily by boys in their own groups (see PACHUCOS).

Friction has characterized relations between mainstream society and Tejanos since 1836. Mechanisms designed to maintain White supremacy, such as violence, political restrictions, prohibition from jury service, segregation, and inferior schooling caused suspicion and distrust within the Mexican community. Repatriation of Mexican citizens during the depression of the 1930s and Operation Wetback in 1954 inflicted great anguish on some of the communities touched by the drives, as Tejanos perceived them to be racially motivated. In more recent times, conflict between the two societies has persisted over such issues as immigration, the right to speak Spanish in schools, and the use of public money to support the Tejano poor. Even as Anglo-American society attempted to relegate Tejanos to second-class citizenry, Mexican Americans have sought to find their place in America. Middle-class businessmen have pursued integration into the economic mainstream, and the politically minded have worked for the involvement of Tejanos in the body politic. Such were the objectives of organizations as LULAC, the G.I. Forum, and MALDEF. Though recent immigrants wrestle with two allegiances, their children have ordinarily accepted the offerings of American life. Indeed, Texas Mexicans have proven their allegiance toward the state on numerous occasions, especially during the country's several wars. Seldom have drives toward separatism gained support across the spectrum of the community. Probably the most prominent movement emphasizing anti-Anglo sentiments was the Chicano movement, but even its rhetoric appealed only to certain sectors of the community. In the Lone Star State, Mexican Americans stand out as one of the few groups having loyalties to the state while simultaneously retaining a binary cultural past.


Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (2d ed., New York: Harper and Row, 1981). Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Gilbert R. Cruz, Let There Be towns (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988). Arnoldo De León, Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: A History of Mexican-Americans in Houston (University of Houston Mexican American Studies Program, 1989). Arnoldo De León, San Angeleños: Mexican Americans in San Angelo, Texas (San Angelo: Fort Concho Museum Press, 1985). Arnoldo De León, They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821–1900 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). Arnoldo De León and Kenneth L. Stewart, "Tejano Demographic Patterns and Socio-economic Development," Borderlands Journal 7 (Fall 1983). Ignacio M. Garcia, United We Win: The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party (Tucson: University of Arizona Mexican American Studies Research Center, 1989). Mario T. García, Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880–1920 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981). Mario T. Garcia, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930–1960 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). Richard A. García, Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, San Antonio, 1919–1941 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991). Gilberto Miguel Hinojosa, A Borderlands Town in Transition: Laredo, 1755–1870 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983). Jack Jackson, Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721–1821 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986). Oakah L. Jones, Los Paisanos: Spanish Settlers on the Northern Frontier of New Spain (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979). David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Manuel Peña, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Gerald E. Poyo and Gilberto M. Hinojosa, eds., Tejano Origins in Eighteenth-Century San Antonio (San Antonio: Institute of Texan Cultures, 1991). Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., "Let All of Them Take Heed": Mexican Americans and the Campaign for Educational Equality in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Edgar G. Shelton, Jr., Political Conditions among Texas Mexicans along the Rio Grande (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1946; San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, 1974). Jerry D. Thompson, Warm Weather and Bad Whiskey: The 1886 Laredo Election Riot (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1991). W. H. Timmons, "The El Paso Area in the Mexican Period, 1821–1848," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 84 (July 1980). Emilio Zamora, Mexican Labor Activity in South Texas, 1900–1920 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1983).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Republic of Texas
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Arnoldo de León, “Mexican Americans,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

December 3, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: