Tejano Politics

By: Roberto R. Calderón

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: February 15, 2020

Tejano politics predates Anglo settlement and the later establishment of the Republic of Texas (1836) and state of Texas (1845) by a century, in a tradition that bridges three centuries and four sovereignties. From the colonial period to the Mexican and American eras, Tejano politics is characterized by a history of institutional empowerment and subsequent subordination through conquest and annexation. Nonetheless, though circumscribed by legal, social, and economic conventions for decades during the nineteenth and twentieth century, Tejano politics exhibits a history of resilience and continuity. Indeed, Mexican Americans are gaining political influence at all levels of government. Tejanos entered Texas jurisdiction at various times. The last to be effectively annexed were those who resided along the Rio Grande region west of the Nueces River and upriver toward El Paso. Communities long accustomed to negotiating with successive Spanish and Mexican administrations in New Mexico, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas, and by extension Mexico City, came under the administration of Austin and Washington. In the years since, the Tejano community has grown and settled across Texas.

The oldest tradition of daily self-government exercised by Tejanos was the cabildo secular, or ayuntamiento, a local form of government in municipalities introduced throughout Spanish America and traceable to Roman origins. The ayuntamiento was focused on the municipio, or municipality, "a city-region jurisdiction" where both civil and criminal matters were administered. Although colonization of Spanish Texas began in 1716, the province's first ayuntamiento (San Fernando de Béxar) was not formed until 1731. Spanish missions, presidios and scores of ranchos and rancherías were supporting social, political, and economic structures to the ayuntamiento. With modifications, ayuntamiento government continued into Mexican Texas (1821–36), and its influence persisted afterward in such places as Laredo, where Mexican participation in local governance was maintained.

Several weeks after Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla's stirring cry for independence was heard on September 16, 1810, in Dolores, Guanajuato, news of the event reached Tejanos. Support for the insurrection was mixed. Some believed the call for independence meant disloyalty. At Bexar, retired presidial officer Juan Bautista de las Casas led a successful local revolt to oust the presiding crown officials in January 1811, though the revolt collapsed by March 1 and Casas was executed (see CASAS REVOLT). A second major challenge to royal authority by the forces of Mexican independence in Texas crystallized in the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition, which fielded a republican force to which the Spanish governor, Manuel María de Salcedo, surrendered. The next day Salcedo, Col. Simón de Herrera and other royalist officials were executed near Bexar. Many San Antonio residents were disheartened by this and other related acts committed by the independentistas. Reacting to events in Texas, the central government of Mexico dispatched Commandant General Joaquín de Arredondo to take the province back. He succeeded by August 1813. Many wealthy Tejano families, including the Menchacas, Erasmo Seguín, José Antonio Navarro, José Francisco Ruiz, and others, fearing for their part in the Republican victory, fled the province anticipating Arredondo's arrival. In the intervening years until 1821, which marked Mexican independence, provincial conditions deteriorated. Barely one-third of the population of the province at the beginning of the Mexican War for Independence remained.

Either as an independent province or as one of four provinces comprising the Eastern Interior Provinces after 1772, under colonial rule Texas continuously had its own political executive, governor, or jefe político, a status denied it during the Mexican period. Through the intervention of Miguel Ramos Arizpe, delegate of the Eastern Interior Provinces to the Cortes at Cádiz, this body in 1820 changed the longstanding tradition of denying foreigners the right to settle in New Spain. This move was followed that same year by a petition to the Cortes from Texas governor Antonio María Martínez and the Bexar ayuntamiento requesting a colonization project, which was enacted. The policy changes had lasting consequences. During the wars for independence Mexico had lost 10 percent of its population and perhaps half its labor force. Mexico, a nation of 6,200,000 stretching from Oregon to Guatemala, was unable to populate Texas with its own colonists. Thus the intended immigrants to Texas were norteamericanos. Although the Anglo-American colonization policy was initially launched as a defense against American expansionism, succeeding events brought this standing threat to reality.

Erasmo Seguín was among the signatories to Mexico's first Constitution, the Federal Constitution of the United States of Mexico, in October 1824. The Constitution of 1824 remained unamended and nominally operative until 1835. Although most Mexican provinces became states in the federal republic, Texas was made the weaker partner in the new state of Coahuila and Texas. By 1834 demands for greater local autonomy and representation led to the formation of three departments in Texas—Bexar, Brazos, and Nacogdoches. San Antonio, San Felipe de Austin, and Nacogdoches were the departmental capitals. The 1824 colonization law (see MEXICAN COLONIZATION LAWS) greatly facilitated the Anglo settlement of Texas. Yet Mexican authorities, who feared the growing thousands of norteamericano colonists, added stringent conditions to the law. Coahuila and Texas representatives, meanwhile, consistently sought and received exceptions to the emerging restrictive federal code. Tejano leaders such as José Antonio de la Garza, Juan Ángel Seguín, José Francisco Ruiz, Ángel Navarro, and others, through their ayuntamientos and provincial representatives, lobbied on behalf of continued American immigration. But with or without such efforts in their support, the influx of immigrants continued unabated. Good will between Texas and Mexican authorities in the interior deteriorated, partly because of political differences but mainly because of the growing sentiment in Texas for independence. Antonio López de Santa Anna eventually marched north and was defeated by Anglo-Texan forces. Though numerous Tejanos participated, the Texas Revolution was largely led by Anglos. Texas Mexicans now constituted a subordinate minority of the population. By 1836, shortly after the war's end, an estimated 35,000 Anglos and their slaves resided in Texas, compared to some 3,500 Tejanos. Outnumbered by the norteamericanos by about ten to one, most Tejanos remained neutral about independence.

Among the fifty-six men who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, three were Hispanic: two Tejanos, José Antonio Navarro and José Francisco Ruiz, nephew and uncle, and a Mexican liberal lately arrived in Texas, Lorenzo de Zavala. Zavala also served as vice president of the ad interim government of Texas from March to October 1836, after which he resigned and died in November. During the Republic of Texas only four Tejanos (from the Bexar District) succeeded in gaining election to the Texas Congress: José Antonio Navarro, José Francisco Ruiz, Juan Seguín and Rafael de la Garza. Tejanos east of the Nueces River were able to elect their own politicos only in San Antonio. In Goliad, Victoria, Nacogdoches, and elsewhere political office became the sole exercise of Anglo-Americans. The only elected Hispanic mayor of San Antonio between 1836 and Henry Cisneros in the 1980s was Juan Seguín, who was elected in 1840 and 1842 but resigned during his second term. In the first few years after 1836, Bexareños elected city councils composed of a majority of Mexicans. At least through 1844 the Mexican electorate still outnumbered the Anglo-American vote in San Antonio. Therefore, between 1837 and 1844 numerous Tejanos served as aldermen. In the city's first municipal election in 1837, Manuel Martínez, Francisco Bustillos, Rafael Herrera, Francisco Antonio Ruiz, Ramón Treviño, Pedro Morales, and Francisco Granado secured election. Likewise, José Eugenio Navarro was elected treasurer, Manuel Pérez secretary, and Vicente de la Garza collector. The only Tejano to be Bexar county judge before the late twentieth century was Erasmo Seguín. José Antonio Navarro and Ignacio Chávez were elected to county government as associate justices. Highly disproportionate electoral representation quickly came to typify Tejano politics, and the problem persists in the present.

In addition to minority status, extensive land loss and disregard of rights contributed to this state of affairs. Similarly, language differences, limited educational and economic opportunities, lack of citizenship, racial and national prejudice, gerrymandering, poll taxes, and efforts to hamper full Tejano participation in politics combined to undermine Tejano political representation. The right of Tejanos to the franchise was contested and debated at the Convention of 1845. After a reasoned defense by José Antonio Navarro—the only native-born Texan at the convention—and his allies, a majority prevailed. Other attempts to exclude Mexicans from voting occurred as early as 1836 during the republic's first House debate, and as late as 1896 in the case In re Ricardo Rodríguez, in which the federal court's opinion maintained the Mexican franchise. Under American rule, Tejano participation in politics shrank. In San Antonio, for example, the number of Mexican aldermen on the city council dropped precipitously, particularly after Texas statehood. Between 1837 and 1904, of the 541 men who served as aldermen in San Antonio 92 (17 percent) were Mexican and 449 (83 percent) were Anglo. All except seven of these Mexican city aldermen served before 1867. In 1850 Mexican Bexareños comprised 47 percent of the population, compared to 48 percent for Anglos. Between 1860 and 1880 the Hispanic proportion of Bexar County's population declined only from 35 to 30 percent. By 1900, Tejanos in Bexar County barely constituted one-fourth of the population. Indeed, by 1845, Anglos, Germans, and French effectively ended Mexican dominance on the board of aldermen or city council. This long exclusion from the San Antonio City Council did not begin to change perceptibly until the early 1950s. Even through 1985, Mexican American council members continued in the minority.

Still, in contrast to the growing Hispanic political powerlessness across the Southwest during the second half of the nineteenth century, Tejanos were able to avoid a total loss of local political power. Along the Mexican border, majorities throughout the period enabled border Tejanos to negotiate a politics that included partial access to public office, though even that was challenged. Especially from the 1880s on, the Anglo minority up and down the Rio Grande succeeded in making themselves the majority of elected city and county officials. In exchange for tacit compliance with this situation, Mexicans were offered a few offices. Often divided along partisan lines or personal and economic differences, Tejano border politicians and voters were found in all camps. Factions sought and established long-term incumbencies and periodically managed to upset one another electorally—a feat that was virtually impossible on the border without the Tejano vote. Political machines appeared throughout the border region especially after the late 1870s and early 1880s in such cities as El Paso and Laredo. In other parts of the Southwest, with the partial exception of New Mexico, Hispanic participation in politics was even more limited.

Tejanos were largely excluded from serving in state offices after 1846, and no Hispanic was elected to federal office until 1960. Between 1846 and 1961 only nineteen Hispanic politicians won election or were named to represent their districts in the state legislature. Only three of them served in the state Senate. Several served multiple terms. Among those elected as state senators and representatives were José Antonio Navarro (Senate, 1846–48), Ángel Navarro (House, 1857–58, 1861–63), Bacilio Benavides (House, 1859–61), Gregorio N. García (House, 1861–62), Jeremiah Galván (House, 1874–75), Santos Benavides (House, 1879–84), T. P. Rodrigues (House, 1881–82), Thomas A. Rodríguez (House, 1893, 1901), J. T. Canales (House, 1905–10, 1917–20), Carlos Bee (Senate, 1915–18), Augustine Celaya (House, 1933–47), John C. Hoyo (House, 1941), and Henry B. Gonzalez (Senate, 1956–58, 1960–61). In the nineteenth century Santos Benavides (Laredo) served the most terms in office—three. In the twentieth century José T. Canales (Brownsville) and Augustine Celaya (Brownsville) each served five terms, a record until the 1960s.

Twentieth-century Tejano political history has been largely a basic struggle for full civil rights. Demands for equal access to economic, social, cultural, juridical, and political equities have been pursued vigorously by Tejas Hispanics, who organized to change the social order that subordinated them. With limited yet cumulative victories and instructive defeats, the civil rights movement among Hispanics called for equality and inclusion. Notably increased Mexican empowerment resulted from one of the most significant continuing political events of the twentieth century—the end of Jim Crow laws, if not of all discriminatory practices, achieved through civil rights laws enacted particularly since the 1960s as well as through the courts. In May 1969 the bills that finally ended de jure segregation in Texas were carried in the Senate by Joe Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio. Sociedades mutualistas and other voluntary associations constituted one of the most salient forces working on behalf of the Mexican community during the early twentieth century. These were found wherever many Tejanos resided, beginning in the 1870s. The Tejano civil rights movement in Texas evolved from the mutualist, fraternal organizing tradition, in Brownsville, Laredo, Eagle Pass, El Paso, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Alice, Houston, and many other locales. Notable for its attempt to address statewide conditions faced by Tejanos through networks of mutualist organizations was the first Congreso Mexicanista (Laredo, September 14–22, 1911). Issues such as lynching, unity, and labor and educational discrimination were addressed. Significant too during the teens and twenties was the work of such multiple-chapter voluntary associations as the Orden Caballeros de Honor (Knights of Honor), the Orden Hijos de México (Sons of Mexico), the Agrupación Protectiva Mexicana, and the Alianza de Sociedades Mutualistas de San Antonio. Continuing with the Tejano community's impulse to organize more explicitly along political lines in order to achieve civil and human rights was a series of organizations founded in San Antonio by middle-class Mexicans during the 1920s. First among them was the Orden Hijos de America (Order of Sons of America), which, breaking with established tradition, required United States citizenship of its members. At least three splinter groups formed from this initial organization, including El Club Protector Mexico-Texano, Orden Hijos de Texas, and Orden Caballeros de America. The Sons of America had chapters in Corpus Christi, Alice, and other South Texas towns. In August 1927 representatives of these various organizations met in Harlingen seeking to form an umbrella group, which became the League of Latin American Citizens. The LLAC fell short of succeeding in its stated objective. Yet from this effort two years later came the founding in February 1929 of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which became a leading national civil rights organization. By 1979 LULAC was a pan-Hispanic organization with some 110,000 members and 500 councils in forty-five states and abroad. LULAC remained biggest in Texas and California, however, and its membership included wage earners and professionals, both rural and urban.

Unprecedented national conferences were held and influential organizations founded between the 1940s and the early 1960s. American wars and returning Hispanic veterans provided stimulants to these efforts. Anti-Tejano prejudice in Texas prompted the United States government to initiate diplomatic solutions in the form of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (1941), which sought to improve relations between Anglos and Mexican Americans. The Spanish-Speaking People's Division of the CIAA was formed in April 1942 and, with the National Catholic Welfare Conference, organized two national conferences attended by prominent Mexican American teachers and elected officials. In July 1943 the first of these meetings, which discussed "The Spanish-Speaking People of the Southwest and the West," was held in San Antonio. The "First Regional Conference on Education of the Spanish-Speaking People in the South West" occurred in December 1945 at Austin. The latter event focused on school segregation and bilingual education. Tejano participants at these conferences included George I. Sánchez, Carlos E. Castañeda, and San Antonio attorney Alonso S. Perales. In this context the Good Neighbor Commission was established by the Texas governor in 1943. Anti-discrimination measures proposed by the commission, however, were not implemented.

After World War II, middle-class Hispanics in San Antonio, particularly businessmen, established Mexican and Mexican American chambers of commerce and formed the Pan American Progressive Association in 1947. PAPA emphasized leadership and economic interests. Assertive returning Mexican veterans founded the American G.I. Forum in March 1948. Its organizers stressed rights based upon their loyal service to the country. Prominent among the original founders was Dr. Hector Pérez García from Corpus Christi, and veteran attorney Gus (Gustavo C.) Garcia of San Antonio. In the Felix Longoria affair, a funeral home denied use of its facilities for the wake of a decorated veteran, Felix Z. Longoria, who was eventually buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The incident received national coverage and helped the forum to consolidate and grow. The forum's goals included influencing government and fighting discrimination at school and work. Members campaigned to increase electoral participation, and the membership grew through the 1960s and afterward, at first in the Southwest and eventually in other regions. Forum members numbered about 10,000 in the 1960s, but subsequently surpassed 40,000. Other local Mexican veterans' organizations appeared, such as the Loyal American Democrats, the School Improvement League, the West Side Voters League, and the Alamo Democrats, all in San Antonio. For the first time, through the G.I. Bill of Rights, many Mexican Americans obtained a college education. This afforded an expansion of the middle and skilled working classes that later affected politics.

The Mexican American electorate mobilized for the presidential campaign of 1960 in the "Viva Kennedy" campaign, which contributed directly to a Kennedy victory in Texas. Established organizations afterward continued the momentum by forming the Political Association of Spanish-speaking Organizations, an electoral coalition. PASSO's most noted successful electoral effort occurred in the 1963 Crystal City municipal elections, where the all-Tejano city council was a historic achievement. Tensions between moderate and more militant leadership within PASSO, however, hobbled its subsequent record. Meanwhile, in June 1966 the Starr County strike by Mexican farmworkers, though unsuccessful, energized what soon came to be known as the Chicano movement. Chicano high school and college youth throughout South Texas and the Southwest initiated actions including walkouts, pickets, marches, and boycotts. Subsequent major political events included the 1970 organization of the Raza Unida party, which succeeded in 1970 in taking control of city and county government in Zavala County; Governor Dolph Briscoe consequently called the county a "little Cuba." La Raza Unida conducted registration drives in several South Texas counties. Its impact was strongest between 1970 and 1972; in the latter year it held a statewide nominating convention in San Antonio and nominated Ramsey Muñiz, a Tejano attorney, who garnered 215,000 votes (6.5 percent) in the election. Democratic party authorities maintained various kinds of administrative and legal pressures upon the RUP in attempts to undermine its ability to draw Tejano voters away from the Democrats, especially in South and West Texas. Although these efforts eventually succeeded, they did not prevent the Raza Unida party from tilting the scale in a statewide election. In 1978, Mario Compean, the Raza Unida candidate, received less than 1 percent of the vote, just enough to give the victory to Republican Bill Clements, who thus became the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. John Hill, who as attorney general had vigorously pressed his party's campaign to discredit the RUP, lost. The RUP's ethnic nationalism, the increased Tejano access to the universities, and the experience gained during the Chicano movement helped revitalize many existing organizations as well as bring about new ones. RUP contributed to the resurgence of two-party politics in Texas. Former RUP and other activists likewise figured prominently in organizing various advocacy groups, among them the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (1968), the Mexican American Unity Council (1968), Communities Organized for Public Service (1973), and related organizations such as El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (1980) and Valley Interfaith (1983), the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (1974), the Mexican American Democrats (1976), and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. The state had seven Tejano legislators in 1960, six in 1965, fifteen in 1974, nineteen in 1983, and twenty-five in 1992.

State and federal courts have significantly furthered Mexican American civil rights since the 1960s. The extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1975 to the Southwest was pivotal. Reapportionment lawsuits have been a basic staple of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which established joint offices in San Antonio and Los Angeles at its inception. Longstanding franchise restrictions were ruled unconstitutional including the poll tax (1966), annual voter registration (1971), and at-large state legislative districts (1974). Voting-rights victories have directly contributed to positive trends among the Mexican American electorate in Texas. Voter registration, voter turnout, and representation at all levels have increased. Virtual "electoral revolutions" have resulted, particularly in several rural West Texas counties, including Crockett, Culberson, and Hudspeth. Tejano voters rose in Texas between 1978 and 1982 from 591,950 to 832,398, an increase of 41 percent, compared to 25 percent for non-Tejanos. Although the reality still stops short of the potential, this growing Texas-Mexican electorate now has to be countenanced by all parties and candidates involved, especially Democrats. Democratic party dependence on the Mexican electorate is greater in Texas than in any other southwestern state.

Tejano elected officials at all levels numbered about 2,030 in 1993, the largest number of any other state in the United States; this figure represents 40 percent of all Hispanic elected officials in the country. In 1991 the state's population was nearly seventeen million. Statewide, Hispanics now comprise 25.5 percent (4,340,000) of the population and are growing. Mexican Americans are 90 percent (3,890,820) of the total of Texas Hispanics. Mexican Americans are 60 percent (13.5 million) of the United States Hispanic population of 26.2 million (10 percent). In 1990, 2,684,000 Hispanics were eligible to vote in Texas, but only 40 percent (1,073,600) were registered to do so. In 1994 the Texas congressional delegation included five Mexican Americans, all members of the House: Henry B. Gonzalez (Democrat, Twentieth District), originally elected to the Eighty-seventh Congress, 1960; E. "Kika" de la Garza (Democrat, Fifteenth District), originally elected to the Eighty-ninth Congress, 1964; Solomon P. Ortiz (Democrat, Twenty-seventh District), originally elected to the Ninety-eighth Congress, 1982; Henry Bonilla (Republican, Twenty-third District), originally elected to the 103rd Congress, 1992, the first Tejano Republican ever elected to a federal office; and Frank Tejeda (Democrat, Twenty-eighth District), originally elected to the 103rd Congress, 1992. In recent decades Texas Mexicans have also held a number of important state offices. In 1977 Leonel Castillo became director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in 1984 Raúl A. González was the first Mexican American to be elected to the Texas Supreme Court, and in 1988 Lauro Cavazos was named secretary of education (the first to hold a cabinet position). Dan Morales became the first Hispanic attorney general in Texas in 1990, and William J. Clinton appointed Henry Cisneros secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. See also BOSS RULE, ELECTION LAWS, MEXICAN AMERICAN ORGANIZATIONS.

Carl Allsup, The American G.I. Forum: Origins and Evolution (University of Texas Center for Mexican American Studies Monograph 6, Austin, 1982). Roberto R. Calderón, Mexican Politics in the American Era, 1846–1900: Laredo, Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1993). Arnoldo De León and Kenneth L. Stewart, Tejanos and the Numbers Game: A Socio-Historical Interpretation from the Federal Censuses, 1850–1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989). Fane Downs, The History of Mexicans in Texas, 1820–1845 (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1970). 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). Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940–1990 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990). David R. Johnson et al., eds., The Politics of San Antonio (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983). Benjamin Marquez, LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993). David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Andres A. Tijerina, Tejanos and Texas: The Native Mexicans of Texas, 1820–1850 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1977; published as Tejanos and Texas under the Mexican Flag, 1821–1836 [College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Politics and Government
Time Periods:
  • World War II

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

Roberto R. Calderón, “Tejano Politics,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tejano-politics.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996
February 15, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: