How the Mexican Revolution Shaped San Antonio

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The way the Mexican Revolution has shaped San Antonio is one of the many accounts of our city’s immigrant story. Critically acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros urged us to research our stories, writing: “If you don’t write your story and document it, it is as if your history never happened or your important person never existed.”

Migration from Mexico began long before there was a Republic of Texas. For more than 200 years before Texas statehood, the identity, if not the destiny of San Antonio, was being shaped by the movement of people from the South—principally—Mexico City, Monterey and Saltillo.

The battle over Texas in the 1830s, the Mexican War in the 1840s and the American Civil War in the 1860s contributed to a migration decline from the Mexican Republic.

Still, by the late 1800s Mexican vaqueros and campesinos were commonly found working on the ranches and farms of South Texas and participating in the cattle drives that drove the early economy of Texas. Mexican families in the late 19th century moved to San Antonio to engage in trade and help build the railroad lines north and south of the city.

Importantly, the immigration history of the Southwest changed dramatically with the advent of the Mexican Revolution. A history of how Mexican immigration impacted San Antonio has yet to be written. Such a story would not be complete without the personal accounts of individuals and families who came during and in the aftermath of Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910 and lasted a decade.

Poet Dr. Carmen Tafolla notes that topics on the Mexican Revolution consumed the San Antonio community during this period of conflict. She wrote: “In my hometown in the 1920s, Mexican locals and exiles alike would gather at a small park, La Plaza de Zacate for news about the Revolution in Mexico and to hear and make political speeches concerning conditions here and there.”

And there was much to talk about. Historians estimate that more than 1.5 million persons were killed or wounded in the conflict. It is also estimated that another half million persons fled north to the United States to escape the violence and turmoil.

San Antonio’s proximity to the Mexican border and the fact that refugees had settled in San Antonio for some years made it a perfect place for political exiles.

The political activist and future Mexican President, Francisco Madero, a member of the Mexican landed elite is credited with successfully challenging the status quo of Mexican politics beginning in 1908 with the publication of his bestselling book, The Presidential Succession of 1910.

Madero led the political opposition to Diaz and challenged the sitting president in the 1910 elections. Just months before the elections, however, Diaz jailed Madero. Diaz, an aging dictator, won reelection through widespread fraud and intimidation. Madero, with the intervention of his influential family, managed to flee Mexico and moved temporarily to San Antonio.

While in San Antonio, Madero continue to urge Mexicans to oppose the re-election of Diaz. Columnist Paula Allen of the Express News wrote years later that Madero stayed at the Hutchins House on the corner of St. Mary’s and Nueva. It was there that he wrote the Plan of San Luis Potosí, which called for democracy in Mexico and an end to Diaz’ presidency.

Madero succeed in promoting a rebellion which began in the North with Francisco Villa’s army and spread to the Southern Mexican Republic where an agrarian army led by Emiliano Zapata drove out the hacienda owners who had long exploited peon labor. Madero fled San Antonio in 1910 when it appeared that he might be arrested by Diaz police agents. However, Diaz’s days as president were coming to an end as rebellion spread across Mexico. Soon rebel leaders forced Diaz to give up power and leave the country.

In 1911 Mexico held it first democratic elections, which Madero easily won. However, in the south, Emiliano Zapata urged his army not to lay down their arms and the Revolution continued. Two years into the presidency, Madero was assassinated and the Revolution entered a new and violent phase.

In 2012 Lionel Sosa edited an important book about our San Antonio community titled, The Children of the Revolution: How the Mexican Revolution Changed America. While I had not yet read Sandra Cisneros’ comments on the importance of writing our history, I agreed to add a part of my family’s history to the Sosa book.

My story is like that of many others. My grandparents, Benito and Maria Romo, crossed the border into Texas in 1913, a year after their marriage and at a time of alarming armed conflict.

Their exodus seemed logical enough. The mining communities surrounding Rosita and my grandmother’s hometown, Agujita, a small town near Sabinas, Coahuila, had been ravaged by violence and widespread destruction. With the mines closed, my grandparents fled north in search of work and new opportunities.

There was an open border when my teenage grandmother, pregnant with her first son, crossed into Texas. They arrived at a time when the economy was on the upswing and jobs in the agricultural fields were plentiful.

Someone in their village had heard that cotton pickers were in high demand in Central Texas. After a year in Kyle, Texas, they headed to San Antonio in search of better accommodations for the pending birth of their new son, my father. Eventually they settled in the Westside of San Antonio renting a little house on El Paso Street, not far from the present day Guadalupe Theater.

Mexican immigration transformed borderland communities from Brownsville to Los Angeles. By 1920, San Antonio had the largest concentration of Mexicanos in America followed by El Paso and Los Angeles. Immigrants who thought they would return to Mexico after the end of the Revolution, for the most part, did not. They remained in communities like San Antonio where they raised families, created business, and saw their sons and daughters educated.

It has been nearly a century since the great Mexican migration era. The Revolution changed Mexico, but also changed the communities north of the border. The immigrants who settled in San Antonio contributed to the economic growth of the city. They also brought us Spanish language newspapers, new musical ballads or corridos and artistic traditions as well as ballet folklorico.

When we hear a Mariachi band or delight in mural art, we see the cultural migration caused by the Mexican Revolution. And there is more—we just have to look.

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Ricardo Romo
Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., served as the fifth president of the University of Texas at San Antonio from 1999 to 2017. A recognized urban historian, he has taught and published in the field of civil rights, Mexican American history, and urban history. His book, East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio, is in its 9th edition. Romo currently serves as Executive Director of the SA Artistic Collective and is co-founder of the Tricentennial Art Project, both based in San Antonio, Texas.

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