Before Texas was a U.S. state, it was its own independent nation where both Mexicans and white immigrants were citizens. But during the nine years that the Republic of Texas existed, Mexicans became outsiders as white settlers made it more difficult for them to vote and hold onto their land.
White settlers did this by targeting Mexicans with voting laws and taxes, suing for possession of their land and subjecting them to police violence. This presaged the way the U.S. would treat Mexicans in California and the New Mexico territory when it gained this land from Mexico in 1848—as foreigners who had less right to be there than the white settlers who’d moved in.
In 1841, future Texas governor Peter Hansborough Bell bizarrely asserted that “Mexicans disguised as Indians are formidable in depredating on the property of Citizens on the Border.” Bell would later become a commander of the Texas Rangers, at a time when it was a vigilante group inflicting violence on Mexican and Native Americans.
In fact, the land that had become Texas originally belonged to Mexicans who had won their independence from Spain in 1821. It had been inhabited by Native peoples and tejanos, or Texas Mexicans. Soon, anglo immigrants from the U.S. and Europe moved into Texas, bringing enslaved people of African descent with them. Texas then gained independence from Mexico through the Texas Revolution in 1836, and emerged as its own nation: the Republic of Texas.
In the beginning, there wasn’t a stark political inequality between anglos and tejanos in the Republic of Texas. More to the point, tejanos weren’t viewed as outsiders who didn’t belong. Both anglos and tejanos could be full citizens. But for tejanos, it was “kind of mixed bag,” says Raúl Ramos, a history professor at the University of Houston. Tejanos had citizenship rights, with a caveat. Over time, anglos restricted tejanos’ access to voting and land, outnumbered them in government positions, and used police violence against them.
“There were a few tejanos who served in the republic congress and they managed to have laws included that would, for instance, translate all of the Texas laws into Spanish as well as English,” says Ramos.
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This was much different than what black and Native people experienced in Texas. If you were black, you had to be enslaved. And if you were Comanche, Apache, Cherokee or belonged to any other Indigenous nation, you were given an ultimatum: leave or be massacred.
But tejanos weren’t completely on equal footing. While anglos were automatically Texas citizens if they lived in Texas, tejanos who had already been living there couldn’t be citizens unless they signed a pledge of loyalty to Texas. Even these pledges didn’t allay anglo fears that tejanos might side with Mexico if fighting broke out again.
After the Mexican army invaded and occupied San Antonio in 1842, tejanos faced more overt political discrimination. Anglos started to make it more difficult for tejanos to vote by strictly enforcing property and tax requirements for voting. Tejanos were also selected for jury duty less often, meaning they had less representation in courts. Some anglos even suggested that they should force all tejanos out of Texas.
These practices carried over when the U.S. annexed Texas as a slave state in 1845. In the Republic of Texas’ first few years, tejanos represented a majority on the city council of San Antonio, Texas’ most populous city. By the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, tejanos were a minority on the city council.
“They became a suspect class,” Ramos says. “The idea was that they couldn’t be fully Texan or fully American.”
As American citizens, tejanos faced violence from anglo vigilante groups like the Texas Rangers and struggled to maintain ownership of their land. “They essentially went broke trying to defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits contesting their claims to land ownership,” Ramos says.
More than a century and a half later, Mexican Americans continue to face claims that they don’t belong and should “go back” to where they came from. For those living in Texas—as well as California, Arizona and New Mexico—the charge is particularly ironic since the land used to be part of Mexico. As many Mexican American activists have argued: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”