- “For Our Own Best Interests”: Nineteenth-Century Laredo Tejanos, Military Service, and the Development of American Nationalism
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On Saturday, July 4, 2004, approximately two-hundred veterans of the United States armed forces, family members, and other dignitaries, gathered near downtown Laredo, Texas, to commemorate the unveiling of a monument to honor the forty-one Hispanic veterans who had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military service. The local citizenry who came to hear speeches from business leaders and others met at the newly inaugurated Laredo National Bank Flag Park of the Americas, a small tract of land adjacent to a branch of the longstanding city bank. Local artist Armando Hinojosa sculpted the monument, which featured a bronze statue of Laredo’s only Medal of Honor recipient, David Barkley Cantu (David Bennes Barkley), recognized for his valor in World War I, and a bronze eagle perched atop a black granite wall adjacent to the soldier’s statue. The names of the forty-one Medal of Honor recipients and the wars in which they received their tribute were sandblasted onto the granite wall. The attendees took turns taking photos alongside the monument as they consumed pan dulce adorned with red, white, and blue accoutrements.
The concept of nationalism and patriotism went beyond the refreshments served. Local dignitaries had created the Flag Park of the Americas under the auspices of a large, fifty-foot by one hundred-foot American flag flying atop a three hundred-foot flagpole, with the premise of underscoring [End Page 125] American patriotism. The Park, which is located about five hundred yards north of the Rio Grande, proudly flies its large American flag opposite a larger Mexican flag on the other side of the river. The fact that the tribute to Hispanic veterans, from the Civil War to the Vietnam War, took place on the Fourth of July was also designed to underscore American loyalties. In fact, local veterans were caught by surprise only a few days earlier when city officials moved the memorial’s unveiling four months ahead of schedule from its previously scheduled date of Veterans Day in November to underscore the significance of Independence Day. Laredo National Bank CEO Gary Jacobs emphasized the notion of patriotism: “Laredo does a great deal to honor its veterans. We are patriots, exhibiting a national loyalty that is cultural in nature.” The bank president maintained the unique culture found in Laredo, a city that proudly proclaims it has flown seven flags in its rich and varied history. “We may not celebrate Cinco de Mayo like they do in Austin, but whether Hispanic or Anglo, Catholic or Jew, we are very patriotic in Laredo,” Jacobs stated.1
Laredoans of Mexican descent had long practiced the notion that national allegiance and identity could be part of a two-way exchange in which they could negotiate what that loyalty could be in order to further their own interests. Despite the expectations, or even demands, of nation-states such as Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States, or even the Confederate States of America, Laredo Tejanos, often left to their own economic and military devices, remained focused on regional loyalty through the start of the twentieth century. The actions of local leaders such as Santos Benavides enhanced this, even if it was sometimes misunderstood by outsiders as loyalty to their larger causes. Thus, Jacobs’s notion of underscoring American nationalism on the Texas-Mexico border, where loyalties could sometimes be blurred through the lenses of cultural and ethnic identity, generally speaking, missed the mark. Yet he was not alone. Actually, Anglo Americans in Laredo had long practiced a variation of what Jacobs and his supporters had maintained in emphasizing national loyalty when funding and supporting the Hispanic Medal of Honor Monument, the first of its kind in the entire country. The premise of mentioning how Austin celebrated Cinco de Mayo suggested the different approaches in how local leaders negotiated the concept of loyalty with the largely Tejano population in Laredo.2...