- Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891 by Jerry Thompson
The Texas-Mexico borderlands have demarked the southern edge of the U.S. South since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Yet this region still occupies a murky place in the historiography of the U.S. South. Take, for instance, the unfamiliar but remarkable life of José de los Santos Benavides of Laredo, Texas. A member of a prominent Laredo family, Benavides was born in 1823, just two years after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. He became a reluctant U.S. southerner when Laredo was incorporated into the state of Texas in 1848. He and his family, however, quickly adapted to the politics and society of the dominant Anglo class in Texas, while maintaining their close ties to Mexican political elites.
An "indefatigable warrior," Benavides fought countless skirmishes against Comanche and Lipan Apache raiding parties until these tribes were suppressed in the late 1870s (p. 331). During the Civil War, Benavides and his brothers served with great distinction in the Confederate army. Achieving the rank of colonel, Benavides was the highest-ranking Tejano in the Confederate army. As Jerry Thompson's magisterial biography makes clear, Benavides's actions during the Civil War played a primary role in the ability of the Confederacy to maintain its control over the Texas side of the Rio Grande borderlands. After the war, Benavides expanded his mercantile and ranching empire, and beginning in the late 1870s, he was elected to three consecutive terms in the Texas legislature. Benavides was also highly respected in Mexico. When he visited the Mexican strongman Porfirio Díaz in 1881, a Mexico City newspaper remarked that Benavides was a man of "'great influence'" and, although born of "'Mexican origin,'" was a true "'son of the South'" (p. 252).
Thompson, a preeminent U.S. historian of the nineteenth-century Texas-Mexico borderlands, has written a life of Benavides that acknowledges both the Laredoan's achievements and his problematic historical legacy. The scion of a prominent borderlands family, Benavides held the views of an "entrenched oligarch" (p. 331). At a time when the vast majority of Tejanos suffered from intense racial discrimination and violence at the hands of Anglo Texans, the Benavides family embraced the white-dominated society of Texas. (This embrace was largely because the state of Texas recognized the Spanish-era land claims of the Benavides family, which allowed its members entree into local and state politics.) During the Civil War, when the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Mexico-Texas borderlands supported the Union, the Benavides [End Page 431] family went its own way and fought for the Confederacy. During the borderlands upheavals of the 1870s, when "most Tejanos came to fear and hate the Texas Rangers," Benavides "proudly wore the five-pointed star of the Rangers" (p. 228).
During his lifetime, then, Benavides, did not fit into the post-1848 mold of most Mexican Texans who were subjugated after the U.S. capture of the Rio Grande borderlands. This characteristic, as Thompson makes clear, is both what makes Benavides's story so fascinating and, for many contemporary Tejanos, so complicated. However complex his legacy, there is no doubt that Benavides was a significant nineteenth-century southerner. In addition to his important service to the Confederate army along the Rio Grande border, in the decades after the war Benavides promoted "binational friendship and lasting peace with great vigor and determination" (p. 311). "With an identity drawn from both sides of the border," Thompson concludes, "[Benavides] possessed abinational view of history that made him uniquely qualified to be an ambassador of goodwill in Austin, Mexico City, the halls of Congress, and beyond" (p. 331). As expertly narrated by Thompson, the life of Santos Benavides expands the bounds of southern history.