By Mary Donofrio | Despite the societal misconception of Mexican-Americans not quite belonging in the United States, the heritage of people of Mexican descent in the country goes as far back as the 1500s, sparked by the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in Native America. From the colonization of indigenous peoples such as the Aztecs and the Pueblo nations of the American Southwest, this cultural mixing created generations who can trace their ancestry in this country to pre-colonization, and other people of Spanish-descent whose families’ presence in an area predate America’s acquisition of the territory. Before 1854, much of the American West belonged to Mexico, including much of Arizona, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Wyoming. Once this territory was turned over to U.S. jurisdiction, approximately 100,000 Mexicans became American citizens. However, this transition brought an overwhelming wave of racial discrimination, despite the fact that their ancestors had been living on this land for hundreds of years previous to American settlement.
Tejanos: term commonly used to describe Texans of Mexican descent, but it was being used as early as 1824 to describe residents of Texas, which at this point was largely part of Mexico. Texas was first settled by the Spanish in 1718 along the San Antonio River, and the first settlement was called Villa de Bexar. However, Villa de Bexar did not qualify as a town under Spanish law, and plans were soon put in motion for an official settlement, which came to fruition in 1731. Fifteen Spanish families from the Canary Islands took up residence on additional land along the river, creating the Villa de San Fernando. These areas now comprise the city of San Antonio. Anglo settlers arrived in 1821, and this flux of migration caused a well-documented conflict between the white settlers and the Tejanos. Although both sides were able to work together to achieve Texan independence in 1835, the Anglo-Texans thought of their culture as superior to Tejanos, so the Tejano community was subject to widespread racial prejudice, which was only heightened after Texas’ succession to the U.S. in 1848. Tejanos today are known for their commitment to activism through organizations like La Raza Unida and for their musical heritage, which has been popularized in contemporary culture by artists like Selena Quintanilla-Pérez.
Hispano Nuevomexicanos: Known in English as Hispanic New Mexicans, Hispano Nuevomexicanos can trace their ancestry to the late 16th century colonization of the state by Spanish soldiers, Franciscan monks, and civilian settlers. The settlements of San Gabriel and Santa Fe predate Jamestown in Virginia.
Conflict with the indigenous peoples of the area made establishing a Spanish foothold difficult, and the Pueblo Revolts of 1680 drove colonists out of the area and into Texas. The reconquest of New Mexico was successfully completed in 1692 and settlers returned the following year. In 1821, Mexico was granted independence from Spain, transferring the territory of New Mexico to Mexican ownership. It was finally ceded to the United States in 1848, but did not attain statehood until 1912 due to the fact that much of the population at that time was of Latino descent.
Californios: descendants of elite families who received land grants from Spain and Mexico in California. Californio families thrived during much of the 19th century, as their land allowed them to profit from the agricultural richness of the state. Additionally, their property itself qualified as credit in some local businesses, making it inextricably tied to their financial prosperity. The success of the ranchos depended on Mexican and Indigenous American laborers, who were often not compensated beyond food, clothing, and shelter. The advent of the Gold Rush and the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, however, prompted a surge in settlement in California, which put the Californios’ land claims into peril. Californios were forced to defend their titles in court, which proved extremely expensive due to mounting legal fees, which then required families to sell off parts of their land in order to be able to pay. Towards the end of the century, many married into American or European settler families in order to secure their land and social standing. This was not enough to preserve Californio society, although the descendants of these families have kept their history alive.