Segregation in 1921, the Underground Railroad to Mexico, and the Birth of Conjunto Music

 

Location: Weslaco, Harlingen, and San Benito, TX
Churches: Grace Church, St. Alban’s, and All Saints

 

Opening Prayer
Psalm 84

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of
the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find
it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

.

Welcome to Weslaco, Harlingen, and San Benito!

Weslaco
Weslaco sits at the very tip of the Rio Grande Valley bordering Mexico. They have a population of 42,000 and their name is derived from the initials for W.E. Stewart Land Company. Visitors can find a variety of attractions that peak their interests. Weslaco is home to the Valley Nature Center and Estero Llano State Park. They boast of having the world’s smallest museum located in their historic downtown district, and you can take in a show at the local community theater, ITheater of Texas, built in a historic 1928 water tank. To watch a seven-minute historic tour of Weslaco click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MI2FjFDvaQ&t=19s

 

Grace Church provides an Episcopal presence to the community through worship, formation, and outreach. They have three services a Sunday, two in English and one in Spanish. They hold Bible studies and a centering prayer group throughout the week and have an active DOK group. They stay busy with outreach with their Hand-Up Food Pantry and Accion de Gracia, a ministry that provides low-cost assistance with immigration forms and legal techniques. They are currently served by the Rev. Michael Fulk.

Texas has long been a melting pot of the different cultures that call the state home.  Whether you’re sampling some Tex-Mex food down at the Riverwalk or enjoying a day at the Institute of Texan Cultures, throughout the state it is easy to see how over time different groups have shared their traditions and blended them together to create new ones.  This practice of allowing different traditions and cultures to blend has not always been accepted, and many times throughout the state’s history has actively been fought against through the acts of segregation.  In the town of Weslaco, the history of segregation can be seen in the very streets of the town, and the divide from the railroad resulting in “the other side of the tracks”.

The town of Weslaco had a long history of both Tejano and Anglo families residing in it, with many of the Tejano families practicing ranching traditions dating back to the colonial era.  Construction of the town began in 1920 and in 1921 a municipal ordinance was passed that designated the area of town North of the railroad track for Hispanics and the Southside for Anglo residents.  This division resulted in essentially two towns forming with the North known as “Mexican Town” and the South as “American Town”.  Aside from the fact that the majority of the residents on the Northside were American citizens, this segregation saw a true chasm of disparities between the two sections of town.  On the Southside of the track, the buildings were made of brick or framed houses, with closed sewers and access to electricity.  On the Northside, tin-roofed shacks were the main housing available, with open sewers, unpaved streets, and grossly underfunded “Hispanic & Negro” only schools.  Segregation of the town extended well beyond just structures, with residents of the Northside only being allowed into the Southside during select hours (usually early in the morning), and having to be back on the Northside of town by a scheduled hour or risk arrest.  Racial violence in the community was common, with many Hispanic residents targeted in nighttime attacks.  Hispanic residents also faced voter intimidation as shown in 1928 during a contested election when judge A. W. Cameron testified that Mexican-American voters had been intimidated by a crowd yelling “Don’t let those Mexican in to vote.  Throw them out.”.

Weslaco would continue to face segregation between the two sides of town well into the second half of the 20th century, with the sewers on the Northside not fully being enclosed until 1954.  While the official policy of segregation in the town came to an end in the 1960s, driving the streets North or South of the tracks quickly reveals that the scars of these past municipal ordinances still impact the residents today.

 

Harlingen

Harlingen has a population of 65,000 and sits 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The city was established in 1904 as a shipping and industrial center, especially focused on commercial waterway opportunities. It was named after another waterway industry town, Harlingen, Netherlands. Harlingen offers many things to do while visiting. With over 1200 acres of public land many visit in order to take advantage of the good fishing, hunting, golfing, birding, and hiking available in the area. 

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church has been serving Harlingen since it became a parish in 1939. They opened a day school in 1948, and since that time both the church and the school have flourished into wonderful communities sharing Christ’s light with all. They currently have two Sunday services, with a formation hour in between. They hold classes for all ages and participate in their local food pantry during the week. They are currently served by The Rev. John Inserra, Rector, and The Rev. Kendrah McDonald, Assistant Priest. 

As we have explored already in this pilgrimage, the institution of Slavery had a dramatic impact on the history of both the Nation and the State of Texas.  For many enslaved individuals the dream of escaping to freedom by use of the Underground Railroad provided a modicum of comfort and hope in a system built to destroy the idea of freedom to individuals enslaved and reduced humanity to the concept of property.  We often think of the Underground Railroad as a system of safe houses and guides who would lead escaped enslaved individuals to freedom in the North or Canada. There also existed an Underground Railroad through the heart of the Rio Grande Valley to freedom in Mexico.  Since 1824 Mexico had abolished the institution of slavery and had standing laws that any enslaved individual who made it to Mexican soil would be both immediately freed and protected from “slave catchers”, individuals who would hunt down those seeking freedom or oftentimes kidnap freedmen and sell them into slavery.  One of the stops for this Railroad was through Harlingen Texas.

While we do not have an exact number of enslaved individuals who managed to make it to freedom in Mexico, we do know that throughout the antebellum period that it was considered enough of a problem by the State that several units of Texas Rangers at various times were stationed in the region to help hunt down those escaping to freedom.  In 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War, many slave owners throughout the South saw Texas as a safe place to send their slaves and forced those enslaved to the State.  As the population of those enslaved in Texas grew, so too did the number of those attempting to make it to Mexico.  Aiding them in their escape to freedom were local residents who acted as conductors on the railroad, providing food, shelter, or information to help reach the border.  Many of the families involved in the railroad were old Tejano families who tended to favor abolitionism and had been in the valley since the colonial era. 

With the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the end of the institution of slavery, the Railroad to Mexico came to an end, and many formerly enslaved individuals who had found shelter in Mexico either returned to the US or remained in Mexico.  Those who remained founded their own communities that can still be found in the border region today.  The story of this Underground Railroad through Texas, while once mostly forgotten, has seen recent efforts to research and bring this history to life through archaeological work done by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

 

San Benito

San Benito has a population of 24,000 and is known as the “Resaca City”. The Resaca de Los Fresnos flows through the city, once a dry river bed, it is now the main canal of a large irrigation system. The town’s original name was Diaz, after the Mexican President at the time. Prior to 1906 and the installation of the irrigation system the town was made up primarily of Mexican-Americans. Around 1906 the town was renamed San Benito, after Benjamin Hicks, a local rancher. San Benito has many histories and cultural museums for its size, along with a myriad of nature trails, and fine dining. 

All Saints Episcopal Church is the second oldest Episcopal Church in the Rio Grande Valley. Services began in 1910, and they were established as a parish in 1912. Their first church building was built for a cost of $2,000, excluding the cost of the pews. They continue to worship together and serve the area of San Benito with joy. 

Whether you are traveling around the world or find yourself on a weekend drive through the Texas countryside, the act of listening to music serves as a way for us as listeners to experience the intersection of the artist’s place and time and cultural history.  Music serves as a core element in the construction of our cultural worldview and being able to help conceptualize the world around us. We can also tell the history of the cultures the music comes from, and how they have changed over time.  When listening to Tejano Conjunto (group) music, you are experiencing the melting pot that is and has been Texas. The father of that musical style is none other than Narciso Martinez or El Huracan del Valle, The Hurricane of the Valley.  

The origin of Conjunto music in the valley dates back to the mid 19th century when German immigrants began to introduce the accordion to the region and would become adopted by numerous Tejano bands.  In addition to the accordion, the core instruments of the Conjunto group are the bajo sexto (a guitar with 12 strings in six double courses) and the contrabajo (string bass).  Narciso Martinez would arrive on the musical scene in the 1930s with the purchase of a used two-row button accordion, but his history prior to this purchase is similar to many Mexican American stories of the Valley.

Born October 29, 1911, in Reynosa Mexico, Martinez was the child of migrant farmworkers who would move back and forth across the border and around the many towns in Southern Texas.  Despite never receiving a formal education, Martinez was a gifted musician and quickly learned to play the accordion from German families in the area around Bishop, Texas.  After purchasing his first accordion, Narciso would begin collaborating with bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida, and the two would play for local dances throughout the region.  The duo would have their first big break in 1936 with their first recording session.  The two would take a break from recording and playing during WWII, but following the end of the war in 1945, the two would begin recording with Ideal Records, a small Mexican American label that was based in San Benito, Texas.  Narciso would continue to play as his recordings inspired future generations of Conjunto artists, eventually being awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1983.  Martinez would pass away in 1992 after a long battle with leukemia and would be laid to rest in San Benito.  While Conjunto music has largely been eclipsed in popular culture by Nortena and other Tejano musical styles, the groundwork first established by Narciso shows how intertwined the communities and cultures of Texas have been throughout the history of the State. With this cultural history, San Benito is known as the Conjunto Music Capital of the World. 

 

Closing Prayer

Holy God, I recognize that you created every person in your image and that you have great purpose for each of us. I ask you to help me see every person as you see them. Help me to love others with the unconditional love of Jesus and to make every effort to promote peace, unity, and equality for all people. Forgive me for the times that I have not valued others or spoken up for what is right. Give me boldness to confront inequality when I see it and to honor others in my thoughts, words, and actions. Help me to love my neighbor as myself and to be an ambassador for reconciliation, as you have called me to be. I ask you to break the spirit of racism and division off of our nation, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

 

Next stop coming Thursday, July 15th
The Brownsville Affair, Mexican-American War, and a gruesome history with the KKK

 

Location: Brownsville, Port Isabel, and Kingsville, TX
Distance to travel: 340,000 steps 

Churches: Church of the Advent, St. Andrew’s, and Church of the Epiphany