Tejano monument honors early settlers, aims to right past wrongs

March 24, 2012 at 10:02 p.m.
Updated March 24, 2012 at 10:25 p.m.

Benny Martinez, of Goliad, is elated with the Tejano Monument project saying, "I'm walking on air... I'm so happy I'm bursting at the seams."

Benny Martinez, of Goliad, is elated with the Tejano Monument project saying, "I'm walking on air... I'm so happy I'm bursting at the seams."   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

To be Tejano was to be a second-class citizen.

That is the mind-set that Benny Martinez said was rampant in Texas for many generations, despite the longstanding familial ties Hispanics had to the state.

A new monument at the state Capitol, which pays tribute to the early Tejano settlers and their descendants, seeks to right some of those past wrongs.

"The monument represents 500 years of Tejano history that was swept under the rug for the most part," said Martinez, 79, who said he plans to be front and center during the monument's unveiling, wearing his Tejano hat and buckskin. "It is a great honor to have our whole history there for the whole world to see it."

On Thursday, the long-awaited, 525-square-foot, bronze and granite memorial will be ceremoniously dedicated on the South Lawn of the state Capitol.

The monument's construction, which began three months ago, comes at a time when the state's Hispanic population is 9.5 million and growing.

While Tejano history dates back to the 1500s, when Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda mapped the coastline of Texas, creating the first document in Texas history. Martinez proudly acknowledges that his family has called Texas home since March 1731.

On March 9 of that year, 55 families from the Canary Islands, including Martinez's ancestors, arrived at Béxar, forming the first municipality in the Spanish province of Texas.

Over the generations, his family migrated to Refugio and then eventually Goliad, where Martinez and his seven brothers and four sisters were born and raised.

The nearly $2 million monument project was more than 12 years in the making.

In about 2000, Martinez, a longtime member and district director of the Texas Legal United Latin American Citizens, joined the Tejano Monument Committee.

That committee, along with the Tejano Genealogy Society of Austin, teamed up to make the dream of a monument a reality.

In the beginning, Martinez said the organizations faced several obstacles, including being told there was no room for another monument at the Capitol and overcoming the public's less-than-enthusiastic response.

"They kind of turned a deaf ear on us, like maybe they thought it was impossible. It just wasn't generating any interest," he said. "I used to call it mission impossible."

In 2003, in a highly publicized effort to raise awareness to the cause, Martinez saddled up his horse, Brooke Shields, put some of his wife's tacos in the saddlebags and rode the 125 miles from the Espiritu Santo Mission in Goliad to the Capitol in Austin, collecting money from bystanders along the way.

"I had faith it would happen. I just didn't know it was going to take 12 years," he chuckled.

The project hit other roadblocks along the way, too.

The Legislature first approved creating a Tejano monument in 2001, but a Capitol restoration project in the early 1990s banned new construction on the South Lawn.

"They told us, 'You can get your monument, but you have to put it in the back,'" Martinez recalled. "We said, 'No, it belongs in the front.'"

It would be another eight years before the Legislature would pass a bill allowing the monument to be built in the front of the Capitol.

To many, the monument is an acknowledgement of Tejano contributions to Texas history that were traditionally downplayed or ignored.

"There is nothing in Austin to tell the people who came here so many years ago, that they brought the cattle, ranches and civilization," Martinez said of Tejanos. "They built the towns, missions, but there is nothing there."

Dan Arellano, president and board chairman for the Tejano Genealogy Society, said the dedication is "an event whose time has come."

"We did not come to the United States," Arellano said. "The United States came to us. Our ancestors were already here."

In Martinez's eyes, the monument also marks another step toward racial and ethnic equality.

Slowly easing back in his desk chair, Martinez recounted his time looking for a job when he returned to Texas after serving in the military during the Korean War.

Despite his professional attire and an employment history that included time spent fighting for his country, Martinez said he was turned down for a bread company truck driver position on what he thinks was solely on the basis of his ethnicity.

"They told me they didn't hire my kind," he said solemnly.

Martinez, who eventually went on to work as licensed vocational nurse in Harris County and as a bailiff in Goliad County, also recalled earlier incidents of discrimination that he witnessed during his childhood, including students wetting themselves in the classroom because they were not allowed to speak Spanish in school and did not know how to ask to go to the bathroom in English.

Forty-five percent of Tejanos dropped out by the fourth grade because of the language barrier, he said.

"Things are better now," he said. "I'm happy to see things turn around, but it should have happened a long time ago."



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