Anglo-Mexican Class Structure in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley

From David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, pp. 34-36.

Although the American presence generally represented a new class in an old Mexican society, it did not completely transform the traditional authority structure. On the contrary, the American merchants and lawyers merely affixed themselves atop the Mexican hierarchy. In some cases they intermarried and became an extension of the old elite. For individual families of the Mexican elite, intermarriage was a convenient way of containing the effects of Anglo military victory on their status, authority, and class position. For the ambitious Anglo [35] merchant and soldier with little capital, it was an easy way of acquiring land. The social basis for postwar governance, in other words, rested on the class character of the Mexican settlements.

These settlements were essentially a three-tiered society composed of landed elite, small land owners (rancheros) and peones. San Antonio in the 1830s, for example, was a highly structured class society. At the top were the prominent landed families, who lived in spacious flat-roofed stone houses; below them were the rancheros, who spent the greater part of their days working their cattle and horses and whose small adobe homes usually consisted of one sparsely furnished room; and at the bottom tier of the class order were the laborers, or jornaleros, who lived in jacales, which were nothing more than mud houses with thatched roofs.[34] A prominent contemporary of the period, José María Rodríguez, described the “great distinction between the east and west side of the [San Antonio] river” in the following manner: “The west side of the river was supposed to be the residence of the first families here, and the descendants of the Indians and Spanish soldiers settled on the east side of the river. . . . Most of the Canary Islanders who lived on this [west] side took great pride in preventing any marriage with mixed races and when one did mix he lost his caste with the rest.”[35] Although frontier conditions made this caste system somewhat fluid, and families could in generations pass from one caste to another, the lines themselves were quickly drawn. Moreover, they were distinctions that the American pioneers were quick to recognize and accept. Ample evidence points to an early accommodation between old and new elites. Although initially outside this Spanish-Mexican structure, the Anglo-Saxon pioneers were accepted–depending on their class, of course–as equals by the “Spanish” elite.[36] By 1842, however, only six years after independence, the peaceful accommodation that had characterized Mexican-Anglo relations collapsed. The loss of land, the flight of the Mexican elite, and the Mexican War a few years later quickly eroded the influence of Mexicans.

In spite of this, San Antonio after the Civil War still had appearances, according to one resident, of a village “typical of Mexico then.” The “early Americans” had become acclimated, had intermarried in many instances, “and in turn kept up many of the customs of this quaint old Spanish town.” The town of about ten or twelve thousand inhabitants had a mingling of American, German, and French colonists with a large Mexican population. In the plaza could be heard “a babble of voices from three or four languages” but “almost everyone spoke Spanish and most of the business was conducted in this common language.” The resident observer concluded [36] that “the political border was at the Rio Grande, but Military Plaza was the commercial and social border between the countries.”[37]

The Rio Grande settlements south and west of San Antonio differed little in their social structure. . . .


  1. [34] Caroline Remy, “Hispanic-Mexican San Antonio: 1836-1861,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 71, no. 4 (April 1968): 567.
  2. [35] Rodríguez, Memoirs of Early Texas, p. 37.
  3. [36] Chabot, With the Makers; Remy, “Hispanic-Mexican San Antonio,”pp. 566-567; William Bollaert, William Bollaert’s Texas, ed. W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth Lapham Butler.
  4. [37] William J. Knox, The Economic Status of the Mexican Immigrant in San Antonio, Texas, pp. 3-5.

Mexican Labor, Border Conditions and Peonage

From David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, ch. 4, “Race, Labor, and the Frontier.” 76-79

On the Mexican Frontier.

For several decades after annexation, life along the border continued in much the same way as before. Even as the American mercantile elite displaced Mexican rancheros and money-poor landed elite from their land, the life of landless Mexicans, the peones and the vaqueros, remained generally unaffected. The cattle hacienda remained the dominant social and economic institution of the border region, and the work relations that linked Anglo patrón and Mexican worker remained paternalistic and patriarchal. The development of a cattle industry required no fundamental changes in traditional labor relations. The longevity of the hacienda as a social institution was due [77] to its resiliency: finding a market, it would respond and produce; lacking one, it would turn inward and become self-sustaining.[2]

Beyond the ranch economy, however, Anglo and European pioneers who wished to experiment with such money crops as cotton or cane were severely limited by the scarcity of day laborers. Mexican workers were viewed as unreliable because many still owned small tracts of land and worked only to supplement their meager incomes. Mexican rancheros devoted themselves to cultivating corn, the most important subsistence crop in their diet.. Once subsistence needs were met, Mexican rancheros turned to raising cattle, which was more profitable than farming. The Abbé Domenech never could understand how a ranchero of the lower border lived, for he labours little or none; the very shadow of labor overpowers him, and he comprehends not activity, save in pleasures. The wonderment was largely rhetorical, however, for the abbé provided the answer to his own question. The ranchero‘s work in tending to herds of oxen, horses, goats, and sheep required very little labor, and therefore does he like it so much.[3] Thus, few Mexicans were willing to pick cotton or cut cane.

On the other hand, the masterless, ex-peón population present in Texas may have refused to have anything to do with plantation labor. These ex-peones were not just those left behind by the refugee elite of Texas, but comprised also those who fled peonage in northern Mexico. Escape to Texas at times reached such critical proportions that cotton cultivation in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas was threatened. The possibility of escape weakened debt peonage on the Mexican side, much as it had weakened American slavery on the American side. During the fifteen-year period (1845-1860) between the Mexican War and the American Civil War, the Texas-Mexican border was the boundary sought by both escaping Mexican peones and black slaves. The boundary was also the working zone for slave and peon catchers.[4]

Given these circumstances, far less cotton was cultivated in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the decade after the Mexican War than in the preceding period under Mexican rule. American expansionist interests, as historian Graf noted, argued that the Mexican laborer was unreliable because he was accustomed to compulsory labor in his own country if he did not have his own little piece of ground. Large-scale planting was impossible because under the free labor conditions of Texas Mexicans worked only to satisfy their needs, which were few. According to this reasoning, there were two ways in which a permanent labor supply could be secured in the Lower Valley: (a) if [78] the United States controlled both sides of the Rio Grande, black slave labor could be introduced with safety and large-scale plantations begun, or (b) if there was a peón law for western Texas, local authorities would have the power to compel the Mexicans to work and <q>thereby ensure the farmer a steady labor supply, as well as reduce vagrancy.[5] The Civil War, which followed shortly after these proposals were offered, made these questions moot.

[…] While Mexicans proved reluctant to perform farm labor, work on [79] the ranches continued to be meditated [sic] by the old practice of debt peonage. Although peonage was formally illegal, most men and women on Texas ranches nevertheless looked to a patrón to provide them with the necessities of life, to give them work, to pay them wages, and, finally, to donate a jacal and provisions when they grew too old. In return there was a loyalty to the ranch and its owners that acknowledged and repaid a patrón‘s sense of noblesse oblige.[8]

Bibliographical References:

Graf, LeRoy P. “The Economic History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 1820-1875.” 2 vols. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1942.


  1. [2]Enrique Semo, Historia del capitalismo en México: Los orígenes, 1521-1763.
  2. [3]Domenech, Missionary Adventures, pp. 254-256; Robert Edgar Riegel, The Story of the Western Railroads, pp. 7-8; Graf, “Economic History,” pp. 439-445.
  3. [4]Friedrich Katz, “Labor Conditions on Haciendas in Porfirian Mexico: Some Trends and Tendencies,” Hispanic American Historical Review 54, no. 1 (February 1974): 32-33; Wilkinson, Laredo, p. 238; Mexico, Report; Cazneau, Eagle Pass, pp. 59, 80-81, 94-96; J.D. Thompson, Vaqueros.
  4. [5]Graf, “Economic History,” pp. 449-450.
  5. [8]Wilkinson, Laredo, p. 237