“The Hispanic community understands the American Dream and have not forgotten what they were promised,” declared Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who fled their native land in 1956 during the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Though their stories are not often told, Hispanics have been realizing that American vision in the South since the antebellum era. Indeed, a proper, comprehensive conception of Southern identity should and must include a consideration of the unique and diverse contributions of Hispanics, from Texas to Virginia.
Though there were some Spanish speakers who fought alongside the colonists in the Revolutionary War (such as Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Galvez), the story of Hispanic contributions to American history really takes off during the Mexican-American War. This may seem surprising, given that this conflict is now taught as emblematic of broader U.S. colonialist and expansionist efforts in the nineteenth century. Yet there were actually many Spanish-speakers — known as Tejanos — living on the Texas frontier who opposed the Mexican government and its treatment of Texans. Indeed, of the 183 Texas killed at the Alamo, seven of them were Mexican-Americans: Juan Abamillo, Juan Antonio Badillo, Carlos Espalier, Gregorio Esparza, Antonio Fuentes, Calba Fugua, and Jose Maria Guerrero.
According to the 1860 U.S. Census, there were approximately 27,500 Mexican-Americans living in the United States directly before the Civil War. At the outset of the war, about 2,500 Hispanics joined the Confederacy, while about 1,000 joined the Union. By the end of the war, it is estimated that almost 10,000 men of Hispanic heritage had fought in the war, from battlefields in Virginia to the deserts of New Mexico.
Many Confederate regiments contained large numbers of Hispanics. The 5th Regiment of the “European Brigade,” a home guard brigade of New Orleans, comprised 800 Hispanics who were descended from immigrants from, among other places, the Canary Islands. Another Louisiana unit, the “Cazadores Espanoles Regiment” (Spanish Hunters Regiment), had men from Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. The unit saw action at the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. The home guard brigade of Mobile, Alabama, called “The Spanish Guard,” also had many Hispanics, as did the 55th Alabama Regiment and the 2nd Florida Regiment.
The 33rd Texas Cavalry, was almost entirely Mexican-American, and was commanded by Colonel Santos Benavides, a former Texas Ranger and the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Confederate Army. The unit served with distinction along the Rio Grande River, and in March 1864 defeated a Union force at the Battle of Laredo, Texas. Other Tejanos fought in the eastern theatre, including at the Battles of Gaines’ Mill, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Appomattox Court House. Jerry Thompson’s Vaqueros in Blue & Gray, originally published in 1976, recounts the stories of Tejano participation in the Civil War.
Even two Hispanic women — Cuban-American Lola Sanchez of St. Augustine, Florida; and Cuban-born Loreta Janeta Velazquez — served as Confederate spies. Velazquez penned a memoir of her activities during the war (which included disguising herself as a man and fighting in battle for the Confederacy), and later traveled through Europe promoting her writing. Benavides also had a successful post-war career, resuming his merchant and ranching trades, and remaining active in politics. (It should at least be noted in passing that the most famous Hispanic of the war was undoubtedly Union admiral David G. Farragut, the son of a Spanish merchant captain, whose role at the Battle of Mobile Bay remains legendary).
Latino immigration into the United States — especially from Mexico — markedly increased over the course of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Mexicans were often welcomed by white farmers as a critical supply of farm labor but also as leverage in negotiations with black workers. Like Blacks, Mexicans often faced discrimination, including “No Mexican” signs that were common in windows of white-owned establishments in parts of the rural South. Obviously such discrimination is a censorious stain on the history of Hispanic assimilation into American culture. This phenomenon, however, was also not unique to Dixie, as evidenced by the notoriously exploitative practices of California agribusiness.
Many will likely be surprised to learn that local ordinances in twentieth-century Southern municipalities actually stipulated that anyone who was determined to be discriminating against a Mexican worker would be fined. During the Jim Crow era, Southern businessmen, including bar owners, restaurant owners, and movie theater owners, were often forced to sign affidavits declaring that they would allow Mexicans to partake of their services. Indeed, Mexican-Americans in the South often enjoyed greater acceptance and economic mobility than they did in the Southwestern United States. By the early twenty-first century, Latinos could be found in large numbers across the South, from Gordon County, Georgia to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. To date, many of the fastest-growing Latino communities in the country are in Dixie, including in states like North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.
I would argue, perhaps provocatively, that Hispanic culture (or Latino, I confess only a cursory knowledge of the debate regarding this terminology) is an important, even indelible part of broader Southern culture. Granted, Texas is both Southern and its own unique thing, but can we really imagine American cuisine without Tex-Mex? The classic Tex-Mex of cheese, beans, meat, and tortillas is the creation of the Tejano people, whose history as faithful fighters in the Texan war for independence and the Civil War give them strong credentials as true Southrons. And whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant or a faithful Catholic, Latinos now comprise a significant percentage of both Pentecostal and “papist” congregations across the South.
Nor should we forget the demographic to which Marco Rubio, whose quotation opened this essay, owes his upbringing. Cuban Americans have been some of the most stalwart, faithful conservatives, both religiously and politically, in twenty-first century America. As one of my Cuban-American friends from Miami likes to tease me, geographically speaking, he is way more southern than me, a third-generation Virginian. Such an assertion is stretching what we traditionally mean by Southern, but to my Cuban-American brothers and sisters, I can only smile and gratefully declare: y’all are welcome at my barbecues and cookouts anytime.
Contrary to the narrow-minded, prejudicial depictions of the Left in media and Hollywood, the South has often been a truly inclusive, welcoming land. The history of Hispanics bears this out, admittedly sometimes obstructed by the same prejudices and discrimation that are visible across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York. Nevertheless, there is a true, Latin South, one of historic pedigree and worthy of our admiration and approbation. I pray my Hispanic brethren can thus join me in proclaiming, alongside all faithful Southerners, “Viva La Sur!”