Cultures Blend in Two Tex-Mex Cities

San Antonio honors a Mexican hero, while border town Laredo toasts George Washington

AS Mexican-American culture threatened or thriving? The answer depends on whom you ask.

"When people are oppressed, the last two things they lose are their language and their religion," says Rosa Maria Icaza, who teaches at the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) in San Antonio. Sister Icaza says both are happening to her people.

That's far from apparent to Laredo's Saul Ramirez, the mayor of this city on the border between the United States and Mexico. "The language of choice is Spanish in Laredo," he says. "Even most Anglos that come into town assimilate themselves to speak Spanish."

The gulf in their perceptions is as wide as the 150 miles of cattle ranches, cotton farms, and mesquite desert separating San Antonio and Laredo. Geography accounts for some of the difference. History, demographics, and economics also come into play, as do Ramirez's and Icaza's professions and backgrounds.

Born in Mexico, Icaza is sensitive to that country's loss of 40 percent of its territory to the United States during the 1846 to 1848 war. Before the war, Mexico had claimed the Nueces River as its border with Texas, but the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo moved the border south to the Rio Grande.

"We didn't cross the river. The river crossed us," Icaza says of the Mexican citizens who suddenly found themselves on American soil.

"Since then there has been the struggle of the Mexican-Americans to continue their language and culture." A whole generation became ashamed of Spanish because they were punished by Anglo teachers for using it, Icaza says.

As a nun at San Antonio's Assumption Seminary, where MACC is located, Icaza came into contact with poor Hispanic families through her pastoral work. One reason for that poverty, she concluded, was discrimination against Mexican-Americans in hiring and wages. And Hispanic high school students were steered toward careers as "mechanics and beauticians, never doctors or lawyers."

There was not even a Mexican-American bishop in the Roman Catholic church until San Antonio's Patrick Flores in 1970. Today there are 22 Mexican-American bishops. The now Archbishop Flores co-founded MACC in 1972 to promote the Spanish language and Mexican-American culture.

Asked to describe that culture, Icaza recounts elaborately the various roots of the Mexican-American people from before 1500 to today, along with values acquired from each: celebration of life learned from indigenous Americans, protection of family honor from the Spanish, and self-betterment from the US tradition. "Culture in a more folkloric way would be to tell you about tacos and mariachi bands," the gentle, white-haired nun smiles.

Every year San Antonio's Fiesta celebrates the Battle of San Jacinto, where Texans won independence from Mexico in 1836. "Why are we celebrating a battle where [Mexicans] were defeated?" Icaza says the MACC wondered.

So in 1978, MACC initiated a celebration that has grown to three days of festivities attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. The center chose Cinco de Mayo, commemorating the defeat of Napoleon III's invading troops by Mexican forces on May 5, 1862.

The Mexican commander, Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, had been born in Texas when the territory was still part of Mexico. "In some ways, the greatest hero of that battle is Mexican-American," Icaza says.

A statue of Zaragoza given by Mexico stands in the main square of Laredo. But Cinco de Mayo festivities have all but died out in this booming border town where the population is 95 percent Hispanic, the highest in the US.

One reason is that Laredo's sister city in Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, hosts a great Cinco de Mayo bash. Another is that Laredo puts so much energy into celebrating George Washington's birthday, staging a 10-day extravaganza that tops any other observance of the event.

AFTER Guadelupe Hidalgo turned the Rio Grande into a national boundary, the US Army built a fort at Laredo. Merchants came from the North to supply the troops.

These merchants wanted an American holiday they could celebrate. "Fourth of July was just too hot," says Sam Johnson, a board member of the Webb County Heritage Foundation. Washington's birthday, Feb. 22, was chosen instead. The first observance was in 1898.

The celebration has long outgrown discriminatory origins, thanks to extensive intermarriage. "Everybody who's been here any time has relatives on both sides of the river," Mr. Johnson says.

Mexicans, who also revere George Washington, stream to Laredo from hundreds of miles south for the festivities. Elected leaders from the two countries meet on the bridge for a border embrazo, or ceremonial embrace.

Mayor Ramirez says the image of the US as a "melting pot" is invalid. "We're a salad," he says. "We're all different. All together, we make something good."

Although overwhelmingly Hispanic, Laredo is increasingly cosmopolitan, with the arrival of Indians, Haitians, Lebanese, and people of other nationalities. Laredo is one of 30 finalists for the National Civic League's "All-America City" award. "Believe it or not, Chinese food is extremely popular here," says Robert Morales, the city's information officer. More amazing is the recent opening of two Taco Bell restaurants. "Who on earth would want to eat at Taco Bell in Laredo?" he wonders.

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