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People & Events: José Antonio Navarro (1795-1871)

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Jose Antonio Navarro During the Texas Revolutionary period many Tejanos distinguished themselves in battle. There were others who proved just as courageous and influential off the battlefield. José Antonio Navarro was at the helm of Texas public affairs throughout his lifetime. Reared in an age of revolutionary upheaval, Navarro committed himself from his earliest days to the future of Texas and to the welfare of the Tejano people.

Elite Family
Navarro was born on February 27, 1795, in the small frontier community of San Antonio de Béxar, part of Spain's colonial holdings in the New World. José Antonio's father, Angel Navarro, had immigrated to Texas from the Mediterranean island of Corsica. With his European heritage, keen entrepreneurial skills, and a marriage to the daughter of one of the oldest families in San Antonio, Angel rose to the top of San Antonio society. He served as alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio. He raised his family in the "European" section of town, and sent his sons to Mexico for schooling.

Early in José Antonio's education, his privileged status came to an end. His father's unexpected death forced the 13-year-old boy to return home to help support the family. Between 1811 and 1813, Navarro watched as anti-colonial revolutionaries took control of his town, only to be violently defeated by the Spanish army. His older brother, José Angel, fought with the Spanish, but was discharged when it was discovered that the rest of his family was helping the rebels. After the Battle of Alaz´n Creek, Spanish authorities confiscated the Navarro property and sought to punish all rebels. José Antonio, his uncle Francisco Ruiz, and the rest of his family fled to Louisiana, a territory the U.S. had recently purchased from France. There they would find protection.

Frontier Survival
After the Spanish Crown granted the rebels amnesty several years later, José Antonio returned to San Antonio. He found his home ruined and many of the family's holdings confiscated. Now a young man, José Antonio resorted to what many others did in order to survive. He took wild mustangs, one of the region's natural resources, and smuggled them across the border to Louisiana, where he could trade them for goods and supplies. Spain's mercantilist policy toward Mexico, however, strictly forbade private trade with the United States. While historians believe that illicit trading was widespread on the Texas frontier, it is impossible to know how extensive it was. José Antonio's capture by Deputy Juan Manuel Zambrano in 1819 sheds some light on the practice. Sent to jail for "going into the interior without a license," José Antonio maintained that he was trying to provide for his wife and two children in the only way possible.

The Friendship of a Lifetime
By the time Navarro returned to San Antonio two years later, Mexico had won her independence from Spain, and the American Stephen F. Austin had arrived in Texas. Mexico, now a young nation, worried about maintaining its frontier settlements and encouraged Austin to bring American settlers to colonize parts of the vast Texas landscape. José Antonio saw the colonists as Texas's future -- and quickly made friends with Austin. The two men shared an entrepreneurial sensibility in wanting to see Texas grow and prosper.

The shifting government in Mexico City foiled Austin and Navarro's plan. Nervous about reports that American settlers were flouting Mexican laws and entering illegally, already outnumbering the Tejano population by 10 to 1, the Mexican government banned the importation of slaves to Texas. At Austin's urging, Navarro, a member of the state legislature of Coahuila y Tejas, slipped in a loophole that arranged for slaves to be termed "indentured servants" with lifelong contracts. The two men thereby ensured the transfer of the institution of slavery from the American South into Mexican Texas.

Delegate for Independence
After the first Battle of the Alamo in 1835, in which Anglos and Tejanos defeated Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos's forces inside the Alamo compound, the push for Texas independence was imminent. On February 1, Tejano delegates held an election inside the Alamo to decide who among them would represent San Antonio de Béxar at the Independence Convention. They chose Navarro and his uncle, Francisco Ruiz, both men of considerable standing in the community. Just days later, the two men set out to Washington-on-the-Brazos in East Texas, where they would lend their names to the Texas Declaration of Independence. For them, the news of Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna's capture and the defeat of the Mexican army at San Jacinto held special weight. As the only two Tejanos at the convention, they had risked accusations of treason and punishment by death, had the Texas cause been lost.

Strained Relations
In the first few years of the Texas Republic, Navarro helped to write the new nation's first Constitution, overseeing the treatment of the Tejano community in an increasingly hostile, anti-Mexican atmosphere. Seen as a loyal Tejano, Navarro was generally trusted by the Anglos of the community, and he was elected to serve as a senator to the First Congress. His family, however, did not enjoy the same kind of treatment. In 1838, his younger brother, Eugenio, died at the hands of an Anglo colonist who accused the Tejano of being a Mexican sympathizer.

A Hero's Welcome
In 1841, Navarro somewhat reluctantly served as commissioner for the ill-fated Santa Fe Expedition. After being captured and imprisoned in Mexico City, he returned to San Antonio in 1845, lauded as a Texas hero and generally treated as the exception to the "abject Mexican race."

Founding Father
Navarro was the only Tejano to serve at the Convention of 1845, where the Republic of Texas accepted the United States' offer of annexation. There, he was instrumental in having the word "white" stricken from the requirements for voting in the constitution for the new State of Texas, but he was unable to secure the rights to ancestral lands that had been granted to Tejanos under Spanish colonial rule.

Telling His Story
After U.S. annexation, the aging Navarro served as state senator for two terms, from 1846 to 1848. Respected in the community. he made provisions for the safety of his family as well. Several of his daughters married into influential Anglo families and his son, Angel, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1850. When the first published accounts of Texas history blatantly ignored the Tejanos' struggles and contributions, Navarro published his Aputes Históricos (Historical Notes), a work that redeemed the Tejanos' history by tracing it back to their struggles against Spanish rule in 1813.

A Fond Farewell
Throughout the Civil War and afterward, Navarro lived at his San Geronimo Ranch, just outside of San Antonio, removed from the world's tumult. When he died there at age seventy-six, the Daily Herald noted: "We have seldom seen a larger funeral procession than that which turned out on Saturday evening in honor of the dead Patriot, Don José Antonio Navarro." According to the paper, his death " caused the deepest sorrow throughout the community, and his memory will be cherished with the fondest regard."


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