Rothera on Thompson, 'Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891'

Jerry D. Thompson
Evan C. Rothera

Jerry D. Thompson. Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891. The Texas Biography Series. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2017. xii + 412 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87565-407-2.

Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-War (March, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

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Jerry D. Thompson, currently Regents Professor of History at Texas A&M International University, is one of the most prolific historians of the United States-Mexico borderlands. Over the course of his productive career, Thompson has authored dozens of important books and articles about the region and helped shape how scholars analyze the middle border. Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823–1891 is a study of Santos Benavides, a Tejano who fought for the rebels during the US Civil War. Benavides is not a household name, but he lived an exceptionally eventful life. He became the highest-ranking Tejano in the Confederate army and, when elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1879, became the only Tejano in the legislature. “Through strife, sweat, blood, and heroism in defense of the border, Benavides rose to economic and political heights few could dream of” (p. 3). How he achieved his successes is an exciting story and one Thompson tells with great skill.

From the beginning, the borderlands shaped Benavides. Texas-Mexico tensions intensified after Texas independence in 1836 and US and Mexico invaded each other. Consequently, many Anglo Texans manifested “wrath, scorn, and racial animosity” toward Tejanos. Santos felt this animosity “to some degree,” as did his uncle, Basilio Benavides (p. 23). Basilio was one of the most prominent Tejanos in his day and served in the Texas legislature two decades before Santos entered that body. Although Basilio was an influential member of the Laredo community, that did not protect him and his nephew from Anglo Texan mistreatment. General Alexander Somervell, for example, levied a requisition on Laredo and residents of the town paid “the consequences of the war between the two republics” (p. 29). This situation changed as the Benavides family formed cooperative relationships with Anglos in the aftermath of the US war with Mexico. US soldiers stationed in Fort McIntosh, for example, “brought a degree of protection to the town that was much appreciated by the Benavides family and other townsmen. Consequently, there was little animosity between the Anglo military and the majority Tejano populace” (p. 47). Residents of Laredo turned their attention to threat posed by Native American raiding and Santos pleaded with Governor Santiago Vidaurri of Nuevo León to permit forces from Texas to cross into Mexico to pursue Apaches.

The Benavides family often felt neglected. As Thompson notes, “in times of crisis, Santos and the citizens of Laredo looked more to Vidaurri and Mexico for assistances than to Austin or Washington, DC” (p. 53). In the years preceding the US Civil War, the Texas legislature incorporated Laredo and Basilio won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1859. Santos himself served several terms as mayor of Laredo in the 1850s. In addition, he formed a strong bond of friendship with Governor Vidaurri, a precursor to the friendship he would form, much later in life, with General Porfirio Díaz. Santos, his family, and other residents of Laredo cooperated with Anglos like Hamilton P. Bee and Edmund J. Davis. However, Tejanos held a great deal of power in Laredo and if newcomers wanted “meaningful influence in the political structure of the community, they had to learn Spanish and acculturate to Mexican customs” (p. 59).

A significant portion of Tejano Tiger examines Santos’s experiences during the US Civil War. Readers who are not familiar with the war in the trans-Mississippi will appreciate Thompson’s analysis of how the issues and tensions that flowered during the Cortina War of 1859–60 bled into the US Civil War. Furthermore, the situation in Mexico was equally unsettled. Mexico had just passed through the War of the Reform, and would enter the French Intervention shortly after. Santos chose to fight with the rebels and he faced a set of constantly shifting circumstances. In addition to fighting US soldiers, he also had to watch for Juan Cortina and the Tejanos who supported the Union. “Santos’s loyalty to the Southern cause,” Thompson argues, “was critical to the security of the Texas-Mexico border. Had Santos and that element of the Tejano population he represented refused to join the Confederacy, remained neutral, or joined the Federals, as some feared they might do, the entire Rio Grande flank of the Confederacy would have been dangerously exposed” (p. 104). Benavides proved to be a capable commander who achieved the rank of colonel. He never achieved his dream of becoming a brigadier general and he may have blamed John S. “Rip” Ford. Benavides and Ford repeatedly feuded over the command structure and often found themselves at loggerheads. Interestingly, Santos “was one of the few rebel commanders who had never suffered a defeat during the entire war” (p. 206).

After the war ended, Santos may have fled to Mexico, but he returned to the US in short order. He resumed his place of importance in the community and became heavily involved in Laredo politics. As they did before the US Civil War, “the Benavides brothers continued to excel in politics” (p. 229). Santos was elected to the Texas House of Representatives for three terms and was the only Tejano member of that body. Despite “flashes of enlightened liberalism,” he often supported “reactionary and repressive” legislation (p. 274). Santos also battled Raymond Martin for political dominance in Laredo. The conflict between the two men and their supporters became intensely bitter and culminated in the Laredo Election Riot of 1886. More positively, Santos dedicated a significant portion of his energy to promoting US-Mexico cooperation. His friendship with Díaz, for example, “served to greatly ease tensions along the border” and Santos frequently traveled to Mexico, hosted Mexican dignitaries, and authored editorials promoting cooperation (p. 252).

Tejano Tiger is more than the story of one man. Thompson employs Benavides as a lens to view a society in transition. Through Santos, Thompson considers how Tejanos forged lives in a state that often treated them with contempt and racism. He examines the development of Laredo and the growing pains of the developing city. Finally, he studies the US-Mexico borderlands and demonstrates how Benavides played a critical role in US-Mexico relations. Strikingly, Congressman Roger Q. Mills lobbied President Grover Cleveland to appoint Santos US minister to Mexico. Cleveland appointed someone else, but that did not alter the fact that Santos played an outsized role in a volatile region. His life captures the complexity of the borderlands. He was a Tejano during a time when many Anglos regarded Tejanos as decidedly inferior. Unlike some of his fellow Tejanos, who saw the US Civil War as a way to make a claim to US citizenship, Santos fought for the rebels. After the war, he promoted cooperation between the nation he had tried to divide (the US) and Mexico. Benavides deserves our attention because he illustrates, in a rather impressive way, the twists and turns of life in the borderlands. Tejano Tiger will appeal to anyone interested in the history of the US-Mexico borderlands.

Citation: Evan C. Rothera. Review of Thompson, Jerry D., Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2019. URL:

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