The Case for an Economic History of the Rio Grande Valley
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
You never step into the same river twice, or so goes the adage. Change is constant. So too have been the economic forces that ebb and flow, the clash of cultures, and the confluence of peoples’ dreams, that have, over nearly 300 years, formed the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
Yet, Vallyites do not have a comprehensive history of the economic, political and social developments that shaped us. Building tomorrow requires understanding yesterday. And, while as grade students we all get a hefty dose of American and Texas history, there is light treatment of influences south of the Rio Grande – which of course are considerable for our region.
An economic history should include: demographic data (eg, population, household income, educational attainment); unemployment stats; measures of capital investment (eg, bank deposits, construction expenditures); and other indicators of economic activity. However, the numbers don’t tell the complete story. Over the years, I have pieced together some source materials for independent study (can you say bookworm).
First, A Shared Experience: The History, Architecture, and Historic Designations of the Lower Rio Grande Heritage Corridor
is a good primer on the Valley’s history. In just 62 pages, you can travel back nearly 500 years to 1519 when Alonso Alvarez de Pineda first mapped the Gulf Coast in search of the fabled Southwest Passage to the Orient -- a strategic transportation route for the nation that found the passage. However, the Valley was first explored the following year when Diego de Camargo sailed upstream through the Rio Grande River before being driven back by Coahuiltecans. Francisco Garay’s subsequent attempt to colonize the Valley in 1523 also failed when his expedition determined that the Valley was unsustainable for settlement. We are off to a slow start.
The first European settlements began in an attempt to stymie incursions into Texas by Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle. He’s French. Then Jose de Escandon lead an expedition into the Seno Mexicano (which includes the Valley) in 1747. He established the colonies of Camargo, Reynosa, Revilla and Mier. Civilization had arrived in the Rio Grande Valley, although it would still take Starbuck a few hundred years more before opening their first bar.
In the years since, the Valley has experimented with its own independence (the Republic of the Rio Grande); fought over where the international border was located (the Nueces or the Rio Grande); and witnessed civil wars in two countries. The Bracero Program, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and now again immigration reform have ebbed and flowed from the headlines. What is old is new.
To better understand the beginning of Mexican American culture, we must delve into the era where it all began with the Anglo colonization of Texas and eventually the Texas Revolution (1835). After the Mexican American War when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, thousands of people had to choose whether to remain where most were born and raised or follow Mexico, which was now south of the Rio Grande River. Choosing to stay, this group of people became the first “immigrants” without actually moving from their native country. This heralded Mexican American economic development in the Rio Grande Valley.
Another most excellent source is Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas by Dr. David Montejano. Montejano examines a collection of primary sources such as documents, maps, and charts, which gives an exceptional understanding of the period. His homage to the literal feelings of the new immigrants’ decision to stay in the land they know remains objective. Montejano doesn’t pick a side, but instead writes about the two sides and the relationships between the two races as they learn to assimilate and become the first Mexican Americans. Will the Mexican become a member of the minority group, or will they become a part of an immigrant culture? Montejano says, “In the Texas-Mexican region, such a peace structure was characterized by two major aspects: one, the subordination of Mexicans to Anglos in matters of politics and authority, and two, the accommodation between new and old elites.” (Montejano, 34).
Early in the 20th Century, a large scale of migration of Midwestern farmers to the Rio Grande Valley, matched by a growing surge of Mexican immigration, led to dramatic population growth in Valley counties. The lower Rio Grande Valley became a curious urban and rural combination by the 1940’s with communities composed of homes of farm owners and workers, and the various stores, processing plans, and industries that served them.
A third must-read is Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era by Even Anders, which speaks of the emergence of the Valley as that curious urban and rural combination. With the completion of the railroad network across the region and the introduction of large-scale irrigation, the economy, and subsequently immigration, boomed in the Valley during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Boss politics, which characteristically centralizes government authority by filling city offices with those willing to follow his orders, was “the inevitable product of the rapid, chaotic process of urbanization.”
However, this form of government was sharply criticized with the emergence of the national trend of the Progressive Era, whose reformers denounced the bosses as tyrants who monopolized power and manipulated people. Despite these moralistic appeals, history reveals these political machines performed a variety of constructive functions, including social welfare, particularly for immigrants, and the advent of economic development in the region with imposed municipal privileges for businesses, such as more franchises and less red tape.
Heraclitus (random Greek philosopher dude) is credited for saying you never step into the same river twice. Change is universal, regardless of place, irrespective of time. Managing the Valley’s future requires us really to know our past.
Anders, Evan M. Boss Rule in South Texas, The Progressive Era. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Montejano, David. Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.
Moretti, Enrico. The New Geography of Jobs. New York City: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Sanchez, Mario L. A Shared Experience, The History, Architecture and Historic Designations of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Heritage Corridor, 2nd Edition. Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1994.