What Happens When a Country's Culture is Replaced by Immigrants?

tags: Texas, Mexico

Diana Muir Appelbaum is the author of Reflections in Bullough’s Pond; Economy and Ecosystem in New England. She is currently working a book project with the tentative title Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

The Battle of the Alamo. Image via Wiki Commons.

Could a large, democratic country admit so many immigrants that they would replace the native language, culture and identity? David Coleman, an Oxford demographer, thinks that it could happen. The scale of modern migration, and high immigrant birthrates has led him to speculate about a “third demographic transition” in which immigrants replace the language, culture and ethnicity of receiving countries.

Ethnic change can, of course, happen in the wake of conquest: Han Chinese are rapidly displacing native language and culture of Tibet, where Tibetans have become a disadvantaged minority. But would a democratic nation allow its ethnicity and language to be replaced by those of an immigrant group?

There is, in fact, at least one instance in which the legislators, governors, and presidents of a large, modern, democratic, and sovereign nation state enacted measures to facilitate the mass, legal immigration of a foreign ethnic group notorious for its high birthrate and resistance to assimilation. The legislators argued, correctly, that mass immigration would bring economic development. The also, however, believed, that the immigrants would obey the laws and assimilate to the language, culture and ethnicity of their new country. Instead, the immigrants used the democratic structure to take over the government and impose their own laws, language and ethnicity on the land to which they had come as legal immigrants.

We’re talking Texas, one of the sovereign, Spanish-speaking states that formed the First Federal Republic of Mexico in 1824.

When Texas became independent of Spain in 1821, most of the population was Amerindian. These native Americans were outside the political conversation except when they figured as potential converts to settled, Mexican Catholic life, or as a military threat. The Tejanos, citizens and voters of Texas, lived in and around the towns of Goliad, San Antonio, and Nacogdoches; the more substantial families lived on large ranchos. Many Tejano families descended from soldiers posted along the Spanish frontier and had been in Texas for three or four generations. They numbered perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 thousand souls and they feared an Indian war that might destroy their entire community; that had happened in New Mexico in 1680.

Mexico’s political class was divided into two parties. Conservatives favored strong central government closely tied to the army and the Church. Liberals favored provincial autonomy, rights for mestizos, economic development, government takeover of Church-owned land, and rapid dispersal of government land to settlers. In 1824 liberals led the unification of the newly independent states into a loosely confederated republic.

Crucially, each constituent state retained control of unsettled land -- Indian land -- and the right to distribute it.

Members of both parties were understandably concerned that the aggressively expansionist United States would grab Texas, whether by treaty, war, or mass migration. The 1821 Commission on Foreign Relations argued the urgency of recruiting Catholics to settle Texas lest Americans migrants, “annex Texas... like the Goths, Visigoths, and other tribes assailed the Roman Empire.”

The Visigothic barbarians from Tennessee that the highly educated, wealthy Mexican landowners in the central government feared wanted land because the American population was exploding. It trebled between the censuses of 1790 and 1830, but this was not a nation of immigrants. A mere 200,000 of the almost eleven million non-slave Americans enumerated in 1830 were foreign born. Jacksonian Americans were native-born, English-speaking Protestants, many were sixth and seventh-generation Americans, part of a new, autochthonous and distinctive ethnic nation. For two centuries it had been the custom of this nation to marry young, rear large families, and settle farms on the frontier.

Mexico took steps to block the entry of the Visigothic hordes. Although some Americans crossed the border illegally and squatted on land they did not own, Mexicans knew that large numbers of settlers would only come if they were given land. The federal congress enacted the National Colonization Law of 1824 to protect the nation from American immigrants. It restricted land grants to Catholics who pledged to support the Mexican government and laws. For added insurance, it required Americans willing to convert to Catholicism to be assigned land far from the coast or border.

Tejanos did not share the federal opposition to American immigrants. They not only knew that their towns and ranches could be wiped out by a determined Indian assault unless they could grow large enough to defend themselves. The national government might talk about settling the frontier with Catholics, but almost none actually came. Americans, however, were eager to come, and Tejanos expected them to bring the know-how to make the Texas economy boom.

In 1825 the legislature of Coahuila y Tejas passed its own Law for Promoting Colonization. It formally respected and even incorporated many provisions of the National Colonization Law of 1824. There were to be no settlements within 20 leagues of the border or 10 leagues of the coast. Settlers were only to be given land after converting to Catholicism and taking an oath of citizenship binding them to obey the Mexican Constitution. Towns were to set aside land for a Catholic church. Integration of the newcomers was to be promoted by requiring that, “inasmuch as possible the towns should be composed of natives and foreigners.”

Within a month of the passage of the Colonization Law, the Governor of Coahuila y Tejas approved enormous land grants to four land contractors (empresarios) with a combined right to settle 2,400 families. More land grants rapidly followed. Between ten and fifteen thousand Americans immigrated to Texas in the 1820s. Despite the provisions of the law, most were granted land near the Louisiana border and along the coast; these areas instantly became densely American and English–speaking.

Many immigrants did undergo pro-forma conversions to Catholicism or, at least, acquired documents stating that they had done so. This was required to register their land grants. Stephen Austin, the Father of Texas, later described these conversions as “formal and unessential.” Immigrants appear to have regarded them as meaningless. Politicians in central Mexico expressed concern about the failure to enforce laws intended to insure the assimilation of immigrants to Mexican culture, but the government did to act.

The kind of development that Tejanos hoped for was large-scale, commercial cotton plantations. But large-scale cotton planting depended on the exploitation of slaves to be competitive, and American planters hesitated to move valuable human property to a non-slaveholding country. Fear that their human property might be liberated upon crossing into Mexican territory was the only serious constraint on American immigration.

Texas delegates to the state constitutional convention of Coahuila y Tejas knew this, and they fought hard to make the perpetual enslavement of human beings legal. The best they could manage was Article 13 in the 1827 Constitution of the State of Coahuila and Texas which read, “no one shall be born a slave in the state”. A mere lifetime interest in the labor of a slave without ownership of the slave’s children wasn’t good enough to attract cotton planters, so the government enacted Decree 56 of May 5, 1828. This was an innocuous-seeming regulation of contracts entered into between employer and employee prior to emigration to Texas. But it created a legal ruse whereby slaves ‘voluntarily’ signed documents binding themselves and their children to perpetual indenture.

Liberals in the national government watched with growing concern as Texas encouraged hordes of Americans to immigrate and permitted them to bring slaves. The liberals did not have the votes to get a decisive abolition bill through the federal congress, so President Vincente Guerrero declared the immediate emancipation of all slaves on Mexican soil effective September 15, 1829.

American immigrants formed a comfortable majority of the population of Texas by 1829. They had come t to make their fortunes, and they were counting on the coerced labor of enslaved humans to make themselves rich. The governor of Texas feared a ethnic revolt if word of the abolition decree spread. He suppressed the news while he worked frantically to persuade President Guerrero to rescind the decree, and -- on December 2 -- the President caved, exempting Texas from the emancipation declaration. The Texas Gazette gleefully announced that the government had granted them, “all we could wish for, as colonists -- the SECURITY of our PERSONS and PROPERTY.”

The national government made several more ineffectual efforts to control immigration, but Texas slipped from the national agenda after 1834 as liberal politicians struggled, and failed, to hold power against resurgent centralists led by General Santa Anna.

In Coahuila y Tejas, however, 1834 saw pro-immigration, liberal federalists gain control of the legislature. They approved more land grants to Americans, chartered new, American municipalities (Matagorda and San Agustin), added three, new legislative districts (populated by Americans), protected the right to own slaves, legalized the use of English for government documents, and instituted American-style trial by jury. Events moved so quickly that this raft of new laws was never put into effect, but they do demonstrate the extent of Tejano legislative support for the immigrants who were rapidly supplanting Mexican culture. Like the 1825 Law for Promoting Colonization, and Decree 56 of 1828, appropriating indentured servitude as a means of permitting slavery, the legislative enactments of 1834 were written by the popularly elected representatives of Spanish-speaking, Mexicans.

By the end 1834 Santa Anna had begun the reforms that would turn Mexico into a military dictatorship, including the disbanding of state militias. The legislature of Coahuila y Tejas responded early in 1835. Declaring its support for the Mexican Constitution of 1824 under which Texas, an Estado libre independiente y sberano (free, independent and sovereign state,) was voluntarily joined with other free and sovereign states in a confederation, it elected Texas sovereigntist Agustín Viesca as governor.

Santa Anna immediately ordered Viesca to disband the Texas militia. Viesca refused. Santa Anna regarded this as open rebellion. Tejanos understood it as a defense of the Constitution. But the rebellion shifted almost instantly to a war of independence led by American immigrants. This came to some Tejanos as a painful shock. One wrote, “I cannot describe to you my anger upon learning that the Texan colonists who had pronounced themselves for the federal constitution now only aspire to become independent.” Nevertheless, a substantial percentage of Tejanos of military age fought with the Americans for independence.

For almost all of the American immigrants, the Texas Revolution was a matter of their right to take power in a place where they were the majority culture. American immigrants described themselves as ‘the people of Texas’ when they founded the Republic of Texas on March 2, 1836 with a Declaration of Independence that was written in English and signed by sixty men in a newly created Texas town called Washington. There were three Tejanos among the 60 signers.

Expectations that Texas would immediately be admitted to American statehood were dashed. Instead, the Republic of Texas existed for a decade as an independent state recognized by very few governments.

In an irony so perfect that it is almost charming, the Texas Republic opened its borders to immigrants. In addition to the Americans they expected, large numbers of Germans arrived. This caused some Texans to worry that German immigrants would soon outnumber Americans. This, they feared, would cause Texas to “pass out of our hands,’ and become “a new European colony of Texas, to be composed of people in sentiment, feeling, and country, foreign to the United States.”

Ethnic change and language replacement by means of legal immigration. It does happen.

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