Recently I took a trip to New Mexico with a Chicano Picasso via El Moises and owner of In The Streets Magazine via El Whyner to support the arts community and cultura. On our trip, Moises kept pointing out the Rio Grande River in New Mexico repeatedly to us, and it just stuck with me.
When I returned home, I was pleasantly surprised to see an email from south Tejas amigo via Juan Montoya who wanted me to consider a story he wrote recently about an amazing woman and pioneer in Texas.
I’m honored to share Juan Montoya’s story of Doña Estefana with you For those of you who may not know Mr. Montoya, he is a great writer of Texas who used to write for many Texas papers.
Santa Rita: More Than Just Being Known As the “First Anglo settlement in Lower Rio Grande Valley”
By Juan Montoya
If you asked almost anyone today who Doña Estefana Goseacochea de Cavazos de Cortina was, or what she did, you’d probably get a blank stare.
Not only have the accomplishments of this great Latina woman gone unnoticed by Texas and local history, but the importance of her family’s pioneer efforts in South Texas have been obscured by time and the myopia of Anglo historians.
Doña Estefana was one of the pioneer Latinas who came to South Texas bringing with them the civilizing agents of education and religion. She was born in Camargo, Mexico, in 1782 (the Rio Grande wasn’t a border then) and died in 1867 on her El Carmen ranch at 85. She was also owner of the Santa Rita Ranch, the first Cameron County seat.
Until the settlers came, the land was inhabited by wandering Native American nomads. Anthropologists have found little evidence of agriculture or livestock being developed there. With the coming of Salvador de la Garza (her father and grantee of the Espiritu Santo Land Grant), all that changed.
P. G. Cavazos, her great-great grandson, from San Pedro, was instrumental in getting the Texas Historical Commission to erect a marker on Doña Estefana’s family cemetery off Military Highway where she and her family once operated her ranching empire.
Hers was one of the first ones established in Cameron County. El Carmen Ranch was named after Doña Estefana’s daughter. Rancho Viejo was established by her father in 1770. El Carmen Avenue, named after her daughter, connected these two ranches. Santa Rita (now Villanueva, and the first seat of Cameron County) was also founded by Doña Estefana.
If you are travelong west on Military Highway, as you get to Villa Nueva there is a small road that turns left toward the irrigation district water pump on the Rio Grande River. There you will find a weathered granite marker and a leaning marker to the Oblate Trail.
That is all that’s left of the ranching heritage that started the entire region. Of course, the Santa Rita marker makes no mention of Doña Estefana, merely that it was the “First Anglo settlement in Lower Rio Grande Valley…”
(It is a shame that Ernie Hernandez, the commissioner for Pct. 2, allows this unique historical site to crumble be ignored. There are places in the state, we would bet, who would give their eyeteeth to be the sites of historical gems like these.)
Cavazos said Doña Estefana would always make sure a chapel was built on every new ranch that was founded. Also, she made sure her children received an education, and they, in turn, would set up schools in the ranches for the sons and daughter of her ranch hands.
Thus, this pioneer woman, in fact, initiated the custom and culture of education long before the State of Texas, Cameron County, the City of Brownsville, or even the Brownsville Independent School District, existed. One of her sons (Jose Maria) went on to become a tax-assessor collector for the eventual Cameron County and another (Sabas) would become a wealthy and successful rancher dominating the local agrarian economy. He also served as a county commissioner and a justice of the peace.
Her deeds and accomplishments are often overshadowed by the activities and controversy surrounding her youngest son, Juan Cortina. However, there is no reason why her impact on the economic and social development of the area should take a back seat to his activities.
The new Veterans Memorial High School built buy the Brownsville Independent School District is literally in the old La Carmen ranch’s front yard. Carmen Avenue is on the property’s east side. Her son’s (Sabas) historical cemetery lies in San Pedro, on the north side of the school. His mother’s historical cemetery marker is on the school’s southeast side. Rancho Viejo, her father’s ranch, lies to its north. When the levee was built, the cemetery was destroyed.
The Rio Grande River runs along the south side of where the old Santa Rita Ranch used to be and is a well-known crossing place for residents to either side of the river through the crossing known as Las Piedras. There, just a stone’s throw away, is Mexico on the other side of the shallow river.
Doña Estefana’s descendants include members of virtually every original family in South Texas. The Cavazos, Cortinas, Olivieras, Trevinos, Zavaletas (Dr. Tony Zavaleta, Dean of Exterior Affairs at UTB-TSC is her great-great-great grandson), Salinas, Tijerinas, De la Garzas, etc., all trace their distinct roots to this great woman who came to South Texas and built it with her own hands.