As a volunteer at the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, I am privileged with time to spend looking deeper into the artifacts and displays there. As I have long been interested in the day to day lives of people in all eras of history, the marvels of the museum provoke my informed imagination.
Geography dealt out more hard luck to the Lower Valley bands of Coahuiltecans. Eight or nine thousand years before our current era some plant breeders, of true genius, in the Balsas River Valley in south-central Mexico created maize from a grass now called Teosinte. The grass seed head was bred into something like a head of corn, then eventually, into a very short ear of corn. That maize, along with native beans and squash types, became an agricultural system called “The Three Sisters”, “The Mexican Triad”, or “The Mexican Trinity” today. By 1,000 C. E. (1,000 A. D. for old schoolers like me), peoples from Colombia to Massachusetts, who were dealt better geographical luck, were living a more sedentary life with greater food supply security than our local bands of Indians. Why didn’t the bands jump on “The Three Sisters’ bandwagon?
Imagine yourself in their position. Stories, told from band to band down the river, of people living in ONE place, with food rising from the earth at their bidding, might sound too fantastic. Maybe some neighbor showed them a few shriveled seeds as evidence of this magic. How many of these would we need? How do we put them on the earth? How long does it take for the magic to happen? All of their very practical questions had no answers.
They were barely scraping by as it was. How could they possibly take the risk of staying in one place with dwindling resources while waiting for this miracle to occur on some later day? Obviously, they did not take that leap of faith. Do you think you might have?
Sometimes a blessing can be a curse, or a curse can be a blessing. It was the latter for our Coahuiltecans. Living poor in a poor land meant that no one wanted their meager possessions or their land. The Spanish started the conquest of Mexico in 1519. The Europeans colonized most of what would later be the country of Mexico, including areas to the South, West, and North of the Lower Rio Grande. However, there was no real effort to colonize the Lower Rio Grande Valley until 1748. Jose Escandon, an Indian fighter, superb diplomat, and sharp organizer started to settle the new Province of Nuevo Santander of which the Lower Valley was a part.
I really don’t know, but I would bet that as in the rest of the Western Hemisphere, European goods and diseases preceded, by trade, the Europeans themselves. It is possible, then, that the Valley Coahuiltecans had already suffered epidemics which would have reduced their populations and reduced their raggedy-edge existence to desperation. When the Spanish colonists came, the Coahuiltecans melded into the society of the colonizers and gave up their lifestyle for food security and military protection from other tribes. Even the Spanish colonial era did not pry agricultural bounty from the grip of a stingy country and fickle river. The Spaniards ranched sheep, cattle, horses, burros and goats. They, also, bred mules on a commercial scale. However, only kitchen gardening and small scale market gardening were practiced here in the Valley. Most staple foods were brought in from further south in Mexico.
Agriculture in the Lower Rio Grande Valley could only become a large scale enterprise in the early 1900s. The arrival of another “Three Sisters”: modern agricultural technology, modern distribution technology, and mass marketing, changed everything. The Lower Rio Grande Valley was terraformed to serve humankind. Large scale agriculture created a huge number of employment opportunities which had never existed before, so immigrants came here from six of the seven continents to grasp them. In a very short time, the land changed so much that it would have been unrecognizable to a Coahuiltecan, a Spanich colonist, a Mexican vaquero, or a Texas cowboy.
People go on.