Dan Arellano’s well worn hands rested on the smooth, ornate hilt of his 19th century Spanish sword, which complimented a navy and white military ensemble complete with gold and scarlet accents. A brimmed and black “bolero” style hat dipped and rose as the museum lecturer spoke animatedly for a small group of elderly people in the vast and airy marble ensconced foyer of the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Heads dipped and eyebrows rose as Arellano, vivacious and alive amid hushed exhibits and frozen displays of relic, expounded on the little-known Texan struggle for independence known as the Battle of Medina.
Arellano’s attire resembles the uniform of his great-great-great grandfather Francisco Arellano, a sergeant under the Spanish Royalist army of General Joaquín “El Carnicero” de Arredondo or “The Butcher.” In the Battle of Medina, these Spanish Royalists fought Texan rebels 20 miles south of modern day San Antonio.
But the story of the period Dan Arellano represents is at risk of being lost in school textbooks. Just as the Texas State Board of Education allowed slavery to to be considered a “side issue” in the Civil War, the Tejano — or Texans of Mexican descent — contribution to the Texas Revolution is often undervalued in education texts.
The Battle of Medina, the bloodiest clash ever fought on Texan soil, started and ended a short-lived struggle for Texas independence on Aug. 18, 1813.
The struggle originated as the United States looked to wrest Texas from its then owner, Spain. The U.S. sent a force called the Republican Army of the North under General Samuel Kemper to clash with El Carnicero. Kemper’s army fought under the little-known emerald green “seventh flag over Texas,” Dan Arellano said in an interview.
Arellano, an amateur historian widely considered the Battle of Medina’s most knowledgeable scholar, wrote a book named “Tejano Roots, a Family Legend.” The work brought attention to the more than 1,000 Tejanos who had long ago sacrificed their lives for freedom in the struggle.
The Republican company originally consisted of 142 white Americans and 150 Tejanos. Later, the army, with the promise to install a republic and the freedom of the vote in Texas, recruited volunteers throughout the state — Tejanos, indigenous and mixed alike — bolstering the army to around 1,400 strong.
Dan Arellano fights for recognition of this clash between the Spanish Royalists and the Republican Army of the North in Texas history textbooks. The advocate spoke before the Texas Education School Board over two years ago, and managed to get the battle in 7th grade curriculum starting this school year.
Arellano believes the school board promotes myth and American exceptionalism, over truth and the minority hand in history. Arellano said the approach is problematic given the large minority population in Texas.
Out of around 27 million Texans, over 16 million are minorities, or 58%. About 11 million of those minority Texans are Hispanic, or 69%, according to Texas Department of State Health Services’ 2015 census projections.
Texas State Board of Education member Ken Mercer said in a phone interview that the board has added more minority representation in textbooks than any other time in their history.
“Double what anyone had ever added before,” the nine-year representative said.
Mercer said the education board added minority heroes to history curriculum. Mercer said these added heroes included Crispus Attucks, the African American who was the first casualty in the American Revolutionary War, and José Antonio Navarro, who is considered along with Stephen F. Austin as a founding father of Texas.
Mercer also said textbooks should include a certain measure of American exceptionalism.
“History is where you tell the whole story—the bad, the ugly and the exceptional. If you don’t do that, it’s not history,” Mercer said.
Even so, Matt Nelsen, a political science graduate student at the University of Chicago, advocates for more attention to minority narrative in textbooks.
“Politicians in Texas determine which standards are being taught—not history teachers, history experts,” Nelsen said in a phone interview.
“They find textbook companies who are willing to tell the story that Texas politicians want to be told, which is extremely unfortunate,” Nelsen said.
Mercer contended that there are 15 elected members on the board who each chose three experts, all of whom have a unique voice.
“It’s a process. We vote. What’s unique about Texas is that it’s very transparent,” the education representative said.
In addition, Mercer said the experts have their own biases too, and politicians can function as a safety net to make sure the right subject matter—which should not always work to smear America—makes it into textbooks.
Nelsen further explored this topic in his academic paper called “History without Agency: Racial Power and the Problem with American History Textbooks.” In the work Nelsen, a former elementary teacher, analyzed the Texas history textbooks of three different companies, as well as three specific moments involving minority discrimination.
Nelsen found that issues of discrimination and the agency of marginalized groups are often ignored, with grievous consequences.
“We need to show the moment where individuals in racialized, marginalized groups actually took the steps to find agency to fight oppression,” Nelsen said.
“Agency” is the power to think independently and the ability to achieve change. In not displaying minority agency in history textbooks, Nelsen said educators perpetuate the fallacy that minorities are the blind beneficiaries of sweeping white institutional power.
Maria Franklin, a historical archaeologist at the University of Texas, agreed.
Franklin said that the minority’s fight against the system is lost in the promotion of American exceptionalism.
“They (textbook curriculum decision makers) are basically saying we want a passive citizenship that says America can do no wrong,” the professor said.
Arellano looks at this issue of ignored minority agency through the lens of his favorite battle.
“Until I came along, all they (history experts in general) talked about were the Americans. The Tejanos led every charge,” Arellano said, his brisk white mustache dancing with his upper lip as he spoke.
“Who were the ones with the most to lose? The local Tejano community. So who would fight the hardest? The local community,” the museum lecturer said.
In Arellano’s explanation of the Battle of Medina, the Republican army fell into a trap, but did not retreat. The company charged twice up each flank. They found Spanish cavalry waiting each time. The Republican army then charged up the center. There is where the Texan rebels sustained the most casualties.
The Texans lost their brief revolution.
Only 100 of the Republican army survived. The vast majority of survivors were white Americans, rather than Tejanos.
“They should have run home. They should have regrouped. They should have kept more men—more modern weapons. It was a ragtag army. But instead they choose to go out and fight,” Arellano said of the Republican army.
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Arellano said that Texans should not be ashamed of the loss in the Battle of Medina, but proud.
“It gives the local community pride. And I know it, because I’ve seen it when I tell them, ‘Your ancestors were here, and they pretty much fought to the last man,’” Arellano said.
Arellano said the struggle to instill the community with pride by including the minority narrative in history is ever relevant and present. This is the main reason Arellano covers the indigenous, Spanish, Mexican and Tejano eras of Texas history in full Spanish regalia at the Bob Bullock Museum.
Arellano spoke of a group of children, aged 6 to 7, that visited the museum from El Paso, Texas.
“After I gave my lecture a little girl comes up to me and says ‘Sir, are you Mexican?’” Arellano said.
“Yes, mija, I am,” the museum lecturer had said.
“Me too! Me too!” the girl had said.
Then the girl ran off to her friends and the young children pointed excitedly at Arellano. “Yeah, yeah! He’s Mexican—oh my gosh!”
“And they walk out. Strutting. Proud.” Arellano said.
*Top image: Dan Arellano cuts a striking figure in the Bob Bullock Museum’s foyer where he chronicles the Tejano struggle for independence in the Battle of Medina. Photo by Vedant Peris.