Hays County’s Indigenous Community Continues Struggle for Recognition
By Brooke Nevins
Hays County Commissioners Court raised the ire of critics by failing to reappoint members of its historical commission during a meeting earlier this year, a move that effectively dissolved a committee that represented the interests of Tejano and Indigenous groups.
The criticism came from citizens after the court did not reappoint members of the Hays County Historical Commission’s Tejano Committee, which oversaw preservation of the county’s Hispanic and Indigenous history.
Maria Rocha, the executive director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos and whose membership was denied, said she does not understand why she was not appointed, given her qualifications.
“Our Indigenous voice is critically needed on a historical commission that currently fails to represent people of color to the degree that they exist in the Hays County population,” Rocha said in a letter to commissioners. “Other highly qualified Hispanic applicants were rejected, thus dismissing an opportunity to correct inequities in representation on this historical commission.”
On Jan 5 Bobby Garza’s comment was read to the Hays County Commissioners Court concerning Indigenous and Tejano communities representation on the Historical Commission.
Maria Rocha’s comment was read to the Hays County Commissioners Court concerning Indigenous and Tejano communities representation on the Historical Commission as well as her own denied application.
Other applicants to the commission submitted letters to the court. The letters had requested the court to postpone the approval of the new HCHC members until after the county fulfilled a public records request, submitted in December, for information regarding the court’s selection process and copies of the submitted applications.
During the meeting, HCHC chair Kate Johnson said its evaluation criteria for new applicants included level of experience in historical preservation, previous engagement in similar organizations and geographical distribution in the county. It evaluated returning applicants by similar criteria as well as past attendance records and monthly volunteer hours.
Kate Johnson spoke to the Hays County Commissioners Court as the HCHC chair to submit the membership recommendations.
The letters included charges of systemic injustice toward minorities after commissioners replaced Gina Alba-Rogers and Irma Gaitan, the former chair of the Tejano Committee, with applicants who “had claimed in their applications no historical knowledge” of Hays County, according to Alba-Rogers in a written statement.
Commissioner Ingalsbe asked questions to HCHC chair Kate Johnson regarding membership selection.
Despite the letters of concern, commissioners approved the 2021-2022 HCHC members with a 3-2 vote. Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe and County Judge Ruben Becerra voted no.
Since these votes were cast, the historical commission announced on its website its intent to establish a “Hispanic heritage committee.”
However, Becerra has already interceded.
Less than two weeks after dissenting, Becerra established the Council for the Indigenous and Tejano Community, separate from the HCHC. Alba-Rogers praised the county judge’s action.
Judge Becerra asked questions to HCHC chair Kate Johnson regarding membership selection.
“[He undertook] what the local county historical commission who receives county taxpayer funds has persistently neglected to do, most especially with the Indigenous people who have been known to exist in Hays County for more than 10,000 years,” Alba-Rogers said.
The seven co-founders of the new council are Becerra; Alba-Rogers, the council’s chair; Gaitan, vice chair; Rocha; Bobbie Garza-Hernandez, former executive director of Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos; Frank Arredondo, a former mayor of San Marcos; and Anita Azenet Collins, an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker.
Becerra and county commissioners did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Among the Indigenous people seen as overlooked by history are the Coahuiltecan people, which originally consisted of around 600 Native American groups indigenous to the plains of northeastern Mexico and the southern Gulf Coastal Plain of Texas. During the colonial period, the Spaniards largely ignored and blanketed the linguistic, ethnic and cultural variations among these tribes with a generalized identity.
The institute says the term “Hispanic” is an overgeneralization, as it lumps all Spanish-speaking people together, regardless of their cultural, ethnic and regional heritage. It says most people in Texas labeled “Hispanic” or “Latino” are actually Indigenous with ancestors from the Coahuiltecan groups, who were ‘detribalized’ by this modern terminology and being mistaken with Mexican culture.
The effects of this cultural erasure have lasted to this day, as demonstrated by the HCHC’s failure to support “diversity and appropriate representation of all communities,” according to Rocha.
“What this says to the members of the Indigenous and Tejano community, who are more than 40% of the population here, is that they will never have more than four or five seats at the HCHC 25-member table of deciders,” Rocha said. “Dismissing our membership says that our people’s stories do not interest the HCHC and our voices are not important to them either.”
Mario Garza ‘s comment was read to the Hays County Commissioners Court concerning Indigenous and Tejano communities representation on the Historical Commission.
Many feel that the Texas school curriculum fails to properly educate students about Coahuiltecan history that dates back over 14,000 years. Members of the Miakan-Garza Band in San Marcos, formally recognized by the 83rd Legislature of Texas as a Texas Indian tribe on May 16, 2013, founded the nonprofit Indigenous Cultures Institute in 2006 to preserve and provide educational programs on Coahuiltecan history in central Texas and encourage youth of Indigenous descent to reclaim their heritage.
Daniel Ayala, a San Marcos resident and teacher at Hays High School, says this cultural education and representation in the community impacts children at an early age.
“It’s important for a kid to feel like they’ve got a sense of belonging and that their culture is normalized,” Ayala said. “If you feel like you don’t belong with your peers or that your peers don’t know about you, then you’re going to feel left out and that could lead to… not really focusing on school anymore because you’re self-conscious all the time, or not validated in your existence.”
As the executive director of the institute, Rocha says it will house the CITC and provide educational opportunities, art projects and events, like its Indigenous Arts Summer Encounter and Sacred Springs Powwow.
The Sacred Springs Powwow organized by the Indigenous Cultures Institute. Video is from indigenouscultures.org
The council plans to collect stories through traditional methods like home visits, gatherings and word-of-mouth and use social media to reach younger audiences. The institute connects with videographers and graphic design artists as well as Indigenous members of the community with skills in fundraising, social media campaigns, program management and more.
Because of increased awareness of historical and systemic exclusion of Indigenous Americans from society, Rocha says there are a number of grants available to the nonprofit to help fund the CITC’s ability to erect historical markers around Hays County, do outreach and host educational programs. The council also hopes sponsors who understand the importance of its goals will contribute to its Untold Stories fundraising campaign.
The institute, which currently lacks a physical home base, is planning an Indigenous Cultures Center for Hays County where the public can engage with and learn from displays, exhibits and presentations of Indigenous and Tejano history. It will provide a space for the Indigenous community to embrace its customs and values.Although the HCHC’s decision is just one example of the struggles Indigenous and Tejano communities continue to face in Texas, Rocha is confident in the younger generations’ commitment to increasing awareness and amplifying Indigenous voices into the future.
“The good news is that with the new movement towards acknowledging our initial occupation of this land, and the need for reparation of this erasure of our history, many people of good heart are coming out in support of our program,” Rocha said.
“Young people understand the importance of ancestors and the preservation of our culture. They see the need to honor the past and learn from elders. This movement by the young people of the world is most inspiring and I am humbled by their good spirit.”
The new heritage council has yet to post a date for its first open meeting.