“Texas A & M University has played an integral part in providing
Hispanics with the opportunity to move out from working in the fields by hiring
them in the mess halls. Although in the early days, Hispanics were primarily
hired to do skilled labor and maintenance jobs, as time transpired, Texas A & M,
has become an institution that offers many opportunities for the community
as a whole.
- Helen Chavarria, Community Leader
Hispanic Families and Their Histories at Texas A & M:
From the Fields to the Campus
By Helen Chavarría
“The Texas Story,” by Ralph W. Steen reveals Hispanics can be traced back in the state of Texas to the time in 1519 when a small vessel commanded by Alvarez de Pineda made its way along the Texas coast. According to Steen, there is evidence, that expeditions from México visited the Rio Grande in 1520 and again in 1528. Although small in numbers, I believe it is safe to assume that Hispanics made their way to this area long before the founding of Texas A & M in 1876. The Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture of 1887 shows that Brazos County’s total population was 13,263, of which 22 were Hispanic. The Bryan City Directory of 1937 revealed that there were 49 households with Hispanic surnames. A thesis submitted to the faculty of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas in 1921 titled “Land Tenancy under the Plantation System,” by Joel Wallace Elliot, indicates that the majority of early Hispanics did crop share farming and worked in the fields.
I knew some of the early settlers and field workers, and some of their relatives. All
these early settlers produced Aggies.
Jenaro Gongora, my father, came to the area in 1917 at the age of twelve. He married my mother, Asunción in 1929. He did crop sharing in the Brazos Bottom. He always claimed he never made any money, but he managed to feed his wife and seven children. Dad left the farm and moved his family to Bryan in 1945. In later years, Dad worked for the mess halls as a dishwasher machine operator. He also worked as a construction worker during the first expansion of Kyle Field. He retired from the International Shoe Factory in 1972.
Rafael Lopéz, was better known as the father of Cliff Lopéz, the Kurten Boys Club member, who won a trip to Chicago, the winter of 1926. Mr. Lopéz, a widower with five children came to the Kurten Community from Yucatan, México in 1907. Lopéz was a landowner with 100 acres to his name. Mr. Lopéz told the Bryan Eagle in an interview in 1926, that he liked living in the United States and he didn’t have plans to return to México. He said he wanted to stay and have his children get as educated as possible.
Rafael Goméz, came to Bryan with his family in 1917, according to his oldest daughter, Mary Goméz Villarreal. Goméz worked many years at Holicks in College Station and supplied A&M students with leather goods and made the A&M Cadets’ Senior boots, as well.
Each succeeding generation from Bryan associated with the university has improved on their success. One such family is the Rodríguez family. Manuel Rodríguez, father of Paul Rodríguez and Pete L. Rodríguez, was one of the first settlers. He arrived in 1889. Mr. Rodríguez operated a restaurant and saloon in the building that is now the Heritage Menswear store in Bryan. He catered to the town’s people, as well as to the train depot clientele. He retired after 20 years of business when prohibition came into effect in 1920. Two of Mr. Rodríguez’s sons worked for Texas A&M. Pete L. Rodríguez worked for the Chemistry Department until his retirement. Paul Rodríguez was a supervisor for the Duncan mess hall until he retired. Mr. Rodríguez’s son, Peter, became a Chemistry Professor at Texas A&M before leaving in 2004 to take a position at Princeton. These settlers and subsequent generations saw their children and grandchildren graduate from Texas A&M.
Agricultural labor was a primary source of work for Hispanics, however, by the Mid-1940s, mechanization of cotton production began. Landowners began using sophisticated equipment to work their crops causing the elimination of field hand positions. The workers had to seek jobs of a more permanent nature that offered a better future. Some went to work for the railroad, grocery stores and restaurants.
Texas A&M University has played an integral part in providing Hispanics with the opportunity to move out from working in the fields by hiring them in the mess halls. Although in the early days, Hispanics were primarily hired to do skilled labor and maintenance jobs, as time transpired, Texas A & M, has become an institution that offers many opportunities for the community as a whole. It has been a great resource in offering employment to the Hispanic workforce. Today, Hispanics are represented in every aspect of the job spectrum, in both professional and non-professional positions.
Without a doubt, the University has rendered many benefits to Hispanics. It has allowed more opportunity for local students to attend the university. Its great athletic programs, arts and its great traditions have played an important role in Hispanics deciding to attend A&M and get their educations there. I am honored to know many of these individuals who have become A&M graduates who are present or former university system employees.
One person who stands out as a prime example of transitioning from the fields to the campus is Daniel R. Hernández. Daniel knows firsthand the experience of being born to non-English Speaking parents. His parents, Miguel and Isabel Hernández, worked in the fields and made a living for their children. All of their ten children worked in the fields. Daniel’s parents were successful in educating all of them. Seven of their children received degrees from Texas A&M.
Daniel received his degree from Texas A&M in 1973 and went on to Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., to earn his Doctorate of Jurisprudence. Daniel served as Director of Affirmative Action at Georgetown University. He returned to Bryan/College Station Community and worked as a consultant for the International and Strategic Studies Department and was Associate Vice Chancellor for Community Development for the Texas A&M University System. Daniel currently serves as an adjunct professor at the Mays School of Business at Texas A & M University and is a partner in the Hernández Law Firm, P.C. with offices in Bryan, McAllen and San Antonio, Texas.
Texas A&M has played a critical part in the economic success of the Bryan/College Station Community. It has been instrumental in providing jobs, bringing in Tourism and serving as a rich resource to all segments of the community. Students, faculty and other services contribute to the communities in so many ways. The very presence of the university has improved the quality of life in our community.
A school as rich in traditions as Texas A&M can serve to bring the whole community closer and create a strong sense of unity. I hope Dr. Robert Gates, President of Texas A & M University, can intensify his on-going efforts to recruit more minorities and concentrate some of his efforts to our local Hispanics by providing needed scholarships for them. I have faith that as the University continues to strive to be a truly diversified institution; providing opportunities for more Hispanics.
Steen, Ralph W. The Texas Story, Austin, Texas, Steck Co., 1948
Elliot, Joel Wallace, “Land Tenancy Under the Plantation System,” thesis to Agricultural and Mechanical College, Texas, 1921.
Lopéz, Rafael. The Bryan Eagle, 1926.
Interview with Mary Goméz Villarreal (daughter of Rafael Goméz) by Helen Chavarría, October 1989.
Interview with Paul and Pete Rodríguez (sons of Manuel Rodríguez) by Helen Chavarría, October 1989.
Interview with Daniel R. Hernández by Helen Chavarría, September 2005.