Texas! Cowboys. Indians. Mexicans. Jews.
Somehow the more acceptable picture of Jews is walking on West 47th Street in New York or in a small community in Rockland County. The imagination is stretched to picture Jews on the Western frontier.
In 1590 the Spanish king awarded Luis de Carvajal de la Cueva a huge land grant that included parts of San Antonio. His time in Tejas (as the Mexicans called it) was cut short when the Mexican Inquisition, framed after the Spanish purges, executed him as a Secret Jew. He was imprisoned until his death for giving shelter to his Jewish relatives.
Years later Capt. Samuel Noah, who migrated south from New York, commanded a Mexican force against Spain in the revolution.
Over the years, Jews trickled into Texas and while never a major force, they did show a presence in some cities, such as Fort Worth, where they developed a large community. The smaller towns had proportionately smaller Jewish populations. Smaller cities such as McAllen, Waco, and Amarillo had proportionately smaller Jewish populations with most of them involved in the mercantile and professional trades rather than riding, roping, and shooting.
Life for Jews in Texas became far more livable after the state’s independence from Mexico. Jews fought for Texas against Mexico and then found a relatively comfortable life and acceptance in the state. Texas’s constitution guaranteed religious freedom and the Lone Star State began to attract more Jews. Jews even began to participate in public life and many of them were elected mayor of their respective towns and even higher office as well. The majority of Jews in the state are Reform, but there are strong Conservative segments as well as Orthodox and Lubavitch islands.
As of last year the Jewish population of Texas was more than 139,000.
McAllen, only a short distance from a border crossing with Mexico, has seen a constant Jewish population since before World War I. Temple Emanuel today has a membership of about 180 families and is located, interestingly, on Chai Street. Standing in front of the shul is a beautiful monument/memorial to the Holocaust.
Aside from the religious aspect, McAllen is a haven for nature lovers and bird watchers. One of the major destinations for bird watchers is the beautiful property of Quinta Mazatlan. Situated in a migratory path, Quinta Mazatlan has more than 100 species of avian life and bird watchers can be seen throughout the area. The same number holds for the tropical and native trees throughout the property.
Individuals and groups roam the property peering through binoculars, clad in khaki shorts and “Boonie” hats. Hi-top walking shoes are crowned by socks rolled over the top.
But while these are totally devoted birders, first timers and casual visitors are welcomed without being made to feel out of place. The walk is slow and quiet so as not to spook birds or animals. Sharp eyes are needed to spot some of the native dwellers as they flit between the branches of the heavy foliage. For more information, visit www.quintamazatlan.com.
In nearby Mission are located Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, one of the top birding destinations in the country, and the National Butterfly Center [changes per their respective websites. ok?] (www.naba.org), where observers have seen more than 200 species of butterflies. Those who keep track of such things say that records have been set for observing the most species in one location. Bentsen (named for the family of the famed Texas politician, Lloyd Bentsen) has provided the opportunity to see some of the rarest species of butterflies. This is important as the number of the little winged creatures is on the decline in many sections of the country. In New Jersey, for instance, the Monarch Butterfly, which was quite numerous only a few years ago, is rarely seen any more as its habitat has been destroyed. But the beautiful orange and black Monarchs are plentiful in Bentsen.
Visitors to McAllen also have the opportunity to enjoy the Museum of South Texas History (www.mosthistory.org). The museum focuses on the history of the Rio Grande Valley and the blended culture of the various ethnic groups that have either passed through or settled in the region. It is especially rich in the history of nearby Mexico, and a recent exhibit detailed the Mexican holiday of D?a de los Muertos, where those of Mexican heritage honor their ancestors and recently deceased relatives. The museum offered a colorful display of the artifacts used in the celebration.
The city has a lively entertainment district on 17th Street in downtown McAllen with a variety of nightspots and something for almost everyone.
Visitors can easily combine a trip to McAllen with a side venture into Old Mexico for a confluence of culture.
By Bob & Sandy Nesoff