Kyle B. Carpenter is a PhD Student in SMU’s William P. Clements Department of History
Thompson, Jerry D. Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2017. Pp. 414. $29.95.
Jerry Thompson’s Tejano Tiger chronicles the life of Santos Benavides of Laredo, Texas. With a narrative that spans the man’s entire lifetime, the book offers a window into how the U.S.-Mexico War, U.S. Civil War, French intervention in Mexico, Reconstruction politics, and industrialization all impacted the people living on the Rio Grande. Santos Benavides had a hand in all of these significant events. As a politician, he adapted quite quickly to the U.S. political system, becoming mayor of Laredo in 1856 and a Texas state house representative in the 1870s. He also fought Indians, Union soldiers, and Mexican revolutionaries as a combatant in the various conflicts on the border. Further, he took advantage of the border conflicts and contestations to make savvy real estate and business decisions to build a prominent mercantile house with the Benavides name. Through boosterism, politicking, smuggling, violence, and bribery, Santos navigated crisis after crisis to do what he thought best for Laredo and himself. Thompson does a masterful job weaving an engrossing and intriguing narrative of a truly transnational border figure from a wide variety of sources.
Thompson’s source base is astounding. Santos Benavides did not leave a memoir or extant journal, so the author had to piece together his biography from an assortment of manuscript and archival sources. From the national archives of the United States and Mexico, regional archives in Texas and Nuevo Leon, down to local archives in Laredo and Nuevo Guerrero, he cites over fifty different manuscript collections, not to mention a wealth of newspaper and secondary source research. The painstaking hours of research into the lives of people who surrounded Benavides during his life allows Thompson to paint a beautiful and nuanced picture of the man and the borderland in which he lived.
Thompson’s narrative style blends the disparate source base together in a clear, complete whole. He skillfully keeps Santos at the center of story even though most of his sources engage Benavides peripherally. Thompson also navigates convoluted border crises with aplomb. For example, the complex intersections of the U.S. Civil War and French intervention created an atmosphere of chaos along the border. Thompson, however, finds a narrative balance through the relationship between Santos Benavides and Nuevo Leon governor Santiago Vidaurri. Benavides fought as an officer for the Confederacy in South Texas while Vidaurri tepidly supported the French imperial push into Mexico. Through their relationship, Thompson demonstrates the many ways the conflicts in the United States and Mexico overlapped along the border.
The Benavides-Vidaurri relationship is just one of the ways Thompson maintains a transnational scope in the book. Though the border remains a constant and important concept in the book, the author has no delusions that it was a firm division between two nation-states. In fact, Thompson constantly shows the international movement of people and goods across a porous, open border. The central themes for entire chapters center on border crossing. Chapter four explores how essential the Mexican cotton trade was for the Confederacy, chapter six investigates the complex process of peacemaking after civil war, and the concluding chapter, nine, tracks Santos’s abilities as an international diplomat facilitating peaceful relations between Mexico and the United States. For Thompson, border crossing was a central theme of Santos Benavides’s life.
Thompson’s masterful biography elicits further questions and offers new paths for historical exploration. For example, according to Thompson, the Benavides matriarch and her daughters played very important roles in the family’s ranching and mercantile businesses. Following his sources down that path could reveal a significant analysis of women’s role and their power in the borderland. Additionally, straying farther from Thompson’s central figure would allow historians to draw out and uncover important research projects. For instance, when the Confederacy dissolved, angry soldiers roamed around the borderlands wreaking havoc around Brownsville. A militia made up of Mexican Juaristas helped restore law and order in the city, protecting the lives and property of Anglo-Americans (p. 205). Why were Juaristas flexing power in and around Brownsville? What dynamics drove them there? How did the people of Brownsville react? Why was Santos Benavides not demanding order from his former charges? The author cannot cover everything and the book already comes in at 414 pages including notes, bibliography, and index, but it provides a spark for exciting research avenues in nineteenth century borderlands history.
Overall, Tejano Tiger remains a remarkable biography of an important transnational border leader. The life of Santos Benavides supplies great insight into how an elite conservative Tejano navigated the border in a most tumultuous time.