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Santiago Tafolla

Santiago Tafolla Collection

santiago tafolla
Santiago Tafolla

Historic Tafolla manuscript acquired with grant from the Texas Historical Foundation

Thanks to a generous grant from the Texas Historical Foundation, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University have acquired the only known memoir of a Mexican American who served in the Civil War. Reverend Santiago Tafolla took pen to paper in 1908 and chronicled the first 39 years of his life, from his birth in 1837 through his service as a Mexican Confederate in the Civil War and up to his swearing-in as Justice of the Peace in Bandera County in 1876.

“Reverend Tafolla’s manuscript is a rich learning tool,” said David D. Martinez, president of the Texas Historical Foundation. “We’re pleased to support the Wittliff Collections and to help make this manuscript widely available for educational purposes.”

The acquisition includes Tafolla’s handwritten manuscript as well as related photos, maps, and other historically significant archival material. As part of the Wittliff Collections, the Tafolla Papers will be available to the Texas State University community as well as the general public for viewing and research purposes.

“I begin my biography today at the age of 71 years and twenty-three days,” wrote Tafolla, who went on to tell the stories of his life in crisp, narrative style.

Writing smoothly and easily in his native Spanish, Tafolla recounted his extraordinary adventures, a journey that led him from an orphaned childhood to his position as a beloved public figure in Texas. Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he was a citizen of Mexico who witnessed the U.S.-Mexico war that brought the U.S. to power in New Mexico. After his parents died, he was sent to live with an abusive older brother. In 1848, at age eleven, he decided to run away.

He and a cousin wandered for several days in the mountains east of Santa Fe. Half-starved, they spotted a U.S. wagon train heading east along the Santa Fe Trail. Though neither boy spoke English, they understood enough to know what one of the Americans was saying: he was inviting them to join the group.

Tafolla took one look back at his homeland and leapt aboard to go with the strangers. His travels led him to St. Louis, New York, and Washington, D.C. He went to school, learned English, and became educated. He worked as a cobbler and then later as a tailor. In Washington, D.C., Tafolla arranged to meet with Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who helped him enlist in the 2nd United States Calvary—which brought him to the front lines of the Texas Indian Wars. Later he joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Tafolla describes some of the dramatic events of the time, including his participation in the kidnapping of Edmund J. Davis from Mexico. He also encountered ugly racism in Texas, which led him and some of his Tejano colleagues to abandon their regiment. After the war he became active in politics and participated in the beginnings of the great livestock industry in Texas. He was elected Justice of the Peace in Bandera County and, soon afterward, had a religious conversion. Tafolla became a Methodist, and he spent the last 35 years of his life as a circuit-riding preacher, well known as one of the first Methodist preachers of Hispanic descent and a very prominent citizen of the San Antonio area.

Tafolla died in the pulpit at age 73. Family members passed along his handwritten memoir as a treasured heirloom for generations. One of his grandsons, Fidel Tafolla, a noted educator in San Antonio who has a middle school named after him, attempted to transcribe and translate the memoir in the 1960s but was unsuccessful in finding a publisher, as there was little interest in early Mexican American writings at the time.

In recent years, two of Tafolla’s great-granddaughters worked together on the memoir. One of them is Dr. Carmen Tafolla, an internationally renowned poet, author, and educator from Texas and the first-ever Poet Laureate of the City of San Antonio. Carmen and her cousin, educator Laura Tafolla, completed transcribing and translating Santiago Tafolla’s memoir, and A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Civil War Soldier was at last published by Arté Público Press in 2009.

“We are grateful to the Texas Historical Foundation for its support of this important addition to the Southwestern Writers Collection,” said Dr. David Coleman, director of the Wittliff Collections. “It furthers our work in preserving and sharing the culture and history of Mexican Americans in Texas.”

The Wittliff Collections plans to digitize the manuscript and other Tafolla items to create an interactive web presence designed to educate and inspire students and teachers seeking to learn more about this extraordinary life of this man who has become an important Texas writer.