A grant from the Texas Historical Foundation allowed the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University to acquire 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, THF president. “Our organization is pleased to support the Wittliff Collections and to help make this manuscript widely available for educational purposes.”
The acquisition includes Tafolla’s handwritten manuscript and 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 and the general public for viewing and research.
Writing 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 United States to power in New Mexico. After his parents died, he was sent to live with an abusive older brother and later ran away.
He and a cousin wandered for days in the mountains east of Santa Fe. Half starved, they spotted a U.S. wagon train heading east along the Santa Fe Trail. Tafolla leapt aboard 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 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 Indian wars in Texas. Later he joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Tafolla 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 birth of the livestock industry in Texas. He was elected justice of the peace in Bandera County and, soon afterward, had a religious conversion and became a Methodist. 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.
For generations, his family members passed along his handwritten memoir. One of his grandsons 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 on the memoir. One, Dr. Carmen Tafolla, is the first-ever Poet Laureate of the City of San Antonio. Working with her cousin, educator Laura Tafolla, the two women completed transcribing and translating Santiago Tafolla’s memoir, which was published by Arté Público Press in 2009.
“We are grateful to the Texas Historical Foundation for the group’s 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.”