The Yellow Rose of Texas
by Lynn Bergman
I've spent many evenings by the fire this winter reading James Michener's historical novel, “Texas”. I had started reading it a decade ago but was diverted from it by a severe case of political activism.
Old Mexico's Elites
Midway through the novel, old Mexico's social order (caste) was revealed, included eighty-five categories reflective of a person's percentage of Spanish, Indian, Negro and Chinese blood. A Spaniard born in the Iberian peninsula (Spain) was a “peninsular” (gachupin) possessing a glorious heritage. A Spaniard born in Mexico to peninsular parents was a “criollo” (Espanol) possessing a prideful heritage. A likely Spaniard who could not prove that both parents were Spanish was a “limpio (clean) de origen” possessing an almost acceptable heritage. This social order insured that the purity of the Spanish race was protected and the infiltrations of lesser strains identified. The levels of social order below these so-called “superior” heritages are listed below:
Many of the designations carried derogatory overtones, demonstrating what the “superior” groups really thought of such mixing.
lobo (wolf) Indian-Negro
zambo (lascivious monkey) Negro-Indian
The elitist society of old Mexico partially outlined above lies in stark contrast with the society I experienced in Yuma Arizona for almost two years in the late 1970s. I detected no significant racism from any group and, in fact, I found Mexicans to be much more welcoming to their society than non-Catholic whites. Generalizations of any group should to be avoided at all cost… but we are all prone to such errors in the application of judgment throughout our sinful lives.
The Birth of Texas
On March 2, 1836, The Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico was signed by 59 delegates at “Washington on the Brazos” (about ten miles southeast of today's College Station, Texas). On March 6th, a ten day battle to defend the Alamo (near San Antonio) ended with the death of 182 Texican defenders. On April 21, 1836 at the San Jacinto River, General Sam Houston's 800 irregulars, with the sun at their backs, surprised the 1400 trained soldiers (1500 men in all) of General Santa Anna by attacking them at 4 o'clock in the afternoon near the end of a half-day long siesta in their tents following a grueling forced march on the previous day. Santa Anna had forgotten to set up picket lines after a hit of opium and a 3:00 PM session in his tent with Emily D. West, a mulatto slave from the Morgan plantation who was kept in a nearby farmhouse. Two of the Texicans died during that day of rage in remembrance of the Alamo as they slaughtered over six hundred Mexicans. Others from both sides died in the days thereafter.
The Yellow Rose of Texas
The earliest known version of this famous song is found in Christy's Plantation Melodies. No. 2, a songbook published under the authority of Edwin Pearce Christy in Philadelphia in 1853. Christy was the founder of the blackface minstrel show known as the Christy's Minstrels. Like most minstrel songs, the lyrics are written in a cross between the dialect historically spoken by Negros and standard American English. The song is written in the first person from the perspective of a Negro singer who refers to himself as a "darky" longing to return to "a yellow girl," a term used to describe the mulatto, Emily. The original version employs the politically incorrect but historically accurate terminology of the 1830s, as follows:
There's a yellow girl in Texas
That I'm going down to see;
No other darkies know her
No darkey, only me;
She cried so when I left her
That it like to broke my heart,
And if I only find her,
we never more will part.
She's the sweetest girl of colour
That this darkey ever knew;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds,
And sparkle like the dew.
You may talk about your Dearest Mae,
And sing of Rosa Lee,
But the yellow Rose of Texas
Beats the belles of Tennessee.
Where the Rio Grande is flowing,
And the starry skies are bright,
Oh, she walks along the river
In the quiet summer night;
And she thinks if I remember
When we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again,
And not to leave her so.
Oh, I'm going now to find her,
For my heart is full of woe,
And we'll sing the songs together
That we sang so long ago.
We'll play the banjo gaily,
And we'll sing our sorrows o'er,
And the yellow Rose of Texas
shall be mine forever more.
This beloved song is said to commemorate Santa Anna's diversion of attention by the enticements of the attractive mulatto slave (or more correctly, “indentured servant” in accordance with early Texas law that prohibited slavery… unless it was to last for up to 99 years, involved infinitesimal payment for services, and was called something else) Emily D. West which conceivably saved hundreds of Texican lives at San Jacinto, insuring their victory over a Mexican General who had shown no mercy at the Alamo just over three months earlier on Sunday, March 6, 1836 when 182 Texicans were defeated by 2,400 of Santa Anna's troops. Santa Anna's troops included white clad Indians, the “cannon fodder” that Santa Anna referred to as “the ones we can send forth in floods”.
The reference to Emily walking along the Rio Grande in the quiet summer night is haunting in its symbolism. Emily might be symbolic of the great victory in the conversion of the dictatorial Mexican state of Tejas to the short lived (almost 10 years) Texas Republic and its hard won freedom. One cannot help but wonder if the constant flood of Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande into Texas is in some small part due to the beautiful Emily, the Yellow Rose of Texas...does Emily still walk the Rio Grande awaiting her true love's return?
We have heard much in the last eight years of the guilt we Americans are supposed to assume as part of our national legacy. But when this book vividly revealed to me the elitism and discrimination within the Mexican experience, including its government and military, I am more cognizant that, throughout time, wrongs have been committed. And these wrongs have been committed by all races of men throughout the entirety of human history. The history of no single race or creed is innocent of the human compulsion to subject some level of slavery upon those who are different and thus assumed to be inferior… With that said, may I suggest we all focus infinitely harder to embrace the dignity of work and the courage to reject the human compulsion to disobey the commandments of our Creator.
Santa Anna's Opium addiction was likely as instrumental in his (and his troops') defeat as his lust for Emily D. West. The death rates for New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, states that border Texas, are statistically higher than the national rate. Conversely, the death rates for Texas and the Upper Great Plains states (including North Dakota) are lower than the national rate. Texas history is seriously taught in Texas schools, likely including the opium habit of Santa Anna. One cannot help but wonder if teachings in the public schools have a serious affect on the thinking of adolescents and adults as they make drug-related decisions in early adulthood? My personal belief is that if all of our youth understood that their first use of heroine represents a death sentence (as my teachers told us in grade school), they would avoid it like the plague, as I did. The current emphasis of the false promise of “effective treatment” is, I believe, providing false hope that will encourage more first time users and the almost certain death that follows, whether the next hour, the next day, or the next decade.