By ESTEVAN MEDRANO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
January 15, 2015
Prior to the monumental arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, hundreds of small inland tribes collectively known as the Coahuitecans— a name derived from the Mexican state of Coahuila— lived in the lower region of Texas and northern Mexico, including what is now the Laguna Madre area. Though the name refers to a people dispersed across a large region there were diverse customs and languages among the groups, which ranged in size from as few as a dozen people to a tribe of hundreds. Common dialects included Comecrudo, Sanan, Cotoname, Aranama, and Solano.
Nearby groups would regularly come together for traditional spiritual gatherings known as “mitotes.” These gatherings included several nights of ingesting a hallucinogenic cactus native to the region known as peyote. The plant was consumed to achieve a state of mental transcendence and as a form of therapy, but little is known about Coahuitecan religious practices beyond that.
Likely descended from the Paleoindian peoples, these nomadic hunter-gatherers existed off the resources unique to the Gulf of Mexico and Rio Grande delta regions. They found sustaining nourishment by hunting the small, nimble animals of the South Texas lowlands with bows and arrows and harvesting mesquite beans and “nopal” tunas— the ripe red fruit of the prickly pear cactus— during the autumns and summers.
Other foods included rabbits, snails, rats, lizards, deer, fish, cactus pads, bulbs and juices squeezed from seasonal fruits. These foods and primitive weapons were bartered and traded among bands as described by Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The nopal fruit, which he described as “of very good flavor” was considered especially precious, as resources were often meager throughout the majority of the year. Though most foods were consumed raw, what occasional cooking was done was prepared using small hearths and pits. Shelters were typically small huts comprised of bent sticks layered with pelts or woven mats.
The arrival of the Spaniards forced many Coahuitecans into lives of slavery, and by the mid-18th century most had become assimilated into the Latino population or succumbed to new diseases brought from Europe, such as smallpox. From the time of the Spanish arrival to 1690, the total population declined from nearly 100,000 to possibly less than 15,000. Because of the lack of recorded written material from the Coahuitecans, along with few preserved documents from the Spaniards, and tendency for isolation, many of these groups’ histories and identities have been lost forever. Still, they remain an integral part of Texas and Mexican history.
The image accompanying this article by artist Estevan Medrano and will be one of many original illustrations that will be used for the gradual updating of the Port Isabel Historical Museum.
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