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Peñitas continues search for proof of its origins

PEÑITAS–More than 20 years after Efren Garza began searching for proof that his hometown is the oldest European settlement in the country, Garza is no closer to validating local lore that the city was founded in 1520.

And as Garza and members of the Peñitas Historical Commission unveiled a plaque issued by the Texas Historical Commission on Dec. 20, he said the wording left it open for the city to continue to research its founding. The plaque recognizes Peñitas as a settlement under Jose Escandon in the 1700s.

20141220 PENITAS Historical-marker-unveiling 2009“We’re working diligently to get more information from the past,” Garza said. “Every day, every month, every year, we have acquired additional documentation on the past. We are looking forward to the day when we eventually uncover some of that documentation.”

Garza began his own search because his mother used to tell him they were heirs to a lot of the land in the area. He was able to trace their ancestry back to 1767 to Nicolas Zamora, who received about 25,000 acres with his sons.

About five years ago, Garza made a trip to Spain, hoping to find information on Peñitas, but access to the archives had just been blocked. However, he said at the plaque unveiling he hoped new information would be released via the Internet.

But Francisco Guajardo, a University of Texas-Pan American professor who was recruited to speak at the unveiling after mentioning Peñitas in a presentation to the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court on Hispanic Heritage Month, suggested researching church records in Mexico.

As it is, there are very few local records that mention the history of Peñitas. Guajardo found a small folder at the Museum of South Texas History with about four or five sheets of paper, most of them newspaper clippings, he said. He found one newspaper article in particular compelling. It was published in the 1940s, and contained collected stories from elders, people born in the 1800s, in Peñitas.

“So this already had currency in the 19th century,” Guajardo said, joking, “So this is not some concoction of Efren Garza who made it up.”

There are a few theories on how Peñitas came into existence, and Guajardo dismissed the theory that Cabeza de Vaca founded the settlement right away.

When Guajardo was asked to speak, he made contact with a scholar in Spain who has access to the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain. The scholar had not found any mention on Peñitas, but he pointed out over the last two decades, scholars had debunked much of Cabeza de Vaca’s work.

“Cabeza de Vaca for many, many years was taken as an authority, as a guy who we have to believe him because we really don’t have too many other accounts,” Guajardo said.

But around 1995, people started analyzing his work and found, “he was a fantastic story teller, but some of the stuff is kind of hard to triangulate.”

It is possible, Guajardo said, that Peñitas was founded when Panfilo de Narvaez was sent in 1520 to capture Hernan Cortes. Narvaez traveled with a group of about 800, Guajardo said, including women and religious types who were discontent.

“I would encourage your people to go and find more evidence,” Guajardo said. “I’m thinking this was not made up in the 20th century. I’m thinking I think I believe this story.”

Guajardo suggested an archaeological dig in Peñitas. In one of the newspaper articles he dug up, an elder said he found a 16th-century Spanish coin on his property, but Peñitas residents will need more than that to prove it is indeed the nation’s oldest settlement. Guajardo said researchers are looking for artifacts like pottery or a cemetery.

He suggested city leaders talk to professors at UTPA trained to do this kind of thing.

“I do think you need to push the issue on finding this story because it’s a really good story,” Guajardo said. “This is the crossroads of the Americas, and we don’t know enough about ourselves.”

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