Due to the nature of life in a new, wild, practically uninhabited frontier, it’s easy to imagine an existence filled with nothing but backbreaking work, pain, loss, and suffering. And by all accounts these are fair assumptions.
Despite these truths, there was still a degree of normality, even fun and fellowship that would have been found amongst the soldiers and families of La Bahía. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Presidio La Bahía survived the test of time that many others did not.
Today, people take a break from reality in many ways. Some travel, some exercise, some read or watch television. Others may bake or have cookouts and invite their neighbors or family members or both. And some may do nothing but bask in simple solitude.
We each have our own form of enjoyment and relaxation; that thing that separates us from the trials of daily life just enough to stay “normal.”
But what about the people of early La Bahía? What did they do after a hard day’s work or the 1,718-mile roundtrip mail run to Mexico City and back, on horseback no less? In short, they participated in activities and leisure not all that uncommon from today.
Often times the activity depended on the participant or planner. There was gambling, a past-time (some say vice) very popular among soldiers of the era. Simple games such as dominos or marbles were very common as evidenced by the artifacts found. Being in close proximity to the river, fishing and fowling were also a popular past time just as they are today.
Attending special “Feast Days” was another exciting and special event for soldiers and families. Feast Days included copious amounts of food and activities ranging from foot races, to watermelon races to “high-stakes” horse racing.
One of the more popular events were the “Fandangos,” or dances, most often held inside homes located just outside the presidio walls. The fandango is a traditional couples dance made popular in early 18th-century Spain. Originally, it was an event for the wealthy, but like many things in the New World, the fandango made the transition to the furthest regions of New Spain.
The homes, or jacales, generally consisted of a single, large room with an earthen floor that could be cleared for dancing. Fandangos were often a weekly event organized by the women and wives of the community. Of course, there would be music and dancing and soldiers looked forward to meeting young ladies, often daughters of elder, higher-ranking soldiers, or perhaps rancheros. It was a grand time of music and fun. More importantly, it was a chance to be equal. In colonial Mexico, this had not always been so easy.
When Spain discovered the New World, it brought its European caste system with it. In the urban areas of colonial Mexico (Vera Cruz, Mexico City, etc.), only peninsulares (European-born whites) were allowed to build their homes around la plaza, or town square. Outside the plaza resided criollos (white Europeans born in the New World), followed by mestizos (mixed Spanish/Indian ancestry), mulatos (mixed Spanish-African ancestry), Indios (natives) and los negros (African slaves).
Traditionally, the military was no exception to class distinction. In order to achieve the rank of presidial commander, you had to be of pure Spanish heritage, that is either a peninsular or criollo (creole). It was not uncommon for a young man born of European parentage to be sent to Spain in order to receive his military training.
Alonso De León, leader of the expedition that discovered Fort St. Louis, is one such example. As a boy, he was sent to Spain where he studied for a career in the navy before returning to lead several overland expeditions for the crown.
While Presidio La Bahía did not escape this class distinction altogether, it likely functioned to a lesser degree. Being on the frontier was a far cry from the palatial surroundings of a Spanish plaza. Danger is no respecter of persons and the color of one’s skin or the cost of their shoes made not a bit of difference in such a landscape.
This reality made cohesion and camaraderie necessary. While social activities, games, and the popular fandangos were all a source of enjoyment, they represented something larger. They represented friendship, trust, even love among one another.
Despite all of the dangers that surrounded La Bahía, these were times to come together in one place and exist as one family. Today, this is still true of the community of La Bahía. Neighbors aren’t neighbors. They’re friends. More importantly, they are family. It has been this way for 264 years, and I suspect, and hope, that it will continue to be for many more.