Photo courtesy of Texas State University
Teacher, Community Historian, and Author
María Elena Zamora O’Shea
María Elena Zamora O’Shea, teacher, lay historian, and author, was born at Rancho La Noria Cardenena near Peñitas, Hidalgo County, Texas. Growing up on the ranch in the 1880s and 1890s, where she was taught to read and write in Spanish, she learned to appreciate rancho culture and education. Later, she attended the Ursuline Convent, a boarding school, where she learned English. She continued her education at the Holding Institute in Laredo, Southwest Texas Normal School in San Marcos, the University of Texas, the Normal School in Saltillo, Nuevo León, and the Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City.
In 1895, she took charge of the school at the family ranch in Palito Blanco, Jim Wells County, where she taught until 1902. She began a teaching profession away from home as a private tutor at the King Ranch. In summer, she taught school in the small settlements of Southwest Texas. Her first “city” job was in 1907–08 in Alice, where she served as a school principal and taught folklorist J. Frank Dobie. Her teaching career lasted twenty-three years.
Always engaged with her community, Zamora O’Shea shared her views about her people’s experiences with LULAC leader J. T. Canales. In addition, she corresponded with historian Carlos Castañeda, whom she cautioned against overreliance on archival records and textbooks to relate Tejano history. She lamented the lack of a historical account of her forefathers, Spanish land-grant settlers who had fought for Texas independence. She vindicated the long Tejano presence in Texas with her 1935 historical novella El Mesquite. To relate her story, she drew from family records and her own research. Her efforts succeeded in countering the Anglo-Texan Centennial celebration of Texas independence, which largely ignored the Tejano presence in the state. She wrote of multiple generations of Tejanos rich in details on cultural traditions, folklore, healing plants, and women’s work. To narrate her story, Zamora O’Shea turned to the mesquite, “a tree of fair beauty and grace,” under whose branches the panorama of Tejano history unfolded.
El Mesquite: A Story of the Early Spanish Settlements Between the Nueces and the Rio Grande (As told by el Palo Alto) (2000)