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Bureaucratic Mutilations in
Spanish Goliad
or
"Can You Hear Me Now?"

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

They convened in what Spanish officials called the Consistorial House at Presidio La Bahia del Espirito Santo on July 19, 1822.

Soon to become an independent republic called Mexico, New Spain then neared the end of its bloody struggle to free itself from the Crown. But even in time of revolution, people are people. They are good, bad or a mixture of both. On the bad side, among other possibilities, they can be mean, they can hurt others, and they can steal – in short, most human foibles are as timeless as our capacity to be loving, nurturing and honest.

The meeting underway on this summer day in the small community southwest of San Antonio that would come to be known as Goliad had nothing to do with the distant revolution or the more immediate threat of hostile Indians. Local civil, military and ecclesiastic officials had gathered to discuss a shocking instance of what today would be called domestic violence – one of their own had slashed off his wife’s ears.

Less than a footnote in Texas history today, that the incident is even known 182 years later is because that in addition to armored men on horseback and galleons bristling with cannon, the Spanish empire was held together by paper. Spain had a bureaucracy that would do any modern-day federal worker proud.

The scribe for the town’s ruling body kept careful minutes of governmental proceedings. Fortunately for posterity, that figurative treasure chest of Texas history was discovered a few years ago in Mexico City’s national library. The late Malcolm D. McLean, compiler of the monumental “Robertson’s Colony Papers” obtained photo copies of 700-plus pages of those old Spanish records from Goliad and translated them to English.

In 2008, the documents became available to all with the publication by the William P. Clements Center for Southwestern Studies of “Voices from the Goliad Frontier, Municipal Council Minutes 1821-1835.” And in that thick work is the frustratingly incomplete story of a not-so-gentle gentleman named Don Encarnacio Vasquez.

The bloody spousal attack that preoccupied Goliad’s leadership at what must have been an emergency meeting had occurred earlier that day in the home of Senor Vasquez, the interim alcalde (similar to a mayor) of Goliad. The matter came to official attention with a verbal report from Senora Dona Gertrudis Barrera.

She told the officials that Vasquez’s wife had come to her house for help following mutilation at the hands of her husband. Senora Barrera doubtless provided the authorities more details, but for whatever reason, those particulars were not noted in the minutes.

What did get recorded was that the governing body “resolved” that Don Manuel Becerra, the syndic attorney (the equivalent of a county attorney) “should go to [Vasquez’s] house and make him come to present himself before the …authorities.” The attorney did as instructed, only to find that Vasquez wasn’t there.

When Becerra reported that Vasquez had apparently fled, the council commissioned him and Don Juan Jose Galan, the acting commandant of arms, to find him and return him to Goliad.

Why Vasquez mutilated his wife is not known. What is known is that the barbaric practice was not unique. In the 1700s, the practice had even played a part in starting a war between England and Spain.

The triggering incident happened off the coast of Florida a Spanish ship stopped and boarded an English vessel. The Spanish captain cut off one of his English counterpart’s ears, telling him to go back and report to the British admiralty what happened when ships flying the Union Jack ventured into Spanish waters. When the British captain, one Jenkins, later told his story in Parliament. For added impact he displayed what was left of his ear. The war that followed later came to be called The War of Jenkins’ Ear.

Tragically, in some cultures, women still sometimes lose their ears to husbands, fathers or brothers. In 2010, for instance, an Afghan woman whose ears had been cut off for “shaming” her family by running away from an abusive husband underwent reconstructive surgery in the U.S.

But such surgery was not possible in 1822. Losing one’s ears was not normally fatal, but if infection occurred, it could have been. No matter, the woman in Goliad had been marked for life and doubtless left to cope with impaired hearing.

How extensively Goliad authorities searched for Vasquez did not make it into the minutes, but he could not be located. What the officials did find was that the interim alcalde had not only assaulted his wife, he had absconded with all the town’s funds and postage money.

The kicker is that a few years later, the council minutes reflect that Vasquez not only had returned to Goliad, he once again served in a position of public trust. Whether he had benefited from hiring a very good defense lawyer is not part of the record, nor is there any information on what became of his wife.

McLean did find several pages of material referring to Vasquez among the papers of the Bexar Archives at the University of Texas, but the documentation is in Spanish and has yet to be translated. Thanks to the Spanish penchant for paperwork, the rest of this story may lie there.


© Mike Cox - April 3, 2014 column
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