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Almost 150 Years After His Death, Navarro Gets His Spot In State Cemetery

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Ryan E. Poppe
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Credit Ryan E. Poppe
Mural outside Casa Navarro State Historic Site

At the corner of Market and Laredo Streets in downtown San Antonio, tourists follow the arrows on a sign that points to internationally known tourist attractions, including the Alamo. There’s also a lone arrow pointing in the opposite direction, one that fewer follow. It directs visitors to the home of a Mexican who helped write Texas’ first constitution.

Emiliano Calderon is of those that manage the historic site that was once home to Navarro. This is where he spent his final years practicing law and serving in the state legislature, after playing an important role in the fight for statehood.

Calderon says the two-room, whitewashed caliche home is in a neighborhood that was once known as Little Laredo. It connects the timeline between Spanish rule and Texas Independence.

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Credit Ryan E. Poppe
The Sitting Room Inside The Living Quaters of Jose Antonio Navarro

“The missions were active in Navarro’s time and then the Battle of the Alamo, Navarro’s on the Washington on the Brazos signing the Declaration of Independence. He has an interesting role and the site has a very interesting story to tell us, one that the Alamo and Missions and even the Spanish Governor’s mansion don’t hit on,” Calderon explains.

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Credit Ryan E. Poppe
The Courtyard Of Casa Navarro

While Navarro County is named after him, biographer David McDonald says the legacy of this lawyer and public servant is often overshadowed by those of the larger-than-life heroes who fought at the Alamo, including Navarro’s nephew, Jim Bowie, and William B. Travis.

“It was assumed in the point of view from the Anglo-Americans who wrote Texas history, that the real Texas history began with Stephen F. Austin’s colonization project and especially with the battle of the Alamo,” says McDonald. “What happened prior to that, [the part] in which there were Tejano people in Texas, they were considered to be “bit” players, and Navarro fell in with that group, they just weren’t included in those histories.”

Navarro wasn’t at the Alamo or on any other battlefield at that time. A leg injury during childhood barred him from combat. But he did fight, with his pen, his influence and his words. He was one of just three Mexicans to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence.

McDonald says his role as the only Hispanic delegate to the state’s 1845 constitutional convention is noteworthy. “As they proceeded through the various aspects of the constitution, it came to the point of who could vote. It was presumed by a lot of people that to vote you had to be white and Jose Antonio Navarro objected to this strenuously,” says McDonald.

Navarro’s viewpoint prevailed and the new constitution gave Tejanos the right to vote. Still later, as a state legislator, he also fought against laws that were being used to confiscate Tejano land.

Navarro’s great, great, great granddaughter, Sylvia Navarro Tillotson, has long hoped his accomplishments would get wider recognition. Then, four years ago, she had an idea when she visited the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. “I saw that there were many Texas heroes that were buried there and [saw] Austin’s monument. And Navarro was a close friend of Stephen F. Austin, a confidant of Austin — they were very close. And I wondered why Navarro wasn’t buried there and so that was the beginning of the idea of having a monument in his honor,” Tillotson says.

Navarro’s remains will stay in San Antonio, but Tillotson says the Friends of Casa Navarro raised more than $50,000 to place a cenotaph honoring him in a part of the State Cemetery where 14 other signees to the Texas Declaration of Independence are memorialized. 

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Credit Ryan E. Poppe
Bronze Cenotaph of Jose Antonio Navarro

The bronze bust of the patriot sits atop a marble pillar that’s inscribed with many of his accomplishments. “When they read and know a little bit about Navarro’s history, they will know about his love of freedom, his love for Texas, the sacrifice that he made for those freedoms for all people,” Tillotson said proudly.

She hopes the recognition in Austin will spur the curious to learn more about her remarkable ancestor. And perhaps the next time they’re at Market and Laredo in San Antonio, they’ll follow that lone arrow to Casa Navarro, where his writings help tell his story and the story of other early Tejanos.