Wittliff acquires Civil War memoir of Mexican-American

Trends Reporter
Lauren Goodley, an archivist with Southwestern Writers Collection, handles a photograph of Santiago Tafolla.

In the only known account by a Mexican-American serving during the Civil War, Santiago Tafolla wrote in his memoir of the racism he faced while serving in the Confederate army during the 19th century.

The Wittliff Collections, with help from the Texas Historical Foundation, was able to purchase the original, handwritten, 120-page manuscript from Tafolla’s family along with other artifacts from his life including photos, maps and other materials.

The memoir details Tafolla’s time spent on the battlefield, and chronicles his life from his birth in 1837 in New Mexico to the difficult childhood that eventually led to him being orphaned at the age of seven. He was in his teens when he met Secretary of War Jefferson Davis while living in D.C. and persuaded Davis to let him join the war effort.

Although he did not agree with the ideals held by the Confederate army, Tafolla served under the rebel flag as it was a reliable, consistent source of income. But Tafolla did not only fear losing his life to the north. The racism within his own regime had him fearing for his safety among white Confederates as well. It was those feelings of constant uncertainly that led him to decide to leave the army.

Later accounts of his life reveal he spent the rest of his days serving as a Methodist preacher, a rarity in a time when almost all Mexicans were practicing Catholics. In his writings, Tafolla expresses that was never jaded because of the injustice he faced during his life but instead allowed it to motivate him to search for justice and equality for others.

After Tafolla died at the age of 74, his manuscript was passed drown through his family until his grandson, Fidel Tafolla, began the task of transcription in the late 1960s. His unfinished work was discovered by his daughter and niece, who worked together to publish a version of the memoir in both Spanish and English.

His niece writes in her introduction to the book, “A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Confederate,” that it is “an invaluable aid to understanding the upheavals of the nineteenth century in North America.”

Dr. David Coleman, director of the Wittliff, said having material like this preserved and available is important because it allows others to learn about the lives of Mexican-Americans during a time when accounts of their lives were very rare.

He says the Wittliff definitely plans to build upon the Tafolla manuscript and “use it as a foundation to collect and preserve the Tejano experience in all the genres we collect.”