Native history: Local historian, re-enactor stresses Hispanic heritage’s indigenous roots

Editor’s Note: The following story was written in observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month, observed Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

SANTA ROSA — Ruben Cordova’s take on Hispanic heritage is a little different, and by different he means comprehensive.

For instance, he argues that the history behind quinceañeras has Native American roots that were adopted by the Catholic Church to convert aboriginal tribes. And although it’s a belief that has long been a matter of debate, especially by those who contend that the custom originated in Spain, Cordova is certain of the indigenous contribution to the Mexican culture.

“People don’t know this is actually Native American, and that they’re really puberty ceremonies for the young girls,” he said of the quinceañera’s origin.

“It extends all the way to Native Americans in South America to this day, and they do some of the same things we do here to celebrate it. But in the Indians’ ways, like with the Apaches, the puberty ceremony is actually a four-day ceremony where the girl is kept in a teepee with grandmothers, aunts and their mother to learn how to become a woman.

“But this history is lost now, and sometimes a lot of kids don’t even know what they’re getting into when it comes to relationships, because people and families just don’t talk anymore. That was the point of having puberty ceremonies — to communicate how to live.”

It’s a point he’s taken to heart over the years, having found that he’s of Lipan Apache descent, and now seeks to inspire those who may be unaware of their ancestry to embrace it — namely the youth.

“As a lot of people don’t know here, there’s much Native American they have in them,” Cordova said of the local Hispanic population. “So we try to let people know we’re still here because a lot of people think we’re extinct, but we’re all Indians. If you’re considered a dark Mexican, more than likely you have a lot of Native American in you.”

The 57-year-old Santa Rosa resident has turned his interest in preserving Tejano culture — largely by speaking at seminars, festivals and historical events about the impact those of Mexican descent have had in America — into a career as a respected living historian. And he even looks the part from time to time.

Cordova is known to don period garb of 18th century vaqueros and participates in several re-enactments of Civil War, Mexican-American War and Texas Revolutionary battles and skirmishes held throughout the state. He’s spent thousands on such activities, having already acquired a respectable collection of replicas that include the old Brown Bess flintlocks — muskets used during the American Revolutionary War before they were sold to Mexico by the British.

He’s even a commander for the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is an organization of direct descendants of Confederacy-era soldiers. Tejanos, he added, played integral roles in the Civil War, serving with both the Union and the Confederate States.

The problem is that the Tejano contribution then and during the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War is largely unknown today.

“They played vital roles because they were a big source of the population, and everybody had their choice of who they wanted to fight for,” Cordova said.

“A lot of people don’t understand that, so we try to teach them. The younger kids will see me dressed up and with the old weapons, and maybe they’ll just feel that this is the way my ancestors dressed; that it would have been cool to have lived in that era and therefore go home and do their own research about their ancestors.”