José Tomás Canales

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José Tomás Canales (March 7, 1877 – March 30, 1976) was an American businessman, lawyer, and politician. He is best known for his work on behalf of Mexican-Americans and Tejanos in Texas, defending civil rights through an investigation into the Texas Rangers force and later as a civil rights activist.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Canales was born in Nueces County, Texas, the son of Andreas and Tomasa (Cavazos) Canales.[2] He was a descendant of José Salvador de la Garza, who once held a Spanish land grant encompassing much of Cameron County.[2][3] Canales' family maintained significant ranch land in the area when he was born, he accumulated 30,000 acres over his life, mostly dedicated to ranching but later moving to cotton.[2]

He went to the public schools in Nueces County and to the Texas Business College in Austin, Texas. Canales received his law degree from University of Michigan Law School in 1899 and then practiced law in Brownsville, Texas.[2]


Canales, a Democrat, served for five terms in the Texas House of Representatives, from 1905 to 1911 and from 1917 to 1921, first representing the 95th District (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Zapata counties) and then the 77th (Cameron and Willacy counties).[3] Between service as a representative, Canales served as superintendent of public schools for Cameron County, from 1912 to 1914, leaving to serve as county judge for Cameron County.[3]

Public service[edit]

Canales was the sole Hispanic lawmaker in Texas at the start of his career. He distinguished himself among Anglo voters with support for policies such as prohibition and women's suffrage.[3] The former lead to a brief break with a Democratic supporter, Texas Governor James B. Wells Jr. in 1909, and Canales lead an unsuccessful bid to become county judge as an independent.[2] Canales' time as superintendent was defined by an emphasis on English-language education and rural education initiatives.[2] After returning to the House of Representatives in 1917, Canales served as chair of the House Committee on Irrigation.[2] In 1910, he worked to organize Latin American scouts to gather intelligence about Mexican raids,[4] and in 1917 passed legislation preventing Mexican migrant workers from draft evasion.[2]

Canales was an outspoken critic of the Texas Rangers force, and in 1918 brought 19 charges against the organization to bolster a bill calling for professionalization of the force (along with increased pay) and other restrictions aimed at reducing vigilante actions against Mexicans and Tejanos in the Rio Grande Valley.[2][5]:73 The 1919 Canales investigation led to widespread reform within the Rangers, but the resulting bill was significantly weakened and Canales voted against it.[5]:82 As a result of the personal and political backlash against him for the hearings, Canales did not run for re-election in 1920.[2] In later years Canales reflected that his family feared he would be assassinated and that the investigation "nearly cost my life".[6]

Civil rights[edit]

After his 1920 retirement from politics, Canales became an advocate for Mexican-American civil rights, working with the Order of the Sons of America, one of the first civil rights organizations for Mexican-Americans in Texas.[2] In 1927, he addressed the Harlingen Convention, organized to address statewide racial discrimination. After the conference, he became the first president of the Latin American Citizens League. Alongside Alonzo Perales in 1929, he wrote much of the League of United Latin American Citizens' constitution. Canales would serve as president of the organization from 1932 to 1933, and establish its first scholarship fund.[2][4]


Canales wrote books and articles about Texas history.[1][2][7] Much of his work was self-published, covering topics such as law, religion, and Mexican-American history. His autobiography, "Personal Recollections of J. T. Canales", written in 1945, is his best-known work.[2]


Canales died in Brownsville, Texas on March 30, 1976, survived by his wife, Anne Anderson Wheeler, one daughter, and one granddaughter.[2][4]


  1. ^ a b Library, Texas Legislative Reference. "Legislators and Leaders | Member profile". Legislative Reference Library. Retrieved 2017-10-15. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Anders, Evan (12 June 2010). "Jose Tomas Canales (Entry)". Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved 6 October 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c d Schmal, John P. "The Hispanic Experience – Tejano Representation". Houston Institute for Culture. Retrieved 6 October 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c Texas A&M, University. "J.T. Canales Estate Collection". Texas A&M University. Retrieved 6 October 2017. 
  5. ^ a b Utley, Robert M. (2007). Lone star lawmen: the second century of the Texas Rangers ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195154443. 
  6. ^ Gonzales, Trinidad; Hernandez, Sonia; Johnson, Benjamin; Moran-Gonzalez, John; Munoz Martinez, Monica. "The History of Racial Violence on the Mexico-Texas Border". Refusing to Forget. Retrieved 6 October 2017. 
  7. ^ 'Judge J. T. Canales Dies at Brownsville, Del Rio News Herald, April 1, 1976, p. 16

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