This month, Texas Tech University Press is publishing a special 25th anniversary edition of Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, a story rarely told in YA.
When Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas was originally published in 1989, the Hispanic population of Texas numbered some four and a half million people and represented thirty-two percent of the state’s population. Now, a quarter of a century later, when a 25th anniversary edition of Poli is, happily, being issued, the Hispanic population numbers more than ten million and represents nearly forty percent of the state’s population.
Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas is based on the memoirs of José Policarpo Rodriguez, a Mexican-American—and Texas Téjano—who was central to Texas history during its formative years in the nineteenth century. With his father, José Policarpo Rodriguez—the “Poli” of our story—came north from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas in 1839 when he was ten years old, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas.
He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—and often shown contempt both for his age and his Mexican origins, Poli struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions—which, among other elements in his life and character, inspired me to turn his memoirs into a book—showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days, and remains rare.
The memoirs were given to me by a teacher I worked with at the Saddle River Country Day School in New Jersey, Gladys Spann Matthews, who had taught Poli’s grandchildren in Austin, Texas. One of his grandchildren wrote a composition titled, “The Most Famous Guide in Texas History.” One day while Gladys Matthews and I were having lunch together in the kitchen of the estate that served as the school’s makeshift cafeteria—it was the school’s first year of existence—she plunked a fat brown envelope onto the table next to me. “I once tried to make a book out of this and couldn’t do it,” she said. Along with a copy of the memoirs, Gladys Matthews gave me drafts of the book she had tried to write, transcriptions of anecdotes she’d heard from his grandchildren, and a loving admonition: that I use the materials as the basis for a fictionalized biography of Poli.
And so I did, and I trust that Poli and his story will inform and enchant readers in the way I was when, once upon a time, I came to know this extraordinary Texas Téjano.
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 21 books, including award-winning books of fiction and non-fiction, along with four collections of prize-winning stories. A new novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, will be published in the fall of this year.
Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas is now available.