Jacales in Mexico and South Texas

Jacal, pronounced [ha kol], is a word adapted from Nahatl, language of the ancient Aztecs who ruled Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries before being conquered by the Spanish. In Nahuatl, the word is “xacalli,” with xah- meaning “adobe” and -calli meaning “house.”  Most jacales were literally huts of various sizes and construction.

Jacales were the most common form of housing for settlers in South Texas well into the twentieth century. Constructed by families living and working on ranches and by the ranch owners themselves, these dwellings were made of readily available material from the local environment.

Families like that of María Andrea Castañon (known as Señora Candelaria after marrying Candelario Villanueva) settled many areas in Texas under the direction of the Spanish Crown. Sometimes as a buffer for natives in an area, sometimes as a show of territorial encroachment, her family flowed along the Camino Real with many other mission settlers, building corrals and jacales at each stop along their way toward their final destination of  San Antonio.

[Stereoscopic image from Cuseum]

“The jacal was the first house form used by early Spanish colonists, who began arriving in the area in 1749–50 as part of the settlement of the Province of Nuevo Santander under the direction of José de Escandón, the Count of Sierra Gorda. Although these early settlers had to rely upon the materials at hand to build their homes, they brought with them the skills to fashion habitable dwellings from these materials. The jacal would serve as temporary shelter for the wealthier classes until they could move into casas mayores (fine homes) made of cut stone or of sillares (caliche blocks). Even then, the kitchens of these main houses were separate buildings almost always of jacal construction.

The first written description of the jacal in Nuevo Santander was recorded by Fray Simón del Hierro, who, in 1749, visited the home of Blas Falcon, one of the original Spanish land grantees and one of the wealthiest men of the region. Fray Hierro described the home as “the largest and finest of the settlement” (1942:32), noting that the jacal was made of rubble and mud plaster, with vertical and lathing strips to hold it in place. As we shall see below, this type of jacal persisted well into the 1950’s, with a few scattered ones surviving still!

The ranches established on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande, like those across the river, became small settlements made up of clusters of jacales surrounding the casa mayor. Some of these grew into fairly large communities. The first ranch in South Texas was Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Dolores Viejo), settled in 1750 by Vásquez de Borrego in what is now Webb and Zapata Counties. By 1753, it consisted of 23 families, 21 of which lived in jacales (Crawford 1925:154–55; Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Nomination Papers, National Register of Historic Places).”

Source: Hecho en Tejas: Texas-Mexican Folk Arts and Crafts. University of North Texas Press, 1997. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/72203.  Joe S. Graham’s chapter entitled “The Jacal in South Texas: The Origins and Form of a Folk House” contains a fantastic history along with many photos of various types of jacales.

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