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In a limelight interview, the governor-elect of Texas responded to a question about beefing up security near the Texas-Mexico border by bringing up his wife.
When Abbott appeared on the Dec. 7, 2014, broadcast of NBC’s "Meet the Press" to discuss immigration and border security, host Chuck Todd played a January 2005 video clip of President George W. Bush, the former Texas governor, saying "family values do not stop at the Rio Grande… People are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won’t do to be able to feed their families. And I think there’s a humane way to recognize that, at the same time protect our borders," Bush said, "and at the same way to make sure we don’t disadvantage those who have stood in line for years to become a legal citizen."
Todd asked: "Do you agree with that statement?"
Abbott replied: "In a way I understand this even more powerfully because my wife is going to be the first Hispanic first lady in the history of Texas. And Texas has had a long tradition of uniting the Hispanic culture with Texas values."
Abbott, the state attorney general, talked up his wife making history for months on the campaign trail in 2014, perhaps to good effect. In July 2014, PolitiFact Texas found the state’s population was 38.4 percent Hispanic, the second biggest demographic after whites, who make up 40 percent. Notably too, the flags that have flown over Texas include the banners of Spain and Mexico.
And has there previously not been a Hispanic first lady of Texas? Not since statehood, it appears.
But we started our look into Abbott's claim by looking into the next first lady’s roots.
The next First Lady
Abbott aides didn’t respond to our inquiries into how Abbott decided his wife was breaking ground.
We looked for clues on Ancestry.com, the online genealogy database, which led us to information credited to the 1940 United States Federal Census indicating Cecilia Phalen Abbott, the governor-elect’s wife, is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants--Leonara and Augustine Segura--who settled in San Antonio before 1935.
We shortly confirmed the validity of those census records on a federal website that included a chart showing Maria de la Luz Segura, Cecilia Abbott’s mother, was born in 1935 in San Antonio, where she lived with her parents, grandparents and siblings.
We also uncovered census data for Cecilia Abbott’s father, William Joseph Phalen--born in Michigan in 1933 to parents from Ohio and New York and then raised in Houston. According to Ancestry.com, Phalen is an Irish family name, most common in the state of New York.
Next, we turned to how best to define an Hispanic first lady.
By phone, Erika Arredondo-Haskins of the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas in San Antonio, told us the word "Hispanic" describes anyone who can trace ancestry to Spanish culture, including through the Spanish colonies in the Americas that once stretched from California to the southern tip of South America.
Also, Haskins suggested, Texas history predates statehood and its earlier status as as a free-standing republic to when the region was ruled by Mexico and, before that, Spain and there were numerous Hispanic first ladies. She singled out Maria Perez Cassiano, wife of the governor of the Spanish province Coahuila and Texas from 1814 to 1823. Cassiano was born in San Antonio in 1790, descended from Spanish immigrants who arrived in San Antonio in 1731, and was known for performing the governor’s duties in his absence, Haskins said.
Haskins’ comments reminded us of a complicating detail: Texas fell under various successive governments since Europeans arrived in the 1500s--it’s been a province of New Spain, a Mexican province, a republic, a U.S. state and a Confederate state.
According to Texas A&M University’s "Sons of DeWitt Colony Texas," a Texas history research group, there were 29 governors of Texas from 1691 to 1821. Among first ladies in that period, Augustina Cantú was the wife of Alonso de Leon, the first governor of Texas who established the state’s modern eastern border at the Sabine River, according to the Handbook of Texas, a project of the Texas State Historical Association. Also, the handbook says, Ignacia Xaviera was the wife of Marques de San Miguel de Aguayo, Texas governor from 1719-1722, who drove the French from East Texas.
First Ladies since Texas won independence from Mexico
More Hispanic women were first ladies in the period following the Texas Revolution, when immigrants from the United States broke away from Mexico.
Laurie Jasinski, research editor at The Handbook of Texas, said by phone she reviewed a list of first ladies since the Republic of Texas’s independence from Mexico in 1836 and did not find mention of anyone with Hispanic roots. She also recommended we visit the Legislative Reference Library at the Texas Capitol for a full answer.
At the library, we reviewed the book First Ladies of Texas, which includes biographies of Texas first ladies, born between 1836 and 1936, of the Republic of Texas, the state of Texas, and the Confederate state of Texas. (Texas became a state in 1845.) None of the 37 first ladies listed in the book had roots in former Spanish colonies. Most came from southeastern states of the United States (interestingly, less than half were born in Texas).
Four recent first ladies dwelt in the governor’s mansion after the book’s publication in 1976--Rita Crocker Clements, Linda Gale White, Laura Welch Bush and Anita Thigpen Perry. Online biographical sketches for each first lady, published by Texas A&M University, Texas Woman’s University, The White House and the website of Gov. Rick Perry, respectively, revealed no Hispanic roots among them. Drawing from our research, we’ve listed Texas first ladies here.
Greg Abbott said his wife would be "the first Hispanic first lady in the history of Texas."
Cecilia Abbott, with Hispanic roots through her mother and grandmother, will be the first Hispanic first lady since statehood, which we take Abbott to be saying. Other Hispanic women were first ladies only before Texas was a state.
We rate this claim True.
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
News story, "Rick Perry, make way. The Greg Abbott era is here," Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 7, 2014
YouTube video, Greg Abbott on "Meet the Press," posted by the Republican Governors Association, Dec. 7, 2014
News story, "Unknown to most, Cecilia Abbott could make history," The Texas Tribune, March 16, 2014
Truth-O-Meter article, "Latinos not (yet) majority of Texans," PolitiFact Texas, July 14, 2014
Telephone interview, Erika Arredondo-Haskins, executive director, Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas, Dec. 12, 2014
Article, "Governors of Spanish Texas," Sons of DeWitt Colony Texas, Texas A&M University (accessed Dec. 15, 2014)
The Handbook of Texas articles, "Coahuila and Texas," "Cassiano, Maria Gertrudis Perez," "Aguayo Expedition," "Aguayo, Marques de San Miguel de," "De Leon, Alonso," "The Republic of Texas," the Texas State Historical Association (accessed Dec. 11 - Dec. 15, 2014)
Telephone interview, Laurie Jasinski, research editor, The Handbook of Texas, Dec. 2, 2014
Book, "First Ladies of Texas," by Mary Farrell and Elizabeth Silverthorne, Stillhouse Hollow Publishers, 1976, accessed in the Legislative Reference Library of Texas, Dec. 4, 2014
Article, "Rita Crocker Clements Biographical Sketch," Cushing Memorial Library online, Texas A&M University (accessed Dec. 11, 2014)
Article, "Linda Gale White," Dress collection, Texas Woman’s University (accessed Dec. 11, 2014)
Article, "Laura Welch Bush," Our First Ladies, The White House (accessed Dec. 11, 2014)
Article, "Anita Perry, First Lady of Texas," RickPerry.org (accessed Dec. 11, 2014)
Document, "First Ladies of Texas," compiled by PolitiFact Texas, Dec. 12, 2014
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