Discover Galveston Island's Hispanic History & Heritage

Join us in paying tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched Galveston Island's culture.

Galveston is rich in history, culture, and tradition. It is what makes it the unique cultural gem that it is. Dubbed the “Ellis Island of the South,” in the 1800s, many Europeans passed through the island to make their homes here or to settle in other places. But before then, notable Spanish explorers touched the shores of Galveston and their legacies live on today.

pictured: Celebrate Hispanic heritage during "Fiesta Gras"

The Earliest Known Explorers

Alonso Álvarez de Pineda

The earliest Spanish explorers arrived in the Gulf Coast in 1519. The Alonso Álvarez de Pineda expedition sailed past Galveston Island en route from the Florida peninsula to Veracruz Mexico. On this voyage, Spain claimed the entire Gulf Coast, which included Galveston Island.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

The first non-native to step foot in Galveston was another Spanish explorer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca washed up on the coast near Galveston one cold November in 1528 and gave Galveston the name "Malhado"— translated as “The Isle of Misfortune.” Of the 80 men in the expedition who arrived near Galveston on makeshift barges—having abandoned their ships back in Florida—only a few survivors made it off the island.

His explorations are well documented and today you can visit The Bryan Museum to see one of the handful of surviving copies of the 1555 edition of La Relación: a small leather soft-bound book containing stories of his travels to Galveston and Texas.

Flags waving on top of the Bryan Museum entrance.
The Bryan Museum is home to surviving copies of the 1555 edition of La Relación.

Bernardo de Gálvez/ José Antonio de Evia

In 1786, Spanish explorer Bernardo de Gálvez sent José Antonio de Evia to chart the Gulf of Mexico from the Texas coast to New Orleans. De Evia named the area near the mouth of the river Galveston Bay, and later the island city took the same name: "Galveston." Bernardo de Gálvez died the same year, never setting foot on his namesake island. The colorful, west-end Galveston neighborhood Evia is named after José Antonio de Evia.

Galveston's Hispanic Roots

The island’s Hispanic heritage runs deep. After all, Texas was part of Spain and then Mexico, before joining the United States. When the U.S. annexed a third of Mexico’s territory under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican American War in 1848, nearly 77,000 Mexicans became U.S. citizens.

However, in the late 1800s, Mexican Americans did not have the financial and political clout of their neighbors of European descent. The economic position of most Mexican Americans was desperate; some earned only fifty cents a day in 1901. Thanks to the Terrell election statutes of 1903 and 1905 that required payment of a poll tax to vote, many Mexican Americans could not participate in the governing process.


Galveston’s connection to Spanish and Mexican cultures remains deep even today. Galveston’s sister city is Veracruz, Mexico. The Galveston Beach Patrol and Veracruz’s lifeguards regularly participate in training and knowledge sharing and this partnership has strengthened both organizations.

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Some Texas-Mexican literature has its roots on our island. Nationally published poet Guadalupe "Lupe" Mendez, aka Libro Trafficante Lips Mendez, grew up in Galveston and graduated from O'Connell High School. His work has appeared in the "Norton Anthology of Latino Sudden Fiction."

Hispanic Culture & Heritage Today

Today, the Hispanic population makes up around 31% of the total population in the city of Galveston, making it the second largest ethnic group. Recent immigration to our area includes many Latin American citizens, including physicians, professionals and prosperous businessmen/women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Venezuela. Hispanic and Latino influence can be seen in the names of our towns and streets, traditional music and arts, and our regional cuisine.

Galveston is home to a chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)—the largest and oldest Hispanic organization in the United States. LULAC’s mission is to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, housing, health and civil rights of Hispanic Americans through community-based programs. Galveston’s LULAC chapter hosts an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration and a Dia de los Muertos festival to share their heritage and traditions with the community and beyond. At Galveston’s Mardi Gras festival, revelers can attend the annual Fiesta Gras! Parade and celebration featuring famous Tejano and Latin artists.

From the early Spanish explorers onward, the significant influence and contributions of Latin Americans to Galveston can be seen all over the Island. Various vibrant cultures are part of what makes Galveston Island such a special place.
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