Hinojosa Made His Mark In Mercedes & Mid-Valley Banking History
Atanacio Hinojosa Jr., can give you a history lesson covering the different eras of banking in the Rio Grande Valley.
The one he knows best is the chapter about community banking. He lived it across 35 years as a vice president and loan officer at three Mid-Valley banks, with his longest tenure being at the First National Bank of Mercedes.
He grew up in the Delta Area of Edcouch-Elsa as the son of a farmer and shopkeeper. Growing up alongside him was his cousin and future congressman, Ruben Hinojosa. They were especially close as youths growing up in E-E before Hinojosa moved to Mercedes before high school. The cousins would compete against each other as the star players of their respective teams – the Tiger versus the Yellow Jacket, a high school football rivalry that still runs strong to the present day.
“We should have been on the same team,’’ Atanacio says wistfully all these years later.
He gets out an old newspaper clipping and points to a No. 62 on the run. It’s Atanacio wearing a lineman’s number because at six feet in height the jerseys for running backs were too small for him. He would make his way to Mercedes as a young man, newly married, and would never leave.
Hinojosa’s start in banking would come by happenstance. Working as an insurance adjuster, one of his customers was Verna Wilson, the secretary to the top management of First National of Mercedes. The bank had an opening for a loan officer and she informed her bosses that she had just met the man for the job.
A successful Saturday morning interview with the bank’s management and the recommendation got him the job. It was the first step in what would be a lengthy career in banking rooted in Mid-Valley communities. Hinojosa thrived in an era where a banker looked a customer in the eye and assessed basic information in determining if an applicant was a good risk.
“I’d talk to my customers and make clear that I’m not lending you my money,’’ he said. “I’m lending you money that comes from our depositors, and that’s sacred. If you have a problem, call me, and we’ll work on an extension, (for repayment).
“I don’t want to go looking for you,’’ he said.
Hinojosa’s loan activity and business dealings at First National of Mercedes cut across all sectors of the Valley economy. Farmers came to him for loans to purchase equipment. Start-up business loans were a constant. Auto and mortgage loans were mainstays as well, with Hinojosa recalling father-like advice he passed on to young couples just starting out.
Local decision making was the rule and not the exemption back then. Hinojosa made the final call on loans of up to $100,000. It’s a style of banking that’s rare these days in the corporate world of formulas and ratios where loan decisions are made by computerized algorithms. First National’s successor – Texas National Bank – still operates with those community banking principles.
The bank where Hinojosa works still does business today in downtown Mercedes as Texas National Bank, with some of his protégés running the financial institution. He would go on to work in upper management at two Weslaco banks, but he never left Mercedes, becoming a community leader. He served as a city commissioner and for years was on the board of Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show.
He served as board chairman of the South Texas Independent School District. He would work closely with another Mid-Valley community and business leader he knew well – Ruben Hinojosa – in developing the Mercedes-based magnet school system with campuses throughout the Valley. He had plenty of opportunities to take bank management jobs in Houston, Austin and San Antonio, but never seriously considered them.
“The Mid-Valley is where I stayed,’’ he said, “and Mercedes is my town.’’
– Ricardo D. Cavazos