My Country ‘Tis A-Drifting

I have never been a Texan. The geography of my entire existence notwithstanding, in my heart I have never felt a loyalty for the state song and have appreciated the state flower and the state bird only individually and not in any relation to the state. Politically, I can’t say they’ve been of any emotional consequence.

And each time I go back to my small Texas hometown, I feel the contrast between the lack of emotion I have for the state of Texas and what I feel for Country. There, by the side of my mother’s door, always unfurled by the coastal breeze and occasionally replaced due to wear, flies the American flag.

Inside my mother’s house, along with family photos cluttered together haphazardly into large and small frames, toward the back left living room wall stands a monument of photos of family members in uniform—both new and old. They are kept separate from the rest, up on their own part of the wall, and no one has ever questioned my mother about the why of it.

She is not a political woman generally. But on three points she has never wavered in the years I’ve been old enough to observe. (1) You vote, even if you have to get a ride to the polls, pay a poll tax, or ignore your illness. (2) You take care of and fly the American flag, replace it if it’s worn, and in front of family or strangers you pick up even small flags discarded after parades, clean them off, and carry them away to some respectful place at home. (3) No matter the popularity or rightness or wrongness of a war, you hang up pictures of family soldiers, welcome them home with parties—even if all you can afford is cookies and punch—and you let them know you’re proud of how they look and what they’ve done.

And added to that, in its absence, I guess I should say: You never hang up a Texas flag. No matter how the state is depicted in the postcards to reflect its self-importance—sprawling all across the central United States from Mexico to Canada, its cowboys riding large jackrabbits—you don’t ride with the myth. There is a strength to that notion in its quiet persistence, and it is silently noted and absorbed over the years, tied to family stories and kept in the heart.

When holiday reminiscing comes, my family recalls the times we weren’t paid as migrant farmworkers (I was too young to notice at the time), and had to go to Texas sheriffs only to be ignored and told to move on. They recall standing by the trucks together with other migrant families, collecting available dollar bills, quarters, and other coins, then lining up at the nearest service station to try their luck elsewhere—never looking back. They recall being asked to live in chicken coops, and my father doing all he could to get us to another farm, another place, away from there—not wanting our family to suffer the indignity, need notwithstanding.

These are not good memories of my state, but even though I carry them there is some hope for me. This is home, after all.

I am not a Texan in my heart, though I wish I could be one. I travel its land now, expansive as it has always been, with sunsets and rising moons balancing each other across opposite horizons, and I miss the non-existing connection with it. Beautiful as it is, Texas almost at my fingertips, I can almost feel it.

I have heard its songs and stories of courage and bravery. I have seen David Adickes’ 67-foot-tall monument to Sam Houston standing above the pine trees along Interstate 45 just south of Huntsville, implying even more men of greatness have lived here, heads above the trees, spokesmen for justice and an American way I’ve always dreamed about.

Plus I’ve had a few moments of passion for the state.

I felt the passion for Texas as director of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus when House Bill 72 was passed in 1980—the so-called Robin Hood plan—and school funding was partially equalized. I remember hustling across the terrazzo floors and bringing in school funding experts to help the Caucus understand the implications of every proposal. And then there it was: a form of equalization after years of no books for some and luxury for others.

Arguments over the effect of the plan have once again surfaced. Governor Rick Perry, for instance, refers to the Robin Hood plan as divisive. But testifying before the Texas Senate last March, F. Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, warned of the disparities in public school funding that would happen again without it. As a state district judge, McCown had presided over years of school finance litigation. Doing away with Robin Hood would leave “Eanes in Travis County [with] $1,352 per student; Highland Park in Dallas County [with] $2,173 per student [and] places like Socorro ISD near El Paso [with] only $659 per student.” In years to come, these disparities would only grow and whatever “divisiveness” had come from Robin Hood would “pale in comparison.” Meanwhile, economic division is increasing throughout the state. According to The State of Working America 2004/2005, published by the non-profit Economic Policy Institute, in 2003, 51.5 percent of Texas children lived in families with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty threshold—by far the worst showing for Texas in 25 years.

Having battled on those fronts for a long time, however, I have learned not to expect the issues of protecting the poor or educating everyone equally to be at the forefront of our state’s aims. What worries me today goes beyond those issues to a deeper concern of who we as Texans are as a people—an issue of the spirit.

Truth is, I always wanted to believe one part of the Texas myth: that we, mythically more “West” than even California, Arizona, New Mexico, or other states, have a greater understanding of what it is to be a “land of freedom,” to be “American.” Steeped in the legends of cowboys, roaming cattle, vaqueros, and camp fires on the range, and surrounded by unending farm roads, with cities that are miles and miles apart, I’ve wanted to believe that we know much more about what it means to be “free.” Whether we own part of the land or simply work it, much as my family and I have in our history with the state, “freedom” takes on new meaning when the ability to roam seems unending.

And in my Texas heart, I always wanted to believe that an expansive understanding of freedom, based on our great stretches of geographic possibility, would be the foundation for commitment to the true American way—the always-wished-for ideal symbolized by the flag flying before my mother’s door. And it is against the backdrop of that mythical expansive understanding of freedom, which should be ingrained in every Texan, that I find my state lacking.

I don’t find that expansive understanding of who we are in too many places anymore. I fear that as we’ve urbanized we’ve become no different than people anywhere else. Wherever I go, I feel my own vision of the myth unraveling daily.

On a drive through Central and East Texas, I watch entire families sit together talking as if nothing has changed across the country. At a café, a woman, her silver-white hair coiffed smartly, points with her fork as she speaks. The others listen with amused interest. I can’t hear her voice, just see her from a distance. At one end of the table the children—her grandchildren?—whisper to each other then laugh, then look up at her as she speaks more firmly to get their attention. Soon, she has the entire group entranced, a strong grandmother at the helm of her table.

It occurs to me for a second, quietly watching: Do they understand the freedoms we’ve lost with the passage of the Homeland Security Act? I watch their happiness for a second, as they sit together at their table, apart from the world. And then I wonder if it’s a fair question to raise.

I remember when the Chief Immigration Judge ordered closed deportation proceedings, and Ashcroft reduced government compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests. And then the litany of other changes overwhelms me: expanded wiretap powers with reduced judicial review, “sneak and peak” searches authorized without a warrant, and a broader definition of domestic terrorism that allows surveillance of “political dissenters.”

Then I begin to wonder if, at any time in our daily lives, any of us—that family or mine—really had time to assess the effect of those actions on an open democracy and our core American notions of privacy.

And when our President designated an American citizen as an “enemy combatant,” authorized him to be placed under military jurisdiction, and then refused him the ability to communicate with his family, with a lawyer, or with any non-military personnel for 18 months—what could this family have thought about it?

I look across the table to see if the fork shakes just a little, to see if the voice wavers just a second as this good American family—this good Texan family—laughs once more. Another pause. Another forkful. Nothing happens.

In a long-distance bicycle ride across West Texas some time back, a farmer on a tractor with his son alongside him drives out to the side of the road and waits for me with cold water in hand. I stop and stand, leaning on my bicycle alongside the road to speak with them.

His son shades his face against the setting sun as he asks me where I’m headed. His father, farmer’s hands solid and burnt from days of work on his land, looks down at his son’s open face admiringly and lovingly, proud of his confident and true interest in someone just passing by.

I felt nothing but good from them, these fellow Texans, standing alongside the road that early evening. The water was cool and satisfying and for that moment, looking at the son as I told him about my trip and at his father’s face as he looked at him, I forgot about my family’s history. I felt as much a part of Texas as I ever had—welcomed by those I considered a part of the land, out beside an open field; honest and true people.

I remembered them again recently when the story surfaced about internal documents advising the president that he could disregard U.S. and international law and order the torture of foreign prisoners, and that interrogators following the president’s orders would be immune from punishment.

I thought of that farmer’s son, pure of face, the love of his working father showering down upon him on the side of a Texas road. I thought about how they treated me—a stranger passing by for only a minute—their graciousness, water in hand, conversation and curiosity ever ready. Do they, as good Texans, wish the harm and torture of other human beings on their hands for whatever purpose? Does the coiffed lady at the restaurant, surrounded by family, want them to know that she quietly spoke through dinner about other things, knowing what her country was contemplating and justifying? Do they know, in their hearts, how far the country has gone or is in the process of going? (And why do I get the feeling that they really don’t?)

And if they don’t, why aren’t we, knowing what we do about expansiveness and freedom, yelling at them to wake up? Why aren’t we, on behalf of the Great State of Texas—head above the trees, honor up to our shoulders, spanning from the Mexican to the Canadian border with all our pride intact, good and pure, honest to a fault, crying out for justice for all—why aren’t we yelling to be heard: “My country, Oh my… ’tis a-drifting?”

Ruperto Garcia currently practices law in San Antonio. He is a former staff writer for the Observer and just finished a book of short stories entitled Summer of the Salamanders and is in the process of searching for a publisher.

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