Summoning the Ghosts that Haunt Anglo Texas culture
We’re proud to present the introduction to Hecho en Tejas, the latest volume of the Southwestern Writers Collection of Texas State University in San Marcos. The historic anthology will be published next month by the University of New Mexico Press. Edited by author and Observer contributing writer Dagoberto Gilb, the anthology includes poetry, corridos, photos, and artwork, and showcases prose by writers such as Américo Paredes, Rolando Hinojosa, and Sandra Cisneros, as well as that of younger writers, including Erasmo Guerra, Christine Granados, and Roberto Ontiveros, whose work has also appeared in our pages. The anthology not only establishes the canon of Mexican American literature in Texas, it also redefines—forever, we hope—what is meant by the phrase “Texas literature.”
A young man I will call Michael comes up to me. He wants to talk to me because he was in a class that read a short story he’d submitted which wasn’t received very well because it wasn’t very good. It was a ghost story. The setting was an old, wooden house. He’d created a faceless and colorless cast of characters—two parents, an older boy, and two younger children who all spoke a bland, perfunctory English. The old wooden house was in San Antonio, and he knew it really well. And those characters who lived there were like him, like his family.
In his mid-twenties, Michael lives in San Antonio and was born and raised on the westside—that proverbial poorest and toughest and oldest part of town that all cities have. He is already a father and is raising a daughter by himself. He says he has always wanted to be a writer, but he doesn’t want his work to be Latino Hispanic Chicano Whatever. He remembers when he read a particular poet in high school, a San Antonio activista, and he thought, well, this wasn’t what he was or how he lived. For instance, he didn’t even have an exotic name. His is Michael, not Miguel. His Spanish is lousy, if lousy could mean so bad he’d never seriously use what little he might know because he’d fear he’d get most of it wrong. His parents speak English, he says, and only one grandparent really can’t.
What does Michael look like? Este guy es muy moreno, he is very dark. His last name isn’t exactly a bland, everyman Smith or Jones either, not a Gonzalez, Hernandez, Rodriguez. It’s a name like Zamarripa—no vague descent attached to it. As to ghost stories, I point out to him that they are often set in New England, or Old England, and that’s usually because that’s where the writer’s from. Usually, I explain, writers write about where they are from. And so if he’s from San Antonio, and if the story is supposed to be set in San Antonio, and he’s Mexican (for those not, that’s the internal vernacular for it), wouldn’t it be a good idea, even a lot easier…. But he’s American, he insists. He watches American TV. He doesn’t like soccer, and down there, where he’s never been, they like soccer, and he likes football. He doesn’t know how to be exotic. But, I tell him, he’s from the westside. He looks at me like I’m making it complicated. So, I say again, don’t you see how that isn’t Montana or New York, it isn’t San Francisco or Dallas, Marseilles or Pamplona? His life isn’t exotic, he insists. So I ask him what kind of work he does. He’s a manager at a Pizza Hut. And his crew? Well, they’re all from, uh, San Antonio. I’m laughing now because what he doesn’t want to say is they are all brown people there too. He thinks that isn’t exotic! He doesn’t think he has a unique story to tell. That in the historic city of the Alamo, where the Republic of Texas began and the end of Mexico’s national sovereignty ended—this very dirt—he who looks not like anyone on the winner’s side of that war, he an adult, responsible man who’s earning just above minimum wage as a manager at an “Italian” chain pizza joint with minimum-wage employees who have the same story and descent as him, he wants to tell a ghost story about Americans who are…like him.
But consider the core of what Michael believes: that to reflect on his own life, the people he was born from and with and around, that bringing in his immediate landscape, his historical and family heritage, he’d be making “exotic” talk. That’s how faraway he is from himself and understanding how and why he became a manager at Pizza Hut. It’s almost as though he were a Chinese child adopted by a middle-class American family who never detected what others saw or heard what they said about him. That consciousness, political or personal, awareness of history and place would estrange him, transform him into someone who wasn’t Miguel enough, or too Miguel, or what is that, where does that come from? Or is it simply that he doesn’t know, he has never once thought about it before, or has never been told? Then what is this orphan’s deprivation?
Where does that come from? Why would he defend a ghost story that isn’t about Mexican Americans who live in San Antonio in an old wooden house on the poor side of town? Would he be content to raise his daughter on a literature, like his ghost story, that would never be about where she lived, the land and culture she came from, the American stories of her face, her blood? Wouldn’t she be a little proud if her own father had published this American story she read? If he had a book of them? And if este loco from el hueso wrote ghost stories, any stories, set there and they were read by people in New England and Old England too?
There is a haunting in Texas, and it is the ghost: a bisabuela gone prematurely, whose son was married to someone’s mother, whose abuelito’s daughter was married to a tía who was this other’s nieto. Hard to know which, how, when, why. But: a mournful voice in a song. Shy eyes in a painting. Joy from an avocado green bedroom and baby blue dining room. Respect wrapped in a black shawl, patience scratched into a wooden toy trinket, love in a piñata or paper flower, work in polished boots and huge buckles, saddles or beaded car-seat covers, hats of hard plastic or straw. Strength in simple mashed frijoles seasoned with oregano, ajo y cebolla, in a hot flour tortilla puffing up on a cast-iron comal. In the pico of fresh serrano chile spooned into a taco and gordita, from a shiver of sweet from a leche quemada candy, in the sigh that comes from the first sip of orchata or agua de jamaica. Though its descendants do survive in the poor neighborhoods of Texas (also known on a larger scale as the cities of El Paso or San Antonio, as the regions known as the Rio Grande Valley or South Texas), there is too much that feels deprecated, neglected, or ignored by the more financially boastful, self-contained Anglo Texas culture, as though the flesh and blood cultural legacy of this Mexican ghost could be dismissed or replaced as though so much of it were like housing projects, transitional or residual, an era that was, not is—or transformed into a market niche, pitched as an advertising campaign, a decorating style or motif.
It’s the ghost who hoists up Mexican flags in the Rio Grande Valley. People don’t always understand that when they come down here. The voice I hear is Jaime Chahin’s, the Dean of the School of Applied Arts at Texas State University. He worked the fields with his family when he was very young, and when he talks of the North, to the east it’s Minnesota and to the west it’s Washington. When he talks about Idaho, what he can’t help talking about most is el cinturon del diablo, “the devil’s belt,” which, he says, could hold a 100 pounds of potatoes on either side. He is driving me and two dons of Chicano Literature, Arturo Madrid and Rolando Hinojosa, and we are on the road to pay respects to the memory of Tomás Rivera, traveling to his birthplace and grave in Crystal City. The ghost is in every conversation and every silence, even when we’ve pulled up to a country restaurant with little more than a few tables and chairs and its 8×10 black-and-white publicity photo of the singer Rosita Fernandez that’s been on the wall…a long time. Even when we talk about breakfast tacos and a particular meat inside, how in El Paso it’s called machacha and here it’s machacado, or how in Los Angeles or Mexico City, what would be chilaquiles there might be called migas here. When we leave, full, the conversation is of the land and people who are still here or gone or passed on, the children of and their children, about each change and what doesn’t seem to ever change, and it is because of the ghost. The ghost both sanctifies and celebrates the gossip about him or her, some whose deeds have gone beyond or some whose legends are local, even ordinary—like a certain Vidal who sold whiskey and was found dead in a motel from an enfarto because he was with a twenty-two year-old woman, his corpse gotten out of there by the sheriff fast so his good wife would never know. About a George who flipped out one day and shot cows with an M-16. Or…but I have looked out the window over there. Two mesquite trees, dark as shadows, on top of a brown grass lomita, no prickly pear near, no other brush, like it’s a prop only missing a horse. It’s a Texas photo that only someone from Texas would recognize.
Many say that what would be called “el movimiento” began in Crystal City when, in 1963, a group of five Texas Mexicans, empowered by union organization at the Del Monte canning plant, ran for city council and won in a city, like the entire region and state, where government was run by an Anglo minority. And it was Crystal City again in 1969, when high school students walked out and boycotted to demand more than only one Mexican American cheerleader, and bilingual and bicultural education, and simply more institutional respect of the brown people who lived their lives there now and historically. The success of this fight launched the first Chicano political party, La Raza Unida, led by José Angel Gutierrez, which eventually won electoral control of both the city council and school board.
It is all this that the drive leads us toward, except I am distracted, my eyes looking out the car window but seeing somewhere else. Crystal City has, strangely, my own life in it too. For instance, sure, yes, it is that spinach is my favorite vegetable, and Cristal is the “Spinach Capital of the World,” and the city’s center even honors Popeye with a statue there, and so I think not only of health but strength (and also I studied philosophy, and Descartes, and we the initiated know the unavoidable depth of Popeye’s wisdom: I yam what I yam). But watch—once I had a girlfriend I met at UC Santa Barbara, where we both went to college. She was from Eagle Pass. And because we were young, not sure much of anything, she took a long bus ride home to Texas and soon took a job at Crystal City High. I went to El Paso, driving her car across three deserts to eventually bring it to her, blowing out its head gasket, fixing it, and thereby having maybe $30 left, so that I began living in the cheapest hotels, and finally a YMCA for longer than I want to say. She visited me in El Paso once on a weekend and after that she told me she was pregnant. I would marry her and we would be happy for so many years, love so much the sons we raised together. On that same weekend she brought me a book, Estampas del valle y otras obras by Rolando Hinojosa-S. It could be she had borrowed the book without checking it out, because it was stamped “Crystal City High School Lib.” Probably another good explanation. Estampas wasn’t only important to me because she gave it to me as a gift, was what she thought I should and would like to read about an region of Texas I only knew through her, but because I was ravenous about books then, and I was only then beginning my want to write, and I wasn’t sure of so much about what it was I was doing, what writing was, and, like Michael, I was messed up about who I was, where I came from and belonged. I’d already devoured French and German literature, any dimestore or otherwise paperback Western novel with American Indians as lead characters, especially half-breeds. I read Beat and Grove Press literature, Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo and the Latin American boom writers. I loved James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, but Richard Wright, he was God. Chicano literature had just begun, and I knew it only through the plays of Luís Valdez, his Teatro Campesino, and the pachangas at Casa de la Raza in Santa Barbara. Those were days when to me Chicano meant someone who was involved with the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chávez, and I had come from the city, from Los Angeles, where adults I knew drove beer and delivery trucks, were butchers, office and shipping and sales clerks, plumbers, firemen, repairmen, secretaries, assemblers, mechanics, taxi drivers. I myself had worked so many jobs already—industrial ones, in factories, both union and not—from early in high school on. Unlike all my big city friends, I liked to eat tomatoes and spinach, but I didn’t really have a clue about what it meant to work in the fields, and so that was yet another reason I felt separated from el movimiento that surrounded me, the one who was reading books about philosophy and religion. If Valdez was creating a Califas of archetypes (and sometimes stereotypes), of hip zoot suiters and lowriders, pachucos y las rucas, characters I enjoyed but didn’t feel were like me and my more conflicted, and ordinary American experience, what I found in Hinojosa’s work bled a vein: He was writing about the common people who were cops or menial bank workers, employed at drugstores or who sold cars, went to little league baseball games and told stories of a living Mexico and the smallest cositas of a local community, like death and birth, who married who inside the community and out, much of it related as gossip and through simple conversation in dialogue. It was, in other words, what I recognized, and so, like much else that suddenly changed in my life from that point on, I began to understand the world I was in too, where I was not only as a working man, but as a writer I wanted to be.
The writer I am now who is still on such a wonderous, surprising journey—mysterious both in psychic and real space—today I am driving in a car, three decades later, with that
book’s very Ro
ando Hinojosa, who I now think of as a friend even, and we are on the road to visit the grave of one of the other legends of Chicano literature, Tomás Rivera.
Which is to say, there is such a tombstone now of our first, Chicano generation of writer, and it is, justly, in Crystal City, Texas, in the Benito Juárez Cemetery, where, sure, a few wooden crosses have fallen, but where many stand tagged with tattered blue ribbons or torn, miniature American flags, but where everywhere are cement Virgins, vases awaiting or full of fresh pink roses, petals of paper flowers that are purple and red. Names—Rosalva, Estanislado, Euluteria, or Mariana, Ignacio, Juan, Pedro, Beatriz. Rivera’s gravestone is pink granite, probably the same quarry rock that makes the Texas Capitol so admired, RIVERA engraved above the inscriptions, Florencio M, Nov. 7, 1903 to Dec. 5, 1959, his father, and then his, Dr. Tomas H, Dec. 22, 1935 to May 16, 1984.
There is no ghost in that Crystal City cemetery. That is no haunting we feel. Only pride. Only respect. Look at the impossibly long distance Tomás Rivera traveled before he came to rest in the town where he was born: From a family who migrated from their native home, yearly, to pick crops from the fertile American plains to the north, the poorest of the working poor, he became the writer we know, a teacher, and a university president. A great American story. A great Texas story. A great Mexican American story. It may take a ride to a cemetery once in a while to remember, a ritual of respect for an important loss to hush that ghost. It may take a song. It may take a painting. A poem. A fiction. Or maybe a book with them all.
There is so much misunderstanding about who we are here, where we are from. The extreme Republican right sees us as complicit conspirators with undocumented immigrants who take jobs away from Americans, and as part of the subsequent criminal activity, which begins with an “illegal” border crossing to find work (forget acknowledging the desperation and danger of that), then generates criminal children who overuse the American system of education and health care. The same people and their children, coincidentally, who—much less raging rhetoric on this!—are so valuable for a low-wage, poverty-income workforce which also becomes a rich reservoir for military recruitment, the same people who, despite supporting the American flag by wearing an American uniform, can be accused of disloyalty for equally supporting family with a Mexican flag as well—as if dos patrias is unique only to the people of the border, as if Americans who are Irish and Italian and Jewish, for example, don’t exist. But even on the tanned Democratic left there seems to be little more than phrase book insight gotten out of dealing with the maid, nanny, or gardener: After President George W. Bush’s last State of the Union address, the Democratic Party offered its formal reply through one of its Easterners, but also asked Antonio Villaraigosa, the rising star mayor of Los Angeles, to represent the West. His reply was in Spanish. That the Democratic Party put him in a position to speak Spanish to a national audience perpetuates an irritating misconception that Mexican Americans are still and forever immigrants, that our English language skills, like our relationship to this country, are for most weak and secondary. The truth is that Latino voters are either bilingual, as is the mayor, or are monolingual English speakers, while those who struggle with their inglés see him as a son or brother speaking it as well as they aspire to themselves, and are proud, thrilled, because he is an American, because he is a Mexican American.
Texas was the frontline of the historic battle that separated Mexico and the Texas Republic, what became the United States, and the attitude which came of that fight was represented by the treatment of its new Mexican American citizens by a special law enforcement agency known as the Rangers (documented most beautifully by Américo Paredes in his classic With a Pistol in His Hand). If that violence is the past, the attitudes that remain are patronizing at best. Even in Texas, Mexican Americans are still considered more a foreign, ethnic minority, one faraway even when its neighborhood might be less than two blocks north or south. If it’s poor, as it usually is, what poverty causes is considered innate, a character trait, never socially caused. At its kindest, the culture is portrayed as an homage in a children’s museum, or as in a folklorico dance show, and the prevailing unconscious images, framed and shelved, are of men in sombreros and serapes walking burros, women patting tortillas or stuffing tamales in color-frilled white house-dresses, while the stories of Mexican adventures are of border whorehouses and tequila drunks—not meant as harmful, only charming, and wild.
And so it has been with matters intellectual and artistic in Texas. That is to say, if it’s good at all, Mexican American work can be charming but not serious, not important, certainly not as important. When it comes to literature, the situation has been much worse than for visual art or music. Until very recently, at best, there was no book, no writer, of Mexican descent who was worthy of being taught in a university course on American or Texas literature. Outside those academic rooms, the situation in Texas has been epitomized by Texas Monthly, the magazine of Texas, whose stories are never about a Mexican American cultural life that is equal to what gets attention in malls in Dallas or Houston or Austin, which doesn’t do stories that aren’t seen as oh-so-exotic or oh-so-cute, that are definitely not intended for a Mexican American readership. We are, like Mexicans on the other side, part of the colorful border palate in their land, even part of Texas history, just not deeply enmeshed in the ruling or money class.
Yeah, I know, I’ve been muy pesado for a while here in this, right? By heavy I mean…like how about un poco bit of fun, eh dude compa guy chief vato? Ay ay, I’m tired of me too, you know? It’s hard being an all-important editor, let me tell you. I never been that before either, I admit it. And maybe it’s been going to my head, or leaking the light air out my brains because I been squishing so long my, uh…ya sabes.
Entonces, let me go forward, let’s move on. And you know what, that’s exactly what I mean too! Let’s move on! I want Hecho en Tejas to be a celebration, a literary pachanga with cold beer, frijoles, and, for the few non-vegan Tejanos who are left, a couple of cow’s heads whose smoked meat we fold into a couple of corn tortillas—or hot dogs on white bread buns si quieres, whatever! It is why I invited a few of our singers and songwriters to join in on this anthology because they have acordeones and bajo sextos and, unlike me, good voices and can probably dance good too. I invited some artists to spray paint on the walls and wink at your hot tía or primo (you know, that one). I broke out the photo album so that we could sit there and remember the old days when it wasn’t work but fishing, or when it was holy communion or that crazy wedding and don’t you wish you still had that carro, güey?
Much as I want Hecho en Tejas to be a book that lands in as many high schools and colleges as it can—and should!—or touches as many Michaels and Jennifers, Miguels and Raquels as possible, I also want it to reach everyday readers of all kinds who love Texas. I want it to be a book that so many can learn from, both the young who don’t know and the old who do but want it remembered, both those inside the culture and outside. I want it to be a book everyone wants out, not in the bookcase, but right there on the coffee table, bumping against the TV. Look at this! Go on, put your coke on it. Drip some chile or Louisiana on page 73 while you’re reading. No, that ain’t what it’s for, but you got napkins and you can use them. That’s what they’re for. This book is for you to have on your lap.
What I have tried to do is make Hecho en Tejas a strong, good read. Not simply as an anthology, a collection of different writers and styles, but as a book with chapters, so that all the voices might form one story, from one family’s history. That is, from the front pages to the back, for those who already know a little or a lot about this Texas literature, the book will make them even more proud of the talent, culture, and story, while for those who will find most or all of the material new, yes, they may find a particular poet or writer they especially love, but even without knowing about any single one, what will not be forgotten will be the large of the community as the book puzzles forward, each piece connecting land to history, sorrow to joy, to what is Mexican to what is American, what is assimilated, what cannot be.
I have tried to be comprehensive about our literary history, and in that, Hecho en Tejas is a historic publication, collecting all the published Tejano figure that can be in one volume. That it begins with Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spaniard abandoned on Galveston Island in the early days of the Conquest, the first to live what would become the first mix of Spanish and indigenous people, should indicate the scope of the book. As expansive as the book is though, only two poems of every poet appear, and I have tried to keep both the nonfiction and fiction sections comparably economical and taut. I want to emphasize that the length or quantity of the selection and the importance of any author is not proportional. Nor did I choose pieces that might be what is most well-known of any author’s work. My goal has been to tell the larger story not only of Raza in Texas, but also the literary evolution that has taken place as it grows from account to letter to corrido to poem to story. The process of selection has been relatively simple—someone who published at least one book outside the neighborhood, or who has publications that are the equivalent of that. These are artists whose writing has risk and ambition attached, or whose credentials come with affirmation through time or celebrity.
What emerges as the pages accumulate is a story of the Texas Mexican first as a Mexican, then as a Texan, again as Mexican, into the in-your-face flowering of the Chicano period, on to the seeding of it which is now, where identity might be more confused or unimportant—or, as it is in music, from alternative to Tejana to mainstream—and where politics, like the adoption of labels (old-school “Chicano,” Nixon-era “Hispanic,” and progressive “Latino”) might be less important to some than self-promotional, more Republican-like marketing concerns, while to others issues still are the burning cause, particularly as we move into what appears to be, as of this writing, a new era of civil rights.
A few years ago, I was asked by the Southwestern Writers Collection, the special collections area of the library at Texas State University in San Marcos, if I would be willing to edit an anthology, with its support, of Texas Mexican Literature. As much as I loved the idea of the book, I was not too enthusiastic about being an anthology editor. But I reconsidered. It’s that I like to work, and I’m not against it being hard work. I only hate lousy jobs. This project, I knew, would feel good, and do good. Much like framing a house, you get to know every room, all the easy or odd cuts, where the nails poofed in like from an air gun, where I had to contort my muscles to toen ail that one in. You see which rooms go together easy, which seem to take too much time and material and oh well. And like any construction job, there were exhausting overtime days that were too hot—OT days always are, I’m telling you—or which, as it’s going, and you see the progress, that once you’re in the shade chugging cold water, maybe even a cold one instead, it really feels. It’s been that kind of work, and, relieved that it’s done, I’m so glad I got to do it. And—this is how it is when you build something—I am proud to look at it, as impressed that it exists as I am that I was there on the job right where it went up.
The publication of Hecho en Tejas is hereby a formal announcement: We have been here, we are still here. I want this book to overwhelm the ignorance—and I emphasize the “ignore” root of that word as much as its dumb or mean or nasty connotation—about Raza here in Texas, the people who settled and were settled and still remain in Texas, who will soon be the largest population group in the state, not to mention the region beyond.
Onward y adelante!