Will popular images of Texas ever catch up with reality--and do we want them to?
Texas. Even for Texans, the word calls to mind cowboys, cattle barons and oil tycoons, but how many of those do you know? Even for those of us who live on a cul-de-sac and work in a cubicle, the myth of the lone gunslinger or cunning entrepreneur looms large in our psyche. It’s a fantasy we refuse to let go.
One institution helping us hold on is popular culture, particularly movies and television. It seems as long as there’s been a Texas, there’s been someone trying to sell a larger-than-life version of it. From the 1830 play Lion of the West that portrayed Davy Crockett as “half-horse, half-alligator” to the greatest nighttime soap opera villain of all time, J.R. Ewing of Dallas, the mass media has focused almost solely on Texans as risk-taking white men on a mission.
Which would be fine except that this image of Texas, based on a tiny fraction of the population, continues to dictate political conversation in this state. Texas voters want to secede when they hear politicians talk about federalized health care and higher taxes for social services. It’s like they’re all little Davy Crocketts—ready to fight for their independence—though many of them would faint if they had to walk farther than the length of a parking lot. Maybe the Texas Myth lets us avoid looking at ourselves as we really are.
No one in the civilized world ever dreamed there could be millionaires, let alone gazillionaires, in a place as hicky as Texas until 1948, when Life magazine printed a picture of legendary wildcatter H.L. Hunt with a headline that read, “Is this man the richest man in America?” Before H.L. struck it rich, he was a gauche professional poker player, a common cardshark. Suddenly, through a shrewd investment and some incredible luck, he was swimming in dough and hobnobbing with movie stars and heads of state. I can see how he and his peers became, literally, the great white hope for thousands of ambitious, working-class Texans eager to get ahead.
You can take the boy off the ranch, but as they say in my native Brownsville, you cannot take the ranch out of the boy. Bryan Burrough, author of The Big Rich, says these Texas oilmen became the 1940s and ’50s equivalents of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet—“if Bill Gates and Warren Buffet practiced worrisome, right-wing politics.” These same oil families pumped millions of dollars into spreading what would become the modern, conservative political movement. They even became buddies with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. That’s about when their love affair with the East Coast press ended. For Texans, however, the infatuation has been ongoing.
About 30 years after the photo of Hunt was published in Life magazine, his son, Ray L. Hunt, became the real-life inspiration for the J.R. Ewing character. A few years after Dallas was canceled, Ray became one of the biggest backers of George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. If you scrutinized Bush, you might pick up on the ghost of J.R., and that was no accident. Ray Hunt knew the Texas Myth sells. In this case, it sold America a president. It also sold Texas a governor. When Rick Perry takes aim at the federal government, he’s channeling Davy Crockett yelling, “You can all go to hell. I’m going to Texas!”
Perry’s Texas is not my Texas, though. Where I grew up, in the Rio Grande Valley, there were few white people and fewer wealthy ones. I don’t dream of being independent from the United States. When I hear the term “states’ rights,” I think of slavery. You may have grown up hearing about the Texas Rangers being heroes. I grew up hearing about them lynching Mexican-Americans. Not Mexicans. Mexican-Americans. I don’t want Texas to go back to the days of Cowboy McWhitey and the Happy Lynchers. I grew up in Brownsville, where the entire city government is Mexican-American, the two local universities are filled with Mexican-Americans, and there are slews of professional, educated Mexican-Americans to emulate. I never felt like a minority until I left the Valley for college in Austin. Then I had to learn all about white Texas lore. I’d never heard of half of these cultural oddities. Like making fun of Oklahoma. In Brownsville we made fun of Matamoros.
Slowly but surely, other versions of Texas are entering the public consciousness. Take Machete. It was arguably Texas’ biggest film of 2010, and it was written and directed by a Mexican-American, Robert Rodriguez. It was about La Raza Unida, right? At first blush it might seem like Machete and his crusaders are being empowered by Rodriguez, but are they? Is it really the case in 2010 that Mexicans in Texas have no choice but to pick up their giant gardening tools and declare war on The Man? They can’t go to college, run for office or vote? After 200 years, all the Hispanics in Texas are still illegal immigrants whose only mode of communication is violence? Of course not. This type of movie, however fun, reinforces separation between two groups that co-exist symbiotically, especially compared with their counterparts in the rest of the Southwest.
Then again, the State Board of Education did try to eradicate Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall from the history books. However, and this is kind of important, it didn’t succeed. The city of Austin boycotted travel to Arizona after that state passed its anti-immigrant law. I’ll keep my machete in the shed for now.
One film in the last 20 years presented a pretty realistic image of Tejanos and did more to educate the world about their existence than any other single piece of media. That film is Selena. Here was a girl born in Texas who sang in perfect Spanish, but couldn’t string two sentences together to speak it. She would rather have sung American disco or pop, but was forced to sing the music of her ancestors. There was no market for a Mexican–American pop star in her day.
That’s what it’s like to be a Texas Mexican. You’re as American as the next Texan, but not everyone sees you that way. On the plus side, I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to be on a business trip in London a few years ago and have an English colleague know where I was coming from when I said I was from South Texas. “A Tejana,” he said. “Like Selena.” Selena does get shot at the end of the movie. You can’t have everything.
But what am I complaining about? At least Texas Mexicans have a presence in the media. I can’t say as much for any other minority group in this state, unless you count Kumar Pallana, the Indian guy in all of Wes Anderson’s films. Kumar’s from Dallas, but Wes Anderson? He’s not a Texan Texan. He moved to France for God’s sake.
Which brings us back to the guys trying to keep Texas’ image conservative and country because American voters can’t get enough of it. Bush won the presidency on John Wayne grandstanding. I’ll prove it to you. Take the following bit of dialogue from John Wayne’s The Alamo, and substitute W. for Davy Crockett and Charlie Rose for William B. Travis:
William B. Travis: Crockett, I have, I believe, learned two things about you. You’re not the illiterate country bumpkin you would have people believe. You speak an excellent and concise English when you wish. The bad grammar is a pose.
Davy Crockett: Well a fella has to do a lot of things to get elected to Congress. I’ve kissed many a baby, too.
Travis: The other is that you came to Texas to fight with us.
Crockett: Don’t tell my Tennesseans that. They think we came south to hunt and get drunk.
It makes sense that the GOP has gotten most of its political strategy of the last 20 years from The Alamo. Historians have noted that Wayne injected it full of his personal Cold War politics. He substituted Mexicans for communists and had himself a script. Today, instead of Mexicans, just substitute … actually, Mexicans work just fine. Get a load of this speech Wayne makes in the film as Davy Crockett. It could have easily been taken from a Tea Party rally in Williamson County:
Republic. I like the sound of the word. Means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.
Yeah, I want to cry, too, when I consider that all these years later, the future of my state is still being decided by a bunch of rich, white guys getting drunk and shooting at the moon.
What about the future? Well, the Texas Myth doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact, it will likely be kept alive through reality television. As anyone who’s watched reality TV can attest, those shows largely depict a distorted, overblown sense of reality at best. That’s why the Texas Myth is a perfect fit. The company behind Real Housewives of New York seems to agree because it’s busy casting for Real Texas Ranch Wives. According to the casting call, the producers are looking for “glamorous wives of Texas ranchers with BIG personalities ages 21-40, who want to share a slice of life inside their privileged country lives.” It’s Sue Ellen Ewing for the modern age.
Thank God, the media occasionally love to play against type. Gay network Logo is researching a Dallas spin-off for its breakout reality hit The A List: New York. The show is informally called Gay Housewives, and producers are looking to recreate the success of the original series in the Lone Star State. “Gays in Texas?” America will ask. Listen, straight Texans do not have a market on tacky. If this show happens, it will be Sue Ellen for the truly modern age. And if Rock Hudson could play a cattle baron, why the heck not?
From the looks of things, it may be impossible to overcome the Texas Myth in our lifetimes, but maybe we don’t have to. If we can look up every once and awhile, especially around election time, and recognize our state for the modern, multicultural, thriving force that it is, there’s no harm in shooting at the moon every once in a while. Just make sure you keep that gun pointed away from me.
Cindy Casares is Managing Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos.