Jen Reel

Finding My Place Within the Texas Myth


A version of this story ran in the January 2015 issue.

Above: Michelle García

As a kid I learned that being Texan meant having an independent spirit, big trucks, boots and good manners. We had all of that in South Texas, but I also noticed that the Texas myth did not include Latinas. After I landed in college, I saw that the mastheads and bylines in most Texas publications made clear who were the recognized arbiters of our world, and whose opinions counted. Not seeing much of a future in Texas, I set off north.

The Texas myth narrates our past and often defines our present, informing seemingly rational decisions. Powerful stories convince us to vote against our self-interests and shape whom we believe we can love. We can see our Texas narrative reflected in policy, politics and policing.

In late November, an Austin man, described by police as a “homegrown extremist” and “terrorist” fueled by anti-immigrant hate, went on a shooting rampage. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo vividly described how a police officer shot the gunman. “As he held two horses with one hand, he discharged at least one round with a single-handed shot,” Acevedo said. “That’d be one heck of a shot.”

The made-for-Hollywood image is what we might call True Texan. But it left me cold that police brass characterized a violent confrontation as if it were a scene from a Western. That’s the power of the Texas story: It enlivens the spirit, but it can also serve as blinders, deflecting attention from our real problems.

In 2009, Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told the Texas Legislature that the “command and control elements” of transnational criminal gangs were located closer to Houston than the border. Yet this summer, an influx of Central American children at the Texas-Mexico border triggered a deployment of state police and the National Guard. That made for a powerful visual but it’s unclear what problem, if any, it solved.

Many of the common notions of “us” draw on a distorted sense of history. I once phoned a city office in Killeen to obtain a police report and, when the clerk mangled the name of her co-worker, I correctly pronounced it, saying, “Oh, Montemayor.” She replied, “Honey, I’m just a white girl from Texas.” The implication was that being white precluded her from speaking Spanish or even properly pronouncing the name of someone whose company she kept for eight hours a day, five days a week. By extension, claiming Texas meant disavowing Spanish.

After years of reporting on Texas but keeping my distance, I had to choose whether to become a prisoner of my tales or revisit them.

Into the mid-1800s multiple languages were spoken in Texas. Indeed, the street signs of San Antonio could be read in English, Spanish and German. Juan Seguín and Jose Antonio Navarro, among Texas’ founding fathers, conducted their dealings in Spanish, historian Raul Ramos told me, and Seguín shepherded legislation to fund the translation of laws and regulations into Spanish.

In our mythmaking, we decide who counts as “us.” A few years back, an El Paso activist handed me a report prepared for city officials that offered rebranding solutions for that border city. Inside, a photograph of an elderly Latino man driving a truck, representing “old” El Paso, was juxtaposed with the image of “new” El Paso—a young, white, seemingly upwardly mobile couple. In the years since, the city has given its blessing to the demise of “old” El Paso by permitting the demolition of historic buildings that embody a cross-border history as true to our frontier spirit as a single-handed shot.

When we write certain people—black, brown, poor—out of the Texas myth, policymakers tend to make decisions that benefit the few. In Austin, city officials are debating whether to convert more than 700 acres of parkland into a PGA golf course. Austin is defining its public face by choosing whether public lands should be in the service of the working class or a select elite. After all, who plays golf?

After years of reporting on Texas but keeping my distance, I had to choose whether to become a prisoner of my tales or revisit them, with matured eyes and wisdom. I decided to return to Texas. With that mission in mind, I inaugurate this column. Bylines and mastheads remain woefully unreflective of our Texas, but the folks at the Observer have invited me to contribute to a change. I will explore the state of our state with a focus on defining the myths and stories that shape our politics and policies, but that can also inspire us to undertake the path to a greater self, a greater state.