The Story of Us

For Texans, the question of “where I’m from” has always been rooted in our mythic identity. It’s high time the myth reflected more of us.

June 2010By Comments

This issue contains twenty essays and interviews in which Texas writers, performers, and even gubernatorial candidates Rick Perry and Bill White offer their reflections on the subject of “where I’m from.” The theme is universal; each of us is from somewhere, and our origins have shaped us in ways that we may not even realize. Texans thought they knew Lyndon Baines Johnson, but it wasn’t until Robert A. Caro published The Path to Power, the first volume of his epic biographical series about LBJ, that Texans came to know the Hill Country not just as a bucolic land of spring-fed rivers and summer camps but as “a trap baited with grass,” where men’s dreams were shattered by the fruitless effort to grow cotton out of limestone and where a son’s ambition began to take shape.

“Where I’m from” is a concept that is not defined solely by geography. It is also defined by time. Larry McMurtry did not contribute to these recollections, but his preface to In a Narrow Grave, a compilation of essays on Texas, first published in 1968, is an elegy for a mythic region at the moment of transition:

Before I was out of high school I realized I was witnessing the dying of a way of life—the rural, pastoral way of life. . . . I recognized, too, that the no longer open but still spacious range on which my ranching family had made its livelihood for two generations would not produce a livelihood for me or for my siblings and their kind. The cattle range had become the oil patch; the dozer cap replaced the Stetson almost overnight. The myth of the cowboy grew purer every year because there were so few actual cowboys left to contradict it.

McMurtry came of age at the precise moment that Texas ceased to be a rural state. He is “from” that moment. Hundreds of miles away, I was coming of age at the same moment—the fifties—and I saw my hometown of Galveston suffer a similar fate of irrelevance. Once the focal point of Texas finance and commerce, it had ceased to be a vital part of modern Texas. Growing up there, amid ghostly, mostly empty nineteenth-century buildings that had been witnesses, half a century before, to the greatest tragedy ever suffered by an American city, I knew, as the young McMurtry knew, that the tide of history was inexorable. It could never be reversed.

We do not choose the places we are from; we can choose only the ways that they have meaning for us. The authors find meaning not just in the time and place of their origins but also in formative experiences: a first lesson in playing the accordion in Poteet, growing up in a beloved house in San Marcos, a family tragedy in Mission. Skip Hollandsworth’s fascination with the Wichita Falls State Hospital, a mental institution on the outskirts of town, was the inspiration for his becoming a journalist. Stephen Harrigan, bound for the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, saw in the limestone canyons west of town a metaphor for the city itself—“not grand, not goading, just quietly beguiling”—and knew that he had found his home. Some of the essays transcend the personal. In his piece about growing up in El Paso, historian David Dorado Romo relates one of his earliest memories. He was five years old, and his family had pulled up to the checkpoint at the international bridge connecting Juárez and El Paso. Romo was in the backseat when a customs official pointed at him and said a single word: “Citizenship?” He took off the Mickey Mouse hat he was wearing and waved it in the man’s face.

Romo’s essay reminds us that “where I’m from” can be as mundane as a conversational icebreaker or as profound as a matter of one’s legal rights. At approximately the same time these stories were being written, two events were taking place that could change the future of this state. One was the arrival of census forms in mailboxes across Texas; the other was the passage of a draconian measure by the Arizona legislature authorizing law enforcement officials to stop and question suspected illegal aliens. The Arizona law has already found supporters in Texas who want to replicate it here. If they are successful, the question of where one is from will be freighted with consequences, legal and personal. Actions such as these arise in part out of a resistance to fundamental changes caused by shifting demographics, as the border states, and the country as a whole, become less Anglo. Nowhere has the transformation been more complete than in Texas. As the census will show, we will soon become a minority Anglo state. Assuming our rates of natural increase stay the same, if immigration continues at just half the pace of the decade 1990—2000, Latinos will likely overtake Anglos as the largest ethnic group in the state by 2020. In demographic time, that is tomorrow.

Texas has always enjoyed a mythic identity greater than any other state’s, largely because we were once a nation. But the question that contemporary Texans must ask is whether this mythic identity continues to serve us well or whether it has become a straitjacket, binding us to the past, blinding us to the future. For not only is Texas increasingly a more Hispanic state, it is also now overwhelmingly an urban one too. The last census that found more Texans living in rural areas than in cities was in 1940. In the sixties, 146 of the state’s 254 counties lost population. Texas’s destiny is to become ever more urban and ethnically diverse.

Today, 88 percent of Texans live in urban and suburban areas, leaving just 12 percent to inhabit the countryside, yet ours is an urban state with a rural soul. The cities swell with people who came from the small towns and hauled their values and their virtues to the city behind their pickups. This move has almost always been a one-way trip. In the late forties, the rural areas cried for relief from their isolation from the markets in the cities, and the Legislature responded with the program that created farm-to-market roads, so that the farmer could move his crops on pavement. What often happened is that he sold the farm and moved himself and his family instead. A 1986 texas monthly story about this cycle in Garwood, a small town southwest of Houston, made the point that the first-generation urban immigrants thought about moving back but seldom did. Whatever they lost by living in the city was more than made up for by the liberating privacy they had never had in their small towns. The second generation was absorbed by the city forever.

But if the cities exert a gravitational force on rural Texas, drawing its people into the urban core, the country exerts its force on the city as well. Central to our identity as Texans is the urge to explore the vast distances that lie within our borders. We may live in the suburbs, but we have not forgotten where we came from. Rural Texas remains the source of our civic myths.

How will we square those myths with the way the state is changing (and has already changed)? The Texas that we know is not the Texas our children will live in. From now on, the demographic issue that will determine the future of the state is not whether the city or the countryside will prevail. It is whether Anglo and Latino Texans can avoid the political and ethnic tension that has beset Arizona—or, to put it another way, whether they can find common ground in myths that have heretofore excluded Latinos rather than embraced them. So far, the myths, and the political system, have remained impervious to demographic imperatives.

The consequences of the census will be felt first in politics, when the Legislature draws new districts for the state House and Senate in 2011. For most of the state’s history, political power has resided in the rural areas. Regionalism still runs deep there, in the ranching country west of Fort Worth, in the woods east of the Trinity, and in the brushlands south of the Nueces. Regional identity will remain a force in Texas politics, but the power of the regions will wane. The census will validate the shift of power to the metro areas around Houston, Dallas—Fort Worth, and Austin—San Antonio, resulting in a loss of representation for all of rural Texas but gains for minority voters in the cities. No future Texas governor will have a childhood like Rick Perry’s: growing up on the plains of West Texas in a home without modern indoor plumbing, in which his mother sewed his underpants (truly; see Boy’s Life).

What Texans have in common is that we are all heirs to the myth, even those Texans who no longer live here. In this collection, the stories of expatriates are among the most poignant, because the expats feel their isolation; their children root for the wrong teams and know nothing of firearms, barbecue, and boots. One writer confesses to having undergone a “slow Yankee-fication.” Another indulges his “stubborn nostalgia for my lost Texas landscape” by reading Cormac McCarthy. Another experiences reveries of the Edwards Plateau while strolling along the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. Such is the hold that the myth maintains on us, even from afar.

McMurtry, with whose observations I began this piece, was the first Texas writer to recognize its dark side. In a Narrow Grave—the title is from an old cowboy song—represents his determination to break free of the myth and to see Texas as it really is in the late sixties. He doesn’t find a lot to admire, from the relations between the sexes to the Astrodome to the works of the deceased triumvirate who were revered as the founders of Texas letters and intellectualism—folklorist J. Frank Dobie, naturalist Roy Bedichek, and historian Walter Prescott Webb. Forty years have passed, but the Texas he describes is not so different from the one we inhabit today—a place that is still limited by its self-satisfaction with its venerable myths. It’s time for some new ones.

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