Land That We Love

Texas, it has been said, is a state of mind. If that’s an abstract way of thinking, it’s at least rooted in a very physical reality: we live in a land of unending skies and disparate spaces, where mesquite stretches for miles in one direction and pine clusters densely in another, where rivers form borders and bayous, where the flatness of our plains rivals the depths of our canyons.

The First Resident of Belken County

I grew up in the capital of the celebrity world, Los Angeles, where the sun rose to shine on us, not only me, even if it seemed so when I looked up; where ocean waves, not that far away when I ditched school and hitchhiked, lapped the shores like sweet, romantic kisses; where the blackened nights were white-lined boulevards full of starry headlights cruising low and slow, checking for the good and the bad, left and right more important than up ahead. I grew up where “cool” began, where music that mattered came to make it, the dip and sway stopping only when I was asleep; and where movies and their really important screens were actually big and curtained. All this was mine. This glam and glory spilled onto me and the hood I came up in, where I met the best-looking girls, I was in the baddest rides, and I was up against the ugliest, most dangerous dudes, who I could take if . . . if it weren’t for the fact that that L.A. was, maybe, as lasting as a movie-star sighting, a dreamland that had little to do with my life.   

There are lots of L.A.’s, and mine was really a neighborhood that was cut through for the newest freeway, meaning not just cheap, dispensable land and people, but story. The heroic fable that ran in my head was one that warped significantly from larger facts, and only incidentally overlapped with the name of the city. When the truth penetrated, it was worse than being the earth and finding out the sun wasn’t swooning around it. I was, at most, a fleck of dust on this planet that was but a fleck of dust in the huge sky, and I realized that, as L.A. goes, accuracy aside, my story wasn’t of much unique interest either. We’ve all heard that perennial who am I? I began with where, which came with a how, as in, What kind of mess did I get myself into? My East L.A. dad, with his German roots, lived more like a cliché Mexican, 49 years at one job beginning at age 13, interrupted only once, by the Marine Corps, until he got laid off in his sixties. I grew up with my mom, who was born in Mexico but was nobody’s stereotype but for the drinking one. Single, she wanted to dress for a Parisian nightlife.

Brush aside lots of landlocked, unimpressive jobs that came and went lots more often than my drives between L.A. and El Paso, toss broken lineage issues that were my familial inheritance, and fast-forward to the mind’s homing instinct: jusat say I began by researching this large where through its big stories. I climbed the stacks for the too-faraway, the Naipaul from Trinidad, the Achebe from Nigeria, of course the Russian, German, and French (Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Camus)—no British for me, that language barrier too great—and then I went south to Fuentes in Mexico City, Vargas Llosa in Lima, García Márquez in Macondo. I wanted to be Beckett, old, wise, funny. I lived with Zhuang Zhou in China. Rulfo’s scorched earth altered my reading DNA, made me there and farther away at the same time. I finally started looking around nearer. I read Wright’s leftie Chicago, Kerouac’s New York to San Francisco and back, and Kesey’s fierce rivers, giant trees Oregon. I read L.A.: Bukowski—I wasn’t a drunk and didn’t want to get that ugly. Fante—sorry, dude, you’re good, but I have problems with your Mexican-gal BS. In El Paso I got closer still—Mariano Azuela, John Rechy, Ricardo Sánchez—but I wasn’t a Mexican national, I wasn’t gay, I’d never been a pachuco or in the joint. 

I was living in an El Paso YMCA, financially zeroed, in 1977. That’s where I was exactly. Whatever the cause, I was the closest to “home” I’d gotten. It was like I was smelling the first musky wisp of desert rain, and I needed the rain. My girlfriend (who would later become my wife) had given up on me and moved back to Eagle Pass. She took a job at Crystal City High School. “Cristal,” in the Spanish pronunciation as it’s known by raza, was the source and beginning of the Chicano movement in Texas, starting in the late sixties. And there my girlfriend had found a book in the library, and she . . . though I still have it today, let’s say she checked it out for me. It was Estampas del valle y otras obras, and it was by the author Rolando R. Hinojosa-S, a name so convoluted it seemed more from a Borges short story.* A bilingual text, on the surface it was as it stated it was: “sketches,” or vignettes, of the Valley, which is to say the Rio Grande Valley, far closer than Argentina. It was in this book, by this writer, Rolando Hinojosa, that I found my lost where. 

His full name is Rolando R. Hinojosa-Smith. His last name goes with the usage common in the Spanish and Latin American tradition, with father’s last name first and then the mother’s maiden name. The hyphen is a North Americanism. It is ordinary, especially in Latin America, to simplify names to first name and father’s last. Thus, Rolando Hinojosa is what is used on all of his books post-Estampas and is how he is referred to by all who write about his work or know him personally.

Hooked on a Reeling

With the confidence of a tourist, I happily forked over $2 just to walk down the 1,240-foot Horace Caldwell Pier one blustery morning in Port Aransas, the low-key coastal village on the northern tip of Mustang Island. Most of the other paying customers were attending to fishing setups of varying complexity; one man, who was monitoring six rigs, had built an elaborate sun-blocking lean-to.

Meanwhile, in Texas...

  • High school engineering students in Mansfield developed a working prosthetic hand for a man who lost his fingers in a wood chipper.
  • A San Antonio cemetery threw away Spurs-themed decorations that had been placed on gravesites after the team won the NBA championship.
  • A pregnant elephant at the Houston Zoo was put on a diet to lose five hundred pounds in order to make the birthing process safer.
  • Twenty-year-old West Tawakoni resident Lucy Millsap and her parents took three different top honors at noodling t

The Checklist


I Got More Soul!, Bobby Patterson (Omnivore, July 22)
The seventy-year-old Dallas soul singer’s first album in sixteen years—ably produced in Austin by former Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears guitarist Zach Ernst, who did similar honors for gospel group the Relatives last year—finds him in astonishingly strong voice and good humor; a title like “Your Love Belongs Under a Rock” is all the hint you need that this is no mere reverential revival. 

Billy Joe Shaver Is Still Alive

Billy Joe Shaver celebrates two major milestones this month, and it’s hard to say which deserves the longer parade. On August 5 the Corsicana-born singer-songwriter will release his seventeenth studio album (and his first in seven years), Long in the Tooth. But the record’s title indicates what may be the greater accomplishment: eleven days later, the one outlaw-generation songwriter who everybody agreed was out of his mind and not long for this world will turn 75.


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