The Education of Mi Hijita

My daughter is only two, but I’m already planning to teach her what it means to be a Texan—and a Tejana.
SANTOS
Photograph by Sarah Lim

Her Texas story began with relámpagos de calor.

The night I learned I would become a father, I was getting ready for a dinner party. It was August 2009, in the midst of a historic South Texas drought and a mounting global economic collapse, so some mood leavening was in order. Since our dinner companions were all buoyantly childless, the revels would begin at twilight, go on for hours, and be relatively carefree. I’d finished dressing and was sending a few last emails when my wife, Frances, came to show me the wand of her pregnancy test, from which a blinking indigo plus sign shot forth like the beacon of some superhero.

I hadn’t ever really planned on becoming a father. It had always seemed vaguely presumptuous to take on imperial authority over the formation of offspring. Like many of my closest friends, I didn’t become a parent until well into the tale, in my case when I was about to turn 52. After we had married the year before, Frances and I had decided to leave the matter to nature, and nature’s ineluctable ways had made the process almost inadvertent. Yet the result was indisputable. After a lifetime of wandering far from home, I would be raising a Texan. Like the coho salmon, I had swum upstream to my birthplace to spawn.

I had returned to San Antonio a few years before, in 2005, after a long exile, most recently in New York City. I’d lived there for 22 years, but I was never a committed New Yorquino, always subscribing to Hill Country storyteller Hondo Crouch’s sage observation that “New York’d never amount to anything because it was too far.” I spent much of my time traveling, making documentaries all over the world, studying and writing. Yet I was rooted in South Texas. The lauded mystique of America’s Northeastern Brahmins could never match the millennial, epic story of the world I came from. All that Yankee lore seemed like the glorified preoccupation of newcomers.

But I didn’t really become Texan until I left. Growing up, I was likelier to be called “meskin” or “greaser”; outside the Lone Star State, the extranjeros would invariably see me as Texan, maybe because I was always shod in Tony Lamas. As I wore out my boots in each of my faraway redoubts, it became a habit to deposit them as mementos in the local river—the St. Joseph; the Cherwell and Thames; the Spree, after a spell in Berlin; and finally the East River, in New York City. Just before leaving, I would fill my boots with discarded writings and a few personal effects, tie them together, and drop them into the waters, to settle into the mud for some future archaeologist to ponder over.

During my distant sojourns, the question of Tejas—its provenance, progeny, and posterity—became my greatest literary obsession. I became fascinated with my ancestral story and its roots in the history of Nueva España. I have now written two books about my ancestors: the first about my father’s Coahuilense familia and their ties to San Antonio and indigenous Mexico, the second about my mother’s Spanish ancestors and their settlement in what became South Texas. In both cases, I discovered how our family history connected us to the saga of humanity itself. But despite my preoccupation with these lineages, I had yet to make a personal contribution of my own to their futurity.

The dinner party that night was convivial and only mildly riotous. Our hosts and old friends wondered about Frances’s sudden abstemiousness, but we demurred and kept the secret. After dessert, folks gradually ambled out into the tranquil hilltop street, in the Monte Vista neighborhood of San Antonio, just northwest of downtown, where we observed a grand spectacle. Imposing massifs of clouds were piled up, horizon to heavens in the southeast. The city skyline and Tower of the Americas were backlit in sharp relief as innumerable veins of lightning flashes ran up and down the cumulonimbus—a rare display of classic Texas heat lightning, relámpagos de calor. By the time we learned the baby was a girl, she wasn’t just Francesca—she would be Francesca de la Luz. (Originally her name was to be Luz Francesca, but my brothers convinced us that this name would make her life, particularly in high school, impossible. Monolingual bullies can’t resist puns.) 

A new Tejana had been announced in mystic effulgences. But what is a Tejana? What is a Texan? Was there a difference? How do you become one? Would it mean something different for my daughter than it has meant for me?

Presently Francesca, who turned two earlier this year, is too concerned with the rigors of potty training, keeping track of where her Winnie the Pooh and Ganesha dolls are hiding, and accessing her favorite videos on the iPad to fret about any of this. But they are questions that my poet wife and I, both Texans of an admittedly nuanced sort, have wrestled with since that night of heat lightning. Now that we have made a Texan, what will she make of Texas—and what will Texas make of her?

My family’s story is deeply intertwined with the history of these lands. In spite of the painful legacy of discrimination that my elders recounted and that still touched me as a kid, I knew growing up that our story was quintessential to the place. Ours was the Texas experience—a family that had emerged out of the myriad New World encounters between peoples who had journeyed far from their first homes to make a new life here. Many of our ancestors came here to escape some tyranny or discord, with an almost magical expectation that in these tierras they could be transformed into someone new (a scenario still playing out every day along our southern border). 

Frances’s and my Mexican families settled in these lands long before American statehood, long before the Mexican Republic. My mother’s family arrived in northern New Spain in the 1620’s.

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