In June 2010, soon after my nephew Cristóbal had turned seven, I took him on his first visit to the state Capitol. Cris, as we refer to him affectionately, has always been inclined toward grand things, so the pink-granite marvel was a perfect adventure for the soon-to-be-second-grader. He was transfixed by the long hallways and the rows and rows of portraits of the men and women who once served the Texas Legislature. He seemed awed by the thought that, at a good bit under four feet tall, a little boy like he could form part of such a vast human continuum.
Then we arrived at the Senate Chamber, the stately place where, I explained, our laws actually get made. The room was restored to reflect how it looked in 1905, and his eyes grew wide as they swept across it, contemplating the walnut desks and ornate brass chandeliers. But it was two enormous canvases against the back wall that caught his attention. They are the Irish-born painter H. A. McArdle’s “Dawn at the Alamo” and “The Battle of San Jacinto,” depicting the two most famous battles in the Texas Revolution. The latter, which is a bit larger than the first and to which Cris gravitated, depicts the military attack that ended the war on April 21, 1836 and gave birth to Texas.
Although the battle was won in eighteen minutes, the Texas troops pressed forward another hour to avenge the death of their compatriots in Goliad and the Alamo. The final death count was nine Texans against 630 Mexicans. The present-day monument on the former battleground in the Houston Ship Channel recognizes the battle as a decisive one that freed Texas and led to the Mexican War, by which one-third of the present-day American nation, nearly one million square miles of territory, changed hands. McArdle’s mural, subtitled “Retributive Justice,” serves as an allegory of good ultimately conquering evil–while the cowardly General Santa Anna flees on a horse, the Texians continue to stab the Mexicans, leaving them wounded or dead in pools of their own blood.
Cris had walked up to the painting in the chamber and was so transfixed the guard had to ask him to step back from the protective ropes. He seemed disturbed by its gory mess, and wanted to know who was fighting who, and why. I told him it commemorated the day that Texas seceded from Mexico, later becoming part of the United States. He hadn’t learned this part of history, and I could see his little mind shift into overdrive as he digested the fact that his home state was once part of another country. “That’s just wrong,” he blurted. “And that’s just weird that America always wins.”
I realized I’d opened up a can of worms and he wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easily. He grew flustered, demanding to know “how it all got started, I just don’t understand!” I explained in the simplest terms possible that some people here had not been happy with the rules of the Mexican government. “But just some!” he protested. Then he asked what had happened to those who stayed behind after independence. I told him they became Texans, and subsequently also Americans. He figured out that not all would have been Anglo. “And the Mexicans,” he wanted to know, “did they get alone with everyone else?” I told him they were discriminated against for a long time because they were different, but that they, too, became American citizens. And then his face lit up as he put all the pieces together and recognized his own reality: “Oh, Mexican Americans!”
Cris is the son of Mexican Americans from Brownsville and El Paso who are now successful lawyers in Houston, and he embraces both parts of his identity with reverence and passion. First and foremost, he is a die-hard American: he is enamored with NASA, devoured the entire Harry Potter series in the second grade, and, during our Thanksgiving dinner in 2008, chose to give his thanks to God “because Obama won for president.” But he attends a private school with an international curriculum that celebrates cultural difference, and his parents have taken extra care to instill pride in his Mexican roots and brown skin especially once they saw that at three years old, his pre-K classmates were already talking about race. He loves Spanish music, the Mexican children comedy show Chespirito, and adores Nacho Libre because it’s an American film set in Mexico.
His troubled encounter two summers ago with the artwork in the Capitol had, I think, as much to do with its graphic content as it did with the fact that it disturbed his sense of himself and darkened his place in history. The story of Texas that generations of us have read in school textbooks and consumed in the Capitol is far too black-and-white, leaving no room for us to understand who we are or where we come from in a fuller and more enriching way. But the unveiling last week of a $2 million bronze monument honoring Tejanos, Texans of Mexican ancestry who were here even before our state came to be, offers one chance to complicate the narrative a little.
A descendant of two of those founding Tejano families, I have to admit I almost missed the event. For years I’d heard about this monument that Mexican American leaders were determined to bring to Capitol grounds, where eighteen other memorials on 22 acres honor everything from Confederate soldiers and Texas Rangers to peace officers, war veterans, firemen, Texas cowboys, women and children–-even the Statue of Liberty and the Ten Commandments. But it wasn’t until a day or two before it happened that I learned the details of Thursday’s ceremony. I sent last-minute emails canceling my classes at the University of Texas and arrived that morning at the soggy south lawn a good half hour after Governor Rick Perry, who’d signed the project into law in 2001, had proclaimed that “this is an important