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.

September 2012By Comments

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. Many generations later, our grandparents were born in Mexico or on the border. Our parents were all born in Texas, yet today when I ask my 86-year-old mother, Laredo born, reared in Cotulla and San Antonio, if her mother and father raised her and her siblings to think of themselves as Texans, she immediately answers, “We were Mexicanos. Nobody ever said anything about being Texan in our house.” 

Somehow, by the time I came along in the late fifties, in addition to remaining Mexicanos, we were also incontrovertibly American and Texan—but loaded with unspoken codas, emotionally encrypted historical footnotes. My father imparted to me my sense of balance between our families’ Mexicano-Tejano past, our Texan-American present, and our global future. He was bien Mexicano but also a proud Texan and a veteran of World War II. He taught me that discrimination came from fear and would often laugh it off. “Those gringos sure are smart,” he’d say, chuckling. He harbored no ill will for the history of dispossession, sought no settling of scores for the deprecations put upon him. When I went to study in England, he wrote me a song to remind me of my roots:

I wear a pair of shiny boots, a big ten-gallon hat,
And every time I go somewhere, there’s always someone who
Asks the same old question: “Mister, where you from?”
And that is when I tell them that I was Texas born,
I was born in Texas, and I come from San Antone.
Oh-h-h,
I-I-I was born in Texas, and it’s the best place to be from.

He gave my brothers and me a taste of Texas ranch life on a small sandy spread he bought just south of San Antonio. On weekends the extended Santos family would gather there for barbecuing, feasting, and singing. Without ever speaking of it, he gave us a reverence for the landscape, the parched and prickly along with the lush and riverine, and imparted the wild wisdom that some part of our inner lives was reflected in the outward qualities of these Texas places. For him, driving Ranch Road 1376, from Boerne through Sisterdale to Luckenbach, with its vast, rocky valley vistas, was like going to church. I recall staring at him during those drives as he looked out the window with awe.

The old ranch is gone, and my father died in 1998. Most of my family elders are dead now too, certainly all of those who spoke only Spanish, from whom I first learned to speak the language with a Coahuila accent. Earlier this year we lost Uncle Beto, from Nueva Rosita, a tireless jester and Spanglish wordsmith. He left Francesca an animatronic Chihuahua doll in a Santa cap that sings “Jingle Bells” with a thick Spanish accent. And in July my father’s last surviving brother, Uncle Roger, died. Long ago, he taught us where all the fishing spots were on the Salado and Cibolo creeks. 

The world that I was nurtured in is gone; in many ways it was the twilight time of the old world of Mexicano Texas that had been slowly vanishing since 1836. During my lifetime many of the buildings and spaces that were the remains of colonial San Antonio de Béjar, such as the historic Mercado, were torn down and replaced by Hollywood versions of a certain ambiente mexicano. That old world is evident today only in glimpses of scenes at the missions and the Spanish Governor’s Palace and in the lurking presence of the Alamo with its ever-confounding Rashomon-like tale. 

In Francesca’s case, we’ll need to seek out and provide her with the proper influences from disparate available sources. She can already count to twenty in the mother tongue, and when we’re setting out from the house, she will shout, “¡Vámonos!”; but without the full retinue of family elders whispering in her ears, she’ll have to study Spanish in school to become fluent. And though I’d like to find a Hill Country getaway for us, where I could learn her in folklore and the bracing joy of swimming holes, the truth is that we’re fully urbanized, with no remaining everyday connections to the ranch life. As for Mexico, the ancestral place I grew up visiting is on a remote stretch of Coahuila highway, far too dangerous in the midst of the narco war for a family vacation. So we are left to raise our daughter partly as sort of a greenhouse Tejana, offering her a cultivated simulacrum of what we experienced growing up—the life on the ranches and the countryside, moving easily between English and Spanish—as we share with her a sense of Texas identity that seeks to encompass all of our ancestral sites and stories: Indígena, Iberiano, Mestizo, Mexicano, Tejano, Americano. 

A lot of what we worry about for Francesca’s first years has to do with schooling. My own study of Texas history in middle and high school included nothing from the annals of families like mine. Even though there was a long literary tradition that described this history, in such books as Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez and Jovita González’s Caballero, it was ignored in my schools. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the many important books that emerged from the world of Tejanidad. 

So we’re determined not to let that happen to Francesca. We’ve found pre-Columbian-themed coloring books for her and a recent children’s book, That’s Not Fair!, that tells the story of Emma Tenayuca’s leadership of the 1938 pecan shellers’ strike in San Antonio. I’ll read to her from Cabeza de Vaca’s accounts of wondrous meetings with the first peoples of these lands, and as she gets older, I’ll give her Paredes and González, as well as the poems of my old friend Ricardo Sánchez and the music of Lydia Mendoza and Isidro “El Indio” Lopez. Our recovered library of Tejano heritage will be hers to explore. Eventually I hope she’ll spend time with the writings of J. Frank Dobie, who once collected folklore on the porch of my grandfather Leonides’s grocery store in Cotulla. Dobie’s classics, such as Cow People, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, and my personal favorite, A Texan in England, teach a way of being Texan that is both grounded and worldly. Beyond that, Gloria Anzaldúa’s revelatory Borderlands/La Frontera awaits, and the immortal William Goyen’s House of Breath, the portal to his visionary oeuvre.

There are films she’ll need to see as well. Perhaps in early adolescence, I’ll sit her down in front of Viva Max!, the 1969 movie based on the novel by onetime San Antonian Jim Lehrer, in which the modern-day Mexican brigadier general Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos leads a ragtag platoon on a campaign to reoccupy the Alamo. I confess that this film affected me far more than John Wayne’s The Alamo ever did. I saw part of it being filmed—the Mexican soldiers’ final march down Houston Street—and later found it hilarious and inspiring in the way it reimagined the Alamo’s past and future. Though the film is not in circulation, one of Francesca’s padrinos owns a rare bootleg copy. 

I’ll explain to her that the irreverence of Viva Max! is itself very Texan. In our family, to be Texan describes a person raised in the hinterlands, at the “orillas del mundo,” or the “edge of the world,” as memoirist Arturo Madrid recently put it. So far from the historical seats of power in both Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, Texans were renegade to all regimes. The prevailing gentry, from any geographic location, any intellectual or cultural arena, held no sway. 

Given an ample opportunity to learn this history, would she come to see herself as a Texan? Would she be accepted as a Texan in a way I was not as a child? And what kind of Texan might she choose to be? Urbane and cosmopolitan or pura ranchera? Or some other kind, as yet unknown? New identities such as those of the emerging Texans of today will take shape out of an alchemy of subtle changes, particularly in times of tremendous demographic transformation. Since its early settlement, when Indians still outnumbered the Spaniards, San Antonio has always been majority Hispano-Mexicano and Mexican American (today that population accounts for 63.2 percent of the city’s residents), but the rest of the state will soon follow. Texas is already one of five majority-minority states in the union and, according to official projections, will become a majority Hispanic state in the next three to five years. When a majority of Texans share the experience of growing up in Hispanic communities, what new dimensions will Texan identity take on?

Clearly, a new chapter is under way, a story of an American people once dispossessed of their lands, discriminated against and excluded in heritage territories, who are gradually returning to prominence and now being called upon to envision a society that is compassionate in its values and global in its cultural sensibilities. It’s my hope that the Texans of my daughter’s generation will inhabit a place that embraces the stories, myths, and belief traditions of all humanity, a Tejas Cósmico.

So where exactly does Francesca de la Luz’s Texan formation stand at the age of two years and four months? She helps me collect kindling for our barbecues in the backyard. Out at restaurants or the local H-E-B, las viejitas come up to touch her, explaining they have to do that to avoid giving her mal de ojo. She gingerly samples salsas and has learned the rudiments of taco assemblage, taking a piece of a tortilla, laying some huevo frito inside, and then, “You fold it!” she exults, before taking a big chomp.

Last year, she was baptized, albeit with a unique ritual designed by us to welcome a Texan of the new millennium. It took place on a Saturday morning in the intimate sanctuary of San Antonio’s Mission Espada, founded in 1690, with an Episcopalian social justice minister officiating and incorporating readings from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture, as well as some timeless lines from William Blake. After the baptism, we exited the sanctuary into brilliant spring daylight, where the Tap Pilam Coahuilteca head elder Ramón Vásquez y Sánchez, faith-keeper on the very grounds of that mission, announced our daughter’s name to the four directions, blessing her with sage smoke and giving her the name Little Feather, not knowing of her early predilection for owls. And so the ceremony concluded. It may not have followed any single religious tradition to the letter, but it evoked how much of the world has come into our family’s heart, and, ojalá, it has prepared her, spiritually, for the future. That’s what a baptism’s for, no?

We have taken her to the Valley, to Pharr, the region that my mother’s and Frances’s father’s families come from. She ate grapefruits from the ancient tree in front of her paternal grandfather’s homestead. And when we went to South Padre, she ran down the beach to plunge into the waves of the Gulf for another sort of baptism.

Her introduction to horses didn’t go as well. We visited Becky Crouch Patterson, Hondo’s daughter, at her family’s homestead, Stieren Hill Ranch, near Fredericksburg. Her husband, Oscar Barrales, was a charro champion in Mexico and trains horses at the ranch today. He brought out a spirited mare for us to ride, but Francesca screamed when I got up in the saddle and refused to join me there, even for the occasion of a photograph, which she ordinarily delights in. But we’ll return to the Hill Country soon for another try.

Other new rituals are already taking shape. Recently, my longtime friend Rolando Briseño, an artist and self-described “cultural adjuster,” staged the third of his “Spinning San Antonio” fiestas in Alamo Plaza, across from the historic shrine. Briseño created a larger-than-life-size statue of San Antonio, the city’s patron saint, with an inverted model of the Alamo under his feet. The figure is mounted on an axle so that it can be rotated. When San Antonio is upside-down, the Alamo is right side up, and vice versa. The sculpture hearkens to the folk belief that burying a figure of San Antonio upside down will assist you in finding something lost. The ceremony is intended to revive the traditional Mexican practice, long observed in old San Antonio, of the fiesta patronal, a rite of celebration on the feast day of a town’s patron saint. This was the feast day of San Antonio.

Under a scorching early twilight sun, the procession set out into Alamo Plaza, led by the artist and a delegation waving large olive branches. The statue was held aloft by four porters evoking Texas history. One was dressed as a slave in chains, another as a pachuco. The last two were in orange jumpsuits with “illegal immigrant” scrawled on their backs; one was Mexicano, the other was an Anglo in a coonskin cap. 

After the celebrants circumambulated Alamo Plaza with the statue, it was placed on a large table; two of the porters then mounted the table and proceeded to slowly spin the statue over and over on its axle while Los Nahuatlatos, a band of San Antonio musicians, performed a rocking cumbia. Francesca, already an enthusiastic dancer, wanted to join in the festivities, and she jumped forward, tilting her head side to side and stomping slowly. Frances and I threw ourselves in too, and so did many of the onlookers. As we danced in a circle around the continuously flipping statue, some tourists asked what exactly they were witnessing. When I replied jokingly that it was a ritual dating back to the 1500’s, they nodded knowingly, if a bit warily, and snapped pictures of the tumult with their phones.

After the dancing ceased, attention moved to a large Alamo piñata hanging from a nearby oak, with golden streamers flying. A dozen or more children lined up to take a whack at the revered icon. Francesca was determined to take a turn with the palito, and being a toddler, she was moved to the head of the line. She’d already been taking haymaker swings at balls with plastic bats and golf clubs in the backyard. Now she pulled back and followed through with a mighty swing, finding her target, leaving a nick on the Alamo’s facade. Then she unloaded with two more, leaving the Alamo a little more battered, and walked away, very satisfied.

One of the bigger kids soon delivered the coup de grâce, and a great cavity opened up in the piñata. But disappointment spread quickly among the young: alas, there was no candy. Instead, out poured a horde of tiny black and brown baby dolls, scattering in heaps across the stones of Alamo Plaza. The kids scrambled to pick them up anyway, wondering what strange sort of piñata this was.

A few days later, I may have witnessed one of Francesca’s first oblique moments of Texas consciousness. She was playing in the next room from where I was reading the morning newspapers, babbling along to herself, when I heard her suddenly shout, “Alamo!” Boisterous laughter followed. 

When I came around the corner and peeked through the door, she was doing her familiar jubilation dance, marching and tilting her head side to side again, laughing and holding her strawberry-colored cowboy hat overhead by its stampede strings, as if she were counting coup or displaying a rare trophy or exotic anthropological artifact meant for some Texas museum of the future.

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