The second year of a pandemic. The January 6 riot at the capitol, with all its Texans. The failure of the electric grid. The passage of an abortion ban and restrictive voting bill. The return of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the Astroworld Festival disaster. The news cycle was relentless in Texas this year, and while we at Texas Monthly kept atop it, there was plenty of great writing and reporting on our state, and its inhabitants, to go around. Here are fourteen stories that other outlets published that inspired our jealousy.
Much has been written about the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 and what led them to so brazenly participate in an act of sedition. But writer Kerry Howley’s piece tracing the trajectories of three participants—one of whom, Guy Reffitt, hails from Wylie and was reported to the FBI by his teenage son—before, during, and, crucially, after the attack, stands out for its stylish, nuanced portraiture. It leaves no room for easy caricatures and reports out the steep—perhaps too steep—costs these rioters have paid for their actions. —Josh Alvarez
Marfa-based Rachel Monroe, whose work has appeared in Texas Monthly, now sweeps her sharp eye over Texas as a contributing writer at the New Yorker—and she’s peerless as a trend spotter. In this quick read, she examines how Austin hipsters are gentrifying even the simple used pickup, helping drive prices into the six figures for the sweetest vintage models. Young tech workers, notably, covet the cowboy glamour and the soothing analog vibes of, say, a blocky 1972 Chevy K10. Their pursuit of authenticity—what Monroe identifies as “prestige ruggedness”—has helped make “truck-flipping” a thing, and market competition is intense. As one enthusiast says: “It’s a lot like Austin real estate.” —Marilyn Bailey
This lyrical, probing essay is a lot of things: a personal story about a daughter trying to connect with her father, a testament to how Latino talent from the borderlands is persistently overlooked, and an engrossing history of the seventies and eighties underground music scene in the Rio Grande Valley. The piece focuses on the little-known career of the writer’s father, Beto Villarreal, a multitalented rock and jazz guitarist who once drew comparisons from the Mexican press to Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He spent decades as a touring professional musician with numerous bands, from Canela India, an acid rock group, to Los Super Villahnos, a cumbia act. Everyone who watched him perform was captivated, but he never broke through to stardom, juggling onstage gigs (including two performances with Selena) with work in a paint factory and, later, in sound production. “He’s just one example of how chic and sophisticated Rio Grande Valley youth culture could be,” Villarreal writes. “But no matter how beautiful he was, or how deserving his talent, he was on the wrong edge of the country.” —Rose Cahalan
Nobody writes about prisons and prisoners like Keri Blakinger, who did time in New York before becoming an award-winning journalist in Texas. Most of her stories are about how screwed up the Texas prisons are, but this one is an outlier: a happy story of men behind bars at one of the unhappiest places on earth, the Polunsky Unit in East Texas, home of death row. The inmates run their own radio station. Deejays play music, movie soundtracks, and the audio from TV episodes over the air, and also read essays and poems written by their fellow inmates, many of whom are in isolation. Everyone, even convicted criminals, has a desire to connect with others, and hearing their fellow humans—feeling like they are part of a community—has changed everyone at Polunksy for the better. The story is wonderful, with plenty of rich characters; even the warden is a good guy. I wish I had written it, but the truth is, Keri is the only reporter who has the connections to do a story like this—and more important, the empathy to make us feel what her subjects are feeling. —Michael Hall
Shelley Duvall is a queen, but she hasn’t been seen much by her subjects in the last few decades. In the seventies and eighties, she turned in some of the most iconic performances of all time in movies such as Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and particularly The Shining. By the 1990s, Duvall was back in Texas and rumors circulated that she was struggling with her mental health. She disappeared, until a horribly exploitative and cruel 2016 episode of Dr. Phil showed Duvall struggling with what seemed to be untreated mental illness.
From time to time we’ve thought about trying to find Duvall—but we worried that we would be exploiting her too. That’s why it was such a delight to read this Hollywood Reporter piece, showing a Duvall who’s doing much better than you might have thought: in the Hill Country, proud of her career, and surrounded by people who care about her—admirers, her husband, and protective townfolk. “I’m not sure who you are,” a waitress tells Seth Abramovitch, the writer, as he dines with Duvall. “But out here . . . we look out for each other and we take care of each other. Does that make sense to you?” It does, ma’am. Glad to hear it. —Christopher Hooks
I have a pathetic confession. I often click on articles about climate change and then let them linger on my browser for days. I promise myself I’ll get around to reading them before eventually giving up, ridden with guilt. I suspect I’m not alone in keeping myself willfully ignorant about the dying reefs and the forest fires and the melting glaciers and the generalized horror being unleashed by, and upon, our dying planet. My reluctance to bear witness probably explains why I was so fascinated by Elizabeth Weil’s story in ProPublica about a climate scientist who has committed fully to doing the opposite, risking his marriage, his career, and his sanity in the process.
Peter Kalmus’s climate obsession started normally enough in 2005 at Columbia University, where he was working on a doctorate in astrophysics. By the time Weil catches up with him, he’s evolved into something not entirely unlike Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Richard Dreyfuss character so possessed by his UFO fixation that he can no longer eat a plate of mashed potatoes without causing his family to break down in tears. To be fair, Kalmus isn’t from Texas, but this year revealed that climate change is making the state hotter, wetter, and—if February’s winter freeze is any indication—freakishly colder, at times, as long-standing climate patterns are disrupted. Neary was vindicated in the end. Tragically, with each passing environmental calamity, it appears increasingly likely that Kalmus will be, too. —Peter Holley
You can’t take anything you see in Bachelor Nation at face value. Whatever spin-off of the franchise you’re indulging in, the true joy of watching is trying to figure out what’s happening behind the scenes. So this summer, when former Bachelorette (and Dallas native) Rachel Lindsay did an as-told-to with New York Magazine, it was the peek behind the curtain I’ve always dreamed of. Lindsay revealed racism and manipulation she faced as the franchise’s first Black lead: how producers cast a man with a history of racist tweeting to stir up drama, how she was told not to send a Black man home so the show could maintain its diverse sheen. I read it in one sitting, then texted it to all my friends before even getting out of bed. My first reaction was “wait, did she somehow not sign an NDA?” But my second was “dang, I wish Texas Monthly had published this.” —Emily McCullar
When this quiet bombshell of an essay begins, Ashanté M. Reese, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in African diaspora studies, is making tea cakes for an altar she’s created for the so-called Sugar Land 95. You might recall their story: In 2018, the bone fragments of 95 men imprisoned and leased out by the state for decades after the Civil War were unearthed under a construction site in the East Texas town. They were among the thousands of Black people who were re-enslaved by the state for decades following the Civil War—arrested in massive numbers and “leased” to work on plantations. In this case, the men were driven to death making the white refined sugar that’s called for in the 1920s tea cake recipe that Reese, a native of what was aptly called the Hellhole of the Brazos back in those days, is using—and which the leased convicts wouldn’t have been allowed to consume. Reese’s essay blends layers of personal history and Black and East Texas foodways with the tale of this long-running criminal injustice, and all it comes together beautifully. “Here, at this altar, I take scraps from the archive and piece them together with a recipe from a company that exploited lives and labor, memories from within my own body, and a prayer,” she concludes. “This is my offering.” —Bob Moser
It was an all-American rags to riches story: Richard Montañez, janitor at Plano-based Frito-Lay, calls up the company’s CEO and pitches an idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, making junk food history and catapulting himself into the C-suite. He spends a decade building a career as a motivational speaker and memoirist off this tale—soon to be made into a movie directed by Eva Longoria. And then, Sam Dean’s sprawling Los Angeles Times investigation revealed the story to be a hoax. The true origin of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, he reported, involves a depressing cadre of suits comparing notes in conference rooms. Just like its source material, the Times investigation is spicy and, when you’re done, may leave you feeling a little sick. Ever since reading, I’ve scoured bodegas searching for more hard truths about Big Snack that deserve to be exposed. —Leah Prinzivalli
In December of last year, Hasan Gokal faced a conundrum. The doctor was administering vaccines at a clinic in Houston, and, after serving his final patients of the day, had ten extra doses in an opened vial that would expire in six hours. He scrambled to find willing recipients of the shot, and after dialing contacts in his phone, administered the final dose to his wife. After he told a coworker what happened the next day, he was fired. Later, Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg charged him with stealing vaccine doses, writing that he had “abused his position to place his friends and family in line in front of people who had gone through the lawful process to be there.” Dan Barry provides the ticktock of Gokal’s desperate search to find vaccine recipients, and the fallout from his choice to not let doses go to waste. This story of pandemic politics and the mania of the Pfizer and Moderna rollouts is especially poignant now, when we have both an abundance of the vaccine and of those who refuse to take it. —Ben Rowen
Steven Tendo suffered extreme cruelties in his homeland of Uganda. A decade ago, when the nonprofit organization he founded began encouraging young people to vote, he caught the attention of the nation’s authoritarian government, which regarded his efforts as a threat. One morning, in April 2012, he was kidnapped and brought to a detention facility, where he was subject to the slow, excruciating amputation of two of his fingers and a macabre form of torture involving a python. Though he was eventually released, his freedom didn’t last long: over the next half-dozen years he was repeatedly imprisoned and beaten.
And yet, amazingly, when he arrived in Texas seeking asylum, he faced a form of cruelty that was nearly as bad. As Isabela Dias writes in her feature story for Mother Jones, the legal system he entered—and spent years in, as his health deteriorated—often treats refugees as capriciously and callously as possible. Some of the exchanges between Tendo and Frank T. Pimentel, the presiding judge at the Port Isabel Immigration Court, are staggering; I found myself shaking with anger as I read them, astonished that a public official could treat a man who had experienced unthinkable suffering so dismissively. (The government lawyer who was seeking to have him deported back to Uganda comes off no better.) There have been countless stories over the last few years about the heartlessness of our immigration system, and no doubt some readers, overwhelmed, have become inured to it all. Dias’s outrage-stoking article is the cure for that sort of indifference. —Jeff Salamon
It killed me to see Francesca Mari’s cover story about Austin real estate in the New York Times Magazine, especially since she’s such a wonderful writer and wonderful former colleague. (This falls into the glad/sad category, I guess.) I had been fascinated by the exploding prices in Austin, and the lack of housing in general, and she captured every crazy detail in a propulsive narrative that contained solid reporting about the causes of the housing crisis nationally as well as trenchant descriptions of the people who are the victims and the perpetrators locally. It was a great example of how to turn a phenomenon into a narrative—instruction I’m always looking for. Plus, I always think Austin’s pretensions are low-hanging fruit, and she picked it all before I could! —Mimi Swartz
When the Augustinian order to which he belongs told him it was time to retire and come back to Spain, the one-hundred-year-old Reverend Luis Urriza wasn’t ready to leave Beaumont. He had established his church in East Texas in the fifties, and the Hispanic Catholics whom he served fiercely protested the loss of their priest. Rick Rojas, for the New York Times, wrote a lovely portrait of the elderly priest seemingly animated by his work for his community, and the parishioners who love him back. —Anna Walsh
Confession: I was so mad that Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hylton had the forethought to take a deep dive into the madness that is Southlake, Texas, that I didn’t listen to the six-part series about a racial backlash in Carroll ISD until this week. I’m glad I did. Capturing the zeitgeist is difficult, because, well, you often don’t know what it is till it’s past. But “Southlake: Inside a Critical Race Theory Battle,” which began streaming in August, lands with impeccable timing. Chock-full of bonkers school board meetings, cringe-y parents vibrating with anger over CRT, and epidemic levels of affluenza, Southlake offers a ritual baptism in the fever swamps of the contemporary “race debate.” As Hixenbaugh says in episode one, “Tuning into a Southlake school board meeting in 2021 is a little like pro hockey. People watch it for the fights.” The same could be said of his and Hylton’s podcast. —Forrest Wilder