In 2019, every day felt like a week, every week felt like a month, and every month felt like an eternity. Remember when Matthew McConaughey went on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to explain what he would be doing as the University of Texas at Austin’s “minister of culture”? That was this year. So were the advent of the Yeehaw Agenda, the literary breakthroughs of Jia Tolentino and Bryan Washington, the musical breakthroughs of Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion, and the tumultuous turns of events in which Bill Miller Bar-B-Q became political, Chick-Fil-A became more political, and Whataburger got snatched up by northerners.
There were also, of course, tragedies that families and communities will spend years recovering from in El Paso, Odessa, and along the United States-Mexico border. 2019 was a very long year, and if the way the internet and the nonstop media environment have shaped our sense of time is any indication, the only thing we can be certain about heading into 2020 is that it will feel even longer. As we prepare to usher it in, let’s pause for a moment and recall nineteen moments—though these are by no means exhaustive—that were particularly significant for Texans.
The Border Crisis
One of the most critical aspects of 2019, as in past years, was that it marked another year full of horrors at the United States-Mexico border. Hundreds of migrant children were separated from their parents when they tried to seek asylum in the United States. Rampant reports of overcrowding and food, diaper, and medicine shortages came from detention centers. At least three children died from the flu, and doctors who showed up to a detention center in California were prohibited from administering the 120 influenza vaccinations they had brought with them. And that’s just on our side of the border. But perhaps the year’s most haunting border incident happened between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, when El Salvadoran refugee Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez attempted to cross the Rio Grande with his not-yet-two-year-old daughter, Valeria. They drowned, and a photo of their bodies on the banks of the river made its way around the world. The image became a visceral reminder of the very real human cost of an ongoing crisis with no end in sight. —Emily McCullar
The Shootings in West Texas
On the morning of August 3, a man armed with an automatic rifle opened fire on shoppers at a Walmart on the east side of El Paso. The store was an important hub, not just to locals of this proudly binational city, but to thousands of residents who live in small towns dotting the desert plains of West Texas. “People who live out here, they travel long distances to get basic necessities,” says Carlos Morales, a native El Pasoan and a reporter at Marfa Public Radio. “That Walmart is one of the first ones right off the highway when you get into town. That’s where a lot people go.”
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When news of the shooting broke, Morales and a colleague immediately made the three-hour trip from Marfa to report on the tragedy unfolding in his hometown. News crews from around the world followed. “I met a team from Japan, some Australians,” Morales says. “There’s always the difficulty of having to talk to people about tragedy, but a handful of those reporters told me that the people they interviewed in El Paso were so nice. I was talking to this one woman—and it was so hot out—and the woman I’m interviewing stopped me and asked, ‘Are you doing alright?’”
The death toll eventually climbed to 22, with another 24 wounded. The suspect, a 21-year-old white man, allegedly drove more than six hundred miles from his North Texas home to carry out the attack. He was apprehended by Texas Rangers and told authorities he had come to El Paso to target “Mexicans.” He later pleaded not guilty to charges of capital murder.
Less than a month later, Morales and his newsroom found themselves reporting on another mass shooting in West Texas. On August 31, a man went on a shooting spree in Midland County and Odessa. Seven people were murdered and more than twenty were injured by the 36-year-old shooter, a white man from Central Texas, who drove around firing at people inside their vehicles. The shooter was eventually killed by police. The Odessa attack was America’s third deadliest mass shooting in August alone.
“I’ve been reporting out here for three years,” Morales says. “During that time, there was Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe High School. It sounds cliché, but you never think it’s going to happen in your backyard. Now I understand firsthand how traumatizing this is for a community. And that the road to recovery is going to be long—and for some it might never come.” —Christian Wallace
The Interminable Summer
There have been hotter summers, but not many. 2011 had the hottest daily average temperature, while 1980 had the most days with extreme temperatures. But the summer of 2019 was oppressive for its duration. The first heat wave struck in early March, sending temperatures to the upper 80’s—or hotter—in much of the state even while it was still technically winter. Seven months later, fans who gathered for the Austin City Limits Festival got to enjoy live music while being beaten down by 99-degree heat in October. Summers in Texas can often be brutal, but there haven’t been many that have filled us with the same sort of existential despair as the one that just refused to ever end. —Dan Solomon
The Astros’ Fall From Grace
“Root for the good guys” only works as a team slogan if you can uphold that reputation. And it seemed like this year’s postseason Astros had an identity crisis, which was apparent when they took the field at home against the Washington Nationals (of the seven games they played, they lost at home every time). With 107 wins and only 55 losses, they had the best record in baseball this season. But many of their problems, it seems, spread from management: Assistant general manager Brandon Taubman made a point to celebrate the team’s acquisition of Roberto Osuna—who had previously been suspended for a domestic violence incident—before a group of reporters (who were all women) after a win against the Yankees. Then, former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers sparked an investigation into whether the Astros used a TV camera to steal opponents’ signs during the team’s 2017 run to the World Series title. So far the MLB has interviewed sixty people and collected 76,000 emails, on top of additional instant messages. The shadow over the Astros’ legacy only stands to grow darker if the allegations are proved true, and next year’s team has a lot to prove if they want to be hometown heroes once more. —Sam Russek
Sometimes when I have something I want to say but know I shouldn’t, I ask myself the following questions: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said by me? Does it need to be said by me right now? Usually the answer to at least one of the questions is “no,” and my tendency to overshare is kept in check for another hour. Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen should have asked himself these questions on June 12, when he had a meeting with right-wing activist Michael Quinn Sullivan (for this, Bonnen was one of our Bum Steers of 2020). Instead, he committed an act of word vomit later dubbed “Bonnghazi.” During their brief midsummer meeting, Bonnen was caught essentially trying to bribe Sullivan into helping him take down members of their own Republican party, and also calling one Democratic Representative “a piece of shit” and another “vile,” creating one of Texas’s biggest political scandals in years. But probably the most embarrassing thing Bonnen did that day was fail to realize Sullivan was recording their conversation, and that he’d release the tape three months later. —Emily McCullar
Robert F. Smith Pays Off Morehouse Graduates’ Student Debt
One of the hot-button topics of the Democratic primary—and, presumably, of Democratic politics in years to come—has been student debt: both the possibility of forgiving it for people who’ve accumulated large amounts of it, and of changing the way public universities collect tuition for generations to come. We got a preview of that in 2019, as the Austin-based billionaire Robert F. Smith, while delivering a commencement speech at the HBCU Morehouse College in Atlanta, announced at the ceremony that he’d be paying off all of the student loans of the assembled graduates. The total amount of student debt in the U.S. is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 trillion, meaning that the $40 million or so Smith is paying off is barely even a drop in the bucket. But the idea that students shouldn’t enter the working world saddled by so much debt is one that’s getting a lot of attention right now, and Smith’s landmark decision only further drew eyes to it. —Dan Solomon
Houston’s Literary Year
This year, the literary spotlight shined brightly on the Bayou City’s young talents: millennial writers Bryan Washington and Jia Tolentino, who both grew up in Houston, landed spots on the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2019 list for their respective debut books, Lot and Trick Mirror. Washington’s collection of short stories is a heartwarming and heart-wrenching look into the amalgam of communities that make up Houston. Told from the perspectives of people of color, queer characters, and sex workers, Lot embodies the city’s vast diversity, and explores both the physical and nonphysical borders people encounter there every day. Tolentino’s Trick Mirror is a collection of nine essays, each a meld of personal narrative and reporting, that serve to critique both herself and the constructs surrounding “self-delusion.” The essay most connected to her Texan roots is “Ecstasy,” in which she writes about the extreme Baptist private school she attended, the slowed-down melodies of chopped and screwed music, her drug experimentation, and the revelations she had from those experiences. Both books, which resonated deeply with audiences and critics, put Houston on the literary map and are hopefully paving the way for other authors and writers from the city to emerge. —Arielle Avila
These words are incredibly hard for me to type: Whataburger is now a Chicago-owned chain. Our beloved mustard and bun-oil burgers are now in the hands of people who think something called “celery salt” belongs on a hot dog. When the Dobson family (descendents of Whataburger founder Harmon Dobson) sold their majority stake in the company to an Illinois private equity firm earlier this year, it seemed like the terrifying end of a glorious era. It’s said that little will change, current leadership is to remain in power, and the company headquarters won’t move from San Antonio. But I swear, if that ketchup becomes even a fraction less spicy, Texas may actually follow through on our long-boasted threats to secede. —Emily McCullar
The Yeehaw Agenda
Growing up in Texas, cowboy culture is inescapable. But even for people within the state, the popular narrative surrounding America’s favorite southwestern obsession has long been incomplete, and has historically failed to include the critical origins and contributions of black cowboys and cowgirls. Enter the Yeehaw Agenda. Created by the Dallas-based fashion archivist Bri Malandro, the popular Instagram account shows that black cowboy culture was alive long before Lil Nas X rode into town. So, as fringe, cowboy hats, and boots made their way back into mainstream culture this year, Malandro’s Yeehaw Agenda made sure the internet didn’t forget where they came from. —Cat Cardenas
Renée Zellweger’s Return
When Katy native Renée Zellweger followed her memorable performance in the otherwise forgettable Netflix neo-noir What/If with a star turn in Judy, it seemed, at last, that 2019 would inaugurate a much-welcomed Renéessance. She started getting Oscar buzz as soon as her Judy Garland biopic premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Labor Day weekend. Thoughtful magazine profiles and hopeful cover stories soon followed, with all the major national media outlets desperate to go on record saying they, too, could tell that Zellweger was “back.” The longevity of this career resurgence will, of course, depend on whether or not she’s nominated for a best actress Oscar (she’s already locked down nominations for a Golden Globe and a SAG award) and what roles she takes going forward. But at least the national media is back to discussing Zellweger’s formidable talent, and not just what may or may not have changed about her face. —Emily McCullar
Hot Girl Summer
You know you’ve had a good year when you take over an entire season. Megan Thee Stallion has been heating up Houston’s rap scene with her freestyles for years, but the May release of her debut mixtape, Fever—brimming with bars about her sexual dominance, independence, and making money—coupled with her fun-loving personality and Instagram adventures, had new fans around the world flocking around her. So when she started dedicating last summer to her loyal fans (her “hot girls”), encouraging them to actualize the summer of their dreams, everybody wanted to be a hot girl (even the boys). “Hot Girl Summer” became the motto for the summer of 2019—look no further than the nearly 850,000 Instagram posts tagged #hotgirlsummer. It even became a song: near the end of the summer, Megan released an eponymous new single and video about the season, featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign, just in time to cap it off. —Doyin Oyeniyi
Bill Miller Enters the Culture War
In August, San Antonio representative Joaquin Castro tweeted a list of local luminaries who were also high-dollar donors to President Trump’s reelection campaign. Balous Miller, owner of Bill Miller Bar-B-Q, was among them. People quickly began taking sides, eating at Bill Miller to show their support of the president or boycotting the chain to express their disapproval. Greg Abbott has also used his position as governor to maintain the cultural divide around fast food. In June, he signed the “Save Chick-Fil-A” bill into law while surrounded by chicken sandwiches and styrofoam cups bearing the company’s logo. Even after the Bill Miller controversy had seemingly died down, Abbott breathed new life into it in November, tweeting that he was “headed to Bill Miller’s tonight” in response to a report that Chick-Fil-A would be ending its donations to organizations that discriminate against LGBT Americans. 2019 demonstrated that even ordering lunch from a drive-through is a politically divisive act. And as we head toward 2020, and probably every year from now until we roam the post-apocalypse landscape desperately foraging for nuts and berries, it’s likely to remain that way. —Dan Solomon
Kacey Musgraves’s Yearlong Victory Lap
It’s been one helluva year for Kacey Musgraves. Starting in February, she racked up four Grammys (including one for Album of the Year), embarked on the second leg of her Oh, What a World Tour, tried (and failed) to get Californians to chant “yeehaw” with her, and released a wonderfully campy Amazon Christmas special complete with a cameo from her beloved Nana. The psychedelic country pop sounds of Golden Hour feature some of Musgraves’s best tracks to date, cementing her position as an ace songwriter who has turned the country world upside down. —Cat Cardenas
For those of us who were lucky enough to watch Beyoncé perform during Coachella in 2018, or at least catch the livestream of the first weekend, it became clear that Beychella wasn’t just a career-defining moment for the artist. It was a history-defining one as well. Deeply inspired by the homecoming celebrations at historically black colleges and universities, her performances in California—which exploded with musical and cultural references from across the black diaspora—were extraordinary to witness. With Homecoming‘s release this past April (replete with an accompanying live album), we were luckier yet to see how the Coachella performances all came together. The Emmy-nominated documentary is a testament to the vision and intention that Beyoncé brings to all of her work, and how she infuses that spirit into her collaborations: not only did she manage a team of hundreds of dancers, musicians, and performers while providing input on every musical note, dance step, and costume, but her direction resulted in a spectacularly seamless blending of the two weekend performances. As many fans have noted, Beyoncé is so talented at being the best version of herself that rather than inspiring feelings of inadequacy, watching her work makes us want to be the best version of ourselves, too. With a documentary like Homecoming available to anyone with access to a Netflix account, we can regularly tap into one of the most culturally significant moments of the decade. —Doyin Oyeniyi
If you’ve been on social media in the past couple of months, you’re probably familiar with Brittany Tomlinson, most commonly known as “Kombucha Girl.” Tomlinson is a recent Texas A&M graduate and Dallas native who went viral in August after posting a hilarious video on TikTok (the video social media app) of her trying the sour probiotic drink. First she’s disgusted, then pleased, then disgusted again. “No, no,” she says, then reconsiders: “Well … ” The instantly ubiquitous video racked up more than 40 million views on Twitter alone after it was shared. Since then, Tomlinson’s video has been used all across the internet to react to different scenarios, from rereading one’s writing to maybe going out tonight, and she’s even had Halloween costumes made after her. When a fan ran into her at Torchy’s Tacos in College Station, word got out she was Texan. Tomlinson now calls herself “Texas’ internet sweetheart,” riffing on the likes of Whataburger—and as one fellow Texan on Twitter put it, “I love this for us.” —Danielle Ortiz
Post Malone Is Everywhere
Let’s just accept that Post Malone is a thing, and he’s gonna be a thing for at least the next few years. His true calling is probably as a reality TV judge—whatever 2023’s version of The Masked Singer is will be lucky to have him! Say what you will about the guy, he does know how to use his current moment to turn a buck. In 2019, you could get Bud Light cans emblazoned with the face of the Grapevine-bred musician (born Austin Richard Post; his dad was a Dallas Cowboys exec). If you were in the Dallas area, you could pop by the Chicken Express store in Southlake (where Post worked, briefly, as a teenager) and line up in hopes of getting yourself a pair of his collaboration with rubber slippers brand Crocs.
He also released his third album, the entirely listenable Hollywood’s Bleeding, which included collaborations with stars like Travis Scott, SZA, Future, Halsey, Young Thug, and—why not?—Ozzy Osbourne. It repackaged his 2018 hit “Sunflower” from the soundtrack to that year’s Into the Spider-Verse as “Sunflower (Into the Spider-Verse),” and ended up one of the year’s biggest releases—what’s more, Posty also earned the distinction of being Spotify’s most-streamed artist of the year. Now he’s off to Hollywood as an on-screen presence, looking to be as ubiquitous in that capacity as a person with a shitload of face tattoos can be—filming movies with British director Guy Ritchie and Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg—before embarking on whatever comes next. —Dan Solomon
Minister of Culture and UT Professor Matthew McConaughey Joins Instagram
There were a couple years there when it seemed like Matthew McConaughey was someone we could take seriously. (You remember the McConaissance, don’t you?) But at the close of this decade, he’s just turned back into the personification of a meme. The past few years brought on a succession of cinematic flops for our beloved naked bongo player, and these days he’s probably better known for his confusing Lincoln commercials and for taking a “job” as The University of Texas at Austin’s minister of culture. This fall was a big one for Matthew: he became an official professor at his alma mater, and spent most Saturdays on the sidelines of Longhorn football games. But probably the most exciting moment was when he finally joined Instagram. “You’ve got to have the dialogue to have the monologue,” he said in his very first post, a video I have since watched over a dozen times. Matthew’s McConaissance-era performances in Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective may have been seminal, but make no mistake, it is his actual personality (that we can now easily access on social media) that makes the man an icon. —Emily McCullar
The Year of Lizzo
Did anybody have a better 2019 than Lizzo? In 2018, she was the sort of artist who might do a stint as an opening act for a midtier artist like Haim, or appearing on line eleven of a poster for a festival like Lollapalooza. In 2019 she was one of the biggest stars on the planet, with a single that went to number one in the U.S. and songs that went platinum eleven times in countries around the world. She attracted an Austin City Limits crowd so large that it was a legitimate safety hazard, appeared in two movies (Hustlers and UglyDolls), was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, and sold out venues all over the world. “Truth Hurts” became a ubiquitous hit, she earned eight Grammy nominations, and—still—there’s a sense that maybe she’s just getting started. The 31-year-old singer from Houston was still very much hustling her way into an uncertain career only a year ago, but Lizzo’s 2019 has proved that anything is possible. —Dan Solomon
Stephen Harrigan Publishes a Landmark Texas History Book
Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing is not your average history book. For starters, it’s about Texas—the whole sprawling tale of Texas, from the prehistoric pictographs along the Pecos to NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston. For another, look at that title. It certainly sticks out among its more soberly named predecessors: Lone Star, Lone Star Nation, Lone Star Pasts, and Texas. (Harrigan’s enigmatic title is borrowed from a quote by the briefly Texan artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She once wrote to a friend, “I couldn’t believe Texas was real. . . . For me Texas is the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”) But what really sets BWT apart is that it reads more like Lonesome Dove than it does something you might have been assigned in your seventh grade Texas history class. Harrigan is a master of identifying anecdotes that have been tucked away in forgotten corners, dusting them off, and spinning them into great yarns. Over nine-hundred-plus pages, he weaves a spellbinding tapestry of fascinating characters and events. There’s humor and levity, as found in the account of Old Rip, the horny toad that defied death—and there’s unflinching, clear-eyed reporting of our state’s darkest moments, such as the Porvenir massacre. And unlike many Texas history tomes, BWT portrays a truly kaleidoscopic array of Texans. Emma Tenayuca and Isabelle Talon finally receive the attention they deserve alongside Davy Crockett and Big Tex. Though the book leads the reader on a singular, epic trip through the state’s past, each chapter also manages to feel self-contained, like a magazine feature. —Christian Wallace