Facebook > Email > More Pinterest Print Twitter Play

Los Miserables

Texas finally finds its Victor Hugo and John Steinbeck—in the halls of the academy.

By January 2016Comments

Illustration by Joe Morse

The most overworked trope in Texas literature, fiction and nonfiction alike, is the rags-to-riches tale. Even narratives aimed at deflating our outsized bravado, such as Edna Ferber’s Giant or Philipp Meyer’s The Son, rely on breathtaking leaps from dirt-poor to landed gentry (or mineral-rights aristocracy). This economic magical realism reflects the all-too-real hopes of our gone-to-Texas immigrant culture, so perhaps it’s understandable that we’ve never produced a would-be Victor Hugo or John Steinbeck—much less a fearless author of popular histories—to puncture our aspirational balloon.

Instead, readers are more likely to find true Texas grit in academic works they won’t find on the best-seller racks. That’s certainly the case with a trio of new university press offerings: Andrew Torget’s Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800–1850 and John Weber’s From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century (both University of North Carolina Press), along with a twenty-first-century update, Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City, edited by Javier Auyero (University of Texas Press). Spanning more than two hundred years of Texas history, these titles amount to an unintended but compelling trilogy that turns our traditional rags-to-riches narrative on its head. In this recasting, the slaves and migrant laborers who arrive here in rags never get rich, though their lifelong suffering under often brutal conditions brings prosperity to a privileged few.

University of North Texas history professor Torget sets the most ambitious agenda. Although the relationship between slavery and the sacrosanct Texas Revolution has long been the third rail of Texas history, Torget arms himself with the broad spectrum of economic, social, and diplomatic documentation available to today’s scholars and goes where so many still fear to tread. The result is the most nuanced and authoritative rewriting of Texas’s origin myth to date.

Torget’s account begins with the British cotton-textile boom, which by the early nineteenth century had made slave labor immensely profitable in the American South. Powerful global market forces—the demand for cheap land, labor, and cotton—pushed this cotton frontier onto Texas’s fertile soil at the very moment the new landlord, Mexico (having won freedom from Spain in 1821), acquired a pressing need to populate its vulnerable northern frontier with American farmers. In Torget’s telling account, Stephen F. Austin didn’t morally agonize over his 1833 declaration that “Texas must be a slave country”; he was convinced from the get-go that cotton cultivation and slavery were essential to Texas’s prosperity. By 1822 the Austin colony’s largest single slaveholder had already arrived on the Brazos accompanied by ninety of his human chattels.

Mexico expediently accepted these American slaveowners in Texas, but the new nation’s strong abolitionist sentiment soon resulted in repeated initiatives to ban slavery entirely. Torget cites this threat as the “foundational issue” that put Texas federalists (which included Tejanos as well as Anglo Americans) on the road to armed conflict with Mexico’s increasingly centralized government. But the real smoking gun in Torget’s arsenal of facts is our revolution’s result. The Republic of Texas’s 1836 constitution not only prohibited the Texas congress from ever abolishing slavery but decreed that individual slaveowners could not emancipate their slaves without immediately removing them from Texas, ensuring that the mere presence of free blacks couldn’t cast a shadow over the Republic’s existential guarantee of slavery now and forever. “By building a permanent firewall around slavery,” Torget writes of Texas’s founders, “they imagined their Republic as a refuge for North American planters against abolitionists in Mexico, Great Britain, and the northern United States. Unimpeded Texas farmers, they believed, would then be free to create a cotton empire.”

The aspiring empire was wildly successful in attracting cotton planters; in less than a decade the Texas Republic registered a more than fivefold increase in its slave population. But staking the Republic’s future on a single crop proved disastrous when cotton prices plunged; independent Texas was eventually so deeply in debt that it had to rely on a large cotton-trading firm to issue and guarantee its currency. By 1845, the Republic’s options had dwindled to joining the United States as a slave state or accepting financial aid from Great Britain on the condition that the Republic transition to wage labor. In the annexation referendum, Texans voted fifteen to one for slavery and statehood over abolition and continued independence.

Yet even in failure, the Republic of Texas proved to be a pioneer. “The Texas nation was . . . a dress rehearsal for the creation of the Confederacy two decades later,” Torget observes, the latter similarly dedicated to preserving slave-based agriculture in the face of world opinion. “Much like the founders of the Texas Republic, Confederates believed the economic power of their cotton fields would provide the diplomatic leverage necessary to secure assistance from European powers that might otherwise cringe at collaborating with an avowed slaveholder’s republic.” But while the South bled, European mills found competing sources of cheap cotton in Egypt, India, and Brazil. Torget suggests that even if the Confederacy had won its war of secession, as Texas had, it would soon have shared the Lone Star Republic’s fate: isolated, broke, and unable to stand on its own.

If Texas can be credited with road testing the Confederacy’s no-wage business model, San Antonio native John Weber argues in From South Texas to the Nation that we also conceived a model for the exploitation of low-wage labor that has since been trafficked nationwide—and is still going strong. Like East Texas in the 1820’s, the Rio Grande Valley in the early twentieth century benefited from an abundance of cheap land, booming demand for premium crops—Bermuda onions, spinach, and cotton—and a supply of easily exploited labor, in this case the flood of destitute, frightened refugees from revolution-wracked Mexico. Like the early Texas slaveholders, the South Texas planters were themselves newcomers who quickly established state-of-the-art agribusinesses, using an expanding rail network and large-scale irrigation to displace the old ranching economy.

The agribusinesses staked their profitability on a surplus of politically powerless, economically desperate workers. Mexican refugees were met at the border by representatives of “employment agencies” and delivered by train and truck to large farms, where they learned that the cost of their transportation had been deducted from their pay. Farms often recruited workers with the promise of higher wages than they were actually paid, but workers who walked off the job could be arrested as vagrants and forced to provide free convict labor at the same farm they had just fled. Child labor became the norm, and segregated “Mexican schools” were, Weber writes, “little more than places to warehouse potential field laborers during the off-season.”

South Texas growers used their political influence to push back as strenuously against immigration reform as they did against worker protections and minimum wages. When the Bracero Program, intended to provide American farmers with a steady supply of legal “guest workers,” was negotiated between the U.S. and Mexico soon after America entered World War II, Mexico blacklisted Texas from the program, citing our decades-long record of abuses against migrant workers. But Texans blithely continued to rely on undocumented immigrants rather than officially registered braceros, and after the war’s end the Mexican and U.S. governments gave in, agreeing to admit undocumented Texas workers into the Bracero Program through a process officially designated as “drying out the wetbacks.” Texas growers widely ignored the Bracero Program’s 50-cents-per-hour minimum wage and went back to business as usual.

Although a resurrected guest-worker program is now integral to most current immigration reform plans, whatever scant worker protections it might include would hardly deter the many businesses and industries that have since adopted the practices pioneered by South Texas growers. Today’s workplace is increasingly populated by transient temps and benefits-less “contract workers,” which Weber attributes to “the increasing use of the labor relations of agriculture by employers in the service and industrial sectors. The migrant farmworker, highly exploitable and rootless as far as employers are concerned, has become the ideal.”

What Weber refers to as the “farmworkerization” of the American labor force emerges as a striking leitmotif of Invisible in Austin, a field research project supervised by University of Texas sociology professor Javier Auyero. Despite its hipster-progressive image, Austin has become increasingly segregated by race and income, and Auyero recruited a dozen of his graduate students to gather detailed personal narratives from denizens of the city’s “invisible” underclass.

These intimate, uniformly affecting profiles reveal how thoroughly Texas’s historic disregard for fair labor practices and basic social services pervades the lives of today’s working poor. With undocumented workers providing much of the muscle for Texas’s construction boom, lax safety measures make accidents distressingly common, while nonexistent health coverage and our state’s failure to insist on mandatory workman’s compensation insurance can make these on-the-job injuries permanently disabling and financially catastrophic. Almost as punishing is endemic wage theft from legally defenseless undocumented workers; in addition to an often-harrowing account of crossing the Rio Grande, it seems that each immigrant has tales of being stiffed for days or weeks of work, a potential disaster for workers on the margin. The working poor of all backgrounds and ethnicities live on the same precipice as one of the book’s subjects, Clarissa, an uninsured food-service worker who was hit by a car and ended up on the streets.

The history that unfolds across all three books puts the lie to the promise, long implicit in our quasi-official state mythology (the sort of risibly sanitized Texas history we teach our seventh graders), that if you work hard you’ll get ahead here. The truth is that Texas has throughout its history stacked the deck against its most disadvantaged, hardest workers, both by legally sanctioning and even encouraging their exploitation and by looking the other way when those workers and their families need basic protections and social services. Our demographers are now warning us that this low-wage, low-service model is no less doomed to fail than the Texas Republic, with our future labor force steadily becoming poorer, less educated, and less competitive in the global economy. Of course, the politicians who have made their careers spouting Texas myths rather than realities remain clueless, but too many of our business leaders, some of whom do know better, are also content to live high on the low-wage, worker-as-commodity hog. Perhaps our hope lies with kids like Invisible in Austin’s Manuel, one of the estimated 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates who go on to attend college. Manuel tells his interviewer that he doesn’t intend to use his degree to transform himself into “a CEO, a rags-to-riches story.” He wants to become a union organizer.

Related Content