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Monday, July 11, 2011

A few things about Texas

“Remember the Alamo.” That’s the only solid detail about Texas I can recall from high school history. My father raised me to believe that Texas is full of bigots and rednecks. A college geology professor told me “Mars is like Texas, everything there is bigger than it is on earth.” Texas also reminded me of cattle, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the Bushes: “Don’t Mess with Texas!” The Texas I knew was just a shallow stereotype. Creating stereotypes is a part of growing up, but destroying them is a mix of curiosity, humility, and luck.

David Mendoza helped me shatter my Texas myth. A Mexican-American from Texas, Mendoza lived in Boston and played piano in a rock & blues band called the Ramblin’ Souls. I played bass for the Souls and we practiced in the basement of a drycleaners in North Quincy. Some nights, Mendoza and I would emerge from the practice space with a buzz and head over to Caralilly’s bar for whiskey and beers. As Doze told me about his friends and family back home, I was surprised that such a tolerant culture existed in my mythical backwards land of rednecks and racists. “Georgie,” Mendoza slurred, “you don’t know shit about Texas!”

Texas’ history is as fraught with violence, racism, and myth as any Hollywood movie. There is no denying that violence and adventurism is central to this story, but Americans tend to flatten the landscape of our past into a two-dimensional struggle: us vs. them. Or in this case, whites vs. Mexicans. Recent historians have confronted this assumption by revealing the Mexican side of the story.

Before the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War, Mexicans living on the Texas frontier identified themselves more in a regional sense, as Tejanos, than as Mexican citizens. During the 1820’s and 30’s, Texas was a land where Hispanic people co-existed with powerful Indian tribes and a growing number of American immigrants. Since independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government exercised little control over Tejanos and their neighbors. The unwillingness of Mexican citizens to settle the northern territories en masse left Texans open to raids and manipulation from dominant Indian tribes like the Comanches. History would show that Indians were the least of the Mexican government’s worries.

The American tradition of filibustering added to the Mexican Government’s anxieties about controlling the northern frontier. As opposed to the tactic of filibustering used today in Congress, 1820’s filibustering was a military practice more akin to piracy. A group of armed soldiers would venture into the territory of a foreign state with the intent of pillaging and/or supporting a rebellion. Although filibusters were a political threat, what made them dangerous was the influx of American immigrants whose unchecked occupation of the land could lead to a loss of territory. Since it would be impossible and expensive to fortify the border and stop Americans from coming, the Mexican government started encouraging them to immigrate on Mexican terms and invited American settlers to live in Texas legally. To accomplish this, they enlisted certain American businessmen and entrepreneurs, known as impresarios, who recruited settler families in groups of one hundred or more. The intent of this system was to establish order by bringing American settlers under the authority of the Mexican state while creating a legal outlet for Americans seeking opportunity and land on the Texas frontier. Although these policies were well intentioned, they had the effect of turning Texas into a pressure chamber of racism and violence that would explode with miserable results for Mexicans and their government.

Before racial violence became the central theme of life in early Texas, American and Tejano elites joined forces to create an economic system that deepened on free trade with the United States. This boosted the growth of local economies by encouraging American immigration. By the 1830s whites outnumbered Tejanos in Texas 25,000 to 4,000. In some areas such as Laredo, a division of labor existed between Tejanos and whites where the later took up jobs as merchants and traders while Tejanos continued to work on their farms and rancerias. This system worked well for a while, but peace on the frontier was fragile and when the Mexican government tried to assert control over the region, the system gave way to violence.

The Mexican government took steps to assert their authority in 1830, passing laws that restricted American immigration, prohibited the importation of slaves, and encouraged European immigration. White settlers largely ignored the regulations. When local officials tried to enforce customs taxes, Texans reacted by attacking customhouses and presidios (military forts) across the territory. Amidst the violence, Texans appealed to the Central government to repeal the reforms. The government refused. In response, a sizable coalition of Tejanos and white Texans declared conditional independence pending a return to the original 1824 Constitution. Although traditional stories paint Mexicans as villainous tyrants, Tejanos played an important role in creating Texas as a place apart from the Mexican state. By working and living together, Tejanos and white Texans created a new Texas identity. When conflict came, both Tejanos and whites stood together as Texans to defend against the central power. However, what happened in the resulting war hurt the relationships between Tejanos and whites and intensified the racism and violence.

One story about Texas Mendoza likes to tell involves the grito. At the end of a long night of drinking in Denton, Texas, Mendoza and some friends got hungry and decided to hit an all-night diner for something to eat. Mendoza was sitting there, drunk as hell, trying to focus on his eggs and bacon when he suddenly let out a grito. In Spanish, grito literally means “yell,” but the Mexican grito is more than a yell, it’s an expression of Mexican pride. Mendoza told me that the grito, as he knows it, originated in the Mexican war for Independence and is still uttered today by Mexicans and Chicanos on both sides of the border. The yell is not transcribeable, so all I can hope to convey is that the grito, when properly performed, is a high-pitched yell that sounds half human, a quarter hyena, and a quarter jackal.

So Mendoza was sitting there, with his mind full of drunk thoughts, slopping eggs and meat into his face, and he screamed the grito, and the place erupted into yells and shouts as everyone in the restaurant answered Mendoza’s call. Looking around, Mendoza realized that everyone there were older Mexican guys who had just come off the late shift. The only white guys in the place were Mendoza’s friends. Just as he was looking around, everybody shut up and went back to eating without a word. “It was one of the craziest things that’s ever happened in my life,” Mendoza told me. It was also an odd story for me to hear: blatant Mexican pride in Texas? The story of how Tejanos went from identifying themselves as on the fringe of the Mexican mainstream, to showing pride in their Mexican heritage as a people under siege is a story of alienation, hardship, and racism.

The Texas Revolution began as an act of defiance as Tejanos and white Texan Federalists looked to protest the policies of Mexico’s central government with violence. The violence quickly escalated into war. The Federalist rebels soundly defeated the first army of 4,000 soldiers that the Mexican president, Santa Anna sent to quell the uprising in 1835. But the following year, Santa Anna himself took charge of the military and led the offensive winning crushing victories at both the Alamo and Golidad. Over 600 Texan rebels (both white and Tejano) were killed in these two battles. Because of his early victories, Santa Anna became cocky and over-extended his army in the rebel’s territory. The Texans captured Santa Anna, who quickly settled for peace in exchange for his freedom.

Having secured freedom from Mexico, Texans looked to join the United States. However, the slavery issue was raging in the United States and it became clear that Texas would not be immediately annexed, so the Texans looked west for allies. The young republic organized 300 white and Mexican soldiers to act as ambassadors to New Mexico. Their job was to convince the Mexican territory to join the Texas republic. Although they came with covered wagons and nearly $200,000 worth of goods to trade, they were also armed soldiers. After meeting with hardship and attack from Indians, they were disarmed when they reached Santa Fe and sent as prisoners on a “death march” to Mexico City.

Despite their shared hardships and struggles, the relationship between Tejanos and whites began to break down. Bad feelings between Tejanos and whites intensified during the rebellion because of the treatment some Tejanos received from the militia. A surge of volunteer fighters from the United States brought many Americans who had not been living with Mexicans. They were more likely to exhibit anti-Mexican sentiments. The Texas fighters raided civilian cattle and sought their enemies among the Mexican population. Texan press-gangs took food and supplies from unwilling farmers and ranchers. This had a polarizing effect on the population. By the end of the rebellion there were more Tejanos who sided against the Texans for this reason. Many Tejano families simply fled the war zone, fleeing east to Louisiana or south deeper into Mexico. Others attempted to hold on to their property and homes, but were often evicted or expelled. After the rebellion, this trend only escalated as whole towns, such as La Buhía, were destroyed and Tejano families were evicted from their property from San Antonio to Nacogdoches. Even Jaun Sequin, a San Antonio elite and a Tejano leader in the Texas rebellion, was forced to flee to Mexico because of death threats against him and his family. Texans justified this sort of treatment with a racism fueled by the violent acts of war. Although both white Texans and Tejanos committed atrocities, whites placed an uneven amount of the blame on Mexicans, specifically Mexican civilians whose only crime was getting in the way of white people. This was especially true in the contested border region between the new Republic and Mexico.

While the Rio Grande is Texas’ southern border today, in 1836 both Mexico and Texas claimed the one hundred and fifty mile swath of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. As a result, the southern border region became a place were tensions between whites and Mexicans were at their worst. Following the Mexican American War (1846-1848), the region was the stage for a number of conflicts between whites and Mexicans as well as the everyday violence of border banditry. For Tejanos, the story of rebellion became a story of resistance to despotic treatment from white Texans. Certain Tejanos who stood up against unfair treatment became heroes. This developed into a larger Mexican cultural tradition of corridos (folksongs), poems, and narratives that depicted the adventures of Mexicans and Chicanos in opposition to white authority.

One of these real-life heroes was a man named Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, a Mexican landowner whose refusal to submit to white authority sparked a localized war known as the Cortina War. During the summer of 1859, Cortina was in the town of Brownsville when he came across a municipal marshal abusing one of his former employees. Cortina tried to intervene on behalf of his countryman, but the marshal did not heed his warnings so Cortina shot him. Later that fall, Cortina returned to Browsnville with a group of one hundred armed colleagues in order to enforce Tejano justice. He released some Mexicans from jail whom he deemed unfairly imprisoned and he executed four whites who had previously killed some Mexicans but had not been punished. Following the incident, Cortina released a statement of defiance against white injustice and proceeded to amass an army of 500-600 men. The Texas Rangers, unable to defeat Cortina’s force, reacted with indiscriminate violence against Tejanos living in the Rio Grand region. For six months, Cortina defeated every local military force sent against him. It took the intervention of the United States army in December of 1859 to end his war in Texas. Cortina fled to Mexico where he continued to be an important military figure and eventually rose to the rank of general. Although he lost the war, his story became an important legend of resistance that gave strength and hope not only to Tejanos, but to all Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who shared the experience of racism and repression from a society that sought to exclude them as others.

This tradition of resistance has not lost its edge and continues today. Director Robert Rodriquez’s most recent project, Machete, is a revenge-fueled farce that places Machete in a role very similar to that of Cortina. Machete, played by Danny Trejo, is an ex-Mexican federale who had to flee Mexico when he refused to participate in the corrupt practices of his colleagues. A Mexican immigrant in Texas, Machete is baited into a fake assassination attempt on a Texas senator whose only political message is the proposed extermination of Mexicans in Texas. The Texans plan to stage Machete’s arrest as a plot to embroil anti-Mexican sentiment and get the senator elected. Machete sniffs out the plot, but is too late to prevent his framing. Now a fugitive attempting to uncover the corrupt plot to enforce gringo justice, Machete uses his namesake to maim, dismember, and decapitate countless white villains who are out for Mexican blood. The Chicano community responds to his predicament by aiding him in a quest to take down the anti-Mexican machine. The result is a full-blown war between Chicanos and the militant border patrol, complete with tricked-out Cadillacs, rocket-launchers, grenades, automatic weapons, and of course, machetes. Although the violence is gratuitous and often for comic effect, the pro-Chicano theme is undeniable but not exclusive as there are whites that take Machete’s side. Machete does not kill any innocent civilians, nor does he harbor any hate against white people who aren’t trying to kill him. He is essentially a modern-day Cortina, standing up for the rights of Chicanos who receive unfair treatment from a despotic and hateful authority.

Through their actions, songs, and narratives Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have used culture to sustain resistance during the one-hundred and fifty years in which white society has tried to make them go away. Through cultural resistance, Mexican-Americans use history to paint a different picture of Texas than one would get from mainstream culture. Though some Tejanos initially joined whites in rebellion from Mexican society, the violence and racism that followed brought them to band closer together and seek a common identity through heroes like Juan Cortina and Machete. From my perspective, the racism that first dominated my view of Texas is still there. This is justified by the large role that racist violence played in shaping Texas history. However, I no longer think shallowly of Texas as a place dominated by only these aspects. When I first met Mendoza it was obvious that what I believed before was wrong and I started to take notice of Mexican-Americans in Texas. I have always had an open mind, but never had the need to dismantle my myths about Texas until I had a Tejano for a friend.

One of Mendoza’s favorite past times is confronting racist people in bars. One night, after we played a show with the Souls, some girls we knew took Mendoza to a Southie bar where he apparently held court. The Bar dweller’s distrustful glares soon turned to smiles and pats on the back as Mendoza mixed and mingled, buying rounds of drinks and receiving the same. One guy called him a spic, but somehow Mendoza was able to talk him down without getting punched in the face. After a few hours, Mendoza and the girls left to make last call at our favorite downtown watering hole. When I saw Doze he was beaming, “Hey Georgie, you shoulda seen this guy!” he said, “One minute he’s calling me spic, then next thing he’s buying me drinks!”

We had a couple rounds then headed out. When we got to the car we realized that Mendoza wasn’t with us, so I went back to get him. When I got back to the bar he was out front, standing in front of three Marines in their dress blues uniforms and yelling “Your guys don’t know SHIT about Texas!” As I came up to pull Mendoza away he turned to me, “Hey Georgie, these guys don’t know shit about Texas!” His spittle flying in my face, “You tell them!” But I didn’t. I dragged Mendoza out of there quick.

Mendoza moved to Los Angeles about two years ago but I still see him once or twice a year when he visits his family in Boston. Last time he was in town, he showed me his new phone. “What Happened to the old one?” I asked. “Well I got jumped by a couple of Mexicans one night,” he replied, “and they took my old one so I got this.” “Mexicans!?” I asked. “Yeah, I tried to reason with them in Spanish like ‘Hey, I’m Mexican too, we’re brothers,’” he explained, “but they kept beating me anyway. They said I was too white.” “Yikes,” I said, “What did they take?” “My wallet, my phone, and some money,” he replied, “but as I was sitting there getting kicked on the ground I started yelling at them, ‘Read a fucking book, Man! Read a fucking book!’” “Why’d you do that?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Mendoza said, “but it hurt like hell.”

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