Re-Telling History

Texas: The Great Theft

I grew up on Texas history.

I studied it in school (it was a required subject). I saw it in the movies. And I picked it up from my family. We don’t go back all the way to the Old Three Hundred – the first U.S. settlers in Texas, who came in 1823 – but we got there sometime between the revolution against Mexico and statehood.

I know all about William Barrett Travis and the line in the floor at the Alamo. I know how Sam Houston won the Battle of San Jacinto. My daddy cowboyed for his uncles at the tail end of the lifestyle memorialized in a hundred movies and some of my family even made a little money in oil (though only a tiny amount of it trickled down to my generation).

That is, I grew up on the Anglo version of Texas history, Anglo being the generic term for white Texans. Turns out it’s not the only story.

I recently read Texas: The Great Theft, a novel by the Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa.  Set along the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo if you’re Mexican) border in 1859, it weaves in history, folklore, and the lives of hundreds of people into a story that doesn’t quite match the heroic Anglo versions.

Boullosa’s book is a wonderful romp, drawing on the legend of a man she calls Nepomuceno who is apparently based on Juan Cortina Nepomuceno Goseacohea, who came from a family with large landholdings on both sides of the Rio Grande and who led raids in Brownsville in 1859. He was quite an adventurer and later involved in various political and revolutionary actions in Mexico while still retaining lands in Texas.

According to Boullosa’s novel, Don Nepomuceno shot a Texas sheriff (a very incompetent sheriff, by her story) for calling him a “dirty greaser” and beating one of his men. A Wikipedia articles says the sheriff was a marshal and called Nepomuceno a “damned Mexican.” I suspect that Boullosa’s version is more historically accurate, despite being in a novel.

The book has hundreds of characters and is told by going from one person to another, so that despite the sheriff insulting Nepomuceno in the second paragraph, we don’t find out what happened next for sixty-odd pages. It’s delightful reading, especially after I gave up trying to keep all of the characters in my head at once. (How Boullosa managed to keep them all straight while writing it I do not know, but she certainly succeeded.)

And while Boullosa does not treat the sheriff kindly in the book, she also gives the pros and cons of Don Nepomuceno. In fact, there are few completely good and moral characters in this book, making it a pretty realistic story despite the fanciful storytelling.

The book patched up some holes in my understanding of Texas history. I had never heard of Nepomuceno (or Juan Cortina). I knew, of course, that there were large numbers of Hispanic families in Texas with heritage going back much farther than my own ancestry, but I wasn’t aware of the various things that were done to take their land from them. (I’m not surprised by this; I just hadn’t heard the facts before.)

This is also true in much of the land gained by the U.S. in the Mexican War, which includes not just South Texas but also New Mexico, Arizona, and California along with some other states. And many of the Hispanic families living on the U.S. side had family in Mexico as well. It’s always been hard to take that border seriously, especially if you look closely at the Mexican War, which is not one of the high points of American history.

There are lots of rich options for storytelling in all this history, and it’s not just the stories of Anglos and Hispanics. There’s a significant Native American history here, one that comes into Boullosa’s story in bits and pieces: Lipan Apaches visiting Bruneville, her name for Brownsville; the rumor that Nepomuceno wiped out the Karankawas; the Caddos, who were not yet gone.

A few Black people enter into the story – some slaves (an interesting side point, since Mexico did not permit slavery), some free, some escaped slaves passing as free. German immigrants to Texas show up. A few characters are Jewish, representing that history. And the women are interesting.

But the story is still told from the Mexican and Mexican-American point of view, for the most part. And that represents a shift in viewing Texas history that I suspect we’ll see more of in the future.

Right now, the population of Texas is 38 percent Hispanic and about 43 percent Anglo (that is, non-Hispanic white). The Anglos may run the state these days, but sooner or later the demographics are going to change that.

I hope when that happens we get more stories similar to Boullosa’s from both Mexican and U.S. writers. (Not that there aren’t some other good books out there now; I just want more of them.) I hope that when teachers mention the Texas Ranger myth of “one riot, one ranger,” they also tell the story of Gregorio Cortez, who was chased across the state by hundreds of those rangers. (You can find a lot about that story, and the folklore it gave rise to, in Americo Paredes’s wonderful book The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.)

We’re going to see similar shifts in California, where the Hispanic population is also at 38 percent and the Anglo is at 40 percent. That is, the two most populous states in the country are already “majority-minority”, with the Hispanic population – the one that’s always been there coupled with more recent immigrants – poised to end up with the largest share of people.

I hope we’re going to see lots of old stories told in different ways, lots of rich mixes of culture. It’s a messy history and not all the stories are going to be nice ones, but retelling them with a greater eye to unbiased facts and different folklore will help Texas and California, not to mention the U.S. as a whole, become better places to live.



Re-Telling History — 9 Comments

  1. That series about the Texas Rangers, Texas Rising, from the so-called History Channel — now that’s the real thing, bubba!

    After all I’ve studied about Texas and its enormous role central to the slave power’s drive to secession, I watched one ep of Texas Rising, trying in every scene not to throw up, and then quit. Such utter lies from the first beat.

    • Reading Americo Paredes is a good cure for nonsense like that. I wish I’d known about him when I was in college, because he was teaching at the University of Texas back then. He was an eminent folklorist who grew up in Brownsville and his work undercuts the Texas myth in a well-documented and entertaining way.

  2. P.S. — FYI, I always like to say I married into Texas — wanting always as a child to be a Texan — ranching, etc. El V’s a Texan on his mama’s side, born there, spent much of his formative youth there with grandparents. That family history is very much like yours.

    • Meaning, of course, up in North Dakota, where I was born, like all the rest of the world, we’d bought into the Texas Big Lie about itself 100%.

      • Some of the story is true; it’s just that huge chunks of it were left out or belittled. And what the current political establishment is doing with it is worse than that.

  3. I have only ever visited Texas for family reasons. I was utterly bemused when we went to the Texas History Museum in Austin. They were aggressively even-handed, with sections (with not very much material in them) about many ethnic groups. There was a huge Chinese component in the settlement of Texas, did you know? I had a feeling it was wishful thinking. Whatever the museum says, it is not a state where I feel I will ever fit in.

    • Given that the current Chinese population of Texas is .06 percent, and that the overall Asian is 3.8 percent, I’d say that was a bit of an exaggeration. I think there were many more Chinese immigrants in Central America than in Texas in the 1800s, just as an example.