Texas history: Reading Mexican American literature as history
Welcome to Think, Texas a weekly column about Texas history.
“Hecho en Tejas” is not Dagoberto Gilb’s only anthology of Mexican American literature written in or about Texas.
In fact, the author and editor assembled another, more recent volume, “Mexican American Literature: A Portable Anthology,” in 2016 along with Ricardo Angel Gilb.
Yet the earlier collection, published in 2006 by the University of New Mexico Press, helped establish the literary canon for the field. Any lover of Texas history and letters needs a copy. I’m fond of the handsome and sturdy 2007 paperback edition.
The superstars — Américo Paredes, Sandra Cisneros and John Rechy among them — are well represented. So are many poets and musicians. Gilb’s thumbnail biographies are worth the price of purchase alone.
I recently reread it, or parts of it, as a 500-page anthology invites one to do.
Among the most memorable pieces, often very personal history — and therefore Texas history — were contributed by Daniel Garza of Hillsboro, Jose Angel Gutiérrez and Tomás Rivera of Crystal City, Roy Benavidez of Cuero, Max Martinez of Gonzales, Arturo Islas and Alicia Gaspar de Alba of El Paso, Genaro González of McAllen, Roberta Fernández and Norma Cantú of Laredo, Tony Díaz of Houston, Arturo Longoria and Erasmo Guerra of Mission, Oscar Cásares of Brownsville (now Austin) and Manuel Luis Martínez and John Philip Santos of San Antonio.
Just this short list, a fraction of the writers collected in “Hecho en Tejas,” gives one a hint as to the reach, at least geographically, of the book.
For today’s Think, Texas column, I selected some particularly notable passages to give you a sense of their range and impact. They take the reader to exceedingly specific Texas times and places.
Américo Paredes, a folklorist and scholar, produced the classic book “With a Pistol in His Hand,” about border hero Gregorio Cortez. This is an excerpt.
“In the days before upriver irrigation projects, the Lower Rio Grande was a green, fertile belt, bounded on the north and south by arid plains, situated along a river which, like the Nile, irrigated and fertilized the lands close to its banks and periodically filled countless little lakes, known as resacas and esteros.
“Isolated by natural barriers, the country was still unexplored long after the initial wave of Spanish conquest had spent itself and Spain was struggling with the problems created by its earlier successes. Spanish colonization had gone as far north as New Mexico on the west, and to the east it had jumped overseas to Texas.
“The Lower Rio Grande, known as the Seno Mexicano (the Mexican Hollow or Recess), was a refuge for rebellious Indians from Spanish presidios, who preferred outlawry to Spanish rule.
“Thus, at its earliest period in history the Lower Rio Grande was inhabited by outlaws, whose principal offense was an independent spirit.”
Sandra Cisneros’ collection of short stories “Woman Hollering Creek” goes to the heart of the Chicana experience. She contributed “The Vogue” to “Hecho en Tejas.”
“The Vogue is Viva’s choice. Mine, the Woolworth’s across from the Alamo because of the lunch counter that loops in and out like a snake. I like sitting next to the toothless viejitos enjoying their grilled tuna triangles and slurping chicken noodle soup. I could sit at the counter for hours, ordering Cokes and fries, a caramel sundae, a banana split.
“Or wander the aisles filling a collapsible basket with glitter nail polish, little jars of fruit-flavored gloss, neon felt-tip pens, take the escalator to the basement to check out the parakeets and canaries, poke around Hardware looking for cool stuff, or dig through the bargain bins for marked-down treasures.
“Viva says who would ever want to shop at Woolworth’s when there’s the Kress. She has a way of finding jewels even there. Like maybe picking up thick fluorescent yarn for our hair over in Knitting. Or a little girl’s purse I wouldn’t ever notice in a thousand years. Or the funkiest old ladies’ sandals that turn sexy when she wears them.”
John Rechy’s first novel, “City of Night,” grew out of his experiences in New York, including time spent as a male prostitute, and became an underground LGBTQ sensation in 1963. His papers were recently acquired by the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. He is represented here by “El Paso Del Norte,” about his hometown.
We’ve left Rechy’s prose alone; it contains slang used by the community at the time and colloquial play with gender.
“Once upon a time in El Paso there was a band of fairies — yes, really, in El Paso, Texas — and this city became a crossroads between the hot Eastcoast and the cool Westcoast (fuzz-wise, vice-wise) or the hot Westcoast and the cool Eastcoast, depending on where oh where the girls had got Caught Jay-Walking.
“And soon San Jacinto Plaza (or Alligator Plaza — sleepy crocodiles in a round pond, so tired and sleepy they don’t even wake up when little kids grab them by the tail and flip them into the water) was a fairy paradise, rebel. The girls would camp in that little park — the queens with pinched-in waists, lisps, painted eyes, digging the soldiers from Fort Bliss, proclaiming Too Much.
“Alas, they went the way of all fairies. The Inevitable Clean-Up came, and the fuzz swooped on them jealously and to jail they went, all fluttering eyelashes justifying gay mother love.”
Elva Treviño Hart was born in Pearsall, but has lived all over the country. Her first book was published in 1999 about her childhood, much of it spent in Texas. This is a passage from that memoir, “Barefoot Heart.”
“Our little group walked across the railroad tracks to ‘el otro lado,’ the other side of town. The railroad tracks divided the town like the Rio Bravo. It might just as well have been the Rio Grande because Pearsall was really two towns. The gringos live on the east side of town and the Mexicans lived on the west side. That’s just the way it was. The Mexican side of town was euphemistically referred to on surveys as ‘Spanish Acres.’ The downtown, the junior high school, the high school and the post office were all on the gringo side.
“The downtown consisted of a few stores, the bank and the post office. There was no mail delivery on the Mexican side, so Mexicans had to have post office boxes. Our whole family shared Tío Alfredo’s post office box. I had gone with my father to the bank often. He went there to borrow money every time we went north again. We bought cheap trinkets at the dime store. And we liked the clothes store downtown because we could buy on credit.
“For the rest of our needs, we stayed on our side of town. We had little grocery stores called ‘tendajos,’ except for the big one owned by my father’s oldest brother, Tío Bias. We also had the Mexican movie theater, the big Catholic Church and lots of cantinas.
“In Pearsall, even the cemeteries were segregated. There might have been one or two Mexicans buried in the gringo cemetery, but the Mexican cemetery was pure. No gringo in Pearsall would allow his body to rot for eternity among the Mexicans.”
Cecilia Ballí grew up in Brownsville where parts of both sides of her family had lived for centuries. She became a notable journalist and earned her degree in cultural anthropology from Rice University. This snippet is from “All About My Mother.”
“She slipped on her black-rimmed glasses to inspect the naturalization certificate she had just received. At the age of 53, she had finally become a citizen of the United States. Always on the fringe — that had been her biography.
“I thought about this as a solemn woman opened the ceremony with a dramatic rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ and the robed judge thanked the inductees for representing the very best of this country.
“Even though I, an American citizen by birth, have in some ways become jaded about the meaning of U.S. citizenship, that morning I found myself swelling with pride for my mother.
“She herself had been a little distracted during the ceremony, flustered by the way that everyone raced through the Pledge of Allegiance. But when the vocalist took the microphone one last time and filled the auditorium with glass-shattering strains of ‘God Bless America,’ she blinked rapidly and began to fan herself.
“It wasn’t until we were outside, walking toward her silver pickup under the warm South Texas sun, that she began dabbing sloppily at her red eyes. For the first time, she told me that when she was 8, she had briefly attended an elementary school in Brownsville, just across the Rio Grande from her Mexican hometown. She wasn’t supposed to be there, of course, a child whose family had tiptoed across the border sin papeles, ‘without papers.’
“She and her parents and her little brother, Raul, had squeezed into a one-room, rat-infested shack. At the American school the students sang ‘Ten Little Indians,’ ‘God Bless America.’ She was crying now because the song had brought back bittersweet memories of how tough things had been then for that bony, dark-skinned girl who didn’t belong.”