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Texas Myth Alive Today I

 

Good morning. I may be using the term myth in a slightly different manner than the way that the earlier speakers used it. For my purposes this morning I want to talk about myth as a tool that groups of people sometimes use in order to achieve certain common goals. We all know the narrow definition of myth as it appears in Webster’s Dictionary. We also know that myths in a broader sense can convey important truths, although the popular use of the word usually refers to the absence of objective truthfulness. In that narrow sense when you say myth you mean something that did not happen, something that was not true. For my purposes, however, myth is a commonly held view or value usually rooted in history but with varying degrees of truth. However, myths, when widely held by communities, large and small can become a force by which such communities bind themselves together ever more firmly. Another thing that groups can do with myths is to use them to wall off other communities of people. This has happened a number of times in Texas history.

From the Anglo perspective of the middle nineteenth century, a number of Texas myths were developed that had serious ramifications for life in the state of Texas, for virtually everyone. Those ramifications are still occurring today, although a lot of people would prefer, because the issue is not all that pleasant, to look in another direction.

The first myth that I want to discuss is that which describes and defines the relationship between the Anglo and the Mexican beginning shortly after the Revolution of 1836 and continuing until today. Secondly, I would like to touch on the myth of the Texas Rangers. If time permits I will endeavor to touch on several more.

The Anglo/Mexican myth began to develop with a number of different nuances. The basic myth was that the Anglos as a people were far, far superior to the Mexicans and to incorporate that view the larger Anglo community would develop a whole series of principles that they universally applied to the Mexicans with whom they came in contact.

            In the opinion of Americo Paredes, the Anglo Texan perspective can be summarized in under half a dozen points:

1.         The Mexican is cruel by nature. The Texan must in self-defense treat the Mexican cruelly, since that is the only treatment the Mexican understands.

2.         The Mexican is cowardly and treacherous and no match for the Texan. He can get the better of the Texan only by stabbing him in the back or by ganging up on him with a crowd of accomplices.

3.         Thievery is second nature in the Mexican, especially horse and cattle rustling, and on the whole he is about as degenerate a specimen of humanity as may be found anywhere.

4.         The degeneracy of the Mexican is due to his mixed blood, though the elements in the mixture were inferior to begin with. He is descended from the Spaniard, a second-rate type of European, and from the equally substandard Indian of Mexico, who must not be confused with the noble savages of North America.

5.         The Mexican has always recognized the Texan as his superior and thinks of him as belonging to a race separate from other Americans.

The Texan has no equal anywhere, but within Texas itself there developed a special breed of men, the Texas Rangers, in whom the Texan’s qualities reached their culmination.

In his introduction to Alamo Images Paul Andrew Hutton describes the Alamo as a creation myth, a myth necessary to explain and justify the existence of a particular group and states:

“The creation myth does not pander to liberal sensibilities. The lines of good and evil are always razor sharp. The story is meant to give a people a strong and unique self-image. It does not cater to the enemy in any way. Thus the myth of the Alamo is often stunningly racist. The myth is a nineteenth century creation and it reflects the racial sensibilities of that time. This racial mentality, however, lasted well into our own century and is still apparent today, although in a more muted form.”

            The story of the Alamo is an Anglo myth which is also used to undergird the negative view of Mexicans. The battle for the Alamo lasted only for a few hours, and while it had terrible consequences for its defenders, it is seen today as a wonderful symbol of Texas pride, Texas commitment to freedom, Texas generosity, and Texas courage. There is a strong element of truth in the myth. However, it has also been used constantly to remind Hispanics of this state that they are inferior people, that they were defeated, that their predecessors were cruel and unjust. It is interesting that the Alamo from 1836 until the beginning of this century was not seen in such a glowing light by the people who actually remembered the event. It was used as a barracks during the Civil War and as a hay barn in the early part of the twentieth century.

Another important myth was that the Texas Rangers were a wonderful and effective group of law enforcement officers. The Rangers are quite professional today but it was a different story in the second half of the nineteenth century. In their earliest days Rangers were sent against the Indians. If there was an Indian raid on a white settlement, a number of Rangers would be commissioned for 60 days and sent out not to find the criminal but to inflict as much damage as possible on all Indians with whom they came in contact. In the latter part of the nineteenth century in South Texas the sins of the Rangers were almost always aimed at the Mexicans. These two myths, Mexican inferiority and Ranger prowess, are closely interrelated.

Walter Prescott Webb has over the decades been one of the most popular Texas writers and historians. In his book The Texas Rangers here is what Dr. Webb had to say about Mexicans.

Without disparagement, it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood …. The Mexican warrior … was, on the whole, inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan. The whine of the leaden slugs stirred in him an irresistible impulse to travel with rather than against the music. He won more victories over the Texans by parley than by force of arms. For making promises—and for breaking them—he had no peer.[1]

The myth about the Texas Rangers also centers about their great effectiveness as lawmen. Why did they only send one Ranger? Well, isn’t there only one riot going on?

In With His Pistol in His Hand Americo Paredes also asserts that:

It also seems a well-established fact that the Rangers often killed Mexicans who had nothing to do with the criminals they were after. Some actually were shot by mistake, according to the Ranger method of shooting first and asking questions afterwards.[2] But perhaps the majority of the innocent Mexicans who died at Ranger hands were killed much more deliberately than that. A wholesale butchery of “accomplices” was effected twice during Border history by the Rangers, after the Cortina uprising in 1859 and during the Pizaña uprising of 1915. Professor Webb calls the retaliatory killings of 1915 an “orgy of bloodshed (in which) the Texas Rangers played a prominent part.”[3] He set the number of Mexicans killed between 500 and 5,000. This was merely an intensification of an established practice which was carried on during less troubled years on a smaller scale.

I admit that my approach is negative this morning and I don’t want to deny that myths can have a positive influence and most of the time religious myths do. Such myths center around a person or a concept that relates to goodness and those people who are formed by that myth are in some sense guided by that myth are motivated to live better lives, e.g., St. Francis of Assisi and the animals and George Washington and truthfulness. That use of a myth is a very good thing. Maybe I am a little lazy here but it is easier to point out some of the negative side of our more commonly held myths.

Another myth that flows into Texas life, and probably this may be the strongest and, even though most of Texas is urbanized, it still endures. That is the myth of the cowboy. Here again there is an element of truth to be had. There certainly were cattle drives but they actually ran only from immediately after the Civil War until the development of the railroad system. That was a very short period of time and yet the myth of the cowboy permeates not only North America but even reaches and is celebrated in Europe. It is the cowboy myth that is part of the underlying and exaggerated commitment to individualism that marks Texas life. We can make it on our own. We have our horse, we have our gun, we have our coffeepot, and we can take on the world and win. A myth that certainly contributes to a strong sense of an exaggerated individuality, which in the process also undercuts the spirit of cooperation and interdependence so necessary in modern urban life.

I am curious as to whether or not that concept of exaggerated individuality is what generates a subsection of the cowboy myth, namely that most of them were white celibate males! In most of the folklore, it is the individual male fighting against nature and fighting against injustice, but they are all fighting by themselves. If a woman appears at all, she is simply someone to ride with over the horizon as the movie comes to an end.

That concept of independence and life on the frontier, the life of the cowboy, the life of the fast-shooting sheriff, and the quickly meting out of justice to the perpetrator of evil endures today. In Texas we still see violence as a way to cope with violence. We are only a very short period of time from lynching being a common phenomenon where justice was meted out by an angry mob and a rope rather than a court of law. Even today a glance at our prisons, where we are approaching 200,000 human beings incarcerated, the vast majority of them for crimes related to drugs and again the vast majority belonging to minorities. To me this is a reflection of the myth that we all should be strong individuals and we take care of injustice very quickly. As we sit here there are more than 400 people on death row in the State of Texas and if you exclude Florida, that is more than all the other death row prisoners in the United States of America. That says something about Texas. What is says about Texas is that the myth of Texas commitment to justice dispensed brutally is very much alive and well.

            Myths are not eternal. For example, I grew up with the myth of the United States had never lost a war, would never be beaten, and was the strongest nation on Earth. Korea and Vietnam freed us from that particular myth. We are vulnerable, we take that into consideration today, and we better off for the myth having disappeared.

            I pray for the early demise of some of the other myths mentioned today.

Background Material:

 

Texas Myths, edited by Robert F. O’Connor, Texas A&M Press, 1986.

Alamo Images by Susan Prendergast Schoeleer, SMU Press, 1985.

Anglos & Mexicans by David Montejano, UT Press, 1987.

With His Pistol in His Hand by Americo Paredes, UT Press, 1958.



[1] Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers, Cambridge, 1935, p. 14

[2] See Webb, The Texas Rangers, pp.263ff.

[3] Ibid. p. 478