Texas Myth Alive Today II


            If it’s okay with everybody, I’m a stander. I teach, and you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you know, you put a podium in front of me and I know what to do.

            I feel in a sense very honored to be here, and I want to thank Pat Hayes for inviting me. This panel is a reunion of sorts for me. Once upon a time, I taught at UTEP and worked with and for Diana Natalicio, and I am from El Paso. And currently, I am part of the bishop’s flock here in Austin, and my children have gone to St. Austin’s Elementary School and St. Michael’s High School. So it’s a great pleasure to be on this panel.

            I teach at the University of Texas in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film. Besides the books that you heard about on the Mexican cinema, I have also written articles and am preparing books on images of Latinos in Hollywood film. And so we do film history, but we look at the representation of those groups in Hollywood film, and I thought that’s what I was going to talk about today. I thought I was going to deal with a lot of the stereotypes that Bishop McCarthy has talked about, as they are portrayed on the screen.

            But to frame that, I was going to begin with kind of laying my cards on the table, telling you a little bit about what it was like to grow up in the 1950s and 1960s on the margin in El Paso, on the margin of the map, on the margin ethnically as a Mexican-American, regionally, and things like that. Once I got into that, to my surprise, I found that the movies were crowded out.

            And so with your indulgence, what I’d like to do is just kind of talk about what it was like to grow up Mexican-American, and the myth and how it affected those of us in that part of the country and those of us who were Mexican-American in that part of the country. And if nothing else, I think I’ll prove to my wife that I can talk about something other than movies. But she’ll just say, Well, you’re just talking about yourself, which is what you do all the time anyway.

            Let me just begin by defining what I mean by “the Texas myth,” and I do believe it is something very concrete. It’s something everybody in this room knows. It is something we all live. And so I want to talk about it as a way that it affects lived experience. We understand the Texas myth, and we act in certain ways because of it.

            The Texas myth, then, is a discourse about state identity that is internalized by Texans. And I think one of the things that the Texas myth does is it assigns us our various places within Texas society, and that assignment is made according to class, ethnicity, region, religion, wealth, influence, those kinds of things.

            So what I’d like to do is kind of, like Chancellor Silber, give you an impressionistic kind of talk—notes from a distant Mexican-American native son. I think it is one myth. I think it affects different Texans in different ways, and so I’ll give you little chapter headings of these notes of a Mexican-American native son.

            And the first chapter heading is “Where is the Center of Texas?” And I remember as a very small child—I mean very small, I was maybe five or six—and I had been thinking about this a long, long time. And I finally asked my father one time when he was putting me to bed, “Where is the middle of Texas?” And my father’s an engineer, and he began trying to give me the geographical answer, trying to line up the lines and figure out where the center was.

            But I realize now—and it’s apropos, speaking to the Philosophical Society—that I was really asking a philosophical question at that young age. I was asking, “Where is the essence of Texas? Where can that be found? Where is the heart and soul of Texas-ness?”

            And I think I found the answer, and I found it in two ways. In one way, growing up in El Paso, far away from where that center is, and then when I came to the University of Texas, first as a graduate student and then as a member of the faculty.

So here are some of the ways I discovered the center and where the center of Texas—where the middle of Texas—is. My second headline is “El Paso and the Map of Texas.”

            One of the things I remember when I was growing up in El Paso is that if it was an important event in El Paso, the governor of Chihuahua would show up, and that’s how you knew it was an important event. If it was a more important event, the governor of New Mexico would show up. If it was a really, really important event, both of those governors would show up, and that’s how you knew. You could kind of figure out the hierarchy of how important each event was.

            And what that told me is, politically, El Paso is not on the map of Texas. El Paso is on the margins of the map, because the governor of Texas seldom showed up. And so I understood that, you know, Texas was just barely interested in El Paso, unless there was some bragging to be done.

            And so it happened that not long after Texas Western College won the NCAA Basketball Championship in 1966 that its name was changed from Texas Western College to the University of Texas at El Paso. And so my third headline is “1966, Texas Discovers El Paso.” And there are many in El Paso who felt that that’s what was going on.

I have a cousin named Hector—in the family we call him Nini—and Nini just saw this as an obvious attempt by the University of Texas to get in on our glory. He would say, and he told me many times, “Nunca nos hicieron caso cuando éramos Texas Western.” They never paid any attention to us when we were Texas Western, but now that we’ve won a national championship, they want to spread University of Texas all over us, and they want the University of Texas to get in on the act.

            And to this day, he refers to what all the rest of us refer to as UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso, he still calls Texas Western College. And it’s funny, but it’s his way of resisting something that he didn’t like. You neglected us, but now—now you want to get in on it. And in a real interesting way—and it’s funny and we joke about it—but in a real interesting way, I find that a real healthy kind of response to the Texas myth, the way the myth ignores you or incorporates you as it sees fit.

            The next headline is “El Paso and the Map of Texas, Part 2.” When my wife and I moved here and I began going to graduate school, first as a master student and later as a doctoral student, I heard this “West Texas.” I heard people talking about West Texas, and I just lit up, I was so excited. Finally, they’re acknowledging El Paso. Until I found out what West Texas meant, and West Texas means Abilene. Right? San Angelo. Maybe as far west as Midland-Odessa.

            So then I began thinking, Well, wait a minute. Where would you have to be ideologically, where would you have to be geographically, to think that West Texas stopped 300 or 400 miles away from El Paso? And then I found the answer to my question, “Where was the center of Texas?”

            Where would you have to be ideologically and geographically? You’d have to be deep in the heart of Texas. That is the Dallas-Austin-Houston axis, which, I think, in terms of wealth, power, influence, and myth-making, is the heart and soul of Texas that I had wondered about as a child. On that map, where West Texas is several hundred miles away, El Paso is effectively off the map. It’s like it doesn’t exist.

            Another term I heard when I got here that mystified me was the term Mexican, and I realized that Mexican meant a couple of things. First of all, there was no distinction made between Mexican/Mexican citizen and Mexican-American/U.S. citizen. That was one thing that interested me. And growing up in El Paso, everybody understood the difference. Everybody understood Mexican-American, and that’s just who 60 or 70 percent of us were. But here, I realized that there was no distinction made. It was just Mexican.

            The second thing that I understood Mexican meant was “lower class.” It meant a segregated, east of IH-35 pool of menial and manual labor. Around campus, Mexican meant “janitor.” That’s what Mexican meant. And so this headline could have the subheadline “The Birth of Charles Ramírez Berg,” because at this point, I realized I need to do something. I need to say something. I need to make a statement about this.

            And so what I did is I noticed my mother would sign her name Hortensia Ramírez Berg, and what she was doing was she was using her maiden name, Ramírez, before her married name, Berg. And I said, I’m going to do that. I’m going to start putting “Ramírez” right in the middle, and if I ever do anything good, people can at least somehow have to deal with that “Ramírez” and try to figure out what that is.

            And I was trying to say that even under this yuppie-looking, I-could-pass-for-white exterior is a Mexican-American who’s very proud of his heritage, and I’m very proud of both heritages. I feel that I have the best of both worlds; that I have the Anglo from my father, who’s from the Midwest, and the Mexican from my mother. So beneath this gringo exterior that you see is a proud Mexican-American.

            Finally, my last headline is “Recasting the Myth: What Do We Do?” Betty Sue Flowers talked about that you can change the myth. The myth is not static; it is changing, and things have changed since the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t want to say that it hasn’t. But we shouldn’t wait for it to change, it seems to me.

            I think in this room are many of the myth-makers, and you don’t have to be a writer or a filmmaker to be a myth-maker. I think in all walks of our life we are contributing to the myth because we are living it. As I define the myth, it’s a lived experience.

            So we shouldn’t wait for it to change. We should recast the myth, I think, proactively. It seems to me what we need to do is go beyond acknowledging multiculturalism or tolerating it to really celebrating it.

            If I were looking for something that I would hope for to recast such a myth, it would be the emergence of a Texas Walt Whitman, someone who in politics or poetry or film would not just describe Texas multiculturalism but would celebrate it the way Whitman celebrated immigrant America 150 years ago, a Texas poet who would sing Texas’s body electric, who understood that, as Whitman wrote, “The job of the poet is to resolve all tongues. The poet is the joiner. He sees how they join.”

            I would look for somebody who would enthusiastically embrace the diversity that is Texas, someone who would see in our multiculturalism our powerful potential, as Whitman did when we wrote these lines: “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as of the wise, regardless of others, ever regardful of others, maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuffed with the stuff that is fine. Of every hue and cast am I, of every rank and religion, a farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, Quaker, a prisoner, fancy man, rowdy, a lawyer, a physician, a priest. I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

            Thank you very much for your attention.