I don’t think you can truly understand a place unless you’ve left and returned to it again. The same goes for our humanity. We don’t truly understand ourselves without understanding where we’re from and the influences that shaped us into the people we become.
I’m taking a long, hard look at Texas now, because soon I will leave it again and it is inescapably tied to who I am. While I laugh along with the jokes the rest of the country makes at Texas’ expense, they don’t know the place like Texans do. It’s not all guns and boots and rattlesnakes down here. This place is a world of it’s own.
Here are some things I would wager the rest of the country doesn’t know about the Lone Star State:
*”Don’t Mess with Texas” is an anti-littering campaign.
*Horny toads (lots of stuff down here is horned, thorned or needled) can squirt blood out of the corners of their eyes as a defense mechanism. Tell THAT to your junior campers before a hike.
*As traditional and conservative as the place might seem, when I was a kid we had an outspoken feminist, democrat for governor – Ann Richards.
*The governor of the state of Texas actually has very little power. When the Texas Constitution was written the founders feared a strong central government and gave the governor a pretty mansion, a fancy title and little else.
*The Battle of the Alamo was fought in the early morning before the sun was up.
Texans know tons of facts about Texas. It’s part of being a Texan. All children brought up in the Texas school system are required to have years of Texas history. In addition, the Texas core curriculum requires all college students have two semesters of Texas history. Every morning elementary school students rise to their feet, place their hands over their hearts, face the Texas flag and recite the Texas Pledge. Then they pivot to the American flag hanging just beside it and say the national pledge. They learn the words to The Yellow Rose of Texas and Deep in the Heart of Texas along with America the Beautiful and the National Anthem. At bedtime we learn about Texas heroes like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Being a Texan is ingrained into your identity. Call it brainwashing. Call it acculturation. Call it pride. Call it a ploy to be sure all who immigrate over the border gather an appreciation of their new surroundings. Whatever it may be, it is. And it is in all of us.
But Texas history is really more folklore than fact. It’s not about getting the facts right. (If that were true we would never mention those ten years of complete anarchy that was Texas’ attempt at being it’s own country with such nostalgia.) It’s about giving people a sense of pride and identity with the place they live. For example, you know the famous story about the line in the sand at the Alamo? Apparently before the Battle of the Alamo, when they knew the Mexicans were coming and they didn’t know if reinforcements would arrive in time (which would ensure certain defeat) Commander Travis lined all of his troops up and drew a line in the sand with his sword. He explained the dangers that awaited every soul and asked his men to step over the line if they were willing to stay and fight. According to the legend every man heroically stepped over the line that day. As history tells us, the reinforcements did not arrive in time, they were besieged and Santa Ana killed them all. So it begs the question, how did the story get out if there were no survivors?
In a place where anything goes to improve morale in history lessons, pulpits and dinner conversations there’s lots of legend flying around, but tall tales are part of what makes Texas special. Some of the fun has spread to the rest of the country. People from many places have asked me “Is everything really bigger in Texas?” Sure, we have some big stuff, but have you seen the spiders in Australia?! Thank God they don’t get that big here! Have you seen the redwoods on the west coast? Our trees can’t compete with that! We have the second largest canyon in the US, not the first and what we would call mountains other folks would call hills.
But Texas itself is quite big. It cannot be defined only by the miles of coast along the Gulf or miles of desert and mountains out west or miles of piney woods in the east or scattered metropolitan hubs that run down the middle or tundra in the north. You can leave at sunrise and still not have crossed the state line when the sun sets. A surf instructor on South Padre Island is just as much a Texan as the rancher in Midland, the business executive in Houston, or the dread-locked student in Austin. It takes a certain amount of folklore to hold together such a diverse group of people that live hundreds of miles from each other. And a certain amount of tolerance.
For all of the pride we have about our state, we are by far the friendliest. I’d go up against any state on that wager. In all of my years in Texas I have never heard anyone call someone a “transplant.” We welcome people who move here. We welcome diversity. Just look at Austin – the blueberry in a giant strawberry pie. Not only do we accept Austin, we love it. We’re proud of it. We encourage it to be weird and send our children to college there. We send our district representatives there to govern.
Texas as a whole is unarguably behind the times on gay marriage, racial justice, women’s rights and religious freedom, but it would be inaccurate to label the whole state intolerant. The main hold-up is not that we don’t want [insert any progressive idea], it’s that we don’t want a central government telling us what to do. Let’s not forget some of the most liberal policies that came out of Washington have come from Texas presidents (LBJ’s Great Society anyone?). President Obama could come to Texas today and announce free bridges for every town and there would be riots in the streets. We want to decide for ourselves if we need or want new bridges.
And decide for ourselves we do. It’s far from a perfect system but there are tons of great initiatives across the state improving the quality of life for Texans. But what happens in San Antonio doesn’t touch what happens in Abilene, and what happens in Big Bend doesn’t touch what happens in Laredo. We like it local. Good, bad or ugly, at least it’s ours. For the people, by the people that live right here. Some places are more behind the times than others, but they remain so because of our strong commitment to let the people rule themselves. I have no right to tell people in El Paso or Galveston how to live, but I have every responsibility to tell my city council how I feel about the proposed drilling moratorium and petition them for transgender bathrooms in public buildings. We move slow as molasses as a state, but we decide tons as individual municipalities.
It is unfortunate that some of the towns whose practices are vulgar to the human spirit make the news as spokespersons for all of Texas. I won’t argue there aren’t some practices and laws down here that are sickeningly racist or anti-[fill in any of a number of blanks here]. There are. People can be horrible. But people can be horrible in Texas or North Dakota or New Jersey or California. But again, the key is as a whole we’re really not about centralized government and we do our best to love and look after our neighbors whoever those neighbors may be.
Its kind of funny that I have not kept these Texas politics in my own life, but I know when in Rome to do as the Romans do. I believe myself to be a global citizen, that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, and I super duper hate my neighbors…but that’s a story for another day. I am a Texan who has left and come back and understand the place better now in a way I never could before seeing more of the world. It is a place that welcomes me with open arms each time I come back no matter how I have changed. It’s a place that is big enough and tough enough to let me air my grievances against it to my fellow Texans. It’s a place that considers cowgirl boots business casual. It’s a place that still calls it “the war of northern aggression.” It’s a place where the State Fair in Dallas is a bigger deal than Thanksgiving. It’s a place that insists strangers greet each other in passing no matter what they look like or where they come from.
It’s spring in Texas now, and all of the bluebonnets are out. They bloom once a year and only for a few weeks and they smell amazing. According to local legend…and perhaps state law, it is illegal to pick them or mow them down. For a few short weeks every spring our hillsides and highway medians are blanketed with blue and white wildflowers that withstand our powerful spring storms. It’s a right of passage here to pose for pictures as a kid in a field of bluebonnets. These little flowers are iconically Texan and somehow despite their brief appearance they have secured their place as the official state flower. I named my blog The Bold Bluebonnet even knowing I was in the process of moving to Oregon because there is something about the place you grew up that will always be with you. And something about these sweet little flowers speak to me. Just as Texas is in me forever and ever.