Learning from Texas History

I’m just back from a long weekend visiting our son Mark and daughter-in-law Ari in Austin, Texas. They are first-time home owners in a diverse neighborhood a few miles east of downtown.

A visit to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum gave me a new appreciation of the rich heritage of the Lone Star State. Living in Virginia for thirty years, I’ve been surrounded by the symbols of its leading role in the birth of American democracy as well as the struggles over slavery and the trauma of the Civil War (the state has been slower to fully recognize the Native American aspect of its history).  But Texas boats a heritage that rivals Virginia for its significance in the creation of the nation, with a unique blend of indigenous, Hispanic, Anglo, German, and African American cultures.

I have been fascinated to discover the remarkable exploits of the Comanche people as described in Empire of the Summer Moon by S.G Gwynne. Superb horseman, they “resembled the great and legendary mounted archers of history: Mongols, Parthians, and Magyars.” They rose to power with astonishing speed between 1625 and 1750. From their original homelands in the high country of present-day Wyoming, they moved south to dominate much of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, even penetrating deep into Mexico

For decades they challenged and actually pushed back European settler expansion through their unmatched ability to loose twenty arrows at full gallop in the time it took to load and fire a flintlock musket, and by their ability to travel vast distances in the harshest conditions.

The settlers were tough, too, and regarded the federal government as incompetent to protect them. The Texas Rangers represented an effort to do what Washington would not or could not do. Their story helped me to understand the skepticism with which many in the west view Washington today.

Often missing from the history taught in Texas schools – and largely unknown to many Americans (myself included) – is the crucial role of the Tejanos, the early settlers of Spanish and Mexican descent who arrived long before the migration from the eastern United States. Their blood was shed in the fight for Texas freedom along with Irish, Germans, Scots, and English.

In March of this year, a Tejano Memorial was unveiled on the state Capitol grounds, the result of an initiative launched ten years ago by Hispanic leaders. The planners’ mission is “to establish an enduring legacy that acknowledges and pays tribute to the contributions by Tejanos as permanent testimony of the Spanish-Mexican heritage that has influenced and is inherent in present-day Texas culture.” The work by Armando Hinojosa covers 525 square feet and has 12 life-sized bronze statues. A grant from the Walmart Foundation will fund an educational project to develop curriculum materials for social studies classes in the Austin school district.

As I learned more about the Texas story I was struck by the lack of perspective in much of the national debate over immigration.  A commentary in the Star Telegram suggested that the Tejano Memorial might help stimulate serious discussion on the issue, “remembering that many of those we cherish who fought and died for Texas’ independence migrated here. And, for the most part, they were welcomed by the folks who already called this place home. Think what the state’s future would have been like if the Tejanos had said to Crockett, Bowie and Houston: ‘Go back to Tennessee.’ ‘Go back to Kentucky.’ ‘Go back to Virginia.’”

By embracing all of its rich history, Texas has an opportunity to provide a valuable insight for the rest of the country.