Stereotypes of Texans had swirled in the back of my mind for the longest time. I never confronted them. I never had to. I can’t recall ever meeting a Texan until last weekend. Now that I have, I’m rid of my stereotypes, I’m pleased to report.
Last Thursday to Sunday, I traveled to San Antonio, a sprawling metropolis of a little more than 1.5 million in the heart of Texas — the seventh largest city in the U.S. I was there for a Society of Professional Journalists convention. San Antonio was nothing like what I expected of a Texan city. If not for the stifling heat (temperatures ranged from 90 to 100 degrees at midday, and it had been hotter in August), I could see myself living there.
I had long thought of Texans as wealthy, brash bordering on crass, blustering cowboy industrialists. That image was shaped by the hit TV show “Dallas,” which ran from 1978 to 1991, when I was a kid to a young adult. I never watched the show, but most everyone back then knew of J.R. Ewing, the ruthless CEO of Ewing Oil. My other image of a Texan was President George W. Bush, who, it seemed, flew down to his ranch in Crawford to chainsaw a tree or fix a fence whenever he needed to burnish his machismo image.
There was, to my uninformed mind, no nuance in Texas. It was the land of bold capitalists — of oil and railroad tycoons and millionaire rancheros. Texas, it appeared to me, was dominated by white, ultra-right culture. Whenever a presidential election rolled around, TV news pundits seemed always to describe it as the reddest of red states, an impossible hurdle for any Democratic candidate to overcome. It was, apparently, one big gun-loving, anti-abortion, homophobic, at times racist state.
Then San Antonio happened to me, and the city blew my mind. Where was J.R.? Where was George W.? Nowhere to be found. The city is full of art and history, a fascinating mix of Anglo-American and Mexican cultures that seem to blend seamlessly. I encountered more than one gay couple walking hand in hand on the street and a biracial couple publicly displaying affection.
On Friday, my first morning in San Antonio, I had breakfast at an IHOP at 5. I was the only one there. Country music was piped in over the sound system. My two servers — a Hispanic man and a white woman — were exceedingly polite and well-spoken. As I was finishing my egg white and spinach omelet, four African-American men, wearing suits with no ties, entered. They spoke with a strong Texas accent, an amalgam of Southern and Midland dialects. They were greeted with the same friendly smile, the same exceeding politeness, that I had been.
This all sounds naive, I know, but this wasn’t the Texas I had heard about, or that I had imagined. I know all of Texas isn’t San Antonio, but Manhattan isn’t all of New York, either.
Later in the day, I stopped in a little gem shop on Houston Street to buy a polished ammonite fossil for my wife and struck up a conversation with the tattooed fellow behind the counter. We spoke for a good 10 to 15 minutes about the diverse plant life of San Antonio. He seemed happy to hear I was a gardener, and then he was off, listing the varied edible fruits that one could forage from the trees and bushes that line the winding canals that comprise the San Antonio River Walk. I had never heard of the plants. As I strolled along the
walkway afterward, I noted more closely the biodiversity teeming around me.
The River Walk is a 15-mile-long linear park along the river, maintained by the city and lined with an eclectic mix of restaurants and shops. It’s one story below street level, and its plentiful trees and bridges form a loose canopy, so much of the time you’re walking in the shade, where it’s 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the street above.
I also squeezed in a visit to the Mexican Cultural Institute, which the city maintains as well. It featured an exhibit by the brilliant photographer Joel Salcido. He recently drove around the Rio Grande borderlands, traveling from Cuidad Juarez, in northern Mexico, to El Paso, in southern Texas, with author Oscar Cásares, a creative writing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to capture the people of these disparate places.
There are two versions of the border, according to Cásares. “One version tells us the border is a lawless land, a region in constant crisis,” he wrote in an introduction to the exhibit. “The other version reveals a border region that’s home to parents and tíos and abuelas, of comadres and primos, of people raising their families, of people enduring.”
Indeed, I found in my short time in Texas, that’s the Lone Star State.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.