Roberto Ontiveros is an artist, fiction writer, and literary critic. Some of his work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Santa Monica Review, Huizache, and the Believer. His recent collection of stories, The Fight for Space, was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press.
There is a fearless declaration of the obvious in “Being Texan: Essays, Recipes, and Advice for the Lone Star Way of Life,” a book that invites its readers to recall the power and panache of the late Texas Gov. Anne Richards, before getting schooled on no less than twenty types of taco.
Released this month, “Being Texan” is the first of several Texas Monthly titles to come in the build-up to the magazine's upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023. It is divided into four sections: Identity & Culture, Town & Country, Arts & Entertainment and Food & Drink.
In the introduction, titled “What Does it Mean to Be Texan?,” Texas Monthly editor Dan Goodgame addressed the eclectic aspirations of the book, writing: “Our modest goal was to craft a well-informed, thoughtful sampling of the best the state has to offer.” To this humble end, forty-two editors were utilized to cover fifty-five topics, which tackle everything from the various dress codes that make up “Texas chic” to Selena’s ongoing appeal.
The resulting richness is all over the map, running from Texas Monthly Senior Editor John Nova Lomax’s frustration over the frequent mispronunciations of Texas cities (“From Amarila to Wad-a-loop”) to Oscar Casares’s bittersweet essay on Dia de Los Muertos in the time of COVID (“Souls of the Departed”).
The book goes from silly to serious fast, and the pace might unseat some readers who would otherwise just enjoy the ride of pride that comes from being reminded that Texas gave the world Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Dr. Pepper, Liquid Paper and the microchip.
So, in a book that switches from the state’s early instance on remaining a slave republic to a piece about collecting San Antonio ghost stories, it perhaps goes without saying that the essays on brisket and beer are the easiest to digest.
“Being Texan” does, in truth, contain some delicious and downright literary food writing.
Joe Galvan’s “Ode to the Raspa,” treats the summertime shaved ice staple as nothing less than a kind of edible ambassador of U.S. cuisine. “They serve as an important and necessary reminder of the fluctuating, imprecise words that American food inhabits,” he writes like some semiotics professor, before waxing poetic on how raspas embody childhood innocence as well as “the humidity of a July evening that finds itself at the bottom of a Styrofoam cup.”
But readers who are tempted to skim the section on “Strong Texas Women” or “The Evolution of Juneteenth” to get to Paula Forbes’ warning not to skip the processed cheese when slow cooking queso, will have missed out on some deep insight into what it means to embrace all the appealing and uneasy aspects of the state.
In “A Tale of Two High Schools,” Dan Q. Dao, details how, as a Vietnamese kid growing up in Houston, he employed the tropes of Texas culture as a tool of survival. “Perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation, I became enamored with the gilded mythology of Texas, from the folklore of the Alamo to the twang of country music. I wore cowboy boots, showed up for Friday night football games, and rarely missed a rodeo,” writes Dao, observing that: “Part of me believed that if I proclaimed my Texanness loudly enough, I would be spared the label of outsider.”
The dilemma of the homegrown Texas outsider is artfully explored in Skip Hollandsworth’s “Why McMurtry Matter,'' a meditation on the ironic popularity of Larry McMurtry, a writer who wrestled with his relationship to Texas--particularly the Hollywood myths and misconceptions that surrounded the state. Speaking about (to his mind) the perplexing success of “Lonesome Dove,” McMurtry said: “All I had wanted to do was write a novel that demythologized the West. Instead, it became the chief source of western mythology. Some things you cannot explain.”
There is much about Texas itself that seems hard to explain.
But David Courtney, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, does a good job of speculating on this rare amalgam of conservative pride and fearless experimentation that tends to run through the state, when he writes “Texans believe they possess something deep within themselves that sets them apart, and therefore they kind of do.”
Despite the surface-level accessibility of a book that addresses the cultural significance of Neiman Marcus and the extreme brand loyalty to Whataburger, “Being Texan” offers rare input regarding Texas and its citizenry, as well as handy advice for breaking in a pair of cowboy boots.
As Austin becomes little Hollywood with the latest films and series making Austin their backdrop, longtime Austinites know this is nothing new for the place that is the home to the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
Here are seven films worth watching this spooky season that you'll see a piece of Austin in.
Saturday Morning Mystery (2012)
What kind of young adults would come into a haunted mansion to debunk ghosts for a shady money man looking to unload a hard-to-sell home? Desperate kids, Insane kids, inane kids, vain kids, addicts—and their dog.
"Saturday Morning Mystery" is the exact subtext of every Scooby Doo cartoon you have ever seen. Campy and flooded with a wondrous score that recalls Dario Argento films like "Suspiria" and "Tenebrae," this underappreciated parody of 1980s Saturday morning cartoon culture is what we all suspected Mystery Machine would really be like.
Planet Terror (2007)
Austin's own Robert Rodriguez's dark and dirty contribution to Grindhouse, his 2007 two-feature collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, is a Mario Bava-esque zombie flick wherein Bruce Willis becomes the pulsing yet subdued embodiment of rage.
In "Planet Terror," the incomparable Rose McGown (playing a Go-Go Dancer named Cherry Darling) is fitted with a machine gun for her missing leg and hobbles her way toward attacking a fury-infected military run amok. "Planet Terror" looks predictive with its throbbing apocalyptic creepiness, and blunt appraisal of the war machine as perhaps the truest parasite on earth.
The Faculty (1998)
"The Faculty," the fourth action-packed offering from again, Robert Rodriguez, is a kind of "Breakfast Club" meets "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," wherein the invading antagonists take the form of scintillating sea-life capable of possessing public school educators and student body alike. In this dark sci-fi about aliens trying to take over the world one teacher at a time, we see Bebe Neuwirth (Frasier's wife from "Cheers") go full-on Lilith before being taken out by a homemade drug called SCAT, and we get a young John Stewart trying hard to mack on Salma Heyeck before getting a pencil in his eye.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
When we think of Mathew McConaughey, we think charm and "Dazed and Confused," but in this film, watch mad man McConaughey as he screams "Get her Leather, Get her Leather—we've got some more fun today!" to an androgynous masked murderer who chases Rene Zellweger into a Winter Texan couples' van.
In "D O.A."—a Blade Runner-inspired take on the original 1949 film noir classic—Dennis Quaid plays a college professor named Dexter Cornell, who has been poisoned and is informed by the campus doctor that he has 36 hours to live. Cornell is compelled to go on a desperate search to piece together the moment of his murder, and Super-glues a student (played by Meg Ryan no less) to his arm so that she might accompany him on his trek.
A taught trip of anxiety that mocks the meretricious merit-system of academic careerism as well as the pitfalls and pratfalls that may occur when an English teacher parties with students he could have sired, "D.O.A." gives literal meaning to the old academic adage of "publish or perish."
Blood Simple (1984)
The first film by the legendary Coen Brothers, "Blood Simple," is simply one of the most audacious neo-noir to have come out of the 1980s. In this perfectly cut crime gem, we get legendary actor Michael Emmet Walsh playing a voyeuristic private eye, and we get to witness a pre-Fargo Francis McDormand going from vulnerable to badass before our eyes.
"Blood Simple," informed by the darkest lines from Dashiel Hammet, illustrates the classic dangers of jealousy, infatuation, and revenge while showing its audience just how scary a newspaper hitting a window in the pre-dawn hours can be.
Before fright film legend Tobe Hooper changed the face of gore with the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," he cut his teeth on a very different kind of monster. "Eggshells," shot in the late 1960s, is a true time capsule of the Hippie-life that once typified the capital city.
With a picaresque plot that recalls Harlan Ellison's "Shattered like a Glass Goblin," the well-meaning residents of a central Texas commune debate the existence of a poltergeist.
A woefully under-appreciated first film by the man who set the template for rural terror in the 1980s, "Eggshells" is closer to dream than dread, and offers the kind of sunlit horror associated with Arthur Machen's "The White People" and Ramsey Campbell's, "The Doll Who Ate His Mother."
When the first wave of Hyde Park nostalgics started saying "Keep Austin Weird" this movie, with its woodsy blend of spirituality and sloth, is what they were talking about.
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Full disclosure: I do not speak Spanish. Growing up in McAllen, Texas, I understand the language to a degree of absolute confidence, yet I rarely attempt to speak Spanish aloud.
I know I won't pull it off in a manner that is comparable to my English, and that stops me from even trying—or that is my rationalization.
My father, who came to the U.S. at eight from Mexico, was punished for speaking Spanish at the Catholic School he attended in his new land.
I heard those painful anecdotes in English, in a house where I also learned my American accent from watching "Three's Company" and "Rockford Files" reruns.
In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz explained his unease with Spanish to a Univision reporter after being asked if he could answer questions in Español: "I understand almost everything in Spanish, but I can't speak as well as I'd like."
Switching back to English, Cruz said, "I have the problem of the second-generation immigrant." He added, "To be honest, what I really spoke at home was Spanglish."
The reasons for this second-generation immigrant's unease in Spanish are complex, but the source of this complication seems tied to an immigrant's sense of survival.
Virginia Talley, who runs Hyde Park's The Language House, has very personal reasons for trying to get her students to experience the fullness of the Spanish language. The Language House offers private and group Spanish conversation classes, and in pre-COVID days even offered immersion trips to Oaxaca, Mexico for those who wanted to explore the land as well as the language.
Students of the The Languge House go on a hike in Argentina as part of an immersion trip the school offers. (The Language House)
Talley's father, a family doctor in Bastrop, had a lab tech who was originally from Mexico but never spoke his native tongue. According to Talley, the man considered Spanish taboo and did not speak it to his children due to locally perceived lower-class implications of the language.
"It was this horribly tragic thing when I look back on it," said Talley. "Where I was growing up, a lot of my friends were Hispanic… but they didn't speak it at all because, again, I think it was really looked down upon; the parents didn't even try to teach their kids."
Now Talley often sees second-generation Latino immigrants coming to her classes out of something close to guilt, or even a sense of responsibility to a lost heritage. "People feeling like they were embarrassed because they think they should be able to speak Spanish; you know, maybe it was not spoken at home, or they rejected it or they did not learn it properly."
The stigma of speaking Spanish is lifting, according to Talley; and now even those who can speak Spanish fluently seem compelled to learn it better.
While teaching Spanish 101 at Austin Community College, Talley says she was flabbergasted when she saw that everyone in her class was Latino. "I thought, 'What is going on here?' They were all heritage speakers and so their Spanish was beautiful (but), they could not write, so it was like an interesting dynamic, teaching heritage speakers basically how to write properly."
Marisol Cortez, an award-winning author who will be one of the few in-person authors featured in Austin's upcoming Texas Book Festival, knows the cultural complexities of this language issue well, and she is doing something about it.
Marisol Cortez feel internal pressure when she speaks Spanish, since she's not fluent in it. (Marisol Cortez)
A mother of a 13-year-old and a toddler, Cortez has made it a point to have her children speak both English and Spanish.
This was something that she herself did not get to experience while growing up, and it was an early impediment to her environmental activism that she had to correct.
Despite having a Mexican-American father, Cortez never heard Spanish at home. Growing up with a more natural command of English than Spanish in San Antonio was a bit of a double-edged sword for the writer.
Cortez recalls how her dad's own brand of Tex-Mex Spanish was mocked when he visited relatives in Mexico; so, the language was curiously a problem on both sides of the border.
"My dad didn't ever speak it at home," she says. "So I grew up kind of absorbing it but not speaking it at home and then anything that I am able to say in Spanish now was pretty much acquired as an adult."
The insecurity regarding her Spanish remains a slight block to her even today. She says when she speaks it she's nervous and feels internal pressure to sound more fluent than she is. But it's important to her that it stays alive in her family.
"The importance of Spanish for future generations lies in its ability to keep us tied to the struggles of our parents and grandparents," Cortez said. "It's a way of acknowledging that we stand on the shoulders of those struggles. Even as we acknowledge the reality that Spanish is a colonial language imposed on peoples original to this continent, it's also a way of keeping us connected to our neighbors, accountable to their struggles. It's an important form of solidarity."
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