Texas could be four different states. Two at least. I-35 runs north to south and by most standards divides East Texas from West, two worlds that have little in common. Not only are they different regions within the state, but by any reasonable person different regions within the United States. East Texas, from Dallas to Houston, rightly belongs to the deep south. A drive east from Dallas along Interstate 20 will offer little change as one passes through Longview, Shreveport, Jackson, Meridian and beyond. West Texas rightly belongs to the Southwest. A man from Uvalde will feel more at home in New Mexico, or even old, than in Dallas.
East Texas offers pine forests, humidity, copperheads, and most of the state’s population. Overalls, greens, and squirrel dumplings. Though there are many great people in East Texas, I never forgot seeing the men shrouded in white robes and hoods waving at passing cars from a service station parking lot while we were passing through Mexia on a family trip to Jasper. When my college advisor asked me where I was willing to work after graduation I replied without hesitation:
“Anywhere west of I-35.”
West of I-35 is where I went, yet 300 miles further south than I’d ever lived, not far from where the interstate veers west toward Laredo and the Mexico border. The same state, but a different world.
Below San Antonio, Hispanics are the majority. People mix Spanish with English without a thought. Tortillas are part of every meal. I was a teacher in a poor school district. The boys tested me. The girls flattered me. They brought me gifts—secret love notes, stuffed animals, food. Their older sisters sent homemade tortillas. It took me a week to fall in love with the history, the culture, the food, and the ladies of the region.
I lived in a small cabin on ten acres in farm country. Mr. Salinas charged me little for rent in exchange for my taking care of his Barbados sheep. I loved the place as if it were mine, and I loved my landlord, too. I’d often come home from work and find him asleep on a bench somewhere outside.
“Mi hijo,” he’d say, “Come with me to Monterrey. I have beautiful nieces I want you to meet.”
I’ll regret that I never went until my dying day.
I did spend an evening in Acuna, just over the border from Del Rio. Then, you could drive or walk over without a passport. My parents and I drove in as if we were merely going to San Antonio and had a wonderful time drinking at the Corona Club and eating at the famous Ma Crosby’s, where we received better service than we’d ever experienced. I remember the enchiladas. Mama remembers the headache from too many margaritas.
When I left South Texas three years later to return from whence I came, I went through a type of grieving. Never before or since have I felt as homesick as I did over the next year, and for a place I couldn’t rightfully call home. I’ve been gone nearly twenty years, but I still eat my eggs and beans on tortillas, and I often speak to myself in Spanish, which I believe is the most beautiful sounding language ever spoken.
Some people in Texas fly the confederate flag; they say it is part of their heritage. To me, the Mexican flag better represents Texas heritage—the better and more interesting parts, anyway. As another fellow Texan and blogger recently wrote, most of us love our neighbors across the border and are thankful for their influence on and contributions to this state that we live in.