Memories and Poems and Songs of the Radicalized Past in Texas

by: Jaime Armin Mejía
Posted: May 21, 2021

I can’t remember exactly when I first became acquainted with Tino Villanueva. His hometown, San Marcos, Texas, is where, in 1991, I was fortunate enough to have been hired, sight-unseen, as an English instructor at a school that’s now called Texas State University. This same school is where Tino would later become garlanded as a distinguished alumnus in 1995, not long after his 1993 publication of his epic work, Scene from the Movie GIANT. Somewhere along the line during that time, we established a friendship, one we’ve maintained for nearly three decades. We share many of the same literary interests, particularly a strong interest in Chicanx Literature. So a strong common bond is that we’re Chicanos and share an abiding interest in Mexican American culture and all things deriving from it, in particular the literature. In many ways, ours has been a long-distance friendship since Tino has long lived in Boston. However, he does have a house in San Marcos where he inevitably stays when he comes to San Marcos once or twice a year. When he does come, he usually tracks me down, and we often, along with some of his lifelong hometown friends, arrange to step out and grab a bite to eat. And sometimes, we even go to San Antonio and meet his good friends, Juanita Luna Lawhn and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto and his partner Dudley. There have even been occasions when we’ll also meet up with Arturo Madrid. We invariably meet over some fine food at a fine restaurant, like Cappy’s on Broadway in San Antonio.

During his visits as well as through correspondence, Tino keeps me updated on his many travels to Europe and across the US. He’s an avid sender of postcards and articles featuring his literary interests, his literary events, as well as articles of cultural interest to him and me. When he publishes a new book of poetry, he invariably always makes sure to gift me a signed copy. Whether it’s through postal or electronic correspondence, he’s always been generous about sharing details of his life and career as a literary artist. So as you can see, I’ve been quite fortunate and privileged when it comes to knowing Tino. He’s a seasoned traveler and a cultured and well-read man, and my association with him over the years has especially allowed me to gain a perspective of his devotion to the craft of composing poetry as well as of his other artistic interests. Because he has a deep knowledge of a vast array of literary areas, in English, Spanish, French, as well as other European languages, I have been quite fortunate because of how generous he’s always been about sharing his knowledge and experiences. Without a doubt, the comfort level our friendship affords allows us to speak frankly about any number of subjects, many of them related to Chicanx Literature as well as to other developments occurring in the contemporary Chicanx cultural art scene in central Texas, around the country, and in Europe.

During many of his visits, though, he will often draw my attention to the city of San Marcos and how it was back when he was growing up and how much it’s changed since he’s been gone. We sometimes meet at a local chilidog trailer which has been around for decades, and where Tino has gone to for even longer. There, he hosts me and one of his very old friends from back in the day, and we inevitably talk about the old San Marcos of their youth. One of his favorite hometown friends and biggest supporter, Ronnie Mendez, a second-generation San Marcos cobbler, recently took Tino and me on a drive around town, showing me where things used to be when they were both growing up in San Marcos. That particular tour brought to my attention a great deal of what lies beneath the surface of an old town where I have now lived for over three decades, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. It never fails to amaze me how little I know about San Marcos, a town with a deep racist past which few folks know deeply or are willing to acknowledge. Tino and Ronnie on their tour of San Marcos verify for me how much the Mexican American community has been displaced by what was then called urban renewal. Ronnie, for instance, when he was growing up had the San Marcos River as his home’s backyard, on land that’s now occupied by the city. The city’s municipal park, also right by the river, is also the site of what was once a thriving Mexican American neighborhood. But however long I’ve lived in San Marcos, most of the Mexican American locals I’ve known there don’t consider me from San Marcos. I’m from the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, from Donna, Texas, where I spent most of my upbringing and where this pandemic and family have drawn and kept me for over a year now.

Like Tino, I too came from a humble working-class background. I too was raised with a non-Catholic religious orientation, and I too would make my way out of Texas to obtain a doctorate from a major American University, Tino from Boston University and I from Ohio State. Unlike Tino, I managed to return to Texas after my indentured time in Ohio and had success in finding a semblance of job security where I’m currently employed. Tino’s academic home was in the discipline of Spanish, while mine was in English, and those two disciplinary tracks during the time we both worked in academia unquestionably presented major obstacles to us being able to work in the area of Chicanx Literature.

With a Ph.D. in Spanish and later a distinguished career as a successfully published poet, Tino has done what only one other academic I know has done, that is, he’s managed to find success by publishing his literary work in English and Spanish. Only Rolando Hinojosa could claim a comparable feat, of having a Ph.D. in Spanish but finally being securely employed with an endowed chair in the English Department at the University of Texas. For Tino, though, what catapulted him to national and international prominence was his being awarded the American Book Award in 1994 for publishing Scene from the Movie GIANT. This work was written and published in English, so it’s ironic, perhaps, that he attained such prized notoriety for literary work in a language other than Spanish. But like Rolando Hinojosa, that’s what Chicanx writers and scholars do. That’s what Tino did and continues doing—writing and publishing in both languages, often with his works being translated into other languages and published successfully to great acclaim in Europe. With his most recently published book of poetry, So Spoke Penelope, he even turns to an area outside of Chicanx concerns, faithfully and skillfully capturing the voice of Homer’s Penelope from ancient classical Greece.

In Tino’s published works published prior to Scene from the Movie GIANT, Tino indeed focused on concerns related to the world of Chicanx folk, often from his own life’s perspective. And in Scene from the Movie GIANT, Tino captures a moment from his youth when watching a particular scene from that epic Texas movie, a film that would haunt him throughout most of his adult life, until he did what he had to do to cast off this scene’s haunting. Casting his powerful poetic powers into the fray of the dark memory of that racist anti-Mexican scene from that legendary movie, he speaks with extraordinary power, facing down the fears and confusion he experienced when first seeing that film in his youth. On that fateful day, from the back row of that dark movie house in San Marcos, when he was but a teenager, as his epic poetic work tells us, Tino saw and experienced something which would shake him to the very core.

In Scene from the Movie GIANT, his magnificent work of recollection, Tino’s narrator tells us of how he felt as he walked home after the movie ended. He speaks of crossing a bridge across Purgatory Creek, set, as it is, between two sets of railroad tracks which I have crossed countless times in San Marcos. In fact, just a few years ago, as I was driving across that same bridge on a Saturday, at high noon, a deer suddenly jumped and hit my driver’s side window, bouncing off and hitting the front driver’s side front fender and then jumping up and running off, causing a thousand bucks of damage. Had my window been rolled down, there’s no doubt the deer would’ve directly hit my head and caused me to lose control of my vehicle. Tino’s narrator, though, had been accosted by much worse on that fateful day.

The theme of belonging, or perhaps more properly, of not belonging, is what Tino’s epic work Scene from the Movie GIANT captures. His subsequent work of recollection, Primera Causa/First Cause, also engages this theme. Together, these works by Tino situate a young narrator besieged by questions of his belonging in society and in school which present their complete racialized aversion to people of Mexican descent in Texas. Whether it’s one’s dark brown skin or one’s use of Spanish, Texas Anglos have had the power to show Texas Mexicans our place. Our place in Texas, of course, is not in their midst, despite our clear memory of knowing where our home is. Much has been made of why people of Mexican descent have not been seen as at least equals in Texas by Texas Anglos and their false claim of being the original primogenitors of Texas. Aaron E. Sánchez explores our Texas Mexican sense of belonging in his brilliant recent study, Homeland: Ethnic Mexican Belonging Since 1900. There, Sánchez, through poems, song lyrics, and other kinds of documents, demonstrates the mixed signals Texas Mexicans have gotten about our sense of belonging.

One detail from Scene from the Movie GIANT is how, once the fight between Sarge and Rock Hudson begins, the song “Yellow Rose of Texas” begins playing in the background. As I read Tino’s poem, I can easily see the scene in my mind, but I can also hear that song being played. The ironies layered into that fight scene with that song playing in the background drive the sadness of what will transpire when Sarge triumphs over Hudson. That song, having been canonized into Texas lore by Mitch Miller just a year before the film’s debut, after having been whitewashed, helps set the ironic and tragic tone of the fight’s outcome. That seemingly happy song adds to the dark irony that something terribly wrong is taking place in Sarge’s diner. An intelligent and sensitive Texas Mexican youth watching that epic film’s scene in 1956 couldn’t help but walk away highly disturbed by its racialized implications about that youth’s status of belonging in Texas at that time. Obviously, he had just witnessed something terribly wrong.

The ironic undercurrent that song provides reminds me of another literary work where a famed Texas song serves as an ironic undercurrent to a racist scene. In Rolando Hinojosa’s novel, Dear Rafe, the protagonist, Jehú, is at a political barbecue, sitting at a table with some Texas Anglos and has to listen to an anti-mexicano comment made by a racist Anglo woman in attendance. Jehú’s response is to hum the official state song of Texas, “Texas, Our Texas,” to great ironic effect, after intentionally speaking in the most broken Spanish imaginable, this from a character who’s attained a college degree in English from UT in the 1950s. Hinojosa’s novel, too, like Tino’s Scene from the Movie GIANT, serves what in today’s parlance is known as a decolonial and anti-racist counter-story, delineating in no uncertain terms their unequivocal sense of belonging.

In Tino’s later work, Primera Causa, poem IX, “Asi Dijo el Señor,” the school principal announces over the intercom that there’s been too much Spanish being heard spoken at school, thereby warning Texas Mexican students against its use. I too attended an elementary school in Mission, Texas, where the students, all Texas Mexicans, were subjected to an anti-mexicano language policy. Each class was divided into two teams, and if any student reported another student from the other team speaking Spanish, that student’s team would be released from school a half hour early at the end of each six weeks, something we were all made to see as a prized reward. Language too is a cultural aspect Texas Mexicans have long used to construct, not just our identity but also our intimate sense of belonging. But in Texas, back then and still today, being bilingual remains a mark against us as Texan Mexicans and as citizens of this country.

Tino’s response to this harsh recollection at his school in San Marcos, though, is to document this incident through his poems, written and published to great acclaim in Spanish as a counter-story. Having risen in academia through achieving a Ph.D. in Spanish and coming as he did from a working-class Chicanx background, Tino does not forget. He instead creates a poetic testimonio that rejects the racialized linguistic discrimination that Texas Mexican students like him suffered, suggesting that such racist school policies and actions can instead serve as inspiration to propel us ever higher to gain a position from which to denounce such a racist past.

Tino’s poetry has thus propelled him to heights making him the most distinguished and important Chicanx poet of our time. He has never failed to forget where he comes from and what he experienced here in Texas. For that, we all owe him an eternal debt of gratitude. His work as a poet has stood the test of time because of his proven skills as a disciplined poet which set the bar of what’s possible for a Chicanx poet and scholar. His example will enable current and future poets and literary artists to tell their stories about how Texas Mexicans have always had a sense of justice and a sense of place that can never be suppressed. I look forward to his new projects and am grateful that I have had a deep friendship with Tino, one which has confirmed for me his enduring power to change our world and remember where we come from, how far we can go, and what’s most important about our enduring culture as Chicanx folk in the US. I look forward to Tino’s continued friendship because he, like Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, Norma Cantu, and Arturo Madrid, has set the standard high for what is possible as we move forward into the future, securing our place of belonging with even more strength and power.

—Thank you.

—Presented April 6, 2021 at the Symposium for Tino Villanueva, hosted by Trinity University.

Originally from the lower Rio Grande Valley. Except during this pandemic, he lives in San Marcos, Texas. He teaches in the English Department at Texas State University where he’s worked for over 30 years. He focuses on Chicanx Literary and Cultural Studies as well as on Rhetoric and Writing Studies. Since the pandemic began, he’s been living in Donna, Texas, and teaching remotely.

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