October 7, 2021 324 PM
Some months ago, I experienced a rude awakening with what I understood to be “my history.” Coming to a slow and oftentimes emotionally painful realization that the history of my ancestors, mi gente, is likely not rooted anywhere near the Thirteen Colonies has continually driven me towards the brink of an identity crisis.
How could I not have known — or moreover been afforded the opportunity to learn — that my ancestors were probably not those of the picturesque scenes of The Mayflower and Thanksgiving I learned about in school? That I’m probably more closely related to Native Americans who faced foreigners from a new land, not the other way around? I felt hoodwinked, deceived, failed in the cultivation of my education and, consequently, fixtures of my identity. I felt dumb.
This personal moment of reckoning inspired what’s now a perpetually smoldering quest to learn more about where my history actually comes from. It prompted me to accept an invitation to join the Blackwell School Alliance Board of Directors. The organization has been actively engaged in efforts to designate the Blackwell School — the former de facto segregated school in Marfa — a National Historic Site run by the National Parks Service.
I also picked up a copy of Howard Zinn’s work, A People’s History of the United States, after hearing about it while watching John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons. Even a few chapters in, I find myself enraptured in the collection of anecdotes and the fresh perspective on what I’d been taught to believe about history. It’s emboldened me in my journey to learn more about my lineage, the people and places I’m connected to and, in turn, myself. It’s been a long time coming.
Looking back, there’s a small handful of moments I feel like I actually saw myself in the history I learned. Once was in seventh grade Texas history when my teacher mispronounced baile, which is like a big town party, as bale. “Vamos al baile” is something I heard a lot growing up in Marfa. So hearing my teacher mispronounce this word in class, and assuming I knew something my teacher didn’t, felt kind of humorous. I remember grinning at a Spanish-speaking classmate who shot a glance at me at the same time, confirming my suspicion.
Looking back on this today, it feels more disheartening than it does funny. I think about the empowerment that’s come with reading A People’s History and I wonder what that empowerment might have meant to seventh grade me — and countless others like me in every corner of Texas.
In last week’s edition of The Big Bend Sentinel, I read about the struggles of the Lipan Apache Tribe in their efforts to erect a historical marker commemorating a Lipan Apache cemetery in Presidio. According to the Texas Historical Commission website, the Undertold Markers program is intended to “address historical gaps, promote diversity of topics, and proactively document significant underrepresented subjects or untold stories.”
Why, then, has it been so challenging for the Lipan Apache Tribe — inhabitants of this land long before Texas and its habitually oppressive government existed — to secure a modest plaque that tells a story of their ancestors that resonates with them?
This dilemma makes me feel the way I do when I think about that day in seventh grade Texas history, but with more angst and frustration. I wonder how many other frustrated Latinos, Chicanos, and Mexican Americans share my sentiments. I wonder more how many continue to live by the shortcomings of what they were taught, those who may never know their true history — whether due to complacency, oblivion, ignorance, or a lack of resources like access to education and language.
Learning about my history shouldn’t have required me to take an “Innovative Course” that, by definition of the state, teaches students “knowledge, skills, and competencies not included in the essential knowledge and skills of the required curriculum.” Frankly, it’s insulting that my history is not considered essential knowledge in the eyes of the government that rules the place I call home. But I guess the fact that Mexican American studies — clinically dubbed Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent — didn’t exist until 2018 says all you need to know about the narrow view of history Texas leaders think students should learn as “essential knowledge.”
After all, if the state of Texas has held artistic license over the history lessons of generations of Texas children, what’s stopping them from playing historical tug-of-war with centuries-old inhabitants of the Big Bend?
Daniel O. Hernandez is a public relations professional, former legislative staffer for the Texas Senate and House of Representatives, and a proud Marfa native. He currently lives in Austin.