Derrick is a native Texan, telling stories about the people, the places, and the past of the Lone Star State.

What It Means to Be a Texan

The Texan.jpg
Texas is that particular blend of valor and swagger.
— Carl Sandburg

In the annuals of nations and states, Texas began on March 2, 1836, in a slatted shelter on the banks of the Brazos River. In near freezing weather, 59 delegates signed a declaration of independency from Mexico. What followed was a disastrous defeat in San Antonio (at the Alamo, on March 6) and then a glorious victory at San Jacinto (on April 21). Texas independence was won and a new republic was birthed.

But Texas actually began much earlier than the events that transpired in the Spring of 1836. Texas began in the minds of Moses and Stephen Austin, and 300 families who braved the wilds to settle in the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas in 1824, seeking a new start in a new land. From that time forward, Texas has been about the land. I recently read in The New York Times about Rick Stauts, who, in 1968, was shipped to Vietnam.

At Love Field in Dallas before getting on the plane, I bought a small jar of cherries and flushed them. I went outside the terminal and scooped up some Texas dirt and filled the jar. When I got to Chu Lai, South Vietnam, I put a label on the jar that simply said “Texas.” I have no idea how many soldiers tried to buy that jar of dirt from me, but I would not sell. It was my little bit of Texas in South Vietnam. I still have the jar full of dirt today.

Texas is about the dirt that gets under your fingernails. But more than that—Texas is about the spirit that gets into your soul.

When novelist John Steinbeck loaded up his dog to tour America in 1960, of Texas he wrote in Travels with Charley in Search of America: “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. . . . It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. . . . Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and passionate possession of all Texans.”

I don’t know of other states that have the allure and romance of Texas. Virginia has a long and glorious history. New York, especially New York City, boats that it is the financial and cultural center of the United States. Okay. Congratulations. California prides itself on . . . well, I don’t know what Californians pride themselves on. The fact that they can hike the mountains in the morning and surf the waves in the afternoon? That’s cool. But no one who lives outside those states—or any other state for that matter—or moves to those states wonders, How do you become a Virginian . . . or a New Yorker . . . or a Californian? No one asks, “What does it mean to be an Oklahoman?” This isn’t to diminish the other 49 states—to say they aren’t nice place to live. It just means they don’t have the same mystique Texas does. I’ve not done an exhaustive search, but I’ve not seen books offering lifesaving tips on how to think like a North Dakotan or a Vermonter or Nebraskan. However, there are plenty of books that will place non-Texans on the trail of understanding the Texas way of life. Heck, we even have a word for those Texans who have the great misfortune of living outside the state: Texpatriates.

This doesn’t mean Texas is perfect. It isn’t. But this side of Paradise, we agree with David Crockett: “[Texas] is the garden spot of the world. The best land and best prospects for health I ever saw is here, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here.” And he was here only a few month before sacrificing his life at the Alamo. A friend puts it like this: “Texas is the land of milk and honey. A land of giants!” Of which Crockett is one. Some take umbrage with Crockett being a true Texan. A friend from Tennessee—God bless him—takes great pleasure in informing me that if it wasn’t for Tennesseans like Crockett and Houston Texas would be northern Mexico. To which I remind him of Crockett’s famous snub upon leaving Tennessee: “You may all go to hell, I will go to Texas.” I’m confident Crockett would agree: “I’d rather be a fencepost in Texas than the king of Tennessee.” Those Tennessean came to Texas for a reason; so did my friend, but I don’t remind him of this fact—I don’t what to be ugly about it.

My friend is really a good sport—and a good guy, even if he hails from the hollers of Tennessee. He just needs to learn what Steinbeck learned: “To attack one Texan is to draw fire from all Texans.” The great Texas writer, Larry McMurtry has often taken a critical pen against Texas—of its pride and pretensions. Fair enough. Some of his criticism is warranted. And when it’s not, we forgive him. It’s like my mother says, “My family is not perfect—and I’ll be the first to point out their imperfections. But no one else better.” Family can criticize family; others ought to tread lightly. Don’t Mess with Texas isn’t just a slogan against littering our Texas highways and byways.

On the other hand, as Steinbeck notes, “The Texas joke . . . is a revered institution, beloved and in many cases originating in Texas.” The weather is a long standing punchline in Texas. Truth be told, accurate forecasting here is more hocus-pocus than science. It’s down right disconcerting, which is why you’ll often hear, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes, it’ll change.” Or, as we sometimes say, “It’s hotter in Texas than a honeymoon hotel and as cold as a cast-iron commode—all on the same day.” While some states have four seasons, Texas, depending on who you ask, either has two: scorching Summer and non-scorching Summer; or five: drought, flood, blizzard, hurricane, and twister.

We laugh about the weather and have been known to guffaw at the caricature of the long, tall Texan—of the gun-totting, horse-riding, cowboy boot- and hat-wearing, pickup-driving Yeehaw. And of course, he has an oil well in his front yard and longhorns in his backyard. One of our most famous Texans, President George W. Bush, has joked: “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called ‘walking.’” A few years ago, my wife and I had a good laugh while strolling hand-in-hand along the River Walk in San Antonio. A woman, approaching in the opposite direction, who obviously wasn’t from Texas, spotted me in my cowboy hat and boots. She swung her phone in front of her face and took a picture, and said to her husband, “Look, a real cowboy.” A monkey in a zoo wouldn’t have gotten more attention. The only appropriate response in such a situation is to tip your hat, “Ma’am.”

The notion from outsiders that being a Texan involves riding horses, driving pickup trucks, wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats, and feasting on beefsteak, BBQ, Tex-Mex, chili, and chicken fried steak is true of many Texans—including yours truly. But these are trappings—the caricature of a Texan (or a cowboy, which can be found in other states). Anyone can put on the “uniform” and come no closer to being a Texan than El Paso is to Orange. Being a Texan isn’t about what you drive, what you wear, or what you eat—though, if you like beans in your chili it’s questionable whether you can be a true Texan.

Being a Texan is about what you love—breathing in its native air, swimming in its cool waters, digging in its rich soil.

Being a Texan doesn’t mean you have to be born here. You don’t have to talk with an East Texas twang or a West Texas drawl. Native Texans, like myself, are loud and proud. But the bumper sticker, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could” reflects the sentiments of true Texanhood. We take all comers, as long as you assimilate. You must love the land, even if you live in the city (which most Texans do). Texas must become your native soil. All other allegiances must be severed, except perhaps to the United States, and even that is disputed among some Texans—as my wife’s grandmother use to say, “Never forget, you’re a Texan first, an American second.” Its history must become your history. Its mystique must become your mystique. You can root for other teams, but you cannot root for other states. You’re expected to come to her defense if assailed, whether by friend or foe.

Texans are a proud bunch. We like to say, “In Texas, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” Unlike boring square states, the outline of Texas is immediately recognizable—as is our flag. We were our own sovereign nation. No one else can make that claim. Our Gross Domestic Product is greater than many countries around the world. We have a storied history and a bright future. From the sunny beaches of South Padre Island to the majestic mountains of the Trans-Pecos to the bountiful prairies of the Panhandle to the lushes forests of the Big Thicket to the shining cities of Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso to the quant hamlets that dot the land to the rolling slopes of the Hill Country, and from the Red River to the Sabine to the Rio Grande—Texas is big and beautiful.

Texans are a friendly bunch. Our name comes from the Caddo Indian word Tajas, giving us our state motto: Friendship. It’s saying, “Ma’am” and “Sir,” “Thank you” and “Please.” It’s giving the hidy sign when driving in your car or truck—sticking a finger in the air (not that finger) when passing another motorist—especially on farm to market and ranch to market roads in the rural parts of the state. It’s opening doors and letting others go in or out first. It’s moving out of the left lane to let others pass with ease. It’s moving into the left lane when others have pulled off on the shoulder. It’s mowing your neighbor’s yard and taking your mamma out for dinner. It’s showing Texas hospitality—mi casa es su casa. First time guests to my home are met with a warm smile, open arms, and a hearty “Howdy.” I’ll fix your drink and even fill your plate. After that you’re on your own, not because I’m rude, but because you’re family. You can eat and drink as much as you like—only leave one Dr Pepper for mamma and one Lone Star or Shiner for papa. And if you’re sleepy, I’ll show you a bedroom where you can lay down and take a nap.

This is what it means to be a Texan.

The Alamo and Her Defenders