Pushing Boundaries of Tejanx: Visibility, Inclusion, and Experimentation
By Samuel Saldivar III
On October 17th, 2017 Google.com dedicated their search engine doodle to the late Tejana legend Selena Quintanilla who was dubbed the “Queen of Tejano.” Google Doodles Global Marketing Lead, Perla Campos, identifies the late singer as a “beacon of inspiration and hope for the Latinx, immigrant, and bicultural communities around the globe.” Aside from championing Latinx issues, Selena’s experimentation with “traditional” Tejanx sounds invited listeners to consider an alternative way of understanding and engaging ideas of what Tejanx music could be. Quintanilla’s song “Techo Cumbia,” for example, relied on traditional Tejanx beats and the rhythms and Techno style synthesizers, musical beat breaks, and turn table style stops and restarts. And while the work of Selena y Los Dinos, among countless other groups, will continue to bring attention to Tejanx communities and its’ culture, this chapter explores the varied ways Tejanxs move beyond music and influence so many other areas of the American landscape. Indeed, as one of the fastest growing population groups in the United States, Latinx and Chicanx communities are shaping the broader American sociocultural and academic landscapes. Chicanx and Latinx populations have become key topics of political and social analysis as white European American discourse struggles to understand the complex, dynamic makeup of this diverse population of the Americas and their relation to the broader U.S Conversations surrounding immigration, deportation practices, separated asylums seekers whose children are placed in cages and tent cities, ethnic studies programs, and access to higher education dominate news headlines, social media outlets, and politics. Everyone this side of the Rio Bravo seems to have an opinion about Latinx groups in the United States; an opinion that has been shaped by a consistent, perpetual narrative of Chicanxs and Latinxs within the United States.
Unfortunately, many of these narratives attempt to erase the struggles that Chicanx/Latinx populations have confronted, contested, and resisted in the U.S. What such conversations highlight, for us, however, is that while White European America struggles to maintain its presence in the U.S., “we Latinos/as, with our massive and ever-growing presence in the United States, are creating a new world, a new culture” (Aldama xii) that is reshaping concepts of Latinidad. Artists, creators, authors and storytellers like Selena and film director Robert Rodriguez, among many others, are transforming the U.S. American landscape and they are doing this through popular cultural mediums that we engage with every day. These changes, and challenges, include attempts at acknowledging often omitted inclusions of Tejanx identities that nevertheless play an integral role in understanding where Tejanx populations come from and how they shape their regional landscape. This exploration invites us to consider how the continued evolution of the term pushes us to ask, “what or who is Tejanx, and how have Tejanx’s influenced the broader American landscape”? This chapter discusses the geographic and socio-political histories of Tejanxs by examining indigenous and Afro-Tejanx cultural influences, while also pushing on the boundaries of the term in social, cultural, and literary spaces in the 21st century. By examining the breadth of the Tejanx reach in the U.S., this chapter invites readers to reimagine our expectations of Tejanx populations whose cultural influences have moved well beyond the border that carries its namesake.
While the term Tejanx is frequently paired with Texas-Mexican as interchangeable identifiers of particular population groups residing within the state, we must acknowledge that Tejanx is itself a product of Indigenous Caddo and Spanish linguistic mestizaje. The Caddo, who were also known as the Hasinai, are considered “the most advanced, numerous, and productive of the hundreds of indigenous nations who occupied the region” (Palomo 4) that would be known as East Texas. As interactions between the Caddo and Spanish increased due to trading so did their communication. In fact, the Spanish name Tejas (and later, Texas) comes from the Caddo word teysha meaning ‘friend, hello’. This usurpation of Indigenous language by Spanish conquistadors in East Texas is reminiscent of various Nahuatl worlds appropriated by Spanish conquistadors in the late 15th century and included in their own lexicon. Because of these linguistic appropriations, Tejas is not often associated with its indigenous origins, and the term is frequently identified as a product of Spanish-Mexican history via the Spanish-Mexican War (1810-1821), or the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) depending on the scholar. The latter produced the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo whereby Mexicans residing in Texas, or Texas Mexicans, became American citizens due to a shifting border.
The result of these frequent historical omissions has led to a definition that firmly establishes Tejas/Texas with Mexican and Spanish histories and populations. For example, Arnold De Leon, in Mexican American in Texas: A Brief History, claims, “the [t]erm “Tejano” refers to those of Mexican origin, regardless of nativity, who resided, or reside, within those modern boundaries of Texas from the early eighteenth century to the present” (emphasis mine, 3). Moreover, in his book Tejano Diaspora: Mexican Americans and Ethnic Politics in Texas and Wisconsin, Marc Simon Rodriguez, maps out the varied and expansive reach Tejanxs have had in the greater U.S., but likewise makes similar assertions when he defines Tejanx Diaspora as the “permanent dispersion of several hundred thousand Mexican Americans from Texas across the rest of the United States” (emphasis mine, 3). While I agree with De Leon’s idea of acknowledging the presentness of Tejanx identity, and Rodriguez’s identification of the varied, far-reaching geographic presence Tejanxs have had in the U.S., they nevertheless limit the historical reach and populations that teysha originally included.
By this I mean that while Mexican American, Mexican, and Spanish populations all have a historically present association with the term, it must also be noted that the Caddo also played a crucial role in linguistically and historically establishing the foundations of Texas. Consider the Caddo woman known as Angelia (her baptized Spanish name) who is credited as one of the “first known indigenous women to whom Tejanas (and Tejanxs) are bound historically and culturally” (Acosta & Winegarten 2). This historical union and the word Teysha, which frames this chapter’s analysis, identifies a geographic location and people group that invite us to reconsider a few, yet significant, concepts regarding how we discuss Tejanx identity and culture in the 21st century. Moving forward, as this chapter explores the varied ways Tejanx is used as a social, economic, and cultural identifier in relation to Mexican and Spanish influence, we also include the indigenous presence that the term derives from as a way of honoring the complex history and current use of the term.
Like the often-omitted indigenous Caddo histories, the role Africans had in the shaping of Tejanx Texas is also consistently left out of discussions when examining the relationship with a Tejanx identity. Scholars like Douglas W. Richmond, in his article “Africa’s Initial Encounter with Texas: The Significance of Afro-Tejanxs in Colonial Tejas, 1528-1821,” reminds us that too often, “the topic of African slavery and the role of Afro-Tejanxs in Texas during the period of Spanish colonial rule has been totally neglected” (200). Although many Africans were brought to the new world by conquistadores Richmond points out that “mulattos and African-indigenous mixtures were the real founders of San Antonio, settling there before the fabled Canary Islands” (213). Yet, like the Caddos, the significance, presence, and role of Afro-Tejanxs are often subsumed by similarly used Mexican and/or Spanish identifiers, even though they maintained a significant role in the shaping of the Tejas region. Thus, as this chapter explores the boundaries of Tejanx as an identifying term in Tejas, it does so with the acknowledgement that when we describe forms of Tejanx mestizaje that make up Tejanx identity formations, it includes indigenous and Afro-Latino relationships that have likewise impacted our understanding of the term.
These associations with African and Indigenous populations within the borders of what would become Texas identify an evolving idea of what it means to study or acknowledge a Tejanx identity. In fact, as a newly arrived faculty member whose work focuses on various forms of Chicanx/Latinx narrative at Texas State University. I was delighted to learn that I would be working at an HSI, also known as a Hispanic serving institution. Texas State has a budding Latino Studies Program, and a lot of difficult and significant work (such as this collection of research and analysis) is being done to bring Latinx struggles from the margins of academic and social locations to the center. However, I must acknowledge that while these strides stand in direct contrast to the continued erasure of Chicanx/Latinx/Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous histories and struggles (among so many others), our students enter my classroom almost oblivious to said histories or struggles. My students, Tejanxs or otherwise, are quite familiar with grand dominant Texas narrative of the Alamo and the insurgents famed battle against Mexican forces. Yet, the Indigenous and Afro-Latinx connections, the histories and connections to indigenous coastal groups or Indigenous groups from what is now Mexico and Central and South America continues to struggle for any kind of social or academic “air” time outside of University spaces.
One social space that appears to consistently work for an indigenous acknowledgment in film is Tejanx director Robert Rodriguez who not only include predominantly Latinx/Chicanx casts, but also includes various forms of indigenous iconography in his films as well. Indeed, while Rodriguez’s films like the Mariachi trilogy situate their narratives in the country of Mexico, his films From Dusk ‘Till Dawn and Planet Terror not only include Latinx/Chicanx cast members, but also place a key emphasis on indigenous iconography and placement to progress their narratives. In From Dusk Till Dawn, for example, much of the second half of the film takes place inside a Mexican indigenous pyramid. Likewise, towards the end of Planet Terror Rodriguez utilizes a coastal indigenous pyramid south of the American border as the location where humanity will repopulate the world. And while I have written elsewhere about how the use of iconography shapes our perceptions of culture and how we relate to it, I wish here to discuss the correlation between films like these and the often-omitted relationship to an indigenous past. For a Tejanx director like Robert Rodriguez to make a film about any land south of the border is to visually and artistically include its indigenous history.
While these moves might appear subtle to the casual viewer, it nevertheless speaks to the moves Rodriguez is making to make known a significant facet of Tejanx identity formation that, as this essay has noted, is not often included when students are taught about the diversity of Texas. Even now, as school districts across the state of Texas work include Chicano/Latino content into their curriculum, the hope is that such curriculums will include these areas of consistent omission. Students who might be familiar with legends like Selena or current films by directors like Robert Rodriguez have already begun engaging evolving facets of Tejanx identity formation without having to confront it. And if intellectuals in primary, secondary, and post-secondary spaces are willing to reconsider the limits and parameters of what it means to be Tejanx in Teysha, they’ll take a page out of Selena’s books and experiment with their own ideas and parameters concerning the origins of Tejanxs and share them with their students.
About the Author
Samuel Saldívar is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas State University, and he examines examine how Latinx character are constructed in narrative fiction, film, television, and comic mediums. He also explores how these ethno-racial constructions are engaged in broader U.S. America.