05 May 2010

Dick J. Reavis : Something Missing at Texas Writers' Festival?

"The Texican." Painting © Mike Aston /
mikeastonart.com .

Artaud and Arizona:
Tempest at Texas Observer's writers' fest

By Dick J. Reavis / The Rag Blog / May 5, 2010

This weekend a startling email come to my inbox and to those of others who are identified with journalism in Texas. Its title line read, “To Liberal Activists Who Happen to be Latina/o/s.” Though I don’t fit either the Liberal or Latino categories, being a nosy former reporter, I read what its poster, antonioartaud@grandecom.net, had to say.

“The revered journal of Texas liberal politics The Texas Observer is having a writer’s festival,” its opening blandly began. “Guess what -- they forgot to invite any Tejana /o/s and African Americans. Impossible, you say. Que fue eso? Did we forget to show our papers? How do we prove we’re Texans too?

“And to make matters worse, they’re in cahoots with Texas Monthly,” Artaud continued. “Almost all the writers invited are either the editor of Texas Monthly or former/present Texas Monthly writers. Yes, the same magazine that has ignored us for over 25 years as personas non grata in their Texas.”

The post closed with an exhortation and a warning: “Cancel your subscription, write a letter, protest the event at Scholz Biergarten, but above all, consider yourself on notice.”

I am told that the author of the post, Antonio Artaud, is a student of journalism at a college in San Antonio. His sentiment was, to use an oldster’s term an Anglo journalist friend applied: “Right on!” Artaud knows of what he speaks -- and what he pointed to is a scandal.

Monday Artaud followed with a post containing messages of support from, among others, the novelists Dagoberto Gilb of San Marcos and the all-around San Antonio wordsmith, Gregg Barrios (who also wrote for The Rag in Sixties Austin). Something was building. “Latina/o/s” were, for the moment anyway, rising to protest against business as usual in the circles of Texas journalism.

The hubbub died late Monday or early Tuesday when Artaud sent a third post, announcing that the Observer had agreed to include a Latino writers panel and issue an apology. Better late than never, I suppose. But as always in American history, it appears that no arrangement was made to include blacks.

Before the hubbub died, I did some thinking. Placing myself in the shoes of the editors of the Observer and TM, I asked what might be done to permanently integrate those publications without fundamentally altering anything.

I’d have canceled the Writers’ Festival (or “writers’ festival,” as the Observer’s announcement so graphically put it.) I’d have rescheduled it and expanded its panel to include -- two or three New York Puerto Ricans or Dominicans! After all, Nuyoriqueños are as much Latinos as Mexican-Americans, and many of them are as African-American as anybody in the United States.

If this idea doesn’t make sense, it should: the Texas nonfiction establishment has already applied the same logic to Anglo Texans.

I may get some of the facts wrong because I’ve been outside of Texas for six years, but to the best of my knowledge, the editors of the daily newspapers in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio are white non-Texans. The editors of The Texas Observer and Texas Monthly, Bob Moser and Jake Silverstein, fit the same category, even though the general report is that they’ve improved those publications.

I am less sure about the Observer, but at the Monthly, the tally is plain: the magazine has had four editors, only the first of whom was a Texan. My observations, when I was a journalist in Texas, were that at both dailies and elite magazines in Texas, only about half of the editorial staffers were Texans before they became reporters in Texas.

The Observer and the Monthly are, of course, by now “old media.” The most contemporary entry into the ranks of elite Texas journalism is the online daily, The Texas Tribune. I would note that its first and only editor, Evan Smith, is from the city of New York.

A few years ago I put together a still-unpublished statistical study of the Monthly which showed that Texans, 95 percent of the editorial staff at the magazine’s outset, became a minority during the ‘80s, and stabilized at about half during the ‘90s. The Monthly has never hired a Mexican-American staff writer and its one African-American reporter vanished within months of his engagement.

None of this should surprise anyone, I suppose. It is accepted wisdom among educated Americans today that class and regional differences don’t count for anything: we live in a placeless, classless meritocracy, people believe.

When Texas Monthly, as today, calls itself the “National Magazine of Texas” it in no way means to imply that it is the magazine of a state which sometimes imagines itself a nation. Instead, it is a magazine of national quality -- which in the publishing world, means “as good as what’s published in New York” -- that, incidentally, happens to be published in Texas.

The sensibilities of the locale mean nothing, the standard of reporting means everything. Journalism is an acultural scientific product, disconnected to land, the past, and tradition. It produces sterile news, cleansed of the smell of the dirt from which it came.

With that as the accepted wisdom, it’s clearly heresy to bring even ethnicity, as Arnaud did, into the equation. Meritocracy knows no gradations, so what difference can it make that the editor of the Tribune is from New York, the editor of the Monthly from California and the editor of the Observer from North Carolina?

I dissent from the accepted view for reasons that are as inchoate and instinctual as sometimes studied and glib. Suspicions haunt me, the latest of them because of the controversy over Mexican immigration in Arizona.

Several years ago Texas was the home to two or three border-control militias, just as Arizona was. I looked into the Texas outfits and found that even though they were led by small-time ranchers whose spreads were near the border, those ranchers -- and most of their lieutenants -- were recent arrivals from the rural Midwest.

My suspicions and speculations tell me that, Arizona being the retirement destination of the Midwest, as Florida is for New York, Arizona’s anti-Mexican hysteria is probably traceable to the state’s non-natives. In a way, it comes naturally to them: Mexico is as foreign to rural
Midwesterners as Iraq is to most Texans.

Anglo, Latino, and African-American natives of the frontera alike have traditionally regarded immigration restrictions as a joke, though in recent years they have become a real annoyance. But inlanders tend to see border walls, passport requirements, and crossing-bridge shakedowns as dignified embodiments of American law.

As reactionary as Texas may otherwise be, its last president, the Islamophobic George W. Bush, made an honest attempt at humanizing immigration law, and the state’s current governor, Rick Perry -- a lifetime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, no less! -- has said that Arizona’s anti-Mexican ethnocentrism is not for him or his state.

I can find no other factor that uniquely explains the “progressive” character of the Bush and Perry stand except this: growing up even as Anglos in Texas, their attitudes towards Mexico and its descendants took a better-than-American form. Neither regards immigration as a merely legal or economic -- or racial -- issue, as most Americans do.

According to the theory of meritocracy common to the American empire, success and placement depend, not upon the question of national or regional origin, but instead upon one’s educational credentials. Other differences between Americans have no place in this scheme.

This is why state-supported universities, for example, conduct national talent searches for almost all faculty jobs. The same placelessness has been at bottom of the selection of editors and writers for the Monthly and the Observer and probably, the Tribune as well. If in Texas we hire editors and journalists who are often non-Texans, according to meritocratic ideology, it must be because competent writers are hard to come by in Texas; if we also wind up with editors and writers who are not Mexican-American or black, why would the same conclusion not apply? The theory that marginalizes Anglo Texans downgrades all Texans, Latinos and African-Americans as well.

In his original posting, Artaud attached a copy of the Observer’s announcement of its bash. I counted 13 panelists. Perhaps because I have been away, I recognized the names of only seven of them, among them one writer from the city of New York. I wondered to myself, “how many of these Texas writers are really Texans?” I do not know the answer yet, but my guess is that it’s more than one. Were the same sort of celebration being staged in New York, I do not believe that a single paisano would be on the billing; more than one -- certainly not! Yet Texas is today more populous than New York.

The Observer, in deciding to heed Artaud’s complaint, at least in regard to Latinos, may have decided at long last to remedy its lack of sincerity and vision -- for a month or two, anyway. But the notion that the self-expression of Texas should be the affair of non-Texans is only an extension of the otherwise-hidden hegemony which skin color makes plain.

Today I was thinking that, perhaps because I’ve been called a “horse’s ass” more than once, I should feel a little bit sorry for horses as well. In the eyes of most of them, I’ll wager, all equine magazines should be written and published -- by equines, not by their riders!

Horse sense tells me that in Texas, whites are riding on the back of a culture that has always included Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, and white non-Texans are riding on the back of the cultural mix that only Texans, of any color or ethnicity, fully appreciate or understand.

[Dick J. Reavis is a former staffer at the Moore County News, The Texas Observer, Texas Monthly, the San Antonio Light, the Dallas Observer, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the San Antonio Express-News. He also wrote for The Rag in Austin in the Sixties. He can be reached at dickjreavis@yahoo.com.]
Antonio Artaud passed along this letter, sent to The Texas Observer by UT professor Emilio Zamora:


I published a book on Mexicans and the Texas home front with Texas A&M Press and co-edited an anthology on Latinos and Latinas in WWI with UT Press, both in 2009. I have received two awards for the first book from the Texas State Historical Association and the Institute of Texas Letters. Despite this, I was not invited to participate in your writers' festival. This is not the first time that public programs on new books have slighted me, but I have recently discovered that this time you have also overlooked other recently published authors of Latino/a descent. You may have included one of these noted authors, Belinda Acosta, but only after she pointed out the glaring problem.

I should add that Latino and Latina writers are also usually absent from the pages of The Observer and this is not necessarily due to our failure to submit materials to you. A case in point is Professor Angela Valenzuela's excellent review of Avatar which she submitted on February 5, 2010. You have not published the piece nor have you even sent her a note acknowledging her submission.

I cannot help but think that the problem of under-representation and erasure of major portions of U.S. and Texas history (women, minorities, labor, civil rights, for example) in our public school curriculum extends far beyond the Texas State Board of Education. Isn't it really a sorry shame that we should be talking like this among ourselves when major battles for equal rights (with the State Board of Education, for instance) require our undivided attention.

Emilio Zamora, Professor
Department of History
University of Texas at Austin
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