This fall, I taught a student forum through the American Studies department called “Critical Perspectives on Texas.” Historically Texas has served as a site of settler colonialism, racial domination, strict reification of gender roles and repressive sexuality, and economic importance with its oil and agricultural industries.
To name a few topics, the class examined: Texas’s modern-day electoral politics in sociohistorical context; intersectional feminist border studies and the Drug War; health care disparities, race, and climate change in Houston; gentrification and segregation in Austin; the legacy of plantation slavery in the influential Texas prison system; cowboy culture and the myth of the frontier; and indigenous resistance to the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
I grew up in Austin, Texas, and as an American Studies major, a growing activist, and someone who has become obsessed with regionalism since coming to Wesleyan, teaching this forum was a way for me to better understand my home and to help other students learn about the state through a critical lens. I wrote this piece, “Cracking Open a Pecan,” as a final project for our last day of class:
I bake in the sun’s heat until my body rises, until I am light like bread, until I feel the sunlight softening me from the inside. I thaw out. Too long I have been away, in the endless winter, the snow crunching under my feet. Here, back in the land of scorched earth, the street is bare all year. I drive over the Austin roads slowly, my breath adjusting to the heaviness in the hot air. This city seeps into my bones, stirs a calm breeze that ruffles the flowers in my ribcage.
It has been over three years back and forth between the cold and the hot, between ice and fire. A cycle unfolds: I leave my home, I look back, I pick it apart, I return, I leave again with new material to decipher. Texas, my state, and Austin, my city—they lie behind every word I speak and write at my faraway school. I carry my place with me, just as it carries me when I am home, in it. I pick it apart again and again, try to bring it with me to examine as often as possible. This year, I make a spectacle of my obsession. I invite others to see the strange thing I have brought back with me. Like a Fredericksburg pecan, I crack it open. Small, weightless pieces of the shell fall to my feet. The golden brown ridges and folds of the nut grate against its bounding walls. Its inner workings astound me, and I start to see the process that made it grow and come to be, warped it in whatever way. I eat it whole, hungry to consume it again, to feel it settle in my core.
I cannot speak for much of this place: Texas. For much of what has happened on this land. I cannot speak for all the people dotting this map in its iconic, arbitrary shape. As I have scoured recorded history, books old and new, I have imagined horrors and magic only the earth itself remembers. I will never know for certain the route my own paternal ancestors followed to come here, only that they came from Missouri, or Oklahoma, after probably coming early on from Scotland and Germany, and that somehow, Midland, Texas became home for them. I cannot speak for them and the evils they may have committed, only for myself. And I say that Texas will be something they never thought possible. They never fathomed a return to the Tejano past of this place, or a future based on the empowerment of women, Texans of color, and all those who see gleams of liberation flowing through the hill country creeks. Only we know, the young ones, the ones who can feel the ground rumbling, that a new era is bursting forth.
When the Spaniards first came in contact with pecans, in 1528, they were traipsing through the humid, deciduous forests of present-day Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. It wasn’t until many more generations had lived and died that Thomas Jefferson planted pecan trees at Monticello and famously sent seeds to George Washington. It was another 100 years before the first recipe for pecan pie, the beloved Southern delicacy, was published. In 1919, the pecan tree was named the official state tree of Texas.
Despite all the erasure of indigenous life within these borders, we know that it was typical for native tribes in Texas to eat and trade pecans. Humans and animals both foraged for these nuts as many of them remained untouched on the ground long after the growing season had ended. The Spaniards called the pecan nuez de la arruga, which roughly translates to “wrinkle nut” because of the pecan’s resemblance to wrinkles. It seems that the pecan may be the “something old” of Texas. For all the talk of Texas being “young,” like the rest of the American West, the newest of the “New” World, in fact archaeologists estimate that pecan seeds evolved near the banks of the Rio Grande as long as 28 million years ago.
As I sit in my car in the Austin light, my skin folded and creased like a pecan, I know that I can drive to a grocery store and buy bags of pecans, boxes of pecan pie, even jars of butter pecan-scented candles if I want to. I could also buy chili oil and radishes from Korea, brie and wine from France, or berbere spices and injera from Ethiopia. Often marked with the blood of laborers near and far, goods from all over the globe are at my fingertips—and who knows where in the world people are tasting Texas pecans right now? I can pay for these flavors with money I was, or my parents were, given for labor we carried out, and sometimes I can even use my tiny device with a light-up screen to make this transaction. Who would have thought that this system would be the one put in place? Who knows how long it will live on for? Who knows how much longer the Texas pecan trees will be harvested with industrial machines, how much longer the workers in these groves will be predominantly Mexican migrants? The pecans change hands; the earth endures toil and attack. But again, we know that a new age is coming. The ground rumbles and shakes until it roars, thundering, until a terrible flood engulfs the coast. We will not let the earth crack in half, we will not watch the pecans roll away into the gorge, we will listen. There, there is the sound of the old trees breathing slow in the solid ground. I can feel the flowers in my ribcage sighing in the breeze.