Transitioning through Texas

My last few days in familiar territory on the road from NOLA to Bogotá were spent in Texas. It’s a state that demands enough attention that Americans have strong opinions one way or another about its culture and politics, and familiar enough outside the US that most of its proud residents, when asked where they’re from, simply answer “Texas”. People within and outside US borders tend to associate it with, among other things, the Wild West, oil, guns, racism, overt religiosity, pride, cowboys, and/or everything being bigger. Having been to five cities and a dozen or more small towns, I can confidently reassure you that you can find all of that throughout this state larger than France or the Ukraine, though I doubt you’d find the whole list in any one place.

As I mentioned in my last post, about three days of my time in Texas was just hitchhiking, but it was worth it. My last trip west along the Gulf Coast took me to Houston, Austin, and Dallas, and this time I filled in some holes on my map with San Antonio and small towns like Orange and Kady. On this trip, Texas was a buffer zone, like an airlock to let me depressurize on my way south of the Rio Grande.

Texas flag

The Texas flag, always flown at the same height as the US flag

My love-hate relationship with Texas

Texas gets a bad wrap, which is partly fair. Rural Texas is, if not my least favorite area of the US, in competitive contention for the award. Orange, Texas is easily the nastiest little shithole I’ve ever been to in my life. But urban Texas — Houston, Austin, and San Antonio in particular — deserve the total opposite reputation. These three cities are varying degrees of cosmopolitan, young, quirky, cultured, and exciting, and all three are definitely worth visiting.

On this trip I stopped in Houston only because I got stuck there while hitchhiking, but during my short stay I was reminded what an impressive and imposing city it is. It’s the number one location for fine and performing arts outside of New York in the US, and as the 4th most populous city in the country, it’s undeniably cosmopolitan. There’s obviously a huge Mexican influence here, but if you look carefully you’ll find many other expats mixed in with the domestic immigrants from elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, most of them working in the oil and gas industry.

Downtown San Antonio

Iconic buildings in Downtown San Antonio

Houston was just a vaguely familiar blur on my way to San Antonio. This was my first time in the Alamo City, and I spent five days there. It’s like a mix between Austin and Houston: it’s big and fast-paced, but also alternative and super musically oriented.

I stayed with a family of musicians in San Antonio’s Midcity neighborhood. The Lavens are a family of four musician-Couchsurfers who perform live at a local venue called The Cove every week. While staying with them, I spent several evenings at The Cove listening to live jams and eating ‘SOL’ food: sustainable, organic, and locally grown. I made a rare exception in my backpacker budget and treated myself to a $10 lamb burger, and I don’t regret it.

San Antonio Midcity

Scenes of the Midcity neighborhood where I stayed for the week

Texas as cultural contact zone

It’s a bit jarring to cross from Louisiana to Texas. You’re still in the part of the United States vaguely referred to as ‘The South’, traveling along the expansive Gulf Coast, but suddenly the bilingual street signs and menus have gone from French to Spanish, and the local linguistic layers are abruptly omnipresent instead of hidden in the rural areas.

Monument to the fallen soldiers at the Alamo, over a backdrop of the [cathedral name]

Monument to the fallen soldiers at the Alamo

Bilingual public letters aside, you can’t go more than a few minutes without overhearing a Spanish language conversation on the street or the public transit in Houston or San Antonio. Tex-Mex cuisine is everywhere, and in some places, if you look hard enough or know the right locals, you can find authentic Mexican cuisine north of the border (so I’ve heard; I was unlucky enough to only end up in a couple mediocre, unenthusiastic taco joints).

Even better is the code-switching behavior famously known as Spanglish.

My last ride into San Antonio was with a feuding couple trying frantically to reach a metal scrap yard before it closed so that they could sell the random scraps and broken metal appliances they had collected that day. They introduced themselves as Jesse and Pearl. Both appeared to be hispanic (in San Antonio I guess you assume Mexican). I started to introduce myself but they plunged right back into some obscure argument they were having that seemed to jump back and forth between a few different topics: what time the junkyard closed, where the hospital was, whether or not to keep the windows down, and how to use the voice-operated 411 information line.

The Alamo, most famous tourist destination of San Antonio

The Alamo, most famous tourist destination of San Antonio

While I listened to them argue, I wondered if they were doing it in English out of some twisted sense of politeness because I was in the car. I quickly decided that, no, they barely seemed aware I was there, so it wasn’t that. But they both had distinct Spanish-speaking accents, and they threw in lots of small Spanish words — pendejo, puta, cabrón, others I didn’t recognize. Now and then they broke into entire sentences of Spanish, and when we arrived at the junkyard, they spoke to the employees in the opposite medley: Spanish with little words of English thrown in.

I’ve seen this in South Florida as well, a similar cultural and linguistic contact zone between the US and the Caribbean. In places like Texas and South Florida, languages aren’t separated by a hard and fast line, but more of a cultural continuum. The population of Laredo, TX, for example, is about 90% Spanish-speaking, and the further one retreats from the border, the more English and the less Spanish one hears.

Taking my time wading through this transition zone — the grey area between North American and Latin American, English and Spanish — was a great way to ease into Mexico. In Monterrey, where I now sit as I write this post, there’s a huge American influence — lots of McDonald’s, lots of English; it’s like a mirror image of San Antonio, south of the Rio Grande. As I continue my trip I’ll soon be coming out of the grey area and delving further into Latin America and Spanish.

The park at the base of the Tower of the Americas

The park at the base of the Tower of the Americas

As much as there’s something powerful inside me that wants to hate Texas, I really like San Antonio, and have generally enjoyed the time I’ve spent in Texan cities over the last couple of years. If I’d had more time, I’d have loved to talk to more couples like Jesse and Pearl about the Spanglish they speak and why they communicate that way. For now, I’ll focus on adjusting to Mexico and unlearning the Spanglish I’ve been speaking in Monterrey as a lazy way of taking advantage of the city’s proximity to the US border and its fairly decent knowledge of English.

I’ve spent a week in Monterrey and will stay for a few more days before heading south to San Luis Potosí and eventually Mexico City, the first big milestone on the road to Colombia. Until then I’ll be hiking, sightseeing, visiting Huasteca communities, eating ALL THE THINGS, and talking until my jaw is sore and my brain turns upside-down in an effort to get my Spanish up to par for the road ahead.

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