Our children help us see the world through different eyes. Our daughter works in Austin, Texas, and two visits to her over the last year have given her parents fresh insights into places previously known to us through the experiences of others. Here are some impressions.
Austin, state capital of Texas, is a city of contrasts. A liberal bubble in a conservative state, it has a beautiful skyline shaped by stunning buildings as well as a vibrant night-life fed by the many young professionals that help make Texas the second largest economy in the USA and the tenth largest in the world. It also has a strong alternative arts scene reflected in museums and theatres. Striking art works dotted around the city form a ‘museum without walls’ which is a significant statement in a state where many more miles of walls and fences are being planned along its border with Mexico.
Austin has recently opened a Central Library with a mission to be a community resource. It is inspirational in its architecture as well as its vision. The library witnesses to a strong social conscience found in an exhibition of art by Austin’s homeless community. This particular exhibition provides a platform for their work and a source of income for the artists whose works are sold. As a seventh generation Texan pointed out to us, there is poverty in wealthy Austin, even though much of it is hidden.
Austin is also a location for sport and the ‘body beautiful’ – in speaking about Austin, a resident of nearby San Antonio commented, ‘There are no fat people in Austin.’ Though exaggerating to make a point, Austin caters for the young and health-conscious with well-manicured paths frequented by runners and cyclists around the beautiful Lady Bird Lake (named after America’s First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson), outdoor gyms and well-attended sports’ stadiums.
Another contrast is between those who ride in Ubers and those who ride in buses. We rode in both. The bus riders we met were the longer-term residents of a city that has grown, developed and become clogged with traffic over recent years. They were friendly, fun-loving and laid back. The Uber riders we met came across as generous, hard-working young people, generally short-term residents, with a mission and focus in life. As Austin becomes more of a business hub – frequently described as another Silicon Valley – house prices in the city increase, squeezing out many locals. Notwithstanding this, the city is a living, working and energising place to visit. It exudes hope and a ‘can-do’ attitude. In addition, the people embody the spirit of Texas that has a proud history focused in an event that took place one hundred and eighty years ago on a spot where the town of San Antonio (an hour and a half’s drive away) stands.
The Alamo, located in San Antonio and immortalized in many westerns, is widely regarded as the event which defined Texas. In the early nineteenth century, the area that was to become Texas was ruled by Mexico, but, like a teenager moving into adulthood, Texas was rebelling against a fickle and over-demanding parent. There was a mutual dislike and intolerance. Although there is no suggestion that they were going to build a wall, Mexico wanted to keep the troublesome inhabitants of Texas out and at arm’s length – what a paradox! However, Mexico did not want to lose political or military control of an area that was a buffer between itself and the increasingly powerful United States. It was against this background that the legend of the Alamo was born.
In February 1836 Colonel William Travis entered the old mission compound known as the Alamo with a multi-cultural group of around two hundred men from Tejas (modern Texas) and held out for two weeks against a force of several thousand hungry and demoralized Mexican soldiers. The final assault came on 6th March and within an hour the defenders of the Alamo were slain and their bodies burned. Although they were defeated, the courage of the defenders inspired others and within a few weeks the Mexican army was itself defeated and forced to limp home. ‘Remember the Alamo’ became the rallying cry for Texas and for Americans defending their rights and their lands. The Alamo has become idealised in the minds of many as Americans, usually white, fighting against a foreign invader. But this is far from what really happened.
Today, there is another battle brewing in Texas. In November. America will be holding its midterm elections when all members of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate will be elected. These are particularly significant because republicans have a majority in both Houses which provides a firm background for the republican President Trump. However, Democrats only need to pick up two seats to take the Senate which would rattle the power base of the President. Traditionally, Texas is staunchly republican, although the state’s four largest cities (Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and Austin) all voted for the democrat Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election.
The battle in Texas is focused around the election of the Governor of Texas, who is currently Ted Cruse, a candidate for the presidency in 2016. While Cruse is currently the front-runner, he is being challenged by a relatively unknown democrat called Beto O’Rourke who is regarded by some as a charismatic ‘new Kennedy.’ O’Rourke has energy, presence and momentum and was frequently present on local TV during our recent stay in Austin. The two candidates have contrasting political agendas. O’Rourke wants background checks for those purchasing guns: Cruz argues that the root cause for school shootings is not US gun policy but because God has been removed ‘from the public square.’ Cruz supports the planned border wall between Mexico and the USA whereas O’Rourke wants to pursue a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Add to this the previously sour relationship between presidential candidates Cruz and Trump and an increasing concern about the President in the growing urban areas and one can see why this will be a significant election.
It will be fascinating to see which spirit of the Alamo prevails.
Image 3 – The Alamo Mission in San Antonio
Image 4 – The Texas State Capitol, Austin, home of the Texas legislature.