Saturday, November 29, 2014

Tourism Comes for the Hill Country

Hal K. Rothman's book, Devil's Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas. 1998. Pp. xi, 434.), speaks to me on a very direct, personal level. Early on, Rothman writes that "Tourist workers quickly learn that one of the most essential traits of their service is to mirror onto the guest what that visitor wants from them and from their place in a way that affirms the visitor's self-image." (12) The tourist of Rothman's study is not ultimately seeking to learn about the truth and history of a place, but rather to see in that place their version of it as seen in their mind's eye. I know what that's like.

How? Five little words: I grew up in Texas.

Texas is one of those places about which everyone seems to have an opinion. What's more, they think they know what Texas is, what it looks like, feels like, who Texans are. Here's a sampling of the comments I've heard ad nauseum over the years:
  • Is it like the TV show Dallas
  • Do you have a ranch like Southfork?
  • I bet you ride your horse to school.
  • Do you have a belt buckle with your name on it?
  • Where are your boots?
  • What do you mean you don't have a cowboy hat?!?
  • Do you drive a pickup truck?
  • Do you speak Spanish?
  • You don't like tomatoes or spicy food? Aren't you from Texas?
The list goes on, but you get the idea. And then there's the other part of it, the assumptions people make about Texans that they're too polite to say: that we're puffed up, loud, prideful, bombastic rednecks who think we're the best at everything and are racist, homophobic jerks. I remember when I moved to Chicago at the age of 22, I gradually realized how non-Texans apparently saw us with something nearing shock. I had no idea. Really. None.

So I grew up just like a lot of other American kids did, but with this little thing in the back of my mind that told me that when I was not in Texas, I needed to fill a certain mould, walk, talk, act a certain way because that's what people expected. (To this day I am regularly asked why I don't have an accent. If you must know, it comes out when I'm tired, angry, tipsy or around my family. Or talking to someone with a southern accent.) And there are times when, often without thinking, I agree to give the person I'm speaking with what they want: yes, I have boots, and yes, I can ride a horse, and yes, my family has a ranch. But in my mind, I'm thinking, I haven't worn those boots in a decade, haven't been on a horse since 2006, certainly never barrel raced, and our ranch looks nothing like Southfork.

Texas, especially Austin, has remade itself to reflect visitors' expectations back at them, just as Santa Fe did in Rothman's account. Being an Austin native, I constantly hear affirmations of how hip and cool my hometown is, yet I find its hipness to be manufactured, created and very self-consciously nurtured. In the 1970s and 1980s, before the rest of the country discovered Austin, it was truly cool, with an authentic vibe that just was without trying. Then it began attracting technology businesses like Dell and Intel, and a grungy little music and film festival called South by Southwest, and an iconic film called Dazed and Confused came out, and the rest of the country started paying attention. And then moving there in droves. And these newly arrived folks loved Austin so much that they started remaking it into the Austin they imagined it to be. (And don't even get me started on San Antonio...Riverwalk, anyone?)

Today, my hometown is in many ways unrecognizable to me. It's a nice place to visit, and there are pockets that remain strangely, wonderfully untouched, but its retail developments and ridiculous sprawl are unfamiliar. It's in the same geographic location where home used to be, but it's not my Austin. I imagine this must be how the longtime Santa Fe residents Rothman discusses felt after watching Edgar Hewett, Mary Austin and their acolytes repackage their town: equal parts bewilderment, nostalgia, and alienation from a town that is, and yet is not, theirs.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! I read it just after I finished mine after similar preconceptions that I've encountered--in my case, working at the Alamo but being the child of northern transplants to Texas. I didn't fit into the mold of Texan that many visitors were expecting... (I also credited you with pulling out the best line about this expectation.)

    And fully agreed on the Riverwalk... As much as I find it relaxing to be around, it definitely is a manufactured space. A book I'd recommend when you have spare time (ha!) is Inventing the Fiesta City, looking at Fiesta in San Antonio as a way to understand ethnic relations in the city. It's interesting, too, in that she looks at that festival not just as something catering to tourists, since in many ways it's more for locals. Yet, it also has fashioned how the city both sees itself and projects itself.


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