I suppose my relationship with J. Frank Dobie is as complicated as my ethnic history, in which a pair of Anglo families immigrated to the Rio Grande Valley during the Great Depression and married into the Mexican American clan of my grandfather Manuel Garza.
My father, growing up in that complex border family in the transnational community of McAllen-Reynosa, learned to view Dobie as the second greatest authority on life, just below Father Joseph O’Brien at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and a little above the pulp fiction authors he loved so much.
When I inherited those volumes of South Texas lore — nearly as prized in our home as the family Bible — I felt joy as seeing my homeland and people depicted in the pages of a book. “Great literature transcends its native land, but none that I know of ignores its soil,” Dobie assured me, and the message came at a perfect time. In the McAllen schools I attended in the 1970s and 1980s, there was essentially no representation of the borderlands or Mexican American community. So the nice words Dobie had written and the respect he had shown us were a boon.
Yet I was also painfully aware that while his descriptions of Anglo life in South Texas rang true, he hadn’t been equipped to explore authentically the inner lives and concerns of Tejanos. In fact, none of the books I’d read in class or on my own, guided through the stacks by kind librarians, managed to accomplish that necessary goal. Unsurprisingly, none I encountered were written by folks from my Mexican American community.
The fact complicated my enjoyment of Dobie and other Anglo writers doing similar work. I often encountered an off-putting superciliousness, a sort of winking admiration for white men who — to use Dobie’s words from the prologue to Coronado’s Children — went about “exploring unknown continents, subduing wildernesses and savage tribes, felling forests, butchering buffaloes” and so forth, “neither lured nor restrained by women.” Even in his more enlightened later work, the writer centered white identity while othering Indigenous and mestizo folks. It’s hard to find a book of his that doesn’t talk about wild Indians and Mexican bandits, and even when he’s admiring us, it’s from afar and above.