Boots and bravado: probing a Texas identity

As newcomers stream into the state - and state of mind - new license plates that mark 'native' pride stir some Lone Star introspection.

Joseph and Megan Shaffer can't explain it. Their families have been Texans for as far back as they can remember, but they stammer when asked to describe what it means to them.

"It makes me proud," Mr. Shaffer finally musters from under a black felt cowboy hat. While they have trouble putting it into words, the couple believes it's important - so important that they're spending their honeymoon at the Alamo. "We wanted to get back to our roots," says Mr. Shaffer. "My great-grandmother used to tell me stories about relatives who fought here."

While the Alamo draws people from around the world, curious about the Texas mystique, most visitors are proud locals. Now, a new license plate is available to the proudest, with proceeds benefiting historic state sites. Against a picture of the Alamo and the San Jacinto Monument is the Texas flag with the tag line: "Native Texan."

It's one of many ways Texans can identify themselves. But nonnatives are streaming in: According to the 2000 Census, only 13 million of Texas's 21 million residents were born here - and as they line up for Native Texan plates. a deeper question arises: Can the spirit be preserved?

Qualities of a typical Texan, locals say, are these: courtesy and friendliness; a tendency to tall tales, bragging, and colorful language; fierce loyalty and sensitivity to failure; straightforwardness; arrogance; and brashness. Indeed, that mystique - from the ubiquitous Lone Star flag, to the oft-quoted "Don't mess with Texas" slogan, to endless ads playing on the tug of being Texan - seems more important as ties to the land fade and migrants fill the cities.

Will those newcomers carry on the spirit? Yes - if they embrace the mythos like Joe Nick Patoski, a former writer for Texas Monthly. Born in Pennsylvania, his family moved to Texas when he was two. He spouts a familiar refrain: "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could."

"So I'm not a native," he says. "But I am a Texan. I drawl and twang without shame. I wear blue jeans with a leather belt with hand-tooled scorpions, and have a pair of custom handmade boots." People like Patoski can buy a Native Texan license plate, no birth certificate required.

That burns up Dallas businessman Blake Beidleman. He's in San Antonio on business and has brought his boss, a Floridian, to the Alamo. This eighth-generation Texan talks of natives' integrity, independence, and strength of character. "They should have a separate plate for the wannabes and transplants," he says. "Being native is something special, and it should be kept that way."

As John Steinbeck wrote, "Texas is a state of mind." It's something more felt than discussed.

"Being a native Texan is an integral part of my identity, but it's difficult to explain," says Elaine Milam Vetter, historian general of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which operates historic sites. This seventh-generation Texan, whose ancestors fought in the Texas Revolution, came up with the license-plate idea and received the first one. Her voice cracks as she explains why being a Texan is important: "It means I come from people who weren't afraid to fight for what was right, and to fight to the death for it."

Scholars say state history helped mold the identity. After breaking away from Mexico in 1836, Texas was an independent country for nearly a decade - but not by choice. When it asked to join the US in 1836, the government declined Texas entry because of reluctance to admit another slave state.

"It was a difficult period for a small nation, and the people really had to rally ... and fend for themselves," says Ron Tyler, director of the Texas State Historical Association at the University of Texas in Austin and a native Texan. "We still have that us-against-the-world attitude."

Indeed, though Texas was eventually accepted into the Union, most residents believe they are different. They've created their own music (Tejano), their own food (Tex-Mex), and their own dress (cowboy hat and boots). Unlike the rest of the country, they can fly their state flag at the same height as the US flag. Even today, the state constitution allows for secession.

"Texans have never been real interested in blending in," says Stephen Hardin, a history professor at Victoria College and author of "Texian Iliad."

Traveling abroad, for instance, Texans routinely tell people they're from Texas, not the US. Patoski does it, too. "Everywhere I'd go, people would nod knowingly, because they have an image of Texas, even though it's not always the desired image. Like the kid in Greece who nodded knowingly and in broken English replied, 'Ah yes, Texas: cowboys, Kennedy, bang bang.' "

Even in the US, Texans feel - and are often treated - like expatriates, adding credence to Steinbeck's observation: "A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner."

And even if most Texans doesn't carry guns or ride horses, they often play up this image - especially when outside the state - as Dr. Hardin, born in McKinney, Texas, says he does. "When I go out of state, I am more likely to wear the boots, to wear the hat, more likely to use colorful metaphors and be ... larger-than-life because people are disappointed if I'm not."

That persona is nurtured in stories and grade-school lessons. Texas children, for instance, take two full years of state history, versus a single chapter in most other states.

But many think the Texas mentality has as much to do with geography as with the past. To Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, the state's greatness is simple: "We have the niftiest shaped state. Get a map! Look at all those boring rectangular states in the Midwest." Sheer size gives Texans that "can do" feeling, she says, an almost limitless sense of what they can accomplish.

Texas is so large, it's often described as five states wrapped into one. West Texas is as dissimilar to East Texas as New Mexico is to Louisiana. The coast has little in common with the panhandle and Amarillo is closer to four other state capitals than to its own. Historians believe that isolation led to Texas hospitality - so glad were Texans to see another human being.

Ironically, much of what the world considers Texan was fostered in Hollywood and on shows like "Dallas." But natives will tell you there is an indescribable feeling.

"It's a place where you feel like pretty much anything's possible, a place that is still open to dreaming. It's a place where people say, 'I want to do that,' and then they do it. That doesn't mean they'll always be successful, but there's no hesitancy to start," says Bill Wittliff, an Austin screenwriter who wrote the 1989 miniseries "Lonesome Dove" and most recently "The Perfect Storm." "But ... once you try to explain it, it vanishes in the explanation."

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