Oscar Casares to Valley Longhorns: “You’ll Take the Best of This World and Find Another”

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The Rio Grande Valley and Austin are separated by 350 miles, a six-hour drive, and a culture gap that can feel even wider. For UT students from the Valley, making the trek from to the Forty Acres for the first time can feel a bit like landing in a foreign country.

It’s a change that UT professor and Brownsville native Oscar Casares knows all too well. The award-winning novelist, along with President Bill Powers and other Longhorn luminaries, returns to his hometown every summer for the Texas Exes Brownsville Chapter’s annual send-off for incoming freshmen. It’s a party to celebrate students’ accomplishments and help ease the transition to life in Austin.

This year, Casares spoke to the students about what it feels like to occupy a space between two worlds—and the crime against humanity known as tofu chorizo. Here’s what he said:

I want to congratulate all the new Longhorns in the room and their families. As part of the first generation in my family to attend college, I know how special this moment is.  Although my parents weren’t able to finish high school, they had a strong sense that their children’s future depended greatly on whether they could help us get through college. Because of their backgrounds, they knew very little about how one would apply to a major university or even prepare for a move this big, away from Brownsville, from the border, from the Valley and South Texas.

And so one day, with very little preparation, I made this move, as my older brother and sister had done before me, and left this small and known world for another one called Austin. And although it was only 350 miles north of here, it was a different world, as I believe it still is today.

It’s a world that strangely enough prides itself on being weird. Spend any time there and you’ll see the bumper stickers that say, “Keep Austin Weird.” And it is weird, really weird, and this is coming from someone who grew up in a fairly weird place, Brownsville, Texas.

I can’t tell you what I have found weirder about Austin, whether it’s the people or the idea of so many parties and festivals, the music festival, the film festival, the ice cream festival, the salsa festival, the biker festival, the Spam festival, or the day-long birthday party they have every year for Eeyore, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh. Not long after I arrived, I was buying a T-shirt at one of these festivals and, as I was paying, I noticed a quarter sitting on the counter. I asked the guy behind the counter if that was his quarter and he said, “Oh, no, somebody left it and it’s been sitting there all day.” When I asked if he was going to pick it up, he said, “No way, dude, that’d be like bad karma.”

Then there’s the weirdness of the weather. You’ll be leaving home in late summer. But I moved up on New Year’s Day 1985, and that night, it snowed enough for there to be 250 car wrecks within a 24-hour period. I was number 238.

Even the food’s weird. Tofu chorizo?? And tacos so small you could fit three of them inside a normal taco from back home?

But here’s the good news: For the last 17 or 18 years you have been consciously or unconsciously navigating back and forth between two very distinct, and yes, weird worlds of their own. You have learned to go from English to Spanish, or Spanish to English, as the case may be, sometimes in the very same sentence. You have learned to soak up pop culture while still being immersed in the culture of the border.

You’ve listened to rock and hip-hop and you’ve heard rancheras and polkas. You know your way around Facebook and you’re no stranger to chisme. You’ve seen this summer’s blockbusters and maybe even caught a little bit of your mother’s telenovela. You’ve learned to shop on the border, whether it’s at the Mercado Juárez in Matamoros or, someplace a little closer, like the upscale HEB here in town, otherwise known as the Gucci HEB.

In other words, in some of the most important ways you will be arriving in this other world of Austin, Texas, better prepared than many of your classmates from other parts of the state and country. You will be taking the best of this world you grew up in and you will find another world that you’ll navigate just as easily. And then someday in the not-to-distant future, you’ll be standing around telling people just how weird, and yet familiar, it all was when you first left home.

Photo by Wyatt McSpadden.

 

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