Y'all Means Y'all: a Reflection on Inclusivity in Small Town Texas
I recently found myself in Marfa, a small town in the high desert of West Texas eight hours by car from Dallas. The road to Marfa feels quintessentially American. To reach this peculiar town, one heads out on the open road and goes West for miles. Traveling in one direction for so long reminded me of the journey my American predecessors made when they crossed North America to eventually take over the entire continent, though without the aid of the highway. They sought something. Manifest destiny, they said. While their tactics were problematic, destroying every people and culture in their way, they were looking for an opportunity to live better and the possibility of becoming something more.
If traveling from the East, one is accompanied by clusters of sun-soaked one mountain towns and patches of desert. Rusted cars and abandoned old farmhouses sit on old over tilled fields. Nothingness it seems; so much space. The mind starts to wander, renewing one’s perception of how big the Earth really is. It seems there is enough space for everyone on the planet, just here in West Texas. Endless miles of oil rigs bob in and out of the earth side by side with highly engineered windmill farms. You can’t help but notice the irony of windmills creating clean energy while the oil rigs weave in between them, sucking the oil from underneath. Upon arrival, this was the first anomaly I noticed.
Despite the town being so far from the rest of civilization, it is well curated. I was greeted by a friendly colorful sign and small stucco houses that covered the dusty four-mile radius. They were lined up side by side, innocent and welcoming. Campgrounds were scattered throughout, filled with colorfully painted trailers. Fire pits and tents sat beside the small rental homes, and people gathered and shared with one another. Marfa holds a small interactive community. It serves as an escape from reality, a world in which what happens on the outside is at most inspiration, and everywhere else seems far away. This sounds nice, but I quickly found that inherent isolation is counterproductive to building a healthy and empathetic world.
Ideas here spread from mouth to ear to mouth to ear. There is no lack of information. Marfa began as an oasis for artists with its wide open spaces serving as a breeding ground for creativity. Galleries are all over town and one could spend a full weekend walking in and out. The town holds curiosities ranging from Warhols on exhibit to a white house I spotted on my second day with a sign that said: “Come on in, Y’all means all.” I was greeted by a short man, who was oddly pale despite the burning Texas sun. He was being swallowed by his cowboy hat, “Hey! I'm Ryder, welcome to my home. Yeah, it’s my home, and my studio, and yeah my gallery too. All of my furniture is the art and the art on the walls, is also art. See those chips over there by the couch, that’s also art! So, like, don’t touch anything. I’ll be in my kitchen creating some more things if you need me.” Before I could even get a question or a thank you out he was back in his kitchen… making… “art”. Inside the restaurants, there are also all kinds of projects. I recall a specific piece inside a coffee shop with a fist in the middle that stated: “resist fear, assist love”.
Overpriced concept restaurants and young white creatives rule this town. It’s a hipster haven, a place disguised by tiny artful homes. But when I began to look a little closer, it is clear that this is not a random mountain town. If you can see beyond the vintage trailers and the outside showers and even the dirty cowboy look many of the residents have going on, the gig is given up by the organic “locally sourced” mosquito repellent that cost me 18 dollars (that one still hurts). After the sticker shock from the bug repellent, I realized I’d missed the Porsches in the driveways.
The most paradoxical part was not rich people living in the desert pretending to be poor people, or paying exuberant amounts to sleep outside. I soon came to realize that the only reason someone would choose to shower outside, including myself, is because they know they don't actually have to. When my “rustic” weekend trip was over I would be able to return to normalcy to tell tales of my weekend in the mysterious town.
Despite the obvious privilege that the town tries to cover up, it was only an hour drive from the southern border of Texas and Mexico. This is the border that has been making non-stop news this year, as the crackdown on people seeking asylum has wreaked havoc on families. This is the border swelling with suffering as new policy preys on those who are already vulnerable, and it was just a few miles away. Regardless, things seemed to be running as normal in this town.
Out in the warm desert night, we listened to a small band who sang haunting bluesy tunes. We were happy, dancing and enjoying one another. We all came from different places, but here it didn’t seem to matter. We were all under the same bright moon in this little town. In this seemingly diverse group, we were connected in obvious ways, like an interest in art or the fact that we had been driving all day to reach the town, but also in the fact that each of us was paying absurd amounts just to sleep outside, allowing us to see this free concert and enjoy our “southwestern” themed snacks. That night, if you paid close enough attention, you could almost feel heartbreak riding on the breeze from the town over.
While we were out dancing under the stars, sleeping in the heat for fun, and showering outside, people only an hour away were being detained while running for their lives. Just an hour away children were being ripped from their parents and forced to camp in former Wal-Marts. We were a mere town away from so much human anguish, but in a calm and colorful place like Marfa, it all seemed so far. It was as if we had gone away to planet Marfa. That is precisely the point of the town. With art, creativity, and security surrounding me, everything else seemed otherworldly and unimportant.
As the weekend went on, and news from the border began to heat up, I asked around to residents if anyone was planning on going to protest near holding facilities. I was met with half-hearted and repetitive responses, “it’s such a shame that’s all happening”, or “oh not this weekend, it’s so far,” though the closest grocery store is about forty minutes away. It was strange how little it all seemed to matter, despite living so close to the conflict, while simultaneously striving to make being poor trendy and not caring about the actual poor. The impassivity quickly became disturbing. People used their human right to mobility to travel all the way to Marfa for work or fun or new experience, but didn’t see the validity or necessity of actively supporting those who want to do the same thing but in much more grave circumstances. I began to feel sick. Inside of million dollar foundations for painters and craftsmen, I started to recognize my own complacency, nagging at me like an itch as the weekend came to a close.
Everyone forms their own realities, however, those realities are not independent. We affect each other, even if we are isolated or hidden. Even if we live in a small, curated desert town. Even if we make art on our kitchen table. When I arrived I was welcomed with open arms, it is a warm town. But, who do we greet with open arms? I met a woman in a restaurant, and she invited me to come to see her home. She opened herself up to me, but if I weren’t wearing a trendy bohemian style dress, or didn’t speak English, would I have been so warmly welcomed? I laid in my trailer and thought about how scared those so close to me might have been feeling, and how alone. Can we care about people of “different” status? Most people visiting and living in Marfa would consider themselves open and liberal, but how do we choose who we decide to camp with and dance and eat with? How far does our community table stretch? I would argue that there are enough seats for us all, but we have to try. How can we dissociate the food we are enjoying from the people it actually belongs to? How can we camp out on the border all the while, disregarding those we are emulating?
I realized I was just as bad, indulging in my “minimalist” desert fantasy. On my last day in the gilded town, I casually strolled through art galleries. I looked at works from all different kinds of artists and I was comfortable, a luxury compared to the conditions many others nearby faced. A long line of menacing looking white pickup trucks rolled through the downtown center that afternoon. It was a line of Immigration Enforcement trucks, most likely on their way to the next town over. People didn’t bat an eye, this was routine, of course, they wouldn’t stop here. Residents outside just smiled and waved at the procession and went back to eating their avocados, most likely picked by migrant workers, and making their art, unbothered. I stood watching, bathing in my own hypocrisy as I too, walked into another gallery.