Lone Star: Past Is Present

<em>Lone Star: </em>Past Is Present

Early in John Sayles’s Lone Star (1996), a panoramic drama set on the Texas border with Mexico, the film visits a parent-teacher meeting, already in heated progress. Framed against an oversize roller map of Texas, an Anglo parent protests that the school is “tearing everything down. Tearing down our heritage. Tearing down the memory of people who fought and died for this land.” The parents and teachers gathered in the classroom include people of both Anglo and Mexican descent, and it is the latter part of the population that constitutes the majority in the film’s fictional setting of Frontera. But the “our” in the parent’s objection clearly refers to Anglo Texans. As the argument escalates, one of the teachers, herself Anglo, replies that their goal as educators is to “present a more complete picture” of their border community. The complaining woman erupts, “And that’s what’s got to stop!”

Lone Star deftly navigates among a rich ensemble of characters in different timelines, including the present-day 1990s, yet in this scene it also seems to look forward, capturing the state’s ongoing attempt to advance a single version of Texas history through the 1836 Project. Established by a state law passed in May 2021, and named for the year that Texas declared its independence from Mexico, the project went into effect the year before Hispanics became the majority population in the state. Its goal is to promote “patriotic education and increase awareness of . . . Texas values.” This includes celebrating Anglo settlers and severely minimizing the roles of Mexican, American Indian, and Black populations in the state’s history. In other words, what was true in Frontera, Texas, in 1996 is now true for the whole state. Then again, perhaps it always has been.

I first saw Lone Star in the fall of 1996, on the high plains of Nebraska, with its ferocious winds and snow, nearly a thousand miles from my hometown of Houston, Texas. The slow, dark, brassy blare of the trumpet that opens the film resonated immediately, taking me to a familiar place for which I longed. Going to see Lone Star was a luxury for me as a graduate student completing a PhD at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, but it was also an extension of my education. My areas of study included Mexican American literature and representations of Latinos on-screen. I was frustrated by the cinematic depiction of Latinos in American cinema. With few exceptions, the women were sultry or suffering, the men criminals or Latin lovers. But Lone Star proved to be different, departing from these stereotypes and at times even mocking them, presenting audiences with a complex view of ethnoracial diversity in the borderlands. Awestruck not only by the movie’s powerful cultural critique but also by its mixing of genres—western, noir, murder mystery, and romance—I left the theater believing it was one of the most beautifully scripted, acted, shot, paced, edited, and scored films I had ever seen. I still believe it.

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