Marfa’s Mexican-Americans Remember ‘Giant’ And Southwest Segregation

In 1956, the film Giant (based on the 1952 novel by Edna Ferber) took a piercing look at the Texas myth. It traced the rise of power from cattle ranchers to oil barons and examined the tensions between whites and Latinos. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won a best director Oscar for George Stevens.

Now a new documentary airing on PBS tells the story of some of the people represented in the film — not the handyman played by James Dean or Rock Hudson’s ranching patriarch, but the Mexican families who were played by extras. The film is called Children of Giant and it was directed by Hector Galán. He says, “At the time that George Stevens was filming in Marfa, most Mexican-American communities throughout the Southwest were segregated, and he captured it so perfectly.”

According to Stevens’ son, George Stevens Jr., the director had a level of creative control that was unprecedented at Warner Bros. in the mid-1950s. He says, “When you think of Giant — which was probably the most expensive film made that year, certainly the most ambitious — it was just so unusual for, at the very center of it, there to be this question of identity.”

The Burial Of ‘Mr. Spanish’

Giant was based on the 1952 novel by Edna Ferber. Above, (left to right) George Stevens Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and director George Stephens appear on location in Texas.

In the documentary, Hector Galán contrasts the progressive Hollywood vision of an interracial world with the nuanced realities of a border town. “What was happening throughout the Southwest with us — Mexican-Americans, I mean — we were enduring the same type of injustice that African-Americans were, say, in the South,” Galán says. “The African-American presence in the Southwest was very, very small, so we’re the ones that got it.”

Richard Williams also knew that world growing up in Marfa. “I remember people saying, ‘Don’t go in there. … Stay away from that store,’ or something,” he says. “You know, as a child, I didn’t know, I didn’t care what was going on, but we were instructed to stay out of certain stores or restaurants.”

Williams attended Marfa’s Blackwell School, a segregated school for children of Mexican descent that was housed in a tiny, drafty adobe building. He remembers how, in fifth grade, the teachers tried to get students to speak only English by marching them outside for a symbolic burial of “Mr. Spanish.”

“And during the burying of Mr. Spanish, there was a little mock ceremony of a funeral,” he says. “And everybody gathered around the flagpole that was in the middle of the campus. The students were instructed to write a Spanish word on a piece of paper. There was a cardboard box in which we were supposed to drop it in there. And that was a symbolic burying of the language, you know. And I know some of the parents were outraged.”

But Children of Giant producer Karen Bernstein cautions against using a contemporary lens to judge the intentions of Jesse Blackwell, the school’s namesake and longtime principal. “In some ways I think what Jesse Blackwell was doing was … he was trying to provide some uplift,” she says. “At least basics about math, you know, all the sort of basic literacy things that you need to live in an English-speaking society.”

Today the Blackwell School is a museum, but director Hector Galán says it took a while for old attitudes to change. “Even when Giantleft Marfa … I think it was another 10 years before they shut it down.”

The Future Of Texas

At a recent screening of Children of Giant, Anglo ranchers, longtime Hispanic residents and hipster newcomers sat side by side in Marfa’s movie theater. But Lucila Valenzuela remembers it wasn’t always this way, especially when it came to the rules of West Texas theater owners.

“We would have to go up on the balcony and I used to play this little game. … I’d come down and go sit in the very front row and he come and tap me on the shoulder. … I would spend the whole movie playing cat and mouse with him,” she says. “And it was just a fact that — why do I have to sit up there? Yeah, we could see the movie much better. But why is it mandatory that I sit up there? No. It was because I was Hispanic.”

Back in 1955, when Giant was filmed in Marfa, director George Stevens foreshadowed that Texas would become a majority minority state, which it did in 2011. In the film’s crowning scene, Rock Hudson’s character — the head of a wealthy ranching family whose son has married a Mexican-American woman — looks at his two grandchildren in a crib: one with light skin, the other with dark skin.

“My own grandson don’t even look like one of us, honey,” he says to his wife. “So help me he looks like a little wetback.”

Hector Galán says that is what Stevens and novelist Edna Ferber saw in their story: The future of Texas.

About Tom Michael

KRTS/KXWT News Director
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