texas winter storm

The Cold, Hard Truths About Texas

by | April 15, 2021

Fourteen Days Later

It is the second week after the polar vortex wreaked havoc and we now rely on aid from the federal government for survival.

Bad weather has demolished the myth that deregulation advances independence.

Much of Texas has been shut down.

As the temperature drops to 9 degrees at night, my family has been living without electrical power. We curl under blankets, lighting candles, trying to read to distract ourselves from the encroaching cold. To prevent freezing, a steady drip runs through our pipes until the local utility company cuts the supply. Our water reserves drop to dangerously low levels, allowing bacteria to seep into the system. Pipelines freeze and burst. At least our ceiling hasn’t collapsed. Many in my community will have to wait for weeks until a plumber can come to perform necessary repairs. Luckily, I have a family friend who does plumbing so we don’t have to wait too long.

According to Tiffany Young, the spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the polar vortex has affected more than 14.9 million Texans. To date, as I write 14 days after the snowstorm, many of my friends remain dependent on bottled Ozark Spring Water or Texas Spring Water.

The storm of 2021 is reminiscent of an earlier one. In 2011, a storm struck my hometown, the city of El Paso, a southwestern community known for its mild, sunny winters. I lived there when that earlier polar vortex hit, and it revealed that we were unprepared. I remember dragging a queen mattress to the living room and cuddling with my young children under layers of blankets as we tried to sleep in subzero temperatures. The cold went on for days. I don’t remember what we ate or how we made it through broken water lines and days without heat, but I do remember the bone-chilling ice against my face. Carbon monoxide poisoned families trying to stay warm in their cars. The day the temperature hit 25 degrees, we rejoiced in our newfound warmth. However, the media reported little on this death-freeze, and state authorities remained as apathetic as they’ve always been toward the mostly Latinx city. It was as if we didn’t exist or, worse yet, as if somebody didn’t mind if we froze.

El Paso learned its lesson. Under the auspices of Western Interconnection, the power grid that stretches from Western Canada to South Baja California, the power plant winterized its electrical grids for future storms. The rest of Texas, served by the Texas Connection and the power grid known as ERCOT, continued to live under deregulation and opted not to winterize. Authorities state that this choice was made to keep utility costs down. Consequently, South Texas plunged into icy darkness 14 days ago. El Paso remained illuminated and warm. Perhaps El Paso politicians figured not to look to Austin for answers.

This time around, my family fares better than most folks in Austin, San Antonio, and Houston.

Our county’s power is, for the most part, restored 48 hours after the blackout. After 3 more days, clean water finally runs through our pipelines. Frankly, I didn’t know how people were flushing their toilets until the news showed people piling snow in buckets to use for toilet water.

I pissed in the frozen woods in my backyard.

As I write this, it’s one of those sad, brown mornings after a storm sends pre-spring flowers back to winter, a short-lived day or two of color before the frost. I must admit it was pleasant to feel thick snow under my tennis shoes. We don’t have snow boots or whatever socks are used in wintry places. It was peaceful. Cold. Once the power went off, it stopped being fun. Perhaps exacerbated by climate change, the polar vortex is a random weather event. It is an unusual experience this far south.

On this fourteenth day, at least 40 deaths have been reported. Less than 30 minutes from where I live, a young boy has died of hypothermia. I imagine the death toll will climb by the time I’m finished writing. I pray for the people at home who depend on oxygen concentrators powered by electricity. I think of folks killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. I consider how this devastation will disrupt COVID-19 vaccinations. When the storm was at its worst, our local storm shelter exceeded capacity, prompting the public library to open its doors. On my street, several homes operated on generators until fuel ran out. Then, we all returned to ice and darkness.

These events unfold as former Governor Rick Perry announces that Texans would rather live in the dark than be under federal regulation. As usual, his words are bullshit. No one wants to live in cold darkness. We rely on electrical power to communicate, to connect during this pandemic, to work, to educate. Senator Ted Cruz decides to skip the cold and take his family to Cancun. He’s seen boarding a plane to Mexico as all hell breaks loose. To quell the bad publicity, he returns spouting lame excuses. Texans are divided in condemning Cruz, an accurate reflection of the state’s political divide.

Immediately, our esteemed governor and his partisans deflect, blaming the state-wide failures that resulted from their decisions on wind turbines, which by the way, comprise only a fraction of our energy. Texas is a fossil fuel state, not a renewable energy state. Our politicians are an opportunistic pack and they engage in a revisionist tradition, like rewriting Texas history. Remember in 2018 when the Texas State Board of Education voted to remove Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller as historical figures from the Texas curriculum? The controversy led to national embarrassment, forcing re-consideration and reinstatement of the two a month later. Clinton became the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party, and Keller was one of the first women to advocate for disabled folks. If those two do not embody citizenship, who does?

The Metaphorical Darkness

I won’t fool myself. I am a product of my state’s public education system. This system taught me that white men reigned as history’s heroes and that our white teachers were superior to our mothers.

The failure of Texas goes beyond wifi. It is a failure of ethos.

The blackout has left me with time to reflect on my Texas childhood. A daughter of immigrants, white-washed and shamed for my brownness and non-compliance to the Texas Way, this blackout has ignited an anger I’ve felt for most of my life. This anger is directed toward the state that I love and the darkness that engulfs me is both visible and metaphorical. During my school years, teachers challenged me to assimilate. I struggled. I was hungry for knowledge and acceptance. I was also very perceptive.

I won’t fool myself. I am a product of my state’s public education system. This system taught me that white men reigned as history’s heroes and that our white teachers were superior to our mothers. We were brown kids digesting the Texas Way, being fed distorted narratives and half-truths, denied any mention of people like ourselves. Our white teachers looked down on us with disapproval when we spoke Spanish. Once, in second grade, I asked to go to the bathroom, but because my teacher failed to understand my English, she ordered me to repeat my request. By the time she understood, I had peed on myself—the hot liquid spilling between my legs and onto the carpeted floor in front of my peers. The shame of that day never left me. To date, I feel irrevocable hatred toward that teacher. I wasn’t the only one who suffered such indignities. We were often lined up to be checked for lice. If one was found, teachers would take a piece of scotch tape and affix it to the offensive hair that held the iridescent bug. They then promptly marched us to the school bus which deposited us at home.

I spent most of my childhood navigating the white world on my own—translating for my parents, filling out paperwork written for English readers, advocating for myself at school—to the exasperation of white teachers. Why must this child be so problematic? Why can’t she just shut the hell up! I observed the mannerisms of white folks—they smiled, looked nice, their eyes glaring with superiority and judgment. It’s maddening. We are made to feel inferior for being brown but still required to be proud Texans. This toxic concoction is likely to trigger an identity crisis or piss you off if it doesn’t sedate you.

Higher education helped me to fill in the gaps of Texas-U.S. history, and once I learned the historical truth, I became livid. Some might accuse me of overgeneralization but let me be clear on this— not much has changed since I received my public-school education in the 1970s. We just witnessed white supremacy flagrantly reemerge on a grand scale. In 2016, a particular style of white supremacy marched out of the plush white Republican neighborhoods of the South and Midwest. The North is not excused.

The Ethos Problem

The debacle of our Texas power grid’s failure is a historical problem. It is a systemic problem. It is a problem of hegemonic masculinity that is alive and thriving in Texas’s small towns, particularly in East Texas.

Texas has been shameless in its attempt to destroy the history of brown people. The state has worked hard to embed its white version. The tendency to rewrite history is ripe as melon here and I imagine that’s the case throughout most of the South. States that lost the Civil War continue to treat the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage. What heritage? I suppose some Southerners are proud that their ancestors fought to defend chattel slavery. One narrative says the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, that it was about “economics,” and that enslavement improved the lives of enslaved people. James Madison, “midwife of the Constitution,” notoriously wrote that the enslaved ought to be considered both “people” and “property.”

After the Civil War, the so-called heroes of the Confederacy were immortalized through statuary. The monuments erected by Southerners were a symbolic fuck-you to the federal government even as the federal government (and the North) withdrew in the face of Southern hostility, abandoning Black Americans to Southern whites. During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, Texas avidly participated in the perpetuation and maintenance of a racialized order. White Texans delighted in segregation and extrajudicial executions. According to the NAACP, Texas ranked as the third most dangerous state in the South when it came to lynching. Between 1882 to 1968, Texans lynched 493 people.

The debacle of our Texas power grid’s failure is a historical problem. It is a systemic problem. It is a problem of hegemonic masculinity that is alive and thriving in Texas’s small towns, particularly in East Texas. You see Texas ethos in the hugely popular and ostentatious Lone Star State and Confederate battle flags flapping in the beds of pick-up trucks and the Trump 2020 signs still stubbornly embellishing the front lawns of homes. The town I live in has adamantly refused to take down a monument dedicated to men who fought for the Confederacy despite our Black and Latinx communities’ outcries. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the monument 64 years ago and while our local BLM president has opposed the romanticization and celebrations of our racist history, community members continue to defend the statue, its apologists arguing that it represents Southern heritage, honors the dead, and educates the young.

The monument does the opposite. It dishonors and distorts.

In June of last year, a brave activist painted the monument black. The monument’s defenders promptly demonized the activist as a thug. The statue disappeared for several weeks. It was “restored” and then quickly returned to its place. Today, it is a disgrace to walk the Town’s Square and witness this monumental fuck-you. Now, I know what some Texans, likely those with a facetious cowboy mentality, will say: “If you don’t like it, get the hell out of Texas.” In my case, because I’m brown, they’ll bark, “Go back to your country!” I’ll say this much—I will not be stripped of my right to tell the truth, nor will I be leaving my state, Texas, any time soon. These are my ancestral lands and the fact remains that many Texans, like myself, refuse to live in the dark.

M. Miranda Maloney is an author, educator, journalist, publisher, and literary activist. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has been published in national and international literary journals. She is the author of The Lost Letter of Mileva / Las cartas perdidas de Mileva ( Yaugurú editorial, 2019 and Pandora Lobo Press, 2014). M. Miranda Maloney has a BA in Journalism and MFA in Bilingual Creative Writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. She currently lives in East Texas where she teaches English, writes, and edits. She is the poetry editor for Life in the Times, a forthcoming anthology, featuring writing and art from El Paso-Cd.Juárez border. She is the founder of Mouthfeel Press, one of the first bilingual, indie publishers in the U.S., currently on hiatus, but will be returning stronger than ever to continue the mission of publishing emerging and established bilingual and POC writers.