Frank de la Teja went from Teaching History to Making It
Professor and Department of History Chair Jesús Francisco de la Teja, or Frank to his colleagues at Texas State University-San Marcos, has spent his career studying and educating others on Texas’ past. Now de la Teja is part of the Lone Star State’s history.
In February 2009, Gov. Rick Perry appointed de la Teja to serve the first-ever two-year term as the state historian of Texas. The Legislature created the volunteer position in 2005. In this job, de la Teja will enhance Texans’ knowledge about the state’s history and heritage; encourage the teaching of Texas history in public schools; and consult with top government officials on the promotion of Texas history.
“To pick a Latino, non-native, who works on early Texas history is a very positive sign,” de la Teja says of his appointment. “It’s proof that state officials are capable of thinking broadly and diversely about the need to promote a vision for Texas history that is beyond traditional themes and a narrow segment of the population.”
His Views The traditional themes de la Teja refers to include the famous stories of 1800s Texas such as the Battle of the Alamo. He believes the teaching of Texas history in schools should focus more on the state’s earlier and more recent history. “The state's early history is also the story of northeastern Mexico,” he explains. “Latino children and all Texans should appreciate just how closely we are tied to the history, culture and demographics of Mexico, going back centuries.
“By the same token, the Texas of today is a direct product of a social and economic transformation that took place in the 20th century,” de la Teja says, pointing to the radical economic and political changes the state has undergone since 1900. “The story of the 19th century may be romantic and nationalistic, but it does not give students a sense of why Texas is the way it is today,” he says. “The 20th century story does that.”
His Past Interestingly, de la Teja isn’t from Texas. He was born in Cuba and raised in New Jersey. He earned both his bachelor’s degree in political science and his master’s degree in Latin American history from Seton Hall University. Then he came to Texas to earn his doctorate in colonial Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and his love affair with Texas history began.
An instructor recommended de la Teja for a job as a research assistant for novelist James Michener, who was writing Texas at the time. Being bilingual and having an interest in colonial Mexico made de la Teja the perfect candidate. He worked for Michener for more than two years.
“In that time I had to learn a lot of Texas history,” de la Teja says. “That led me to write my dissertation on Spanish San Antonio. Before I finished writing it, I got a job as an archivist at the Texas General Land Office. There, I had to deal with Texas history on a day-in, day-out basis, and my fascination with the subject was cemented. I've been doing Texas history ever since.”
His Present Since 1991, de la Teja has taught history courses, including Critical Issues in Texas History, Spanish Borderlands, History of Mexico to 1848 and Introduction to American Indian History, at Texas State University-San Marcos.
He has also written many books, journal and reference articles, reviews and scripts. His most important contribution so far, he says, has been five chapters of a college textbook, Texas Crossroads of North America. His chapters covered the period of dinosaurs to 1821.
“I believe that textbook sets out a way of understanding the importance of Texas's early story to all Texans,” he says. “It ties the more distant past to the present and reminds us of the vastness of the story of Texas. To the degree that those who read Crossroads come away with a better understanding of why and how Texas developed the way it did up to the arrival of Anglo-American settlers and helps make what happened in the 19th century more meaningful, I will have done my job.”
His Future In his job as Texas’ first state historian, de la Teja looks forward to blazing a trail. “I'll have an opportunity to shape how the position is perceived by the general public,” he says. “As a volunteer position, hopefully, I'll be able to work on finding funding support for the position so that individuals who don't have the advantage of institutional support can aspire to it without having to worry about how to cover expenses.”
But most of all, de la Teja welcomes the opportunity to share his knowledge of Texas history. “I look forward to being able to share my love and appreciation for the fascinating history of the state beyond my classroom,” he says.