Jon Mark Beilue: Discovering ‘Forgotten Frontera’

Jon Mark Beilue Feb 17, 2022
  • Community
  • Jon Mark Beilue
  • History
  • Arts
  • Featured

Jon Mark Beilue: Discovering ‘Forgotten Frontera’

First-ever NEH grant allows WT to expand Hispanic historical studies


Ask Dr. Alex Hunt how much is actually known about the settling of the American West, and the answer is – it depends. It often depends on where and what time period.

“On the one hand, there’s always more to be known, but in some regions, things are extremely well documented,” said Hunt, director of the Center for the Study of the American West and WT’s Regents Professor of English and Vincent-Haley Professor of Western Studies. “If you’re talking about Santa Fe, for example, there’s a lot of documentation of what occurred when the Spanish arrived.

“But if you talk about the southern Great Plains along the Canadian River, there’s a lot to learn because people only kept records starting in maybe the 1880s. Things have been going on a lot longer than that. That’s clearly our region. In a lot of ways, our region has been unloved. Our region is not one people gravitate toward. That’s true of tourists and scholars.”

To that end, Hunt and others would like to fill in those gaps, particularly in the Texas Panhandle and expanding outward. In 2016, he helped start the Center for the Study of the American West, which promotes the study of the West through graduate and undergraduate research, curriculum development, outreach and collaboration.

“We want to enhance the strengths already at WT, including the museum (Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum) and the expertise among our faculty in different disciplines,” Hunt said. “It’s a way to bring people together and realize we have a lot going on in terms of interest and concerns, and we need to be talking and working together to study our region.”

One of its initiatives is CSAW’s Forgotten Frontera project, begun in 2018.  Forgotten Frontera aims to recognize and document uncovered history among Mexican-Americans and Tejanos in the Southern Great Plains region.

The project has largely consisted of lectures and community conversations in Amarillo and Canyon. In fall 2021, Dr. Cynthia Orozco, an author, historian, and educator in New Mexico, lectured on Mexican-American civil rights leaders from the early half of the 20 th century.

Other community conversations have included “Art, Activism, Community,” a look at Amarillo’s mural barrio art projects and how public art defines community and its heritage.

In addition to giving WT faculty and others a platform, the Forgotten Frontera project has earned an award from the Western History Association, and has augmented WT’s standing as a Hispanic Serving Institution, a federal designation WT has had for 10 years.

At the start of 2022, WT will have the financial ability to enhance the Forgotten Frontera project with the University’s first-ever grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEH, based in Washington, D.C., is a federal agency created in 1965 and is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the country. Humanities consists of the study of history, literature, fine arts and philosophy.

WT and CSAW received a $150,000 grant from NEH. Grants typically go to museums, archives, libraries, colleges, public television and scholars. Among the NEH’s most noteworthy funding has been to the Ken Burns’ landmark documentary, “The Civil War,” in 1990.

“A $150,000 grant is pretty small when compared to some of the other grant figures you hear, but it’s pretty big for a humanities grant. In fact, it’s huge for a humanities grant,” Hunt said. “But more than the amount of money, it was extremely competitive, so to win this was quite prestigious.”

WT competed against research tier 1 institutions, most of which have grant offices and larger staffs to submit grant requests.

“Pound for pound, we were punching up,” Hunt said. “We were competing with those with a lot more resources. We probably needed the grant more than a lot of these bigger universities, yet we were at a disadvantage to compete. So it’s a big deal for WT to win one of these.”

WT brought in those from history, sociology, education, Spanish, as well as Hispanic organizations in Amarillo to help in the grant application.

Finding, appreciating unwritten history


Photo: Dr. Alex Hunt is the Regents Professor of English and Vincent-Haley Professor of Western Studies at West Texas A&M University and director of the Center for the Study of the American West.

The purpose with the grant is to take the Forgotten Frontera project and turn it from a community conversation into a University-wide humanities-based Mexican American studies initiative.

“The initiative responds to a lack of recognition of the unique Mexican-American presence on the Southern Plains and contribution to the region,” it stated in the rationale grant request.

“The complex and layered history of Mexican American on the Southern Plains is still mostly unwritten. The ‘forgotten’ Mexican American histories in our area predate U.S. westward expansion and continue to shape the region today. While some regional histories note ethnic Mexican pioneers, they emphasize frontier conflict, not Mexican American settlement.”

With the grant, WT expects to double the number of majors and minors in Spanish studies over three years with expanded courses, events and presentations. The grant will allow for visiting scholars to continue to give lectures, support faculty whose new classes support Mexican American history and culture in the region, fund attendance at major conferences, while also funding internships and an oral history project.

For Hunt, this is just another avenue in a path that has long fascinated him – the West.

“It’s been my whole life,” said Hunt, who was born in Alaska, and lived in Colorado, Oregon, Washington state and Texas. “I was conscious of the fact early on that I got to live in places that were epic and had sublime landscapes. I was always aware of Native American reservations, wilderness preserves and amazing landscapes that held so much interest for me.”

The settling of the West has long held an interest to the public, probably more so than the settling of any other region. For scholars and universities, it become separating fact from fiction, and to discovering the unknown.

“The idea of the West is where we find our strongest national myth,” Hunt said, “and it’s the myth of the frontier in a word. It’s the idea that you can go to a new place and remake yourself. As I say, it’s a myth. There’s a lot of real problems with that idea. Still, it’s an idea of who we are as a nation that’s very powerful and deeply embedded. That’s why the western film never seems to go away.

“There’s something very fundamental about that myth. Again, the myth has some real problems. We need to talk about it, and that’s what’s interesting to me.”

Hunt began as a geology major in college, thinking he would return to Alaska and inhabit the land he loved. But that changed to literature and history, and a way to understand the West through cultural and historical studies.

Hunt has two degrees from Colorado State, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon. He’s also at various times been a fishing guide and bull rider. But for the last 20 years, he’s called WT home.

“I’m very grateful to WT. It has given me a lot of freedom to do what I want to do,” Hunt said. “Ironically, in part, because it’s a smaller university, it’s enabled me to say, ‘I want to go over there and do that.’ If it was a larger institution, someone would be over there doing that.

“Because we are what we are, I’ve been able to move around and create opportunities, and that to me is fun. I don’t like to get into a rut. So that’s pretty cool that these things I enjoy doing can also be good for WT, to make us a better regional university and research facility.”

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at .