Guest Blogger Audrey Dolar Tejada, the founder of Strange Tango, on the evolving cultural reality of Middle America
Five years ago, I relocated from a Boston exurb to my hometown of Lawton, Oklahoma. In the space of a year, the national spotlight focused on Oklahoma and this city of approximately 100,000 located in the Texoma region between Oklahoma City and the Texas border.
With the steady supply of newsworthy stories from the mainstream media, it was as though the collective subconscious had converged on a truth that I have long acknowledged: Lawton is the epicenter of this millennium’s new, multicultural American heartland―a microcosm of the entire country.
►New York Times article on injured recruits in Lawton/Ft. Sill landed in the national section of the newspaper, May 12, 2006.
►HGTV’s “Design Star” final competition included designing a man cave for a Lawton soldier stationed in Iraq, August 27, 2006.
►Grady Brewer of Lawton won ESPN’s “The Contender” in September 2006. Mark Burnett, who also produces the hit television series “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” produced the show.
►Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King went on a road trip and crashed two weddings in the Tulsa area bearing wedding registry gifts. The adventure landed on the evening news and the episode aired on “Oprah,” October 10, 2006.
►Lauren Nelson, Miss Oklahoma from Lawton, was crowned Miss America 2007 on January 29, 2007 in Las Vegas. Lauren succeeded Jennifer Berry, Miss American 2006 and Oklahoma’s delegate to the pageant. The consecutive win by a single state was only the second occurrence in pageant history.
►The Westbrook family of Lawton had their dream house built on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” April 22, 2007. The episode marked the first time guidelines from the American Disabilities Act were used in designing and building a residence.
In addition, The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” has featured many Oklahoma eateries and specialties, notably the fried chicken at Eischen’s Bar and the steaks at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. Bon Appétit magazine named the world-famous Meersburger one of the top 3 burgers in the country.
In an earlier era, America’s heartland was defined primarily by geography. Middle America became synonymous with the Midwest and its mix of Rust Belt and Great Plains. Today, diversity is a hallmark of the new millennium’s heartland. In terms of population and size, Oklahoma ranks in the middle of the 50 states. We are 4th among all states for biodiversity, and our landscape includes mountain ranges, great plains and prairie, saltlicks, and eastern forests.
Politically, Oklahoma is a state to watch: the registered electorate is predominantly Democratic, although as a Bible Belt state with an evangelical Christian population Oklahoma often votes Republican. As the former Indian Territory, we have sizeable and vibrant communities of Native Americans, descended from the original 67 tribes throughout the U.S. that endured forcible removal from their homelands. African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans and Arab Americans are also represented by their numbers and assimilated cultures.
The economy is diversified and was insulated from the real estate devaluation that plagued most of the country. Oklahoma is a major producer of natural gas, oil and agriculture and has one of the fastest growing economies in the nation; wind farms and solar energy use are a model for the nation. Lawton’s own economic base includes farming, government, healthcare, education, industrial plants and small businesses. Goodyear and Bar S Foods Co. both have plants in Lawton. Defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have offices in town, and a Halliburton campus is located half an hour away in Duncan. Adjoining Ft. Sill is home to the Army’s field artillery. As military bases were closed throughout the country, historic Ft. Sill added more than 11,000 soldiers and their families as part of the Base Realignment and Closing Act (BRAC). In excess of $1 billion had been allocated to transform the premiere military installation in the span of a decade. A significant number of physicians in Lawton have immigrated from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa; many of these medical specialists operate their own clinics. Each year, Lawton students are accepted to elite and Ivy League universities including Harvard Law School, Cornell, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth and the University of Chicago.
The quality of life and affordable cost of living―housing stock ranges from older homes selling for under $100,000 to new construction, luxury properties of 8,000 s.f. or more that may be purchased for under $1 million―are among the reasons Money magazine named Lawton one of the Top 100 places to live. A major military publication also named Lawton one of the top two places to retire. Area landmarks are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Lawton Farmer’s Market brings vegetables, fruits, honey, eggs, gourmet foods, flowers and homemade products from family farms and local entrepreneurs to the table; ethnic food stores, restaurants and other family and tribal enterprises cater to the Filipino, Korean, Chinese, South Asian Indian, German, Lebanese, Greek, Latino, Native American, Caribbean and African communities. Nationally, our city is recognized as one of the most culturally diverse places in the country to raise a family.
As a writer and artist, my spirit draws inspiration from my environment. I have many of the conveniences of a major city without the congestion, traffic jams, lengthy commutes, cutthroat competitiveness and crime statistics that make urban life so stressful. If I want a 5-star dining or shopping experience, Dallas is 2 ½ hours by car, under an hour by plane. Oklahoma City is 90 miles away. Santa Fe, Denver, New Orleans and South Padre Island are all within a day’s drive. Located 15 minutes from where I reside is the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, the second most visited wildlife refuge in the country. Bison, longhorn cattle, elk, deer and prairie dogs roam freely amid the open spaces and scenic natural beauty. Camping, boating, fishing and photography are popular leisure and recreational pursuits; the extensive trail system is a mecca for hiking, biking and rock climbing. Neighboring towns and attractions include Medicine Park, an historic resort town that has evolved into an artistic community; the Holy City of the Wichitas, which is said to resemble the Holy Land from Biblical times; and the gold rush mining town of Meers, famous for its 7″ diameter Meersburger made from grass fed beef sourced from the restaurant’s own Longhorn herd. At 2,464 feet above sea level, the summit of Mt. Scott offers a breath-taking panorama of Lake Lawtonka and southwest Oklahoma.
People often ask me why I returned to Lawton. After all, I left Lawton decades ago to attend an Ivy League university, lived in 7 major American cities on both coasts and in the Sun Belt, and traveled internationally on 35 countries. My answer is similar to that of fellow transplants to the region who have worked at IBM in Boston, Microsoft in New York and Google in Mountain View. Life may take us far away, but love brings us back home. My family was one of the first Asian immigrant families to settle in the Texoma region almost 50 years ago, and my parents never left. Despite polish and sophistication acquired over a lifetime, I have retained much of the character of the community I call home. Native Lawtonians are hardworking, resourceful, friendly and virtuous. Proud and unwilling to accept hand-outs, Lawton has its share of multi-millionaires living in custom-built houses, but the region also has elderly people who exist on fixed incomes and able-bodied people who, given the state of the national economy, go hunting or fishing to place food on the table for their families.
A literary agent once advised me not to let it be known I am from Oklahoma. The old school/old media construct assumes that New York City is the center of the universe and that people who live outside its environs have little to contribute to the nation’s social conversation and collective wisdom. The Internet, however, has disproved that assumption. An Oklahoma-based blog, “The Pioneer Woman,” was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential blogs in the world with more than 10 million page views each month.
While I comment on current events and feature guest columnists from all over the country and the world on my personal website, “Strange Tango: Life as Art,” I also showcase and chronicle life here in the new, multicultural American heartland. Aside from my preoccupation with writing, our family is blessed with green thumb efforts from the garden and orchard from which I prepare artisanal dishes at home. We harvest by the seasons here—we can start picking vegetables in late-May, fruit in September. The fishermen in my family bring home freshly caught crappie from the local lakes, sometimes walleye, catfish or striper hybrid. Everything else goes back into the lake unless someone else wants them. We often grill and eat outdoors underneath the portico, talking late into the evening. The roses remain in bloom throughout November. Life is good.
Audrey Dolar (A. D.) Tejada was born in the Philippines and raised in southwest Oklahoma. She majored in literature at Cornell University and studied creative writing with the poet and essayist Kenneth McClane. Her graduate degree in broadcast journalism is from Boston University where her adviser was William Lord, former ABC News executive who produced “World News Tonight” and “Nightline.” Audrey entered academia after working in network and major market television news. She has worked closely with eminent Harvard Law School Professor and Vice Dean Charles Ogletree, a mentor and adviser to President Barack Obama. As a Harvard fellow, she also worked alongside Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Audrey’s writing has appeared in print, broadcasting, and online media, and she has experience in film and new media. She is a past elected member of the Cornell University Board of Trustees and was initiated into the Quill and Dagger Society. Audrey is inspired by her extended family of relatives and friends and her independent travels through 5 continents, 35 countries, and 48 states, to date. Her creative projects include: “Strange Tango,” literary fiction; “Millennium Muse,” narrative nonfiction, essays, and observations; and StrangeTango.com, a personal website/blog about life as art that showcases her writing, photography, and inspirations.