The late, great Texas political wit Molly Ivins once said, “Listen to the people who have ideas about how to fix things, not the ones who just blame others.” She would have loved Steven Garza.
The soft-spoken 2019 Mayde Creek High School grad is one of the breakout stars of the documentary Boys State, the 2020 winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize. The film, already touted as a 2021 Oscar documentary front-runner, chronicles hormones and ambitions running amok at the 2018 session of Texas Boys State, the American Legion-sponsored program that’s drawn about 1,100 Texas high-school students to Austin each June since 1940. During the week-long program, they form a mock state government complete with two political parties, a legislature, and a full slate of elected officials, from governor down to sheriff.
“They bring together young people with different politics in the same room, and they have to talk to each other,” says filmmaker Jesse Moss, who co-directed Boys State with wife Amanda McBaine. “I loved discovering that there was a space—and is a space—in America like that.”
Moss and McBaine met Garza while scouting a Boys State orientation for subjects to spotlight and clicked right away. “It’s a little hard to describe what drew us to him,” says Moss. “We just connected with him emotionally and were curious to see how he would do, not expecting him to do well.”
Garza’s background, including his ethnicity and progressive politics, made him a dark horse among the overwhelmingly white, conservative attendees.
Although Garza was born in the Rio Grande Valley, Garza’s parents split when he was seven, and he moved to Houston with his mother and brothers, later settling in the Katy area. He often went days without seeing his mother, as she worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. “She was born in Mexico, and she’s doing all these things so that her kids can be okay and they can get ahead in life,” he says. “I learned that at a very young age, and it influenced me to become studious and to care about school and not get involved in the wrong crowd.”
That focus was soon geared toward history and politics. After attending a 2015 Bernie Sanders rally, he delved into campaign volunteer work for Democratic congressional candidates, including Beto O’Rourke. When friends urged him to apply to Boys State, he even convinced the selection committee that his low math grades were evidence of his dedication.
Early in Boys State, attendees were warned in a sobering speech: “This is the first time you’re going to taste defeat. A lot of you are going to lose every single election you run for.” Undaunted, Garza was declared for governor, thinking if the cameras were going to follow him around, he might as well run for something big. His main opponent in the primary was Rob, a West Point-bound lad who at one point announces he’s sold some Bitcoin to buy new cowboy boots.
The cameras followed Garza late into the night as he struggled to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. Throughout the primary, he trusted his instinct that kids would respond to a leader being real with them.
“When somebody goes up there and brings up a very serious topic, and you can kind of feel that they have a passion for what they’re talking about, it’s calling them to their higher selves,” Garza says. “I knew I could get them on my side.”
Despite being a fish out of water, his political talents—a mix of humility, ability to listen and build a consensus, and some remarkable speechmaking skills—secured him the gubernatorial nomination, even after his work organizing Houston’s 15,000-person March For Our Lives became an issue within his heavily pro-Second Amendment party.
The general election was a different story, proof that even the hyper-idealistic Boys State is not immune to underhanded tactics. But Garza left determined to, as he says, “defy failure.” (He unapologetically admires Napoleon Bonaparte.)
“What I really like about the program is that it gives any kid who may not have been the smartest or the most popular person at school a chance to thrive in an environment where nobody knows who they are,” he says, “to reinvent themselves and push their better self out there to win.”
His doggedness throughout that week made Boys State something very rare indeed: a political film that’s about more than just winning and losing.
“I think with his temperament, his strength, his life experience, he’s really poised to be one of many strong young leaders who are going to help us move forward,” Moss says. “And who are able to kind of forge, maybe, a new politics.”
Since the filming Garza has become his family's first high school grad and is now a sophomore at the University of Texas-Austin. Everyone who’s seen Boys State—including classmates who shout it out in Zoom sessions—asks Garza if he plans to run for office someday. Like any good politician, he’s reluctant to answer. “I came from nothing, and I can go back to nothing instantly, too,” he demures.
For now the 19-year-old is taking it day by day and is considering a double major in history and political science. This has been a strange year, he admits. First his performance in the documentary made him famous. Then the pandemic uprooted his life, sending him back to Houston to study remotely last spring. He and his family contracted Covid-19 in July and all recovered without incident, but Garza still calls the experience “the worst illness any of us ever had.”
As to what comes after college, he can see himself working behind the scenes on political campaigns or even as a history teacher someday, but whatever his future may hold, Garza is intent on using his talent to good purpose. He already has us listening.
“Now more than ever, our voices are important and need to be heard, because this is our country, too,” he says of his generation. “We’re inheriting it, and we deserve a say in it. We deserve a say in how things are done.”