American Impressions, Chapter 39: Texas
The Unquiet Border
The U.S. border with Mexico is 2,000 miles long. Half of it runs along the Rio Grande in Texas. For seven days in September, I traveled that half from Brownsville to El Paso anywhere roads allowed, mostly on the American side. As different worlds go, the word “nether” occurred to me most along the way. There was the barrenness of the Chihuahuan desert west of Laredo, and at times the sheer distance from familiar sounds like a passing car or a radio signal.
Mostly, there was the violence, the absurdity, the filth that attached itself wherever people live, on either side of the border. This is not the kind of place anyone visits for pleasure. The few Winnebagos that venture south of I-10 do so only to see Big Bend National Park, deep inside that West Texas troth into Mexico, where the mountains are like reefs against the surrounding limbo.
In Maine last February, I had traveled the U.S.-Canada border as an exercise in self-satisfaction, admiring the way the two sides coexist with a boundary that’s more inconvenience than demarcation. The streaks across the frozen St. John River were the leisurely signatures of snowmobilers, not of aliens of any kind. The whole time I was there, the only sighting of a Border Patrol car was at the crossing into Canada itself. It was parked and empty. Along the Rio Grande, the Border Patrol is like a military presence without the weaponry. Its SUVs are everywhere. So are its checkpoints, several of them miles from the border.
I’m prejudiced against checkpoints in civilian areas, away from borders. Any kind of checkpoint. They remind me of Lebanon, where checkpoints were the pastimes of militias or whatever army happened to be occupying the sector you were traveling. You’d get stopped, asked a few questions, messed with depending on the mood of the idiot toting his M-16 at the barricade, the same idiot who might have been your classmate or taxi driver in a different era, meaning a few months before.
That’s not the only reason checkpoints give me the creeps. A Border Patrol agent checking your citizenship or a sheriff’s deputy checking your breath is bound to act objectively, or at least professionally. His checkpoint is nevertheless an imposition. It stops the flow of normal life, turning everyone who passes through it into a docile subject required to answer questions and show one’s papers. We’ve accepted this strange policing intrusion under the pretext of protection from drunks or druggies, or “illegals,” never questioning the validity of a strategy that turns us all, however briefly, into suspects, one that makes us look more Lebanese than free.
Naturally, I kept my resentments to myself every time I was stopped at a Border Patrol roadblock, knowing that, at least along the frontera, America is not quite itself. It doesn’t know what it is, having borrowed from south of the border Mexico’s ageless uncertainty about its own identity. The region, as Tom Miller wrote in his book “On the Border,” “does not adhere to the economic, ethical, political or cultural standards of either country.” Established in the 1850s, the boundary remains “a place where every conceivable form of illicit activity is condoned.”
Driving to Brownsville from Oklahoma City, the road flattened out after San Antonio, then got flatter, then got flatter still, and messy-looking. Towns became rare, and strangely ugly. I’d gotten used to a certain elegance on the Plains. Deserted towns, wide, empty avenues paved with red brick, shuttered businesses—but still elegant, tidy, at ease with a good past, even if it didn’t last. The towns south of San Antonio were tinny, their houses flat and box-like, with few steeples to break the monotony of the skyline. Even the fields were sullen, unevenly squared, haphazardly cultivated. They looked uninterested in being there, most of them hung-over from a cotton-harvest that had left them looking like neglected rugs. Streaks of gray-white cotton lined the road in thin drifts of summer snow. For the first time on the Plains, there’d been nothing worth looking at. That was my preface to the Rio Grande Valley.
Enormous energy expended on the border—in time, money, pain and sometimes blood—has to do with people trying to cross it illegally from the Mexican side, and people trying to catch them on the American side. It’s a game that annually nets anywhere from a low of 1 million arrests in 1990 to a high of 1.7 million last year. Drug-runners, bandits, hustlers and smugglers all are by-products of the game, which is anything but fun—for anyone.
Brownsville is in the McAllen Sector, which rang up 204,000 arrests last year. An arrest doesn’t mean anything more than getting caught and being sent back across the bridge. The same individual sometimes gets arrested twice in one day. OTM’s—“Other Than Mexicans,” who account for two percent to five percent of the traffic—are an exception. They can’t be sent back across the bridge because Mexico isn’t their country. They must be held for a deportation hearing, unless it’s a family traveling with children. In that case, they’re given a hearing date and released in the United States on their own recognizance. Everyone knows they won’t come back for their hearing.
The Border Patrol estimates that 70 percent of all illegal crossings are successful. It’s probably a low estimate. The biggest misconception is that most of those who cross are looking to live in America. Most aren’t. They’re shoppers, drug runners, or, mostly, commuters looking to work here at more decent wages than in Mexico. They cross, they find work, they go home to their families a few days, weeks or months later. A legal, 72-hour pass is to them a nuisance, a tracking device.
Beginning in 1993, Brownsville, El Paso and San Diego have made the game more difficult to play in those particular sectors by concentrating hardware, floodlights, infrared scanners and manpower at favorite crossing points. (The Border Patrol’s ranks have swelled from 3,400 agents in 1993 to approximately 7,700 as of August 1998. That has raised concern about agents quickly or badly trained in an agency that has come under severe criticism by Human Rights Watch for abusing aliens.) The sight of aliens losing themselves in the Brownsville population is no longer common; neither is the area as prone to banditry as it once was.
Aliens are now crossing elsewhere. Arizona is booming. So are other parts of Texas, like nearby McAllen and Harlingen. And Brownsville has another problem to deal with. Environmentalists sued the Border Patrol for its use of floodlights because they’re bothering the ocelot, an endangered species whose habitat extends to the Rio Grande Valley.
I rode “The Line,” as agents refer to the border, with Dagoberto Garcia, a Border Patrol supervisor. In three hours we didn’t see anyone trying to cross. It was a cloudless day. They like to cross during the patrol’s shift change, Garcia says. He showed me the tracks of recent crossings in the sand, several of them barefoot. We walked around in the brush where the SUV couldn’t go, down to the banks of the Rio Grande, where he showed me the discarded clothes, still wet, of aliens who know the drill: cross with a garbage bag full of dry clothes and immediately change, so the first hint of a crossing is wiped out. Many novices are caught in Brownsville just because they’re wet from the waist down, like a family of Poles that was caught a week before. The family of six was down to five. One of its members had drowned crossing the river. All along the Rio Grande, facing Mexico, yellow signs written in Spanish say: “Warning: Don’t expose your life to the elements. It’s not worth it.” Millions of successful crossings say it is. In another area of the border, alternating signs in English and Spanish say: “National Wildlife Refuge/ Unauthorized Entry Prohibited.”
Garcia has been on the job 14 years. He loves it. It’s secure. It pays well, especially for a place like Brownsville, and he likes the feeling of helping people, even when he’s deporting them, “especially if you’re lucky enough to seize marijuana, or to help save a life, or sometimes to tell an alien what their options are,” like citizenship.
Or protecting aliens from bandits. They lay in wait on the American side, knowing that aliens, especially those from Central or South America, come over with their life savings and exhausted from the long trip. They prey, they attack, they murder, beat, rape, rob, make a killing. They like to operate on the American side because on the Mexican side they have to pay bribes if the Federales catch them, which cuts into their profits, or go to prison—Mexican prisons. The possibility of prison isn’t as bad a deterrent on the American side.
Mixed in the endless routine of arrests and broken hopes, in the absurdity of what the Border Patrol calls a cat-and-mouse game it can play but never win, every agent on the line has a story about confronting desperation, and sometimes confronting his or her own role in the game. The overwhelming majority of agents, like Garcia, are of Mexican descent. They have relatives in Mexico. They know where the aliens are coming from, and why. Bandits, drug-runners and coyotes (alien-smugglers) aside, they don’t fault the people trying to cross.
”They’re trying to better themselves,” Garcia said—the very same words I heard half a dozen agents say along The Line. “But I’ve never lost sight that my job is to protect the people that are here already, legally.”
Protect us from Mexicans?
”You know why I became a naturalized citizen? So I could run for office,” Feliciano Garcia tells me, his grin making him look even more boyish than he naturally seems. His thin mustache doesn’t age him enough to match his 29 years, and his faded Levis and tan T-shirt, slightly paunched at the waist, further belie the fact that he’s in his third two-year term as mayor of Rio Bravo. “I was here when it was incorporated. I like the challenge because then they called it a baby—who’s going to carry the baby, take care of it so it can crawl, then walk. And believe it or not, I did it all. I made it crawl, and now it can walk all by itself. You know politicians, they love similes.”
Garcia was once an illegal alien from Monterrey. “My mom wanted a better life for us and she believed strongly in education,” he said. One of six kids, he was 10 when the family crossed the border with a 72-hour pass in 1979 and never returned. Garcia’s father had a job in Laredo as a heavy equipment operator. The family lived in a tiny apartment without air conditioning. The children couldn’t go to school or play outside for fear of being caught. “Everything collapsed on us the first year.” The family moved to a one-bedroom trailer house in 1980. Then things took a lucky turn. The Reagan administration moved toward granting amnesty and eventual citizenship to a huge number of illegal residents. And a social worker told the Garcias that they were eligible for subsidized rental housing—no questions asked.
”Two, three months later, they told us, ‘Here’s your keys’,” Garcia said. “It was a brand new three-bedroom, 1 ½-bath, kitchen, dining room, so you can imagine. That’s when we told ourselves it was great living in the United States.” In 1983, the family got Green Cards and stopped being afraid of the Border Patrol. Four years later, the Garcias bought land in Rio Bravo “when my mom decided we needed a house, and the American dream came true in the end. We built the house with our own hands. We put nails everywhere. If you needed one, we put in three because we didn’t know how to build a house.”
Garcia showed me the place, his grin full of memories, although the house doesn’t belong to the family anymore. The Garcias were flooded in 1989. They hadn’t been told that the house was in a flood plain. They moved to a better house in town, which they paid off two years ago. He took me there, too, introduced me to his mother, who doesn’t speak English, and gave me a tour of the place, a spacious, sparkling house where even the air conditioner, installed recently, is like a decoration. It’s the family’s first. As I looked at the Garcia children’s graduation portraits in the living room, Garcia’s mother said, through her son: “That was the only reason we came to the United States.”
Garcia is married, has children and a house of his own now, as do all the Garcia children except the youngest daughter, a senior in high school. We sat at the kitchen table and talked America. “I always say we were lucky,” Garcia said, using the very words I have used so often to describe my own family’s way out of Lebanon. “Any way you put it, we were lucky because a lot of people don’t make it this far or are still struggling to make it this far. In immigration as long as we have hope—I say hope because when my mom came to the United States she hoped we’d have a better life here—with hope comes the desire to make it. It’s like anything. If you put your mind to it, you’ll make it.” Illegal or not.
I had turned off the highway and into Rio Bravo, 20 miles before Laredo, for two reasons: The name of the place reminded me of the John Wayne movie my father took me to see when I was a cowboys-and-Indians-addicted boy in Beirut 25 years ago, and the town did not appear on either of my two maps of Texas. Maybe the Texas Department of Transportation did not want it to appear on any maps.
It is not quite a town, even though it was incorporated in 1989, and it has absolutely nothing to do with mythical Rio Bravo. It is a high-end colonia, one of 1,526 such settlements along the Rio Grande, peopled by 400,000 mostly Mexican, mostly poor, mostly neglected residents, thousands of them undocumented immigrants. None of the colonias appear on maps. They started appearing in the 1980s as farmers and developers who owned worthless land figured out a way to make money by creating subdivisions and selling plots to poor immigrants, legal or not, at $6,000 to $10,000 a pop. They provided nothing—no electricity, no sewer, no water. Desperate, poor, often “illegal,” their clientele wasn’t about to complain. For lack of enforcement, reforms in the 1990s forbidding the creation of unincorporated colonias without services has barely dented the developers’ zeal.
In Rio Bravo, three or four parallel avenues run about a mile each, with few cross streets so as not to reduce the number of lots. A structure sits on almost every lot, many of them unfinished shacks of cinder blocks or tin or plywood rimmed by accumulations of trash and the loot of scavenging expeditions. An elegant brick house with flower beds and a tended lawn sits next to a ruin that used to be a mobile home, which sits next to a one-room shack in a sprawl of squalor, goats, chickens, children, a vegetable garden, small walls of laundry drying in the afternoon sun and collecting dust from the unpaved streets. Every lot is an ecosystem of subsistence thick with the sound of large families and the smoke of bonfires. On the side of one brick house, older men sat around a small fire drinking beer, children played in the yard, and two huge, skinned carcasses of bovines were hanging from hooks.
And this, I kept thinking, is one of the few incorporated colonias with basic services and a $1.6 million city budget rich in development grants. It did not look very different from the shanties I’d driven through in Mexico in Matamoros and on the hills above Piedra Negras. And yet Rio Bravo is a half-way town to the American dream. “Everyone will tell you, ‘This is my first house’,” Garcia says, “and the way they built it is what they could afford because some people started with a 12-by-12 room. If you come 10 years from now, you’ll see the difference.”
He sees his family as the example—once illegal, now made. “If you saw us 10 years back you’d see only four walls and a roof, nothing else.”
I ended my run on the border in El Paso the way I’d started in Brownsville—in a Border Patrol SUV, on The Line with Rick Lucio, a senior patrol agent who had no illusions about the efforts of the Border Patrol. Border Control says seven crossers get by for every three arrested. To hear Lucio speak, the Border Patrol is a screening system. It can’t stop illegal immigrants. So it ropes off the cities as tightly as possible to keep the locals happy and car thefts down. It makes sure that as few criminals as possible get through, and with the smallest amounts of drugs. And it performs the necessary rescues from bandits and the river’s moods, turning every Border Patrol agent into a lifeguard at one time or another. Lucio has no illusions, either, that should the river of illegals dry up, many American businesses—farms, factories, sweat shops—would growl and maybe go out of M4 business for lack of cheap labor. The only thing shut out of the immigration equation is ethics.
We idled on the banks of the Rio Grande, at what agents refer to as Nicholson’s Crossing. “The Border,” the 1982 movie featuring Jack Nicholson, was filmed here. The traffic of El Paso’s Paisano Drive rushes by on one side, the Calcutta-like shanties of Cuidad Juarez rise from the river on the other. The Rio Grande is more like a brook that filters through boulders, silt and garbage. Crossing it would be a breeze, as it is for hundreds who do once night falls.
A few hundred yards up river, just ahead of where the Rio Grande gets past New Mexico and becomes an international boundary, an American dam diverts most of its water into America’s Canal for use in El Paso and desert settlements around it. It is one of the many routine insults that color America’s relationship with Mexico, what the Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz has called “the old relationship of strong and weak, oscillating between indifference and abuse, deceit and cynicism.”
Another insult is the thicker flow that the American border does let through—of trucks carrying millions of gallons of toxic chemicals generated by American plants, which are carried across the border and dumped in Mexican sewers.
Another is the sprawl of American factories called maquiladoras that rim cities like Juarez, where raw materials are shipped in, manufactured by Mexican labor at slave wages, then shipped out to warehouses on the American side for eventual distribution up north. Ford, General Motors, RCA, Westinghouse, and many more—they all do it, with Mexico’s happy complicity. Juarez has 300 of the 2,000 such plants along the border, where half a million Mexicans find work.
They earn $40 a week by putting in 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, in conditions for which the same American companies would face litigation and shame should they dare operate that way on American soil. The North American Free Trade Agreement was sold as an equalizer between economies. It hasn’t worked that way along the border. Nor was it a coincidence that the Zapatista rebels seeking redress for exploited Indians and campesinos first went on the offensive in the south on New Year’s Day 1994, the day NAFTA went into effect.
On a sunny day from the shanty hills above Juarez, you can see the sun glinting off the sea of cars parked in El Paso’s malls or the patches of manicured green on its golf courses. Lacking that, on gray days, you can still read the billboards of “Got Milk” and Howard Johnson’s promise of free HBO along I-10, where traffic’s momentum blares a message all its own. Nicholson’s Crossing mustn’t seem like that much of an obstacle, and it isn’t. The weight of those words—“illegal alien”—has gravity on the American side, but on a moonscape of opportunities like Juarez or anywhere else along the border and deeper into the south, the words weigh as much as a joke.
I picture myself on the other side, a little less lucky than I have been. I wouldn’t for a second hesitate to cross. The legality of it may be the Border Patrol’s formality. It wouldn’t be mine anymore than it was Feliciano Garcia’s when he crossed over with his family.
The fear about Mexico, of course, is that its brown people will eventually upset America’s good old Anglo values, as the El Cenizo controversy illustrated earlier this summer.
A few miles from Rio Bravo and 20 miles from Laredo, El Cenizo is one of the first colonias to make national headlines. The municipal government in this town of 7,800 passed ordinances declaring that all official town business, including City Council meetings, would be conducted in Spanish, and that employees found cooperating with the Border Patrol would be fired. The ordinances actually formalized the way business has been conducted all along in El Cenizo and towns like it. Conservatives across the country pounced on El Cenizo’s decision as an example of break-away immigrants who refuse to integrate into America. How tempting to agree.
But a less well-known detail about El Cenizo is a mural that young people in town, including a gang member, painted along the length of an entire block near the community center long before the controversy. The mural is a spectrum of symbols. It begins with an Aztec calendar representing the ancestral roots of Mexicans who have left their home and gone North. After depicting other suggestive images (a dark sky, a coyote, television antennas) it displays young children holding the key of knowledge, a computer chip and the symbols for law, medicine and the sciences—the elements needed to succeed in America. The gang member involved suggested that the Virgin of Guadalupe also be painted to deter a rival gang from desecrating the mural. The strategy worked.
The mural needs no translation.
TEXAS IN BRIEF
Total area: 267,277 sq. miles (rank: 2)
Population (1997): 19,439,337 (rank: 2)
State capital: Austin
Economy: Manufacturing, trade, oil
Nickname & Motto: Lone Star State; Friendship
Entered union: Dec. 29, 1845 (28 th)
Notable facts: Since the 1970s, the pace of Mexican immigration to the United States has tripled, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all immigrants to this nation, The Dallas Morning News reported in September. Two-thirds of America’s 31 million Latinos are of Mexican origin, and demographers predict that by 2001, nearly 20 percent of all babies born in the United States will be Latino. By 2050, 25 percent of U.S. residents will be Latino. “Mexican migration is distinct for another more poignant reason,” The Morning News continued. “This exodus appears to have no end in sight. Mexico has not sustained a healthy economy for almost a quarter of a century, and many wonder whether its current period of modest economic growth will continue.”
Texas in quotes: “He rode on, the two horses following, riding doves up out of the pools of standing water and the sun descending out of the dark discolored overcast to the west where its redness ran down the narrow band of sky above the mountains like blood falling through water and the desert fresh from the rain turning gold in the evening light and then deepening to dark, a slow inkening over the bajada and the rising hills and the stark stone length of the cordilleras darkening far to the south in Mexico. The floodplain he crossed was walled about with fallen traprock and in the twilight the little desert foxes had come out to sit along the walls silent and regal as icons watching the night come and the doves called from the acacia and then night fell dark as Egypt and there was just the stillness and the silence and the sound of the horses breathing and the sound of their hooves clopping in the dark. He pointed his horse at the polestar and rode on and they rode the round moon up out of the east and coyotes yammered and answered back all across the plain to the south from which they’d come.”—From “All the Pretty Horses,” Cormac McCarthy’s first novel in his “Border Trilogy.”
”On the Border: Portraits of America’s Southwestern Frontier,” by Tom Miller, is available in paperback.
”The Labyrinth of Solitude,” an extended essay by Octavio Paz, is still a excellent critical analysis of the Mexican character, Mexican history and Mexico’s relationship with the United States.
The Grove Press’ recent paperback re-issue of “Labyrinth” includes other essays dealing with Mexican-American relations.
Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” (“All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain”) is a lyrical, violent look at Texas and Mexico, with the border as metaphor between past and present.
* The U.S. Border Patrol: www.usbp.com
* Borderlands Information Center: www.bic.state.tx.us
* Texas tourism: www.traveltex.com