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An Introductory Memoir
I've always been an outsider, a stranger in every tribe. That's neither boast nor complaint nor plea for sympathy. And it's certainly not a condition uncommon to others. It's the sense of remove from the world around him that defines the outsider, but this feeling of apartness goes beyond mere geography. Even in his own country, among his own fellows, in the midst of his own family, the outsider feels himself a stranger, a keeper of an alien heart.
Some feel like outsiders for obvious reasons, some for reasons more complex, some for reasons utterly and ever unknowable. In my own case, blood heritage and a borderland childhood no doubt played their parts.
I am the fourth generation of men in my family to be born in Mexico, all of us descendants of an American who himself was sired by an English pirate. But I'm the sole member of those generations who was raised in the borderlands—that long brute region flanking both sides of the Mexican-American frontier for roughly a couple of hundred miles in either direction and ranging for more than two thousand winding miles from the mouth of the Río Grande at the Gulf of Mexico to its western terminus at the California shore of Alta California. All along this frontier the outlands of two countries come together to form a culturally sovereign province. It is almost entirely desert country, stark and shadeless and short on mercy, and, with few widely scattered exceptions, sparsely inhabited. From the scrublands of South Texas and Coahuila to the fierce basins and ranges of the Big Bend and Chihuahua to the desert dunes of Arizona and Sonora, its people are mostly of a nature less wholly Mexican or American than an amalgam of both, a nature as distinct and remote and isolate as the borderlands themselves.
The pirate was my great-great-great-grandfather Robert Blake, the black sheep of a landed English family. He left Olde England for the New one and lived for a time in New Hampshire, where he was married and fathered a son before sailing south to plunder in the Gulf of Mexico. He was captured in 1826 and executed in Veracruz and was thus the first Blake buried in Mexican ground. His son John married a woman of established New England family whose fortune derived from paper mills, and he gained appointment as U.S. consul to the Mexican state of Jalisco. Thus, like his father before him, did John Blake venture to Mexico, albeit to a better fate. He fell in love with the country and established a profitable mill he named the Hacienda Americana, which remained in the family until the Revolution of 1910. He sired three sons but only one, Carlos Enrique, lived to maturity. Carlos was already managing the mill when his father was stabbed to death on the church steps one Sunday morning by a foreman with a grievance. A photograph of great-grandfather Carlos shows a quintessential patrón whose stern mustached visage and hard eyes bespeak no tolerance whatsoever for fools or disrespect. He is flanked by his family—by his four daughters, his two sons, and his Creole wife, Adela Arrias, born in Mexico of pure Spanish bloodline and the first Mexican woman taken to wed by a Blake. One son, Tomás Martín, would be killed at age eighteen when his mount fell on him. The other, Juan Sotero, was my grandfather. He rose to the rank of colonel in the Mexican army engineering corps, married a Creole poet named Esther Hernández, and begat two sons—Juan Jaime and Carlos Sebastián. Carlos would become my father.
My father was, like his father, a civil engineer, more particularly a builder of roads. He loved the profession not only for itself but as much for the way of life it allowed, and he reveled in that life for ten years before he got married. It was fitting that he built roads, for he loved to travel on them, loved to drive his Model A Fords, his Buicks, his Packards—all the cars he came to own in those wild free years—loved to drive them hard and fast over roads however rugged and raise great plumes of dust behind him.
As a young man, he went to work for his father in the borderlands and over the next few years built roads to Piedras Negras, just across the Río Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas; to Villa Acuña, across the river from Del Rio; to Ojinaga, across from Presidio. He built roads in various portions of the Sonoran desert including the brutal Desierto de Altar, comprising the whole of the region between the southwest corner of Arizona and the Sea of Cortez. He had by then formed his own company, and he and his crews played as hard as they worked. Whenever there was a town within thirty miles of their camp, they would head for that town's cantinas at the setting of the sun and there drink and gamble and frisk with the girls and fight with other construction crews and generally have a fine time. He loved the desert towns—Agua Prieta, Nogales, Sonoita, Mexicali. Loved Baja California above all places on earth, loved Tecate and Tijuana and Ensenada. Sometimes they went to towns on the American side of the border—Calexico, Tucson, El Paso, Las Cruces—just for the novelty of it, to flirt with the blondes. At a time when few Mexicans traveled more than fifty miles from home in their lives, my father and his crews were men of vastly traveled experience, worldly men of the borderland, and not one of them yet thirty years old.
Sometimes there was trouble with the American Border Patrol, and on one occasion my father was jailed in Tucson for a night as a result of a misunderstanding involving an American girl he'd taken for a visit across the border. So bitter did this experience make him for a time toward all things American that he refused to speak English, poorly as he did, for nearly a year afterward. And several years later when the U.S. State Department sent him a notice that, according to the Nationality Act of 1940, he was entitled to claim American citizenship on the basis of his American parental lineage and had only to fill out the enclosed forms to do so, he tore up the papers. In Mexico City his brother Juan received the same forms and also threw them away. They knew themselves as Mexican and no argument about it.
He met my mother, Estrella Lozano, at a dance in Brownsville, Texas, and the ensuing courtship was whirlwind. She'd grown up the only child of a Mexican horse rancher whose ranch encompassed thousands of acres just south of the border in Tamaulipas state. But her mother hated ranch life, and so her father bought them a house in Brownsville. She attended Brownsville schools and learned to speak English so well that her mother, who spoke no English at all, often chided her for learning it better than Spanish. She became a true borderland Mexicana—did the jitterbug and sipped black cows at the drugstore and thought Clark Gable was the living end. And then she met my father, and next thing she knew, she—who had never ventured farther from Brownsville than her high school graduation trip to Galveston Island—was waving goodbye to her grimfaced mother as her husband of less than three days gunned his yellow Buick from her house on Levee Street and toward the international bridge. Two weeks later she was in Baja California, as far from home as the moon.
She was at first thrilled by the adventure of it all, but my father often had to leave her alone in whatever house he rented in whatever pueblo was closest to the construction camp where he had to spend most of his time. Sometimes they were apart for days, and she'd become terribly lonely. Her only companions were the young maids my father hired to help around the house. The maids were sympathetic to my mother's plight and tried to keep her entertained with stories of the region, with accounts of ancient legends and tales of the haciendas that had long ruled that portion of borderland Mexico. In years to come my mother would tell those tales to me.
Yet there was no assuaging her loneliness, and in one of her frequent letters home to her mother she signed off by writing, "Sometimes I feel like this is the world," and drew a long arrow pointing to a circle the size of a quarter at the top of the page—and then drew another arrow down the margin of the paper to point to a tiny pencil dot at the bottom of the sheet: "And this is me." The first time I saw that letter I was a grown man, but the sense of isolation it conveyed struck me with a keen recognition. It well described how I'd felt most of my life, except that I had no idea where that large circle at the top of the page—which for her was both her father's ranch and her mother's Brownsville home—would ever be for me.
My father came home from the job as often as he could. Sometimes he could stay a few days, sometimes only for hours, for even less time than it took to make the drive from the camp. But whenever he and my mother were together they had wonderful times. They went to nightclubs if there were any in town, to cantinas if that was all there was. They drank and danced and made each other laugh, these young lovers who were as much in thrall to their passionately romantic natures as they were to one another, whom in truth they hardly knew. In photographs from those days my father is deeply tanned and lean-muscled in his short-sleeved workshirt. His hair is black and curly, his grin bright white. He sports a roguish pencil-thin mustache, and his eyes are full of daring. My mother's pictures show a girl, dark-haired and fair-skinned, sensuously slight, beautiful. She looks as if she could ride her father's strongest stallions with a sure and easy grace.
They lived in various towns in Baja California during their first six months of marriage, but my mother's favorite was Santo Tomás. Set on a tableland flanked by high jagged sierras, it was more a hacienda than a town in those days, and in later years she often described to me the region's spectacular golden sunsets and blood-red cactus flowers, its strange mountain winds, its richly green vineyards so beautiful in their contrast to the surrounding desert and mountain rock. In that old borderlands estancia I was conceived.
My mother was large with me when my father took her to meet his family in Mexico City. She wanted me to be born in Texas, but my father was still smarting from his experience with the gringo legal system in Tucson and was not keen on this ambition. They were still at odds on the issue when they departed the capital for the Gulf coast, where my father had to attend to a brief business matter—and where the highway to the border awaited their decision about my place of birth. I can envision them as they drove down the winding mountain roads and debated the nationality I should be born to, my mother arguing for the U.S. and all the advantages of American citizenship, reminding my father of his own Anglo roots; my father countering with assertions of his Mexican character and nationality and the necessity of his son being Mexican as well—and knowing he was losing the debate. I see him stealthily choosing the least direct routes toward the coast, in no hurry at all to reach the highway to the north, hoping, perhaps, that given more time my mother might yet capitulate. And then nature resolved the matter by nudging my mother into early labor. They rushed to the hospital in the miasmic and piratical port of Tampico, and there I was born Mexican.
I can imagine my mother's disappointment, my father's wide grin around a celebratory cigar.
We lived in Tampico but a short time before moving south to other coastal towns—Veracruz on the bay of Campeche, Salina Cruz on the Gulf of Tehuantepec—where over the next few years my father built roads along various shorelines. We did not live anywhere for longer than four months in the first six years of my life.
My earliest memories of the natural world are of seashores with tall palms and long sand beaches and trees full of squalling parrots, of wet heat and dense foliage dappled with green sunlight, of a series of different houses and all of them white and bright and high-ceilinged, with wide windows open to the sea and the sound of breakers. I was often in the charge of mestizo maids who laughed like little bells and had brilliant white teeth and warm brown skin that smelled faintly of sugar and smoke. They would take me to the beach to play in the surf and at naptime sang me to sleep with songs I would never hear anywhere else thereafter.
I was still shy of school age when my father moved us to the western frontera he so dearly loved, and I can recall my wonder at the dramatic change in the look and feel of the world. The land was now barren and sand-blown and dust devils rose and whirled across it. Long red mesas shimmered in the rising heat. The desert stretched to the ends of the earth under skies of stunning vastness, under a demonic sun that made blood of the horizon at every rise and set. During the following year, we lived in many of the border towns already familiar to my parents; but now, whenever my father went off to the camps and left my mother behind at home, I was there, as well as the maids, to keep her company. Some of the servant girls were from the high country and said they had come to the frontera to get away from the earthquakes that so often shook the mountains. I never forgot the tale one of them told of a temblor that opened the ground of her village and swallowed her family's hut while her brothers were yet inside.
Sometimes when my father was home from the job for a day or two, he'd take us to the nearest town for dinner in a restaurant; and sometimes, as we were driving to or from town along those isolated roads, we'd see groups of people—usually all men but sometimes there were women and children among them too—trudging over the desert hardpan with rope-lashed bundles and small bags on their backs. The first time I saw such a group I was amazed that anyone would be walking so far out in the desert and I asked my father who they were. "Mojados," he said. That's what they were called along the eastern region of the border, all along the Río Grande, "mojados" or "espaldas mojadas"—wetbacks—because they got soaked in their illegal crossing of the river to get to the American side. But most of the western region of the borderland was open country and without fences and people could simply walk through the desert and into the United States. My father thought all of them, no matter how they sneaked across, should be called estúpidos for wanting to go to the U.S. in the first place.
On that car trip I heard for the first time about the desperate risks some people were willing to take in order to get to the United States, to el norte—to what they were sure would be a better life than they would ever know in Mexico. Before long we would move to Texas, and I would see them—my countrymen, yet as different from me as moonpeople— stooped and dragging long bags behind them in the cotton fields, picking vegetables on their knees, toting boxes of produce on their shoulders from field to truck. There would come a day in South Texas when my mother would see me looking out the car window at a field of cotton pickers and she'd say, "We're lucky, Jaimito. We're very lucky."
My mother was now trying to instruct me in the rudiments of English, but I was steadfastly opposed to learning the language of Americans. I'd often overheard my father and his friends talking about them—gringos, they called them, enunciating the epithet like it had a bad taste—and I refused to learn the language of such a mean and brutish people. No amount of my mother's reasoning against such bigotry could sway me. Whenever she tried to teach me so much as a phrase in English, I would put my hands tightly over my ears and sing Mexican songs at the top of my voice. It maddened her no end and vastly amused my father.
One day, shortly after we settled into yet another rented house, my mother took me with her on a shopping trip to Calexico. It was my first time on the American side of the border, and there I saw gringos by the dozens and heard their growling language everywhere. And I couldn't help but remark that most of them looked more like me than most Mexicans did.
In a small eatery whose air was thick with strange wonderful smells, my mother bought me my first hamburger. As he set our plates in front of us, the American proprietor said something to me in English and then smiled and spoke to my mother, who laughed and said something to him in return. When he went to wait on another customer, I asked her what he'd said. She started to tell me, then stopped short and smiled sweetly and said she'd be glad to teach me a little English so I wouldn't have to depend on others for the rest of my life to find out what people around me were saying.
The ploy worked. In the remaining months before we left the western borderland and moved to the lower Río Grande Valley, I learned to speak English well enough to make my mother smile and my father shake his head and mutter.
Excerpted from Borderlands by James Carlos Blake. Copyright © 1999 James Carlos Blake. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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