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San Francisco Chronicle
“Succeeds masterfully in making the daily life and communities on both sides of the border jump off the page in all their multi-dimensional glory.”
"We want to hold our kids close forever"
THE THUNK AND SLAP OF a volleyball game echoed through the junior high school gymnasium in Elsa, Texas. Sweat streaming from her forehead and a long dark ponytail flopping on her shoulders, Maribel Saenz connected with the ball, setting it up for a teammate who spiked it over the net. With a whoop of glee, the seventeen-year-old led her fellows in a brief victory dance. But the game eventually went to the other team, led by Mari's sister, Carolina, a lanky fifteen-year-old and the strongest player on the court.
The relative cool of the gym was a welcome respite from July's steamy heat in this little South Texas farm town twenty minutes from the Mexican border. And the morning pickup game provided a bit of diversion for a handful of Mexican American teenagers on summer break. Coach Mary Cruz, who grew up a "gym rat" herself an hour north in Falfurrias, had known Maribel and her sister since she began coaching them as sixth graders. "They're very well-mannered kids," said Cruz, as she stretched her hamstrings on the bleachers, half watching the game. "Their parents are very old-fashioned. Her mom has said to me, 'If she does anything wrong, you let me know about it.'"
Elsa, with a population of 5,500, is the kind of town where it's not too hard to keep an eye on a teenager. It's a town where just about everyone turns out for high school football games, and scores of fans drive hours to support the Edcouch-Elsa Yellowjackets at away games.
The town is in the heart of South Texas—a region with some of the strongest and most enduring cross-border ties anywhere. Maribel's life was deeply embedded in that world, and the conflicts she faced in coming of age were uniquely those of a border girl. In Elsa, as in most of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, store clerks address their customers in Spanish as often as English. Nine out of ten residents of the region are Hispanic. Some, like Maribel's parents, are immigrants from Mexico. But many families in the area trace their roots to the land grants of the eighteenth century, when both sides of the Rio Grande were settled by ranchers from Spain. Still other families have migrated back and forth across the river over time. The long relationship with Mexico has helped shape a distinctive Tejano culture, blending Mexican and American traditions.
Maribel and Carolina were in their element browsing the mall in McAllen or gossiping with friends at the local Whataburger, but they also drew freely on their Mexican roots. "At Caro's quince we put on CDs," said Maribel after the game was over. "My sister likes to dance to hip-hop. I like Norteño and Colombiano."
In her final year of high school, Maribel didn't challenge her immigrant parents openly, but her plans extended well beyond their dream that she stay close to home and join the family plumbing business, where they hoped she would put her fluent English to use in the front office. When it came to dating, though, her parents prevailed. In her wallet she carried a photo of Luis, a football player she'd been seeing for seven months. At her parents' insistence, however, the couple always took along Carolina and the girls' thirteen-year-old brother Juan Carlos when they went on a date. "At first I was so embarrassed, but then I got used to it," said Maribel. "Now we don't go out, though, because Luis got sick of going with my little brother. I see him at school or at the football workout and we talk on the phone. That's it."
Like countless Tejano teenagers in this border region, she felt torn between staying true to her parents' traditional Mexican values, which emphasize family connectedness above all, and striking out on an individual American path to success. Maribel mused about applying to colleges as far away as California and Washington, D.C. "My parents won't be thrilled," she acknowledged. "I told them I want to leave the Valley, and they were like, '¿Porqué? ¡Tan lejos!' I'm going to tell them it's best for me."
The Rio Grande meanders to the Gulf of Mexico through a vast alluvial plain where Mexico and the United States have rubbed off on each other for generations. In the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the flat river valley—known there as La Cuenca, the basin—is part irrigated farmland, part thorn scrub, and part urban sprawl. The cities of Reynosa and Matamoros have burgeoned in recent decades with the proliferation of foreign-owned manufacturing plants or maquiladoras. On the Texas side, the Valley—as locals call this three-thousand-square-mile region, is a checkerboard of cotton, sorghum, citrus, tomato, and sugarcane fields—punctuated by an occasional water tower. Strip malls of Wal-Marts and Home Depots flank U.S. Route 83 as it hugs the river. The small cities of McAllen and Brownsville are hubs of border commerce. But the back roads are dotted with modest farmhouses and struggling colonias, or shantytowns.
Some Texans draw an imaginary demarcation they call the Mexican-Dixon line from El Paso east to Houston, which essentially consigns heavily Latino South Texas to Mexico. The sense of living in a world apart is common among Valley residents. "We're pretty cut off from the rest of Texas through distance, geography, culture, and custom," said Juan Ochoa, a Mexican-born lawyer who teaches junior high school in the Valley town of La Joya. "You drive sixty miles out of here and there's a federal checkpoint that says, 'Protecting America's Frontier.' It's as if the United States starts sixty miles north of here."
The border region today is shaped by its history. The entire borderlands, including all of the U.S. Southwest, once belonged to Mexico (and before it, the colony of New Spain). In Spanish, the word for border is la frontera, the frontier. For the Spanish colonizers, and later Mexican leaders, these northern territories were a frontier to be conquered by missionaries, soldiers, and settlers, in much the same way as the United States approached its own western frontier. In the chaotic years after gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico had trouble establishing control over its outlying northern provinces and permitted Americans to colonize Texas. By 1835, more than twenty thousand English-speaking Americans—with little loyalty to Mexico—had settled there. When Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna acted to centralize power, reduce the authority of Mexico's states, and enforce the country's law against slavery, the Texas settlers rebelled, declaring independence from Mexico in 1836. But when the United States, bent on westward expansion and motivated by a sense of manifest destiny, moved to annex Texas in 1845, Mexico resisted, still considering the state part of its national territory. War erupted in 1846, and a U.S. invasion of Mexico culminated in the taking of Mexico City nearly two years later.
Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the fighting in 1848, Mexico ceded one-third of its territory (one-half, counting Texas), and the United States paid $15 million in compensation. University of Southern California geographer Michael Dear has called it "the most important belligerent land grab in history." With the stroke of a pen an estimated seventy-five thousand to one hundred thousand Mexicans, many of them Native Americans (whose own claims to the land predated the existence of either nation), became U.S. citizens. Though nominally guaranteed the full protections of the U.S. Constitution, these first Mexican Americans were soon relegated to second-class status. The physical boundary between the two countries was adjusted in 1853 by the Gadsden Purchase, by which the United States bought an additional strip of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico to obtain a more favorable route for the transcontinental Southern Pacific Railroad. With the boundary thus established, the frontier was converted into a border, an edge, where the two countries began marking off their territorial limits.
Cities and towns along the border exist as pairs: one Mexican, one American. Some, like Laredo, began as single communities that were divided in two when the international boundary was established. In other cases, a second town grew up after the Mexican-American War, as a counterpart to the original city across the border: Brownsville began as a U.S. fort across the river from the colonial city of Matamoros; El Paso grew as a railroad town opposite old El Paso del Norte, later renamed Ciudad Juárez; and the little cow town of Tijuana—south of the eighteenth-century Spanish mission and garrison at San Diego—gained importance only after the war placed the border there. More recent settlements—Ambos Nogales (the pair of towns of the same name, one in Sonora, one in Arizona), Douglas/Agua Prieta, and Calexico/Mexicali—emerged side by side later in the nineteenth century as gateways between the two countries. Nowadays, the Mexican cities tend to be much larger than their U.S. counterparts, a consequence of industrialization, tourism, and U.S.-bound migrants who haven't made it over the border.
The inhabitants of this fast-growing, in-between place at times feel like outsiders, misunderstood even within their own countries. "The border is really a bundle of paradoxes," says Jorge Bustamante, a Mexican sociologist on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame and founder of Tijuana's Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a research institute on border issues. "It's sort of a sandwich between the prejudices from the North and from the South."
In Mexico, the border region, distant as it is from Mexico City, has nevertheless developed rapidly over the past two generations, its economy and population growing on the foundation of a manufacturing base and proximity to U.S. resources. Mexican border residents benefit from the relative prosperity of their region. But because the border has long been an outpost, remote from the center of the country's political power and culture, its inhabitants are sometimes viewed with suspicion as not being Mexican enough. In the 1960s, the Mexican government went so far as to launch a campaign in border cities to strengthen national identity through educational and cultural programs and insistence on the use of proper Spanish, unadulterated by Anglicisms. Mexicans who live near the border may be derided by their countrymen as being too agringados, says Bustamante, yet they are, if anything, more adamantly Mexican because when they cross into the United States, "we know for sure that we are not gringos."
On the American side of the line, the border region varies from affluent, conservative, predominantly white San Diego County on California's Pacific Coast to the low-income, politically liberal, overwhelmingly Mexican American counties of Cameron and Hidalgo in South Texas. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where 85 percent of the population is Hispanic, residents complain of neglect by officials in Austin and Washington, D.C., feeling that because they live so far south in Texas—or rather, so close to Mexico—their needs and aspirations are little appreciated. Yet Valley natives point to the musical, culinary, and literary offerings their region has generated; while Tejano writer and anthropologist Américo Paredes and Tex-Mex conjunto accordionist Narciso Martínez may not be household names, they have contributed to the roots of American culture.
After the volleyball game, the players exchanged high fives and clustered, chattering, around the water fountain, then drifted out into the parking lot. "See you at home," called Carolina. She and Maribel each climbed into her own beat-up sedan and departed. Neither girl had a driver's license. But in the way of many country kids, both were competent drivers. Maribel drove home to change out of her sweat-soaked gym clothes. She steered her little Kia over the back streets of town, crossed herself as she passed the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and pulled into her driveway. "We have gallinas," she said, switching seamlessly between English and Spanish, her first language and the tongue she shared with her parents. She showed off the chicken coop and the young orchard. "And my mom has her papayas and banana trees ... apenas están creciendo. "
The Saenzes' modern brick ranch house was set back from the road behind a low cyclone fence. For Juan and Raquel Saenz, purchasing the house two years earlier was the culmination of decades of hard work and savings. They had each immigrated to Texas as teenagers, he from the border state of Nuevo Leon, she from a little terreno in Zacatecas. The couple had met and married in Houston, eloping after Raquel's family refused to bless the union. They had settled in Elsa when Maribel was ten, Carolina eight, and Juan Carlos six. Together with his four brothers, Juan Saenz had built a flourishing plumbing company, installing water and sewer lines for new construction projects throughout the Valley.
The town had its own bank, the Elsa State Bank and Trust Co., and an H.E.B. supermarket. But the main drag, State Route 107, was struggling, flanked by a used muffler shop, a trailer park, a convenience store announcing, "WIC accepted here," and an evangelical church housed in a corrugated metal warehouse, the Iglesia Betesda de la Palabra Viviente. A farmer sold tomatoes from the back of a pickup truck. A scrawny horse grazed a stubbly field beside an irrigation canal. A tire swing dangled from a tree in the corner of a dirt yard.
The Saenz's new, four-bedroom suburban home—one of a handful in town that display prosperous aspirations—was a welcome change from the family's previous abode, a cramped little house close to the school. But just like its humbler neighbors, the Saenz home sat in the path of a yellow crop duster that targeted the cotton fields surrounding it. "In the morning you can see the planes overhead spraying pesticides," said Maribel. "Sometimes they don't aim right and it lands on the house. My mom yells 'Get indoors!' I think sometimes people get sick."
Inside, the house was as neat as a pin, with a cheerful sunflower motif in the kitchen. The key rack held rosaries and a green flyswatter. A small bowl of chili peppers sat on the dining table. Carolina was already home, standing by the fridge eating crackers topped with chicken salad she dipped from a plastic container. Her cell phone rang. "Hi Mom ..." she answered. "En la casa. ¿Y tu?" The girls arranged to meet their mother for lunch, and Mari headed for the shower. In the living room hung enormous studio portraits of Maribel and Carolina dressed in formal gowns at their quinceaneras, the coming-of-age celebrations that marked each girl's fifteenth birthday. The framed photographs dominated even the overstuffed furniture.
More than three hundred friends and relatives had attended Maribel's quince. Her pale pink satin dress had been handmade across the border in Mexico, and she had been escorted down the aisle of the church by fourteen attendants, representing the fourteen years of her childhood. Following the mass, her parents had hosted a catered fiesta under a tent in their back yard. "We danced the whole night away. It was crazy," remembered Mari, transported. "Even when the band took a break we put on the radio and kept dancing. It went on until three in the morning."
For Maribel's mother, the most important moment had come at the beginning of the evening when her daughter knelt on the dance floor and all four grandparents prayed over her. "One by one, her abuelitos went to her and gave her their blessing," recalled Raquel Saenz. "We were so proud, because she had always been so well-behaved—she didn't drink or go with boys—and she was growing into a beautiful young woman. I didn't have a quinceañera because my parents were so poor. I wanted it to be possible for my daughters."
For several decades after the Mexican-American War put this once-Mexican territory firmly in the control of the United States, Texans of Mexican descent, or Tejanos, continued to exert leadership in the Rio Grande Valley—as landowners and merchants, local politicians and law enforcement. The English-speaking white Americans (known in the region as Anglos) who first settled here intermarried with Tejano families, converted to Catholicism, and adapted themselves to Mexican American traditions. But over time, and with the backing of occupying U.S. troops and the Texas Rangers, the state's mounted frontier police force, the balance of power tipped toward the Anglos. With the arrival of the first railroad line in Brownsville in 1904, the shift accelerated drastically.
The Valley's economy had been dominated by Tejano cattle ranches that produced beef for the local market. But some Anglo ranchers began clearing the chaparral and experimenting with irrigation systems to water row crops. Once the railroad opened an easy route to a national market for agricultural products, a land boom ensued. In the first de cades of the twentieth century, cash- poor rancheros found themselves unable to pay their skyrocketing tax bills and were forced to surrender their lands. In some cases they were expelled by intimidation and threats. In a few short years, a wholesale transfer of land ownership from Tejanos to Anglos took place.
Excerpted from The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport by Tyche Hendricks. Copyright © 2010 Tyche Hendricks. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Map of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands x
1 Elsa: "We Want to Hold Our Kids Close Forever" 14
2 McAllen/Reynosa: "Most People Here Work in the Maquiladoras" 31
3 Hachita: "A Fence is Only as Good as Its Weakest Point" 54
4 Nogales/Nogales: "If They Get Sick Here, We Care For Them" 79
5 Sells: "O'Odham First and American or Mexican Second" 98
6 Mexicali: "The Wind Doesn't Need a Passport" 121
7 Jacumba: "The Border is a Sham" 145
8 Tijuana: "A Constant Drumbeat of Killings" 167
Selected Bibliography 231
Posted January 7, 2012
No text was provided for this review.