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Texas: Borderlands

Discussion in 'BBS Hangout: Debate & Discussion' started by basso, Aug 15, 2012.

  1. basso

    basso Contributing Member
    Supporting Member

    May 20, 2002
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    under the heading, "things i have read, and enjoyed, but not necessarily agreed with every word" is this, which i found interesting. you may as well.

    the writer is now a columnist for the Guardian. i found this via twitter. you can follow Josh here:



    Originally published in The New Ledger, October 2009.
    The U.S.-Mexico border is a dividing line on the map and in the minds of most Americans and Mexicans alike — but if you’re on that border, it is something else altogether. It is the axis upon which your region, communities, and often families turn. No section of the border experiences this phenomenon of the frontier-as-unifying more than the Rio Grande Valley. There, the river anchors dozens of paired communities for hundreds of miles, giving life and purpose to what would otherwise be yet another expanse of trackless, semi-tropical waste.
    The unifying border is illustrated in full by my father’s family and their history.


    When my father was a young captain in Air Force intelligence, he would tell me a bit about what he knew of life behind the Iron Curtain. It wasn’t close to everything he knew, but it had the twin virtues of being unclassified, and comprehensible to a child. You know how we drive from Virginia to Texas in the summer, he said — in the Soviet Union, we couldn’t do that without showing papers, getting permission, and being under the control of the government for the whole trip. If we were caught traveling without proper documents, he continued, we could be arrested, sent back home, or worse.

    This, to me, was a key difference between us and them. In America, we move freely; in the USSR, they cannot even drive for three days to see their grandparents. The idea was simplified in my young mind, of course, but it is rooted in a fundamental truth: liberty as Americans understand it does not exist without the presumption of innocence. That goes well beyond the courtroom: when any citizen undertakes any activity, the state should not interfere till there is evidence of wrongdoing. It is a simple principle, and it undergirds our basic freedoms as much as the First Amendment.

    On the U.S.-Mexico border, that principle is cast aside.

    Drive on the border long enough — and it need not be long at all — and you’ll inevitably come across a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. I’ve been through these checkpoints time and again, and they all look generally the same. (Specifically, I’ve been through them on I-10 in Texas, I-25 in New Mexico, and Texas Highway 90.) You’re on an open highway, and then ahead, you see the signs warning of an “inspection station” ahead. This bureaucratese blurs the purpose of the stop: most “inspection stations” in this region, especially in California and Arizona, inspect produce and enforce agricultural quarantines. These “inspection stations” seek people — and, if the opportunity presents itself, drugs. The checkpoint itself is often a large, permanent structure which collects and holds all the highway traffic, till drug dogs and agents can canvass them. Just as often, it’s an ersatz roadblock with cooling fans, some bored agents, and their dogs, wilting in the thick late-summer heat.

    Pull up to the checkpoint, roll down your window, and the questioning begins. The following are, verbatim, actual statements made to me by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the past two weeks, at checkpoints mostly in Texas:

    Where were you born? What’s your name?
    Where do you live?
    Where were you born, again?
    What’s your name, again?
    Where do you live, again?
    Where are you going?
    Why are you driving there?
    Who are you seeing there?
    Where are you going, again?
    Why aren’t you flying?
    That’s a long way, isn’t it?
    If it’s just you, it doesn’t make sense to drive, does it?
    Why did you choose this road, instead of the Interstate?
    Why are you alone?
    Are you alone?
    Do you smoke mar1juana?
    Have you ever been arrested?
    Have you ever smoked mar1juana?
    I knew a lot of guys in the Army who smoked mar1juana. You’re better off just telling us truth.

    As this goes on, an agent or two with dogs is circling your vehicle, peering in your windows, and looking for a reason to take you in.
    The questions are dull instruments, designed to elicit a verbal slip-up and give the agents cause to conduct a more thorough search. Someone will inevitably do exactly that: what comes to mind is the tale of the academic, nervous on his first trip to Israel, who told Lod airport security that he flew in on “El Fatah” instead of El Al. He ended up in a daylong interrogation session, and befuddled motorists giving inconsistent answers to the U.S. Border Patrol (”Where was I born?”) may expect a similar experience.

    At the permanent checkpoint about a hundred miles east of El Paso, a drug dog decided that there was something tremendously interesting in my car: mar1juana, apparently. I pulled over, stepped out, and submitted to about half an hour of further interrogation and search. At first somewhat amusing, the experience swiftly became embarrassing, and then enraging. No mar1juana has even been in my car, or in my possession — ever — and the Border Patrol’s inability to confirm what the dog was “telling” them as he roamed freely in my vehicle (as I watched from a hundred feet away) appeared to spur them to ever- greater suspicion and hostility. Are the cushions in my car seats not stuffed with high-grade Oaxacan mar1juana? Why then, it’s time to turn out my pockets and pull up my shirt. Isn’t it odd that the dog smells pot, and I’m traveling alone in this large Honda when a small one would do, near the Mexican border? Why then, I must be lying about something, so let us see if we can catch that lie. Am I refusing to crack, sticking with my story, and cleverly avoiding a cause for arrest? Why then, I must be a hardened criminal of sorts, so let us surround this one with agents.

    Of course, in the end, they had to let me go. The reluctance to do so was palpable, and chilling.

    Bizarrely, the dogs at the other checkpoints found nothing interesting about my car. I rolled down my window, went through the usual round of questioning, affirmed my American citizenship — without presenting any physical evidence of it — and was hurried on my way. I was reminded of what a California-based coyote, a genuine smuggler of illegal immigrants, once told me: “I roll down my window, yell, ‘American citizen!’ and they wave me through!” All this antagonism of state toward citizen, then, does not even have the virtue of efficacy.

    Needless to say, anywhere else in America, regular treatment of regular citizens by the local police force in this fashion would spark outrage or insurrection. In fact, it has, in urban neighborhoods where badly run police forces have alienated their beats with aggressive tactics — including the much-maligned racial profiling — that deny citizens the presumption of innocence to which they are entitled. Riots in modern American cities have many causes, and it would be wrong to ascribe them principally to bad policing: but bad policing is nearly a prerequisite for them. Reaching back into history, the state’s decision to assume wrongdoing a priori led to revolution in 1775 Boston and 1836 Texas, and the instinct of a liberty-loving people has not changed so much since then.

    Except on the U.S.-Mexico border. There, popular demands for cordon and exclusion of the dreaded Mexican drives the implementation of a regime of checkpoints and queries that are unique and disturbing in the Land of the Free. At the height of the Cold War, my father taught me that the phrase, “Your papers, please,” was the mark of the East German polizei repressing his countrymen. Twenty years later, as I sojourn through my father’s ancestral lands, I find it is also the mark of the U.S. Border Patrol.


    We are Treviños, and the Treviños established themselves on what would become American soil in 1830, when Jesús Treviño led his clan to the north bank of the Rio Grande. He built a tiny fort that still barely stands, and the community that grew about it became the tiny hamlet of San Ygnacio, Texas. San Ygnacio is now a dusty, dirt-paved collection of squalid homes and gorgeous 19th-century architecture that, though crumbling, still houses many of the same families that sought protection under the walls of the Treviño fort. Twenty-one years after the fort’s construction, Jesús Treviño’s son-in-law placed a stone sundial atop the fort’s western wall. It is a curious little artifact: atop the wall, facing outward, it is not immediately useful — except, perhaps to allow the bandits and Indians menacing the fort to know the time of day. But that is is the utility of the Treviño fort’s sundial, which affirms to the wild Rio Grande country that there are men here, building civilization — and that civilization radiates outward.

    Walk down from the fort — a few hundred feet — to the dirt landing on the riverbank, where the semi-wild dogs snuffle about, and the rattlesnakes lurk in the brush. There is Mexico, just a small river’s breadth away, and its banks are indistinguishable from ours, lush with greenery and forbidding trees. And here is Mexico, too, on the Texas side, with the descendants of Treviños, Uribes, Martinezes, Ramirezes, and all the rest, still in San Ygnacio, still speaking only Spanish, and still claiming this spot of land — once Mexican, then Texan, now American — as their own.

    Where San Ygnacio, Texas, is quaint and aged, Roma, Texas, is grand and in slow ruin. Miguel, Gerónimo, and Juan Ángel Saenz founded the town in 1765, and it was known as “Los Saenz” for years thereafter. Underscoring the deep roots of settlement in the Rio Grande Valley, Roma predates Texas by 71 years, and the United States by eleven. The Saenz family that founded and controlled the land remained through the centuries: today, if you wander a block from the stately Germanic architecture of Roma’s 19th-century town square, you can see the old warehouse on the bluff above the riverbank, with the name of its proprietor on its facade: NESTOR SAENS. Perhaps he was my ancestor, or perhaps not — but he is likely a relative of sorts, via my father’s paternal grandmother, born Aida Saenz.

    The history of Texas is often presented as a history of three colliding cultures — Mexican, Anglo, and Indian — but the truth is more subtle and varied. There was never an Indian cultural or political monolith (much to the Indians’ detriment), and Anglo culture subdivided into competing sections, with American Southerners, mostly of Scottish stock, coexisting with the remarkable number of east- and central-European settlers that Texas attracted. In Roma, the glory of this cultural mixing is on full display. The city sits on commanding heights, from which the navigable Rio Grande may be surveyed for miles, and it therefore became a logical stopping-place for the steamboat traffic that plied the waters through the early 20th century. Mexican entrepreneurs became wealthy from this trade, and they hired Germans from the Texas hill country to design their civic buildings. Thus Roma boasts a beautiful and decaying town center, with buildings not out of place in Baron Haussmann’s Paris slowly going to ruin — and with the proud Spanish names of Mexican proprietors still visible upon them.

    This is Texas, and this is the border. This is where my father’s parents grew up. My grandfather, in Roma, crossed to and from Ciudad Aleman, on the Mexican side, without a thought to an international border. (His own father, Sheriff Cecilio Ismael Treviño, apparently took the no-border concept a step further, and brought Mexican “voters” across to put Lyndon Baines Johnson in the U.S. Senate in 1948.) My grandmother, the product of Idrogos and Martinezes in Laredo, considered crossing into Nuevo Laredo the most natural thing. We don’t know as much about those families, except that the Idrogos and Martinezes were in Laredo when the Texans came, and then when the Americans did — and my grandmother vaguely recalls a tale of an Idrogo who made the best of things in 1846, and started a business selling wares to the army of Zachary Taylor.

    These Treviños, Idrogos, Martinezes, and Saenzes didn’t leave Mexico. It left them. But thanks to the vicissitudes of Texas and its history, they stayed Mexicans. Not in citizenship, of course — the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo mandated American citizenship for the conquered peoples — but in culture, language, and daily life. The definitive advance of the U.S. border to the Rio Grande produced no real refugee exodus. (The exception that proves the rule is Nuevo Laredo, founded across the river from Laredo in Texas by local worthies unwilling to submit to American sovereignty.) There was no reason for one, and there would not be till the Mexican Revolution’s tumult, and the Texas Rangers’s counterinsurgency, brought a grim and bloody era upon the Valley in 1910-1920.

    The peoples, towns, and cities of the border continued as they always had. Men and women crossed freely, often living on one side, and working on the other. (My great-grandmother, Concepcion Martinez Idrogo, lived in Laredo and would buy pan dulces in Nuevo Laredo — except when she and her own mother could hear the shelling on the Mexican side during the Revolution.) Local trade happened without reference to any authority outside town and county officials. The paired communities, be they Hidalgo/Reynosa, Brownsville/Matamoros, Roma/Ciudad Aleman, Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, or any of the dozens of others, functioned as de facto — though not legal — unities. This only made sense, and it reflected the truth of the region’s history and its people. Though the Mexican population of Texas lost any meaningful attachment to the Mexican polity (especially after the terrible decade of the Revolution), they nonetheless retained, and retain, a sense of cultural identity befitting their heritage and history.

    All this is prelude: the Rio Grande Valley from which half my family hails has always been a communal and cultural unity, regardless of its political division. Now, terribly, senselessly, that political division threatens to override all else.


    All this weighed upon me as I visited my brother in Edinburg, Texas, several days ago. We did what the average visitor to the Rio Grande Valley does, and headed out for a look at the border. Hidalgo, Texas, is a major crossing into Reynosa, on the Mexican side — and there is a significant section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence under construction there. We pulled off into a vacant lot to see it: an absurd and easily defeated berm, topped with steel posts driven into concrete postings. Slipping through, we wandered into the menacing, hot greenery of the Rio Grande’s banks — land now rendered forever useless except to wildlife by the wall — and arrived at a bluff overlooking the Mexican side. (It always seems to be the Texan side that has the commanding heights along the Rio Grande, though I don’t know if this is true along the entire river.) Across from us, Mexico — and a far-bank clearing littered with debris from picnickers or migrants, neither of whom were apparently deterred by the massive fortification a quarter-mile away. We observed the silent river, watched the furious ants swarm about in the mud, and marveled at the monarch butterflies that covered the grasses: millones mariposas.
    On our walk out, we were intercepted by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, considerably nicer than most others, who nonetheless demanded our identification, and told us we weren’t allowed to be — well, here, on our own country’s soil. Or at least the final thousand feet of it. He let us proceed, and we walked to our car, where another U.S. Border Patrol vehicle sat, awaiting our return. Another round of questioning and assurances — are we Mexican nationals? — and we were allowed to proceed.

    Barely a mile down the road, there was a Whataburger, where we got lunch and planned our next move. The formal border crossing and bridge was a few blocks away, and on the other side — Reynosa, site of an epic and terrifying gun battle not too long ago. The question was not whether we should walk over, but why we wouldn’t. My brother paused: I think we need passports to walk over now. I was unbelieving: That’s ridiculous. Passports? To walk over? That’s never been an issue before. We discarded the Whataburgers and strolled down to the first checkpoint on the bridge, where an ICE agent stood, bored and happy to talk. “Yeah, you need passports now, but you guys –” he looked us over, half-Mexican by blood, but not appearance “– should be okay coming back in with your drivers licenses. They may ask you some questions.”
    Good enough for us: we walked into Reynosa, where the Aduana Mexicana did not trouble us at all, admired the Mexican Army military hardware on the streets, and decided to not let the sun set on us on the south side of the Rio Grande. On walking back, the trouble began.

    The immigration checkpoint on the Texas side of the Hidalgo-Reynosa bridge does not have a counterpart on the Mexican end. The Mexicans are concerned with collecting duties, and that’s about it. The Americans are concerned with stopping people per se. (There is a little stand where the state of Texas collects duties on carried alcohol, mostly from American youth staggering home in better days.) My brother and I were therefore separated and interrogated by separate immigration agents, deeply concerned with the spectacle of two men named Treviño crossing from Mexico without passports. It was a stupid and condensed replay of every previous encounter with a suspicious Border Patrol: Where are you going? Why? Who are you with? Are you a Mexican national? What is your business in the United States? Among the answers to the last, I wanted to, but did not, say: “Living as a free citizen.”

    My complexion does not betray an obvious Mexican heritage: I get sunburns from TV screens, and some of my Colombian contacts refer to me as El Vikingo, the Viking, for my red hair and beard. My brother, on the other hand, looks like a man named Treviño — and so, as I submitted to increasingly absurdist questioning on my possible Mexican citizenship, he was taken into a holding-room for further processing and questioning. To say that I found this enraging is to understate things. I was tired, hot, and done with this border regime, cooked up by people not on the border, that renders Americans low-grade criminals until proven otherwise.

    I sought to find documentation in my wallet that would assuage the suspicious agent, on whose whim my entry into my own country depended. Look, here’s my California driver’s license. Look, here’s my USAA membership. Look, here’s my Safeway Club card. Look, here’s my wife’s business card with a Sacramento address on it. Look, listen to me speak — my good English, my terrible Spanish — and look at my skin and hair. Did you know I was a U.S. Army officer? If you think I am plausibly a Mexican national, you are a fool.

    They shouldn’t be doing this to anyone, Mexican or American, in my eyes — it violates and sunders the unifying border of centuries that produced my family and so many others — but to do it to me compounded appalling individual stupidity upon basic systemic injustice. We walked to the car, and drove the half-hour back to Edinburg, expressing relief at being allowed back in the United States.

    I have an imperfect understanding of, yet take tremendous pride in, my family’s past and origins. I make pilgrimages to Jesús Treviño’s tiny San Ygnacio fort, and to Concepcion Idrogo’s little Laredo house, and the Roma-Ciudad Aleman bridge from which my grandfather as a boy leapt into the Rio Grande, because I love this heritage. I want more of it. I want it to continue. I want the Rio Grande Valley culture that precedes the existence of these United States to thrive and flourish.

    And I want the regime of fear, control, and interdiction that threatens it to end. This puts me outside the mainstream of my fellow conservatives, to be sure, and it is no one’s opinion but mine. There are explanations to be given, but there are no apologies to be offered for what I have said in public on this. Border policy vexes the best minds, and is exploited by the worst. As Mexico descends into violence and corruption, and as its citizens seek better lives in the American dream, we rightly seek means of protecting ourselves and that dream — not from Mexicans, but from the forces that send them here. But we wrongly — so very wrongly — surrender our liberties to do it.


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