The Texas Border Wall Can't Separate Latinos From Their Memories and Culture
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Under a lavender canopy of jacaranda blossoms within sight of the embattled frontier, Luis Pea imagines an unintended and comical use for the future border wall.
"If anything, it will be a new sport. People will pole-vault," says the biology student with thick black hair. He kicks up a long leg and shouts, "Salto con garacho!" ("a high leap to garacho music"). Cue the Mexican violins!
Laughter erupts from his fellow nature lovers from the Gorgas Science Society. They are here, after all, to chant "Don't fence us in" in protest of the 60-foot-high wall that will slice straight past their border-side campus -- which combines the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College -- and right through the Rio Grande Valley borderlands.
I laugh weakly. I'm feeling dejected. Jokes about pole-vaulting, about lizards doomed by the wall, aren't what I expected when I trucked down to the very tip of my home state. I'd expected indignation about the border wall. I expected people to take it as personally as I did, like a slap at my identity, my South Texas culture, the Mexicanness in my Americanness.
I imagine my ancestors felt the same way oh so long ago, in 1848, after the newly drawn border cut through their lands, marooning them in a netherworld with Mexico on one side, the United States on the other. In the 21st-century version of that alienation, the new border wall may transform once-private lands into a de facto DMZ complete with spotlights and armed patrols.
Land, you see, is everything to us. Our culture is tied to the land. It is passed down as our inheritance, as my father did for me and my siblings, fulfilling his long-held pledge. In these borderlands, the fates of families like mine have hinged on the land. And so my instincts insist this wall is not just about illegal border-crossers, not just about Mexicans. It is, in a deeply historic way, about people like me, people whose identity was forged in generations of struggle over land.
Pea invites me to see a campus monument marking the old war between Mexican and gringo: an old cannon standing erect along the Rio Grande. Check it out, he says. "This might be your last chance before the wall goes up." The cannon sits on the wrong side of the planned wall.
Pea and I stroll through the campus, with its buildings of somber desert browns and reds and its sky-blue tile domes of Spanish-Moorish influence. This once was Fort Texas (later renamed Fort Brown), erected in 1846 when the United States charged the original southern border at the Nueces River and invaded Mexico to push the frontier 123 miles south to the much-coveted Rio Grande. What once was Mexico suddenly became the United States.
As we walk toward the river, it's jarring to see the bullet-riddled walls of the campus's buildings -- a reminder of the old border battles. "All of this is battleground," says Pea, his playfulness quieting to philosophical musing. "These are bloody grounds."
"They fought for it," he says of the United States. "But it's 'the enemy' that's left," he adds ironically.
First, in that original war of conquest, the Mexican was the enemy. Then, it was the newly minted U.S. citizens, the Texas Mexicans, branded as bandits when they rebelled against colonial subjugation after their families were annexed with the territory.
The war might have ended, but people like us, like Pea and I, still are regarded as the enemy by some.
We are the outsider with a Spanish-infused drawl, with a song of love and valor in our hearts; the pickup-driving, boot-wearing, Stars and Stripes-waving Tejano. But Texans sometimes refer to us as "Mexicans" even now, when you can find a military veteran in nearly every family, and many of our families in these parts are as old as the mesquite tree.
"We have American flags, we recite the national anthem. But what do we have to do to be plugged in?" Antonio N. Zavaleta, a vice president at the university, asks effusively. He is a great-great-grandson of Juan Cortina, who led an armed rebellion in 1859 against Manifest Destiny and the new Anglo social order that aimed to subjugate the Tejano.
"And this border wall," Zavaleta continues, "is further indication that the world ends from a line from Corpus Christi to Laredo and everything down is a buffer" between the United States and Mexico.
Betwixt and Between
With my pickup truck radio tuned to country and old-school rock, I ride the highways of the South Texas brush country pursuing the roots of the resistance heard now along the borderlands. My journey takes me north on U.S. Highway 281, where I pass fields of sunflowers bowing under a relentless sun like mourning widows. The mesquite and brush rustle under the massive sky and here, gazing across the vast chaparral, I'm overwhelmed by the historic resilience embedded in the terrain unfolding before me.
This was Nuevo Santander to the Spaniards, Tamaulipas to the Mexicans, and Wild Mustang Desert to the Texas ranchers, both Anglo and Tejano.
This was the region where my family -- and countless others -- defended their land more than 150 years ago and have fought for a place under the new flag hoisted above them.
When I arrive at a family reunion in the San Antonio Hill Country where my paternal grandmother's clan has gathered at an uncle's ranch retreat, it is family and land that my elderly tias (aunts) are talking about.
"The rumor was that he had been poisoned," says one tia, Berta Guerra, retelling the story of the early demise of my great-grandfather, Mauricio Gonzalez, who mysteriously died after attending a political meeting.
"This was my grandfather and my great-grandfather," Tia Berta croaks into the microphone, standing before picnic tables filled with a young generation of teachers, lawyers and journalists. "They were big-time ranchers," she says. "They had cattle drives to Kansas, just like a John Wayne movie."
The Gonzalezes owned massive acreage on both sides of the Rio Grande and did a good job of holding onto it -- until they, along with other wealthy Tejanos, bankrolled a coup attempt in 1891 against the Mexican dictator Porfirio Daz. Catarino Garza, my great-great-uncle, a journalist who married into the family, led the would-be revolution.
Anglo Texans branded him a social agitator for stirring up trouble with Mexico, a key trading partner, and for firing off missives to newspapers criticizing Anglo "racists." United against him, Mexican and U.S. forces put down the rebellion, and Garza fled to Latin America.
But the story does not end there. I follow the Garza paper trail up to the Texas State Archives in Austin, adjacent to the plantation-like state capitol and its assemblage of statues honoring Confederate and Alamo fighters. Sifting through handwritten Ranger reports penned with flourish and suffused with panic, I find this: "Garza was imported to cause race feelings and contests and it may result in a desperate state of affairs, as in a war of races if not stopped in time."
It was as if the Ranger who penned this 1892 report could not comprehend that Garza gave voice to the growing frustration of Tejano ranchers and cowboys at the land-grabbing Anglos; that they might be just a little sick of being treated like a "mongrel race," to use a common insult of that era.
A short walk from the state capitol, at the Hideout Theater, the film Border Bandits is upending some of the tall tales from that era of revolution -- tales like the looming race war -- and replacing them with a bloody history most folks don't know about. The film centers on the recollections of Rio Grande Valley ranch hand Roland Warnock, who in 1915 witnessed Texas Rangers shoot two unarmed Tejano ranchers -- both U.S. citizens -- in the back.
During a Ranger-led border crackdown to root out so-called Mexican bandits and suspected sympathizers, meaning anyone with a Spanish surname and two good legs, lawmen and vigilantes killed 5,000; thousands more abandoned their ranches and fled to Mexico. A postcard memorializing the border crackdown flashes across the screen, featuring three mounted Rangers with their lassos tied around dead "Mexicans."
But were they really "bandits"? About midway back to the border, at a converted ranch house with creaky wood floors that now is the Kenedy Ranch Museum, historian Homero Vera fills me in on the back story for the "Border Bandits" film.
"They were revolutionaries, they had their ideals," Vera explains. "They called them bandits because they were hostile, because they did kill some Anglos."
The struggle, of course, was over land. Tejano landowners rebelled against the strong-arm land seizures by Anglos that robbed them of their ranches. Between 1900 and 1910, some 187,000 acres went from Tejano to Anglo hands in just two border counties. Suddenly, Tejano ranchers and proud vaqueros (cowboys) became landless farm laborers.
Inspired in part by this Tejano-Anglo conflict, Tejano rebels launched their Plan de San Diego. The 1915 plot called for the defeat of U.S. rule in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California, the formation of a new republic for Mexicans, blacks and Indians, and the killing of every Anglo male over age 16.
Bands of rebels burned bridges, derailed trains and wreaked havoc throughout the Rio Grande Valley. It was the nightmare scenario Rangers had anticipated. And though 80 years had passed since that seminal border battle, the Ranger crackdown evoked that old battle cry of the Texas Anglo: Remember the Alamo!
Spurred by the film, state Rep. Aaron Pea (D) proposed a bill in 2005 to teach this largely ignored Ranger history in Lone Star schools. The bill died in session. Pea never revived it.
Faced with the outcry over 21st-century Mexican immigrants, Texas, he said, wasn't ready to look back at injustices committed against Mexican Americans in the distant past. "It's a less tolerant environment -- a xenophobic political environment -- that we exist in today because of the immigration debate," he says.
But the 1915 Ranger campaign wasn't directed at immigrants, I say. It was directed at Tejanos, meaning: U.S. citizens. Fear, said Pea, made such distinctions irrelevant to Anglos of that era.
A few years ago, as part of a push to get a veterans' hospital built in the region, Pea joined Rio Grande Valley vets on a march to the Alamo. But theirs was far from a hero's welcome at that Texas landmark of freedom.
Says Vietnam veteran Max Balmadez, "They said we were trying a Mexican takeover of the Alamo."
As if they were foreign. As if they didn't belong.
I'm preparing to leave Texas, and Homero Vera and his wife, Letty, invite me to dinner at a steakhouse, where Homero hands me a thin book, El Mesquite , written by Elena Zamora O'Shea, one of our cousins, in 1935. Narrated by a wise old mesquite tree, it is the story of our ancestral roots in this region and how we came to be marooned in our own country.
"If they were Spaniards when governed by Spain and Mexicans when governed by Mexico, why can they not be Americans now that they are under the American government?" O'Shea wrote.
I've experienced what O'Shea describes, like when a border patrol agent once saw me in my pickup and pulled me over. "Are you a citizen?" were the first words out of his mouth. It's even happened to a couple of Tejano judges who were deemed suspicious and detained.
But I am like the old mesquite tree: My identity has grown from this embattled yet glorious land and the cultures rooted here.
I remember one of my last conversations with my father three years ago, in the quiet of a Corpus Christi night as he lay in his hospital bed. He repeated his sacred promise. "I'm leaving you kids the ranch," he said quietly. "It's yours to do with what you want." And with his passing, he did just that, bequeathing a history that transcends borders.
The land is our birthright in this place now called Texas, and its history contains our Gettysburg, our Trail of Tears, the seeds of our culture. The land proves we've been here, we belong here. On these treasured memories, these beloved bones, that dreaded wall will rise.
Michelle GarcÃa, a native Texan, recently completed a Knight fellowship in El Salvador with the International Center for Journalists. She is based in New York.