December 1, 1994
One of the buildings at Moore Air Force Base, 20 miles north of the border in Mission, Texas, is much louder than the others. In fact, says Gilberto Lopez, the young man who looks after it, if the wind is right, some days you can hear the racket from a couple of miles away. As we get out of our car and approach the corrugated metal building, the noise stays constant. As Lopez takes the padlock off the sliding door, it continues unabated. But when he slides the door open, flooding the room with air and light—silence. It’s as though the mean teacher just returned to a room of third graders.
Only these kids are parrots. Among the activities on this retired military facility, now used by the U.S. Dept. of agriculture, is the quarantine of tropical birds seized from smugglers along the southern border. Many such birds are infected with Exotic Newcastle Disease, a fatal, pneumonia-like sickness that spreads rapidly to poultry. After a 50-day quarantine, birds pronounced healthy are moved into this shed and later auctioned off to legitimate bird dealers; unhealthy ones are euthanized. Three to four hundred birds, on average, come through here annually—parrots, conures, macaws, cockatiels, and the occasional mynah or toucan.
Today it’s mostly parrots—nearly 80 in all, generally three to a cage. There’s a variety of types, including yellow-necks, lilac crowns, a redhead, and a big yellowhead that speaks Spanish. “Cotorrito,” it can say (“little parrot”), and “¡CÃ³rrale!” (“Get out of here!”). But 61 of the birds are the same: yellow-naped parrots prized in the United States as pets because they can develop a 2,000-word vocabulary and learn songs.
To judge by the ruckus that resumes shortly, the yellow-napes are pretty happy in the “sale room.” But their history is a troubled one. When brought here six months ago by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, says Lopez, they were tiny hatchlings. Their eyes were closed and they were practically bald, with only pinfeathers. They had been discovered in February, 1992, when police in Austin stopped a Chevrolet Suburban late one night for driving erratically. Boxes inside contained 70 baby yellow-napes; a search of the house of the vehicle’s owner, a known bird smuggler named Jesus Maldonado, turned up 30 more; and his freezer contained 72 dead ones.
Yellow-napes, which are nearly impossible to breed in captivity, sell for $800 to $1200 in the United States. Laws in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras ban trade in parrots, but peasants who snatch fledglings in their nest, often after cutting down the tree, can earn a month’s salary per chick. Among the people indicted with Maldonado by a federal grand jury—and later convicted—were one Mexican national who moved the birds and nine Americans who received them. One broker, Noemi Freeman of Burleson, Texas, told the Dallas Morning News that she had been falsely accused, that she had not known the birds were contraband because Maldonado had claimed to have raised them, and that anyway, “I’m in the right to buy any baby that comes to my door.”
Obie Oliver, the federal veterinarian who supervises the quarantine, wouldn’t tell me any of this history and claimed not to know it; Fish & Wildlife agents filled me in. Oliver, whose research into a sheep disease called scrapie is being terminated by the government, is about to retire. It was Lopez, the caretaker, who really knew the birds, who had fed them with an eyedropper, who thought that eating a certain kind of seed caused some of the parrots to laugh, and who told me, “If you talk to them and show them a lot of love, in my opinion they live longer.”
This story to me is a parable about the border. It is about how consumer desire in the north leads to environmental despoliation and human corruption in the south. It is about how market forces, also the engines behind the drug trade and illegal immigration, overwhelm law enforcement: The government believes Maldonado smuggled in at least 2,500 birds in 1991 and 1992 alone, before he was caught by chance. The scam in which the principal bad guy is a bicultural Hispanic who uses poorer people as mules is typical, as is the fact that the old uninterested veterinarian is named Obie Oliver and the young engaging assistant is named Gilberto Lopez.
I will open by showing my hand: I love the border. I love the heat and the dryness and the remoteness—a place that’s 1,943 miles long, that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, yet touches no major city. I love the border’s secrets—the secrets of smugglers, of border-crossers, of the powerful and powerless. I love seeing the mixing of cultures, and getting a preview of America’s future.
I love the fact that tourists seeking “culture” will shy from these parts, assuming there isn’t any, when culture, forged in the furnace of difference, is what the border is about. I love the fact that the border, for most of us a symbol of the hinterland, is for the people who live there the center, a separate place with a feel and meaning all its own.
And last, I love the fact that a shadow reality haunts and mythicizes the borderlands. It is a parallel border we know about from John Wayne movies and Cormac McCarthy novels, a place of drama and mystery that lives on despite news of NAFTA, the Chiapas uprising, and Mexican elections. It is a place nourished by all that we do not know about Mexico, the mystery of the other side.
Of course, when you’re there you must confront the reality of the place, the traffic and the heat and the poverty and the knowledge that El Paso and Ciudad JuÃ¡rez share an aquifer that is polluted and vanishing. Or that cars stolen in El Paso are extremely hard to get back: 8 to 12 percent are eventually found, while in a comparably-sized city like Fort Worth, nearly 90 percent are recovered. But even this has an intriguing angle. By stealing a car on the El Paso side and driving it back over the Cordova International Bridge, thieves still “run for the border”; the border is still about flight. South is, among other things, the direction you head when, like a car thief or an embezzler, you find yourself in urgent need of a new set of rules. A smaller set.
I first visited El Paso having fled my VISTA job in Dallas at age 20, after a fight with my boss. It was my first time living on my own, away from college or parents, and I was making a mess of it. I had one friend there, another VISTA Volunteer whom I’ll call Peter. Peter was an Ivy League graduate who seemed to be in the midst of a personal awakening that had something—rather a lot—to do with a Mexican-born professor I’ll call Juanito. Remote El Paso seemed to offer Peter a specific freedom he had been seeking. I had told Peter I’d be fine on the floor but he seemed to spend most of his time at Juanito’s anyway, so I had his big bed to myself. Thus relegated to my own unstable company, I called a woman I had dated briefly yet promisingly and asked if she felt like heading to Mexico. She took the bus down from Denver. As Lara and I walked the sunbaked streets of El Paso, its dry air filled with the sounds of Spanish and the smell of tortillas cooking, I felt our trip to Mexico had started without our knowing it.
El Paso/Ciudad JuÃ¡rez is the midpoint of the border; to the west it follows straight, surveyor-drawn lines across New Mexico and Arizona to Tijuana and the Pacific. To the east it traces the course of the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico. I returned to El Paso to satisfy a longstanding urge to travel that river route, the part of the border that seems less contrived, that part of the corridor where Mexico bumps up against not just the United States but Texas, and overlaps with it. The people there inhabit a space unlike any other in the world, the longest transition point anywhere between the First World and the Third. They arrive as Texans and Mexicans, but end up something in between.
Elena Mirazo goes with Steve Michel, and both are friends of David Galvin. We eat in a fancy restaurant in JuÃ¡rez. The border towns are thriving, on both sides, and you now save only a little money by eating out on the Mexican side, whereas in the past you saved a lot.
Elena, the best-dressed of the group in a navy pinstripe suit, navy pumps, white blouse, and hair tied back with a ribbon, came straight from work at the Equitable Life Assurance Society in El Paso, where she is an agent. She is 27, and lives with her mother and brothers in JuÃ¡rez. Though she claims to be “99 percent Mexican,” she has U.S. citizenship and graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso. She has many American friends and a fondness for American guys. But she would not want to live in El Paso.
“One of the things I love about my neighborhood here in JuÃ¡rez is that there’s so many kids around,” she says. Where I live, you know each person who lives down the street. The little boy who gets sent by his mom to buy tortillas every morning stops and asks my mom how many she wants.”
Steve and David nod; they would not dispute that Mexico has a richer communal life. In fact, the three appear to agree on most matters regarding their respective cultures; no dispute surrounds questions of, for example, corruption in Mexico or arrogance in the United States. The key to border life is taking best advantage of the pluses of the other side, and here in Mexico, at the moment, it’s the food. Elena orders the Tlaxcala Tapada (a shell steak filled with cheese and chile), David a combination plate, and Steve the tacos al carbÃ³n.
Elena then points out a Mexican couple giving their order to the waitress; the man is doing all the talking. “If my father had his way, I would never have driven a car, gotten a job, or ordered in a restaurant,” she says, making a circle of her thumb and index finger: “Women here have to fit into a hole this big.
Her brothers think she is crazy to have a career. “To get ahead here,” she says, “you have to be related to someone,” and she is not. Then how did she get ahead? I ask. “I work in El Paso,” she replies.
She likes the other freedoms of America, too. “Here there’s a big class difference. In El Paso you can walk right up and talk to the mayor. Here he wouldn’t even look at you.”
After dinner we drive to the JuÃ¡rez Racetrack to watch the greyhounds. Up in the Jockey Club, Steve explains that he met Elena in an El Paso brick factory where they both worked, he as a kiln operator and she in the office. She would come to him if there was a need for a manager to tell the workers something in Spanish, because his was so good. (He was born in Puerto Rico, and his father ran one of the first American factories— maquiladoras— in JuÃ¡rez.)
That was two years ago. Steve and David go back 19 years more than that; and David’s family has been in El Paso since the Mexican Revolution nearly 85 years ago. Not that the Americans feel precisely at home in Mexico: David’s car is being driven by Steve, as David doesn’t like to drive in on this side.
As we take Elena home she explains that the long, sandy depression that runs through town was once—only 26 years ago—the Rio Grande. El Paso grew a lot when the river cut through the oxbow, and JuÃ¡rez shrank—but Mexico wouldn’t accept the change for many years, until John F. Kennedy and Adolfo LÃ³pez Mateos settled the dispute in 1963. (The river was lined with concrete between the two towns to keep it in place; elsewhere, when the river changes course, the border remains the same.) The dispute means little to young people or visitors, but what people forget, the land remembers: Rising from the banks of the old riverbed, behind the gated houses of the pleasant paved cul-de-sac where Elena’s family lives, are the ghostly skeletons of dead cottonwood trees on the dry oxbow, abandoned by their river.
Later, Steve, David, and I head back to El Paso over Cordova International Bridge. Though there are only passenger cars in line at customs, not the legions of trucks that clog the bridge in the daytime, the wait is 20 minutes—which is about normal, says Steve. “When they see it getting shorter, they take a few inspectors off duty,” he surmises cynically. As we finally approach his booth, the inspector enter’s David’s license plate into his computer. He bends down to the window and recites the border catechism: “Nationality?” he asks, and, “What are you bringing back?” This second question strikes me as belonging to the same family of queries as, “When did you stop beating your wife?”
It’s a telling difference from going into Mexico. There, at the other end of the bridge, you make eye contact with the guard, who nods you past, and then you watch to see if the traffic light in front of you turns green or red. If green, you’re golden. If red, you have to pull over for inspection. The lights are supposed to be random, though vans seem to get a lot more than their share of red lights. In most cases, you’re through in seconds. Besides that, the difference boils down to this: On the U.S. side, you’re made to feel guilty, as though you really did have heroin packed in there somewhere. You fear your own badness. On the verge of entering Mexico, you fear only getting ripped off.
The border is famous for pollution. The Rio Grande was named the most endangered river in North America last year by the conservation group American Rivers, and the American Medical Association not long ago described it as a virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious disease. There is little sewage treatment along much of the Mexican side, and at several spots you can watch the aguas negras flowing directly into the river. In addition to high E. coli counts, there are the more exotic chemical discharges of factories along both sides of the river; water in the Rio Grande includes pesticide runoff, heavy metals, and cyanide, according to the American Rivers report—and even, occasionally, radioactive material from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, not far from the river’s source in southern Colorado.
So it might seem strange that there is a border industry involved in importing waste from the interior, but perhaps that is one measure of how the rest of the country regards these lands. A hundred miles east of El Paso, just north of the Border Patrol highway checkpoint, lies a 128,000-acre ranch devoted to the disposal of solid waste from New York City. MERCO Joint Venture’s Sierra Blanca Ranch is the receiving point for nearly 7,000 tons per month of treated New York sewage, which arrives by train in specially constructed weather-tight shipping containers. It is then dispersed across the arid rangeland. The principal effect of this “beneficial application,” according to the company, will be to fertilize the formerly overgrazed land and help restore the grasses that were supplanted by creosote, mesquite, and other small shrubs after years of grazing.
Some residents of tiny Sierra Blanca, which adjoins the MERCO ranch, have a different view of the project. They worry about the sporadic stench, especially during the July-to-September rainy season. “The stench blooms either in the late afternoon and evening, when people are doing their barbecuing outside, or early the next morning, if it rains during the night,” says Bill Addington, a rancher whose family goes back three generations in the area. “After a rainstorm, you could smell the greasewood and the mesquite. It was so beautiful! Now we smell a stench that you can cut with a knife—it’s indescribable. It’s not a little odor like an outhouse or a pigpen or a dairy.”
Addington believes that what you can smell probably isn’t the worst of it. The leader of Save Sierra Blanca, a local group opposed to the dumping, he says he has used figures provided by the New York Department of Environmental Quality to calculate that, based on the average composition of the sludge, over a year MERCO will have deposited on its tract:
3357 pounds of arsenic (“a poison”)
3021 pounds of cadmium (“which is highly carcinogenic”)
260,503 pounds of copper (“which causes developmental problems in children”)
85,089 pounds of lead
He worries that these materials will blow through the air (“I know we get airborne fecal matter”), wash into the rivers, and seep into the groundwater. “These are not micronutrients,” as MERCO maintains, he says. “This is massive heavy metal dumping. ”
After directing me to a company lawyer in Oklahoma and a p.r. specialist in New York, MERCO lets me see the ranch. Tom Gillane, the manager of operations, takes me on a tour in his pickup truck.
“Let’s face the facts. If anybody was going to be at risk, it would be us first,” Gillane says. “We as managers live here—I’ll show you.” MERCO Village, as the workers call it, is a collection of trailer homes right in the middle of the ranch. You can smell a little something in the air there, but it’s not overwhelming. We climb back in and drive to an “application site.”
“I tell you what,” says Gillane on the way. “Anything bad you can think of, we’ve been accused of. And yet—this is a provable statement—not one case has been documented in the United States that any health hazard has been caused by biosolids in its entire history, either in humans or in animals.” By way of evidence Tom offers up the story of a 10-year experiment completed in 1985 at New Mexico State University. Sheep and cows ate “raw biosolids as 7 percent of their diet for four years.”
“How could they make them eat that?”
“They force fed ’em. Then they took and analyzed those animals and found there was no bad effect at all.” Except, I’m thinking, they must have been severely demoralized.
Gillane has been in this industry a long time, and as we head toward a big, moist pile of biosolids, he asks me what I think they look like. I tell him and he chuckles. “Everybody’s perception is what they see in the toilet.” In a gesture of bravado, he picks up a handful of it, the way a farmer near the Mississippi might pick up rich soil to show it off. “See? It’s kind of like dirt.”
I too pick up a handful and examine it closely. The sludge cake looks like dirt, but has a different consistency-and, I notice, examining it closely, lots of tiny hairs. It makes me think of New York City, where I’m from, too. DÃ©jÃ vu.
A group of Mexicans with shovels and heavy rubber gloves on has stopped digging to watch us. Gillane has made me feel so comfortable about sludge that I raise my handful to them and ask why they wear the gloves. They crack up and look away, as though they can’t believe what they’re seeing. In Spanish one replies, “Why? Because it smells so ugly!” They laugh some more and I do, too, dropping it and smelling my hand, which reeks.
The tour over, I wash my hands in MERCO’s bathroom, drive to town, clean my hands in a cafe’s washroom for good measure, and sit down to a plate of enchiladas. But the sludge smell lingers on the hand holding the fork. I wash again, vigorously, with lots of soap; the smell persists. I say good-bye to Sierra Blanca and drive southeast through the wide-open country toward Big Bend National Park. As it has been for ten days, the temperature is up over 100 degrees and I close my windows tight to use the air conditioning. The car soon smells like sludge. In Sanderson and in Marfa I get out to gas up and wash my hands again, but the odor remains a sharp deterrent to lifting the hand anywhere near my face. I smell it that night when I put my arms around the pillow and am greeted by it the next morning. Finally, 24 hours after I held the sludge for less than a minute, the smell disappears.
Despite my intention to travel alongside the Rio Grande, I feel I’ve seen very little of it so far, apart from the rectified dribble near El Paso, which dwindles to nothing another 50 or so miles downstream. The highway rejoins the river at Presidio, however, and there the Rio Grande is given new life, for it is there that Mexico’s Conchos River tumbles down out of the mountains of Chihuahua, through the Mexican town of Ojinaga, and makes the border wet again. A hundred miles farther down, the Rio Grande makes a big left turn and briefly heads north through deep and spectacular canyons; the northern side of these canyons, and 1,252 square miles of desert adjoining them, make up Big Bend National Park.
Float trips are popular here, and I hook up with guide Mike Long of Big Bend River Tours for a three-day journey down Boquillas Canyon. Long, 35, is a short, strong fellow with a braided brown ponytail most of the way down his back, a full beard, and a Yosemite Sam mustache so thick that you can’t really see his mouth move when he talks, just the mustache bouncing up and down. The 200-odd days that he spends on the river every year have left his skin a dark brown.
The rafting company had told me that the only other customers were a grandfather and his grandson, but it’s not that simple. Howard, as I’ll call him, retired recently as a school psychologist near San Antonio. While there, he counseled and befriended a troubled kid, AJ, age 15. The youngest of several siblings and stepsiblings, AJ has a mom who cooks in a cafeteria and moonlights behind the register in a convenience store. His father seems to have a problem with his temper. AJ has attention deficit disorder and some other problems and, according to Howard, has been relegated to special ed classes by school authorities in Hondo, Texas, simply as a means to keep him out of other kids’ way. He spent some time in a reformatory last year but doesn’t seem mean or bruta, just fidgety and ignored. As they’ve traveled the border country the past couple of weeks in Howard’s Bronco, Howard has shared with the residents of Sierra Blanca an anxiety over heavy metal.
“I listened to that Metallica ten times and I’m not going to hear it again!” Howard shouts as AJ asks Mike to play his cassette tape in the van, en route to the put-in spot.
“Then how ’bout Nirvana?”
“If you can stand Metallica then Nirvana’s nothin’,” grumbles AJ to himself.
The river is muddy and low but glorious. By lunchtime the canyon walls have loomed up on either side; we will float between them for the next two days. Mexico, as we travel, is to our right and the United States to our left; Mexicans, Long reminds us, refer to the Rio Grande as the RÃo Bravo. But these distinctions blur in nature. We stop to rest or camp on both sides, crossing the line as easily as the numerous horses we see, mainly mares with colts, fording the river. Mexicans refer to the area as the despoblado , but we do see a few people, all on the Mexican side, who mainly ignore us. Some are working at small candelilla wax camps—the sticklike candelilla cactus, when boiled with sulfuric acid, produces a valuable, high-quality wax, which officially Mexicans must sell to their government at a low price. In reality, of course, it is sold to all kinds of people, many of them on the American side. It’s just one of the kinds of smuggling that take place all along the border.
In 1988 there was an incident here “that just about sunk the rafting biz,” as Long tells it. A raft like ours, carrying a married couple and their guide, was ambushed by gunfire from the Mexican side. The husband, shot in the spine, died instantly. The wife and guide beached the raft and made a run across a sandbar to separate covers of mesquite and boulders. There they called back and forth to each other until the woman, shot in the side, passed out; the guide, wounded in the thigh, made it to a road in the dark and eventually found help.
Their assailants, three Mexican teenagers on burros, were tracked down and apprehended; one is now serving a life sentence. But the incident resulted in scads of cancellations and the kind of publicity that we seem to savor about Mexico because it reinforces our suspicions that it is a land of cruel and violent people and that we Americans are good-hearted innocents. While the physical border may fade in the beauty of the riverscape, the moral border does not.
Long, who has been a guide here for 6 years, feels that in the publicity surrounding the shootings, some context was overlooked. The years preceding it had seen at least three other violent incidents committed by Americans: the killing of a burro on the Mexican side by American fishermen (“rednecks,” says Mike, who may have told friends they did it for bait), the shooting of a Mexican on his horse, and the shooting of a water bucket being carried by a Mexican woman. None were murder, but two came close.
On the first day, when the canyon is new, it is easy to be frightened by these stories and to scan the canyon rims for snipers. But then the wild spectacle of the place supplants all fears. There’s the startling red of summer tanagers, pairs of which we see each day, the canyon wrens and black phoebes and white-winged doves. There are the cathedral-like canyon walls. And there is the river itself.
With daytime temperatures over 100 degrees and, at certain hours, scant shade, the cool Rio Grande looks pretty inviting. Unfortunately, I’ve read a study of Big Bend water quality that recommends that, due to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, “water should not come into contact with tourists.” Long, however, says he’s never suffered any ill effects from going in, and so AJ and I, perhaps recklessly, don life jackets and jump in. If this is going to kill us, at least it feels good. We float for more than an hour, every day. We float till, as AJ puts it, we’re “pruned.” Making sure we turn to go feet first, Long even lets us bob through small rapids. Though the river looks placid from the shore, it has a momentum which you can appreciate if, once in, you attempt to stand on the shallow bottom. So we float quickly and quietly, exactly the speed of the raft, entertaining secret smuggler fantasies while sunburning our shoulders and hoping we don’t get sick or shot.
Dense columns of white smoke are rising from ground to sky as a van drives our raft group back to Lajitas; four fires are burning, three of them the presumed results of lightning strikes and one, adjacent to a road, apparently started by a cigarette. These particular fires began two days ago, but no houses are threatened yet—fires in these grasslands are expected every summer, are carefully monitored when they occur, and usually burn out without incident. What’s most interesting here are the firefighters.
They are called Los Diablos, “the devils,” and they are from the border hamlet of Boquillas del Carmen, which we drifted past on our float. A Park Service ranger named Phil Koepp saw that there were several advantages to hiring Mexicans: It would solve the problem of delays in getting firefighters to remote Big Bend, and it would help relations with the Mexican state of Coahuila, where a sister park to Big Bend has been under consideration for some years. But most important, it would help to spread an awareness of wilderness management, American-style.
Ranger Dennis Vasquez takes me out to meet Los Diablos. Part of our job is to carry water coolers: It’s late afternoon, the men have worked all day, and they need more to drink. We park on a dirt road and walk overland toward the smoke, skirting the cover of “horse-crippler” Echinocactus , multicolored cylindrical rainbow cactus, long, spiny ocotillo and the sharp, maguey-like lechuguilla. Soon we are walking on charred ground that radiates heat; the leader of Los Diablos sees us, and the crew is soon guzzling the ice water.
All are dressed in fire-retardant yellow clothing, with rucksacks and Pulaskis and canteens. A senior member of the crew, JosÃ© Angel, disgustedly pours out the trickle remaining in his water bottle and says in Spanish, “Water gets hotter than coffee when you’re working out there.” Otherwise they are quiet in the presence of me and Vasquez. Vasquez has told me their name came from their initial response to the idea of a Mexican firefighting team: “If we get hired, we’ll work like the devil to prove our worth.” No, that isn’t right, another man says now: “They call us diablos because we don’t get burned.”
Vasquez says they are exhausted from their third 12-hour day in a row, but they don’t look it. Some stand in the shadows cast by their fellows, cooling off. Some are sunburned—or has the fire reddened their skin? The scene is surreal: yellow-clad campesinos in high-tech garments, standing on blackened ground with a backdrop of billowing smoke that sometimes obscures the sun, casting shadows on their faces. With the group’s supervisor and sole American, Rawles Williams, I discuss the extent and likely progress of the fire and watch a zone of white smoke where the flames, some of them 20 feet high, have dipped into an arroyo and are consuming green shrubs. We hear a pop and Williams tells me how one of the perils of desert firefighting is exploding sotoles and lechuguillas. He has long blond hair and a mustache and lives in Boquillas. “The lechuguilla cries, it screams,” he says.
Next they warily watch a narrow funnel of smoke that had broken off from the mass, been pulled into a whirl by convection forces, and now stretched maybe 100 yards into the sky. “Remolinos is what the Mexicans call those,” explains Williams. “They’re dust devils.” The danger of these mini-tornadoes is that they lift up burning material and deposit it elsewhere, starting new fires.
Williams invites me to join his crew overnight in Boquillas. We load in park service vans and head for the river. There is no bridge here—only a leaky rowboat that carries five or six at a time. The Mexican ferryman, sitting in the prow, paddles furiously while one of the passengers bails with an empty coffee can. The crossing takes about a minute. A couple of ancient pickup trucks then carry us across the sandy floodplain and up the hill to the village. Ranchera music rings from a boom box as we are jostled around in back.
Williams has lived in Boquillas for five years and is known by everyone—RaÃºl, they called him, or el viejito, “little old man,” a joke since he is a muscular and vigorous 39 years old. The sun is setting by the time we get to his hillside place, two tiny one-story adobe buildings set at right angles to each other with a small courtyard in front overlooking the town plaza. Below, boys with aluminum cans squashed under each shoe hold sticks between their legs and clop-clop their way around the pavement, five wild horses.
Up a set of stairs from Williams, Ofelia, proprietress of the town’s only restaurant, has already put on her pajamas, rolled her bed to the patio, and picked up a magazine. But Williams and she are friends, and she gives him leave to go to the kitchen and warm up some beans and rice. The town’s only other gringo, call him Bobby, drops by to say hello, but Williams is too tired to chat; he still has to take his bath. As we walk in darkness, towels in hand, to a geothermal pool on the edge of town, Williams explains that Bobby is on the lam, keeping out of the States due to a pending drug charge. Mexico serves many purposes for Americans.
Back home, Williams lays out a foam pad with sheets and pillows for each of us on his patio. Only six hours remain until we have to go back to the fires, but as large, pallid fruit bats whiz over our heads and meteors from the Perseid Shower fall across the sky, I ask whether it’s a coincidence that Bobby chose Boquillas for his refuge—is there much smuggling through here? Not in way of drugs, Williams says, though he can’t vouch for what other things might be hauled across the border in the dead of night—guns, refrigerators, used clothing, pickup trucks. San Vicente is the border crossing in Big Bend where most of this takes place, he thinks. It is, I already know, a dangerous place to park a car. “You shouldn’t hang out at San Vicente crossing unless you’re a Mexican or a local,” Williams advises. “If you’re a tourist, they figure you can afford to lose it.” A group of horsemen known to rangers as the Cavalry is usually available at San Vicente to pull a car across the river into Mexico, no questions asked.
Another bat swoops over my face, and the next thing I know, we are back at the river. It isn’t yet dawn; the boatman isn’t up. Instead of coffee, I join Los Diablos in taking off my pants and shoes, holding them over my head, and getting jolted to wakefulness by the waist-high water. Rising before us, as we climb the banks on the U.S. side and head for waiting park service vehicles, is a pillar of smoke. The Devils were headed back to the flames.
DEL RIO/CIUDAD ACUÃ‘A
The border is the home of the improbable, the unexpected, the weird. Ciudad AcuÃ±a, across from the Texas town of Del Rio, is famous as the home of famous high-powered Mexican radio stations like XERF, which launched the career of Wolfman Jack, and XER, which broadcast the blandishments of Dr. John R. Brinkley, a celebrated quack whose sales of tonic made him a millionaire and left as castrati the goats whose testicles went into making it. Today, one of the oddest things going on here is the Bridgestone-Firestone test track.
Twenty hours a day, seven days a week, forty-four cars and trucks of various makes are kept in motion on test tracks of the 2,500-acre Bridgestone-Firestone Del Rio Test Center (located in Ciudad AcuÃ±a). They are road-testing the company’s new and experimental tires, as well as those of competitors, to see how they measure up in actual use. In 1993, 2,693 different kinds of tires were driven over 11 million miles.
Proudly explaining all this to me is the Mexican engineer who runs the plant, Juan Carlos De Hoyos. If I had a plant in Mexico, any plant, the mustachioed, heavyset De Hoyos is exactly whom I would want in charge. He meets me at 7 a.m. in the Ramada Inn in Del Rio—a time and place I had arranged with Firestone’s p.r. people in Ohio—and is miffed that I had not called him the night before to say that I would actually be staying somewhere else, because he had called to confirm our appointment. (I had stayed elsewhere, as the Ramada was full.) He is a man who takes appointments seriously.
As we drive in his car across the border and toward the maquila, he explains that any given tire there will be driven 45,000 miles, over a period of about three months. Half of this mileage will take place at 70 miles per hour, on the 7.1 mile oval track that is the facility’s largest feature. Most of the rest of the miles will be at 55 miles per hour, as well as a number of miles on three other test tracks: the gravel, city, and cobblestone tracks. It’s the only test track in Latin America, though there are several in south Texas—he was hired away from the General Tire facility in Uvalde, Texas. The companies like the weather here because it allows them to test yearround—and yes, he concedes, Bridgestone-Firestone likes AcuÃ±a because it’s cheap.
“But they are getting the quality they want. Those guys are very picky . . . I think we run an operation that is equal or superior to any of the other tracks. One of the things I’m trying to do is create an environment where they say, ‘Yeah, he’s cheap, but they have a lot of technical capabilities, too.’ I want them to say, ‘Not only are they cheap, but they are smart.'”
De Hoyos has a staff of 124, 94 of them drivers. The first shift starts arriving around 10 a.m., with plastic lunch bags dangling from their hands; they will drive for nine of the next ten hours, never for more than two and a half hours at a time. The boss himself drives me over the pista torturero (cobblestone track), the pista de grava (a winding gravel loop) and the pista urbana (full of right angle turns to simulate city driving) before the crews get on them. It is a relief when he finally hands me over to a young driver named Alonso, who is heading over to the big oval for some nice, smooth, 70-miles-per-hour laps.
Alonso’s car today is a Chevy Lumina minivan. I have to sit in back, because the passenger seat is occupied by about 150 pounds worth of sandbags, meant to simulate baggage like me. I figure Alonso is an expert in, among other things, the comfort of car seats, and ask him which of the facility’s vehicles has the best sitting. The Taurus, he replies without hesitation. The worst? The Camry (“it doesn’t fit your shoulders”) and the Pontiac Firebird (“because it’s so low to the ground—you can’t bend your legs”).
Alonso is bright-eyed and friendly. He wears his light brown hair long, with a lot of mousse. He prefers a loaded-down pickup truck to this ’94 Lumina, he tells me, because it’s steadier in the wind. Any other environmental hazards? I ask. At night, he says, you’re sometimes surprised by javelina or deer—he points out places inside the oval where they like to hide. “And sometimes, other drivers will get tired—you have to be careful of them.” He honks his horn or flashes his lights to try and wake up colleagues who are drifting off.
A large “tachograph”—basically, a recording speedometer/odometer—is bolted onto the dashboard of all cars; it lets supervisors see how close to the specified speed drivers are keeping, and, if the speed varies a lot, clues them in to who’s having trouble staying awake. Other employees monitor speed with a radar gun.
Back in the main building, office workers Miguel, Diego, and Emilio, former drivers all, tell me about the old days. Before the oval track was built, they used the highway to Sabinas—110 miles each way, back and forth. “It’s safer here, but on the highway it was less boring,” says Diego. Those early days were important to the development of manifold cooking—placing foil-wrapped burritos, etc., on top of the engine, to have a hot meal in the middle of nowhere—and also to the invention of new ways to stay awake. “Each one has his own system,” Emilio says. He found changes in his immediate environment helped him to keep alert—turning on the air conditioner, even if it was cold, or opening the window, or changing the volume of the radio. Miguel would chew gum or sip water or coffee. Diego, however, would take more extreme measures—pouring water on his head, or chewing hot chiles. (Then pouring water in his mouth.) Now that they were higher up in the hierarchy—Miguel managed the fleet of 120 vehicles—did any of them own a car himself? All shook their heads.
De Hoyos, on the other hand, seemed to have it all. “I don’t think I could ask for more,” he said, driving us to lunch in AcuÃ±a in his company car. “I am paid in dollars, I run the company, I live in Del Rio but I can work in Mexico, with my people.” Still, the position entailed a unique ethical tension. “As a Mexican, you feel you want to help your people. But also, you want to help your company, and make it as economical as you can.”
Bridgestone-Firestone had granted me access to the plant on the condition that I not inquire about wages, and I did not. However, the average salary in AcuÃ±a’s 36-odd maquiladoras— companies like Fisher-Price toys, General Electric, Fuji, and SAS shoes—is about thirteen new pesos a day (US$4). And De Hoyos had been loath to talk to me about accidents, besides showing me the company ambulance and the rollbars installed on pickup trucks for driver safety.
But a teacher friend of mine who once took a class to visit the track said that one of his students, interested in whether drivers got burned out, asked his host, “Is there much turnover?”
“Mostly they turn over at night,” replied the man, not a native speaker of English. It’s as much of an answer to that question as I’ll ever get.
On the streets of Laredo, presently the second-fastest growing city in the United States, you are unlikely anymore to see a “crowd of young cowboys … wild roving,” as the old song has it. Rather you will see hundreds of semitrucks, maybe thousands. They stack up near bridges on both sides of the border—in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo—awaiting customs clearance. A sizable piece of the roughly $40 billion in exports that each side sells the other every year comes through this port of entry, which sits on the most direct route between Dallas or Houston and the thriving Mexican industrial center of Monterrey.
But you may, if you’re looking carefully, see a sunburned guy riding a horse named Old Gray, along the river just outside of town in search of renegade cattle. He’s got a .357 Magnum in one holster and a radio in another and his name is Efrain Villarreal. He’s a federal officer, and he’s looking for ticks.
There are 68 riders like Villarreal between Del Rio and Brownsville, down on the Gulf, all members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Mounted Patrol Inspectors, or tick riders. The object of their surveillance is a tiny arthropod that wreaked havoc on the U.S. cattle industry in the late nineteenth century, the cattle fever tick, Boophilus annulatus . The huge cattle drives of the Lonesome Dove era brought Mexican stock into almost every region of the United States, infesting some 700,000 square miles with the disease that makes cattle pee red and die of fever and dehydration. In 1938 a quarantine line was established along the lower Rio Grande; pesticide dips were placed at ports of entry. But because much of the river is shallow and the border unfenced, Mexican cattle wander over or are herded across intentionally, posing a risk to American livestock. “Our primary duties are to apprehend stray and smuggled livestock,” says tick rider chief Raymond Smith.
Whether they’re Mexican-American or Anglo-American, all the tick riders look the same, like relics of cowpunchin’ times. They chew tobacco and wear straw cowboy hats and snap-up cowboy shirts and Wrangler jeans. Many have bellies. They don’t seem to be under a lot of stress, probably because the last big outbreak of tick fever here occurred in 1972.
All the same, it’s not entirely easy being a tick rider; you run into pernicious things besides fever ticks. Efrain Villarreal explains this as we load Old Gray into a trailer along with the sorrel gelding he’s borrowed for me, Talaya. Several tick riders, it seems, have been shot, usually as a result of situations they stumbled upon. “You’ll be going somewhere minding your own business when they see you”–they being drug smugglers, for example–”and they say, Shit, we’ve gotta take care of this guy.” Whether DEA, FBI, Customs, or lowly USDA tick rider, the men with guns and radios are all feds to them. “No one will ever find you; they put you in the river and you’re gone.”
We drive ten or 15 miles north out of Laredo and then turn off the highway onto a dirt road. There we mount up. The land is dotted with mesquite, soft-leafed quajillo, sage-colored cenizo (which the horses love to eat), and thorny blackbrush. As we go, Villarreal whistles that old cowboy song, “Knock Three Times,” by Tony Orlando and Dawn.
We arrive at the edge of a bluff overlooking the river and Mexico, even in elevation with a trio of soaring turkey vultures. It is incredibly bucolic, but Villarreal snaps me out of it. “That little town there—Hidalgo —all they do there is steal. There’s nothing else to do there but that.” This seems a pretty serious charge, but then he points out a dense stand of tall shrubs and trees below, on the American side, between the river and the bluff, land he calls the vega. “Often they’ve got a chop shop going down there. It’s so thick, you can’t even see it from above.” Vehicles from a hunting camp not far away get stolen, driven down there, and stripped. Following one reported theft, he says, “I followed tracks up here to where they got to the edge of the bluff, and then I had to backtrack—they were drinking beer and shooting off pistols.” Abandoned below, a few days later, was the frame of a Willys Jeep. He himself had a favorite horse stolen nearby. He crossed over to Hidalgo to look around and ask after it. The people, he says, were not helpful, and he never found the horse. “Things that go to Mexico are hard to get back.”
Villarreal is looking a little bit stiff by noontime, and we turn from the river and ride along a barbed-wire fence to a small pond—or “tank,” in the local vernacular—where the horses drink. Most riders, he says, are posted outside cities and towns at small camps staggered along the quarantine line. But he was thrown by a horse earlier this year and broke his tailbone. “If I’d landed on my neck, it would’ve killed me,” he says. “I did a full front flip, and when I stood up I heard it pop. I was out of commission for about 60 days.” And the horse? “He’s Alpo now.”
There are compensations. Villarreal takes me to his regular lunch spot, a spacious roadside joint called El Primero. The waitress has two tall glasses of iced tea on a table for us before we even come through the door; “How ya doin’, Spyder?” she asks Villarreal. “Having the chicken fried steak?” Placing his hat on the table, Villarreal explains that as a younger man he was known for his Corvair Spyder, and the name stuck. He greets practically everyone who walks in—”it pays to get along with everybody” is one of his mottoes. Maybe because that’s harder to do now. He laments the decline of Laredo from a friendly small town to a place where “everybody’s trying to make a buck. And if you park wrong, it’s gone.”
Afternoons, because of his back, Villarreal now patrols an urban route from the seat of a pickup truck. The beat is Laredo, the route a jolting series of washed-out dirt roads behind warehouses, rough tracks through the carrizo cane along the riverbank, and some more dirt roads built near the river for the Border Patrol by the Army Corps of Engineers. I can’t imagine that horseback riding hurts his tailbone more than this, but he insists it does. As before, we spot no livestock but do come across three Border Patrol cruisers hiding out in the brush. “They always show up when I stop here,” Villarreal says, pointing to a place on the riverbank where he believes they have a motion sensor. Soon we are creeping through a heavily vegetated area where the vines drag over the truck’s windshield. “This is a known smuggling point,” he says, and it’s spooky.
We see a group of three young Mexicans crouched under a retama tree, about a hundred yards from a Border Patrol car, but Villarreal does not get on the radio to turn them in. Another quarter mile brings us to the back of my hotel. It is set on a hillside, with balconies overlooking the river and Nuevo Laredo, and a parking garage underneath. While waiting for an attendant to get my car two days earlier, I heard barking and scuffling and saw two little hands on a wall near the structure’s entrance ramp. A boy maybe ten years old carefully threaded his way through some barbed wire and then jumped down inside the garage, 20 or 30 feet from me. He glanced at me, reached back over the wall, and lifted up a small white dog. Then two more kids, a boy and a girl, appeared, and the group scampered merrily off into Laredo. The parking attendant, arriving with my car, shook his head. “Thieves,” was all he would say about them. “They come and steal and walk back across.”
“Were they definitely thieves?” I ask Villarreal now. “Maybe they were just coming over for an adventure.”
“No,” he says simply. “They were thieves.”
“Do you ever see any livestock at all?”
The old cowboy shakes his head. “This one old boy bought a couple of cattle, just to mess up the Border Patrol. He’d run them down across their sensor on the river, again and again, until they lost interest in it. Then he started smuggling.” In other words, it’s gotten to the point where cattle are just another tool in the smuggler’s arsenal. His grandfather, Villarreal had told me, smuggled whiskey into Starr County from Mexico, so the activity is nothing new to him. But the times are. He spins the truck off the dirt roads and back into town, back not to the stable, but to the fancy federal complex, near International Bridge Number 2, which is confronting a reality that the old cowboys could not have dreamed up in a song.
About a hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the land becomes greener, the air muggy, the settlement more constant. Small towns start spreading out and running into each other, and water towers appear regularly. If it weren’t for the palm trees in the medians of divided highways and the signs in misspelled English (FOR SEL), one might risk a comparison to the more modest parts of Long Island.
This is the Rio Grande Valley, where the border continues to be settled in twins: Rio Grande City and Camargo, McAllen and Reynosa, and, finally, Brownsville and Matamoros. Just upstream is the Falcon Dam and Reservoir, in which, like Amistad Reservoir a couple hundred miles further up, the Rio Grande finds itself trapped. Here the muddy river drops its suspended silt, revealing water arresting in its clarity, not unlike the Colorado River at Lake Powell.
These dams have another effect: the Rio Grande no longer floods. Brownsville, at the turn of the century, was built on the site of what was basically a delta. The river until then meandered over a wide area—and changed rapidly in time of flood. The history of those times is visible in today’s Brownsville in the form of short, bending lakes that still exist all over town. Geologists know these as oxbow lakes, the locals, resacas. My hotel, 200 yards from the Gateway International Bridge, is built on one that is beloved by olivaceous cormorants, green parrakeets, muscovy ducks, and, in the evening, raucous flocks of red-crown parrots that overfly it constantly. Brownsville and Matamoros, lackluster in terms of the usual urban measurements (architecture, street plans, parks), are spectacular in terms of nearby ecology: there are more species per acre in the Rio Grande Valley than nearly anywhere in the United States, and Roger Tory Peterson ranked the valley among the ten best bird-watching spots in the country. “Did you know we are the only place in the United States where you can see the Mexican crow?” city councilwoman Jackie Locket asks me. I did not. “It’s at the city dump, way in the back.” I drive out to see, and there it is.
That this hard-to-see bird exists only at the dump is the kind of paradox that’s not unusual in Brownsville. At the National Audubon Society’s Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary a few miles outside of town, you can walk a cracked dirt path through one of the few original stands of sabal palms remaining on earth. The grove is loud with crickets and with the wooden rustling of dry palm fronds overhead. Ocelots and jaguarundis are occasionally seen. The grove has its own resaca, complete with bird blind, which affords a great view of some black-bellied whistling ducks, white ibis poking their beaks deep into the muck, great kiskadee flycatchers darting around a stand of trees, and green-backed herons. (In the parking lot, a cardinal perches on the door of my car and pecks angrily at its own threatening reflection in the rear-view mirror.) And Audubon, along with the Sierra Club, is spearheading an effort to reserve similar tracts of land all along the lower Rio Grande.
But just past the gates of the sanctuary, the road passes over one of the levees built by the Corps of Engineers in the late thirties. The RÃo de las Palmas, as the Rio Grande was named by the first Spanish explorers, will not be washing around the trunks of the sabal palms anytime soon. The sanctuary’s resaca, it turns out, would dry up, and the birds depart, were water not pumped in regularly over the dikes. Says Rose Farmer, the manager of the sanctuary: “Our goal is to protect or restore the small percentage of what used to be here—maybe 3 percent or 5 percent—because all the rest is gone, it’s just gone.”
Nearing the end of my trip, I wanted to see the place where the famous Rio Grande finally runs into the Gulf of Mexico. You can drive out to within about three miles of the spot on the American side, where the Gulf looms up and a “Pavement Ends” sign suggests this might be a good time to slow down. My plan was to walk along the beach to the spot, but it turns out that’s not necessary: This is a beach that people drive on. All kinds of people, mostly families with kids, have driven their cars and vans out here to set up the beach blankets, unfurl the umbrellas, and roll out the little Weber grills. There are no signs, no rule-enforcers in evidence except for six Mexican-American guys from Pharr, Texas, who have just taken the state police exam and are celebrating with some cold beers around their two pickup trucks. They are in a good enough mood to push my little car out of the loose sand where I have gotten it stuck, and I stake them to another six-pack.
You can’t drive across, because the river here is chest deep and runs with an especially strong current. But there are men standing in the surf where the river runs out, and I find that if you wade into the ocean, you can find a shallow line where the inward push of the tide roughly equals the outward push of the river current, and here you can walk across to Mexico.
Big deal. It’s like standing at the four corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—the only singularity of the spot lies in its political meaning. It looks exactly the same on either side: same people, same cars, same sand. Maybe the license plates are different. Inexplicably, there are about a dozen Mexican crows swooping around on the Mexican side—only on the Mexican side—as if by agreement with the publishers of the bird books.
I wade back to the United States thinking that somebody, somewhere, has probably mapped the exact spot in the surf where the river ends and the ocean begins. But how do you draw a line in the water? It seems as capricious an idea as the border along the Rio Grande. Down here, everybody looks the same. It is the final paradox of the borderlands: nowhere are we more alike than at the line that demarcates our difference.