Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series looks at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with our Mexican neighbors, writer Melissa Guerra takes us on a narrative journey of her homeland, sticking strictly to description and narrative and veering away from politics in a powerful collection of personal stories. Click here to catch up on all the stories in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch.
“We used to live there…” she reminisced as we did the dishes. “But we had to leave. It was terrible. The shootings, the kidnappings. My husband moved us to Matamoros for his job. One day, we took the kids to soccer practice and the narcos that were playing soccer on the next field over started shooting at each other. Our kids were there; we didn’t know where to hide. They were shooting where there were children! I couldn’t believe it.”
It was Day of the Dead and I was teaching a cooking class. Paula was an expert tamale maker and my kitchen helper for the day. We had made the mole and tamales so the students were relaxing, decorating their altar, drinking wine, and chatting about their long day in the kitchen. As we were tidying up, Paula and I were sharing tamale-making tips as we washed up the bowls and cutlery in the sink. When I mentioned I was from the Rio Grande Valley in deep South Texas along the border of Mexico, she knew exactly where I was talking about. She had lived in the neighboring city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, just across the river on the Mexican side.
Gatherings and parties have always been where I hear local news. None of them make it into the local media or national news.
Gatherings and parties have always been where I hear local news. Compared to large cities like New York or Los Angeles, we don’t have a wide variety of cultural events to attend in our Rio Grande community. While we have symphonies and ballets, the performances are occasional. Our movie theaters screen the latest Dolby-drenched blockbusters, but they never play foreign films or experimental shorts. Sadly, most of our restaurants are franchises or chains. Our best, reliable diversions are usually homemade. Family weddings, back-yard barbecues, fundraising dinners, or church suppers — our self-organized parties and gatherings are where our community bonds, and our culture is perpetuated.
As a food professional living on the Mexican border, my social life can only be described as a multi-faceted duality. We have family, friends and deep roots that radiate north and south of the riverbanks. My social circle is comprised of both Mexican and U.S. citizens, living in their corresponding countries. So, when I attend social events in Mexico or the U.S. I could either be a guest on the patio or a dishwasher in the kitchen. I could be speaking in English or chatting in Spanish, regardless of the location. I hob-nob with the privileged in the foyer, while simultaneously collaborating with the party production team in the pantry. I hear what every social group is talking about within a 300-mile span of our international border.
I wasn’t surprised by what Paula shared with me. I hear those kinds of stories all the time. None of them make it into the local media or national news. Few outside our area can understand how these conversations can be so casual.
Hilda was another woman that I got to know in the kitchen. She and her husband had rented a house on the Mexican side of the Rio Bravo (the Mexican name for the Rio Grande) right at the water’s edge. They were unaware that the home was located in the middle of a gang war zone. Smugglers and gun battles raged daily outside her door. Her children never ventured outdoors, and as toddlers they could tell the difference between fireworks, back-firing jalopies, and real gun fire. They knew when to run.
After their year-long lease expired, they sold their belongings with the intentions of moving to Canada, but the job opportunity fell through. With no furniture, no possessions, and little money, they moved into a room in a furnished hotel where they found that their neighbors were the body guards of the area’s most notorious drug trafficker. Their children played with the body guards’ children, but when the infamous trafficker stopped by occasionally, the body guards stared down their automatic weapons at every hotel dweller in sight, including Hilda and her young family.
Bloggers and tweeters faced threats and retribution from gangs. Two were killed and hung from a bridge. One was disemboweled. Needless to say, no one blogs or tweets anymore. Instead, we talk among ourselves. This is how we get our real news.
When the trafficker was finally targeted and killed in a street gun battle by the Mexican military, the hotel was completely riddled with bullets, and in Hilda’s words “the streets ran with blood.” While bodies were loaded into tractor trailers and taken away, Hilda’s family experienced it all. Downplayed versions of the event appeared in the local and national news, citing only a handful of casualties.
While a journalist would be required to verify these details, I’m not a journalist. This is just a story I heard at a party. But Hilda’s story lines up with what I have heard from both Mexican and U.S. friends and family at other social gatherings where the details get whispered and shared. The internet and social media doesn’t provide us with news of current events anymore, either. Journalists and concerned citizens in the local towns on the Mexican side had set up Twitter feeds, so residents could be informed of locations of violence as it was happening. But those bloggers and tweeters quickly faced threats and retribution from gangs. Two were killed and hung from a bridge. One was disemboweled. Needless to say, no one blogs or tweets anymore.
Instead, we talk among ourselves. This is how we get our real news.
At a family wedding, I shared a table with Glenda, a woman whose family farms on the U.S. side of banks of the Rio Grande, a few miles upriver from where Hilda lived. The lights of the Border Wall will shine directly into her living room.
Last Saturday, Glenda was out in her garden playing with her granddaughters and enjoying the early autumn change of weather. In the morning, her son stopped in to tell her that seven undocumented migrants had been in the garden as well, undetected and hiding at the far end. Although they were not from the area, one of the migrants had asked for one of the farm employees, by name. Law enforcement advised Glenda’s family that perhaps the smuggling guide had been intercepting cell phone calls leaving the farm, tracking and studying the activity on the farm before their journey. “The trouble is that we just don’t know if they are good people, or bad people” she said. Glenda didn’t know anything about them, but the smugglers had been talking about her.
I missed seeing my friend Max at a recent wedding. A law enforcement officer, he often has more important business to tend to and we caught up later in the week over coffee. He jogged my memory about a story of a body found at a neighbor’s ranch. About a year ago, there was a dramatic helicopter search for an abandoned migrant who had called 911 from a disposable cell phone supplied by his smuggler coyote (the same coyote that had abandoned him – the abandonment was likely premeditated.) The man was dying of dehydration and exhaustion, but he would not give his location to the emergency dispatcher. He wanted to be rescued, but not by Border Patrol. He wanted to live, but not to be deported.
Helicopters circled through the night over the dark ranch country, in a effort to locate him. In addition to thick brush cover, heat radiating upwards from the hot ranch sands thwarted the rescuers’ night vision technology. His calls to 911 continued through the night. He was found in the morning, dead with the cell phone by his side, 10 yards from a petroleum company’s gate. Paid personnel keep watch at this gate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Among our community, this was one of our most perplexing stories, so I was surprised that I had forgotten this incident. As there are so many incidents like this, our collective memory is preserved in our conversations. We remind each other of what happens to our neighbors, as human memory is the only place our community events are recorded. For us, these are not stand-alone incidents – this our daily life. In my memory, what happened a year ago has already been replaced by what happened last week. Or yesterday.
As there are so many incidents like this, our collective memory is preserved in our conversations.
The most disconcerting conversations at parties are the flummoxed wide-eyed stares, or the nervous, trailing “oh…” when a non-local party acquaintance asks you what it is like to live on the border of Mexico. When asked, I never shirk from telling people of my experiences at home in a human smuggling corridor. Invariably, the listener will listen briefly, but then their polite smile begins to fade, they lower their gaze, fix their eyes elsewhere, rattle the ice-cubes in their drink, and look to see what’s left on the buffet. Then, they walk away.
In the awkward aftermath of their distancing themselves, I always kick myself for having talked too much. Living among the smuggled is not a subject that may people can quickly, or gracefully, process. Guests can spar with the Border Wall debate well enough until someone like me speaks up. My experiences are too real. It’s my fault that outsiders choose to literally look the other way. Among locals, we speak of our situation freely. With outsiders, we are polite.
What I have found in talking to everyone in the kitchens and foyers of parties is that we have a local, unified perspective: we want peace. We don’t want people dying next to our homes, and we don’t want strangers exploiting the laws of our communities. The smugglers break laws and ferret out loopholes on both sides of the river, with everyone paying for their abuse. Regardless of our nationalities, we want the chaos to stop.
Paula and Hilda now reside in the U.S., as does Glenda. But this doesn’t guarantee their safety. Glenda’s family is considering adopting trained German Shepherd guard dogs to patrol her garden. Hilda’s son received a phone call yesterday informing her that her nephew had been kidnapped and money was to be delivered to a bank account to assure his safe return. Though it turned out that her nephew was fine, it was an extortion attempt. Hilda didn’t know who called, but they most certainly knew her.
Artwork courtesy of Rigoberto A. Gonzalez and his painting exhibit “Barocco en la Frontera: Baroque on the Border. Rigoberto A. Gonzalez was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and grew up in San Juan, Texas. He earned a BFA from the University of Texas at Pan American in 1999 and an MFA (cum laude) from The New York Academy of Art in 2004.