Stories from a Texas Border Ranch
Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series will look 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.
I: My Home
Every now and then, late at night, you can hear thumping in the air, a little to the west. I always look up, just to see if I can catch sight of the blinking red and white points as they track across the darkness. On clear nights, moon full, the helicopter’s tail lights mix with the stars and I can’t tell them apart. Though the huffing rhythm eventually fades into the distance, I know they might circle over our house again a little later.
South Texas has always been my home; I was born here and spend a great deal of time thinking and writing about our history. As a food writer and blogger, it’s usually through the lens of food. Though I have lived elsewhere, this is the place that most inspires my husband and I. The plentiful wildlife, the rugged environment, and our wide-open skies are stunning, but more than anything, it’s the people. Our community culture is one of boundless pride in our land and our children. Most of our parents were raised in this community, as were our grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond. We choose to be here, and in our individual ways, we work together to make our part of the planet a better place. We also struggle with the reality of being a notably active portal for human smuggling and drug trafficking.
We also struggle with the reality of being a notably active portal for human smuggling and drug trafficking.
It occurred to me that I might be the only food blogger in the U.S. whose work kitchen is in an undocumented migrant portal. Around the time the helicopters hover I am usually washing an epic pile of dishes after a long day of cooking, tasting, styling, photographing, and editing. The cattle ranch where my husband and I live is about 35 miles north of the Rio Grande. Daily, there are groups of men, women, and children trekking through our area, burdened with back packs or bundles, guided by coyotes, or smuggling guides. Almost every week there is a dramatic car chase, a torn-up fence, a rammed front gate, or a flaming flipped pick-up on our two-lane farm-to-market road. And there I am, in my kitchen, styling a food photo of a dulce de leche-glazed donut, or a chicken enchilada, while dehydrated and disoriented immigrants stumble through our property on their very real journey northwards. The dark irony of what I do and where I am is not lost on me.
We didn’t recently move to this area: my family has ranched here since the 1740’s, when they received a land grant from the Spanish crown. I married the boy next door, and his family has been in the area for just as long. Both of our families, as the other families in our community, have spent generations observing migrant patterns. It has been part of our everyday conversations for as long as I can remember.
In 2016, our community saw about 186,000 undocumented immigrants attempt to enter the U.S. That’s roughly 15% of our population.
When I was about five or six years old, I remember a man scratching on my bedroom window screen one night. He wanted food, and directions north. Although my parents quickly shuffled me back into bed, I think the man got what he requested and continued on his journey. These days, illegal immigration is highly organized and much more sophisticated, with GPS, drones, cell phones, and semi-automatic weapons. The man at my window only had what he was wearing.
When I tell people that I live and work on a ranch located three and a half hours south of San Antonio, they are shocked. “I didn’t think anything was there” is the usual quip. But about 1.2 million of us live along the southern tip of Texas. Our demographics are distinctive: 85 percent of us speak Spanish and most counties in our area are over 90 percent Hispanic. And in 2016, our community saw about 186,000 undocumented immigrants attempt to enter the U.S. That’s equivalent to roughly 15% of our area population.
But with those exceptions, our community is just like any other small town in the United States. My neighbors are intelligent and hard-working and I see them in church on Sundays, in their usual pews. We linger at the post office, chatting about family, weather, the latest mangled fence, recent high-speed car chase or perhaps the human remains found while checking the cattle. We are the same as you, just different.
II: The Game
There was an uneasiness among my family members when I mentioned that I was going to write about where I live. I talked to friends who work in local law enforcement, politics, education, and spoke to my priest. As usual, the subject of immigration elicits a response of glum fatigue that necessitates a shift to more productive conversation.
Away from here, the same conversation is much more energized. Talking about immigration is a political game in Washington. Agree, disagree, the debate goes back and forth. Picking the popular side of the debate results in more followers, and more votes. Disputes and polarizing arguments energize voter turnout. But politicians’ opinions on immigration are often laughable, as very few from the Beltway have spent more than an afternoon photo-op on the border. Out of the 535 representatives in Washington, only about 10 reside on the Mexican border, less than two percent.
As a community, we do not debate immigration. We do not have the luxury or time for theoretical rhetoric. Immigration theory is for Washington. I live in the epicenter of an active immigration crisis. We live the reality, and the reality comes with obligations.
As a community, we do not debate immigration. We do not have the luxury or time for theoretical rhetoric.
We are obliged to stop at immigration checkpoints on our commutes, watch the road shoulders at dusk for bedraggled pedestrians, live under aerostat balloon cameras and night vision helicopters, and prepare ourselves for a Berlin style wall that will separate us from our family that live just on the other side of our local river. Washington mandates. We oblige. No debate, and little protest.
The chaos, danger, and expense of border security is woven into our daily lives, and few outsiders can process what it is like to live here. The current immigration crisis is our personal crisis. Our community bears the full responsibility of upholding and enforcing immigration law, although our firsthand knowledge and opinions are rarely taken into consideration when creating these laws.
When I originally started this piece, I cited immigration law, carefully crafted my watertight arguments, and exercised my right to free speech. I stayed up late and wrote for hours, but the political debate that keeps Washington at odds kept surfacing — which was exactly what I wanted to avoid. My daily reality is not a debate, so I focused writing away from opinion and toward description. While my personal interpretation of immigration law could be disputed, my day-in-the-life experience could not.
This is how we live on the U.S./Mexico border.
“There’s a rollover and bailout…we are searching the ranch to see where they went.” We usually get this type of phone call around 6:00 AM.
The farm to market highway that runs through our ranch-land community appeals to drug transporters and human smugglers, as it is a direct but forsaken East-West route between the Gulf Coast and Laredo. The fences along this route are torn down on a weekly, if not daily, basis. When we get the calls at 6:00 AM, the men from each family will head to the scene of the crash to talk to the sheriff, assess the damage, and count the animals or humans that were lost. I usually stay home, sipping coffee, and watching for strangers that might appear in our yard. I always lock the doors and listen for the dog, if he barks.
Fence line crashes happen when an overloaded vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed loses control. The vehicles transport human cargo, substance cargo, and many times both. Upon crashing, the driver will abandon the vehicle, to distance themselves from the undocumented passengers, or the illegal substances. This is known as a “bailout.” The men, women, and children passengers scatter into the heavy brush, most times with no water or provisions.
The Rio Grande Valley has been described as a quasi-desert like rangeland, with an average summer temperature of 98°F (37°C). In our area, there are no remarkable rivers or natural lakes. Only the occasional artesian well converted to an animal water trough, marked by a windmill. We have a robust venomous snake population, in addition to poisonous spiders, scorpions, acid bugs, ticks, and killer bees. Our environment is alarmingly inhospitable for the unfamiliar.
If a ranch is located in an active portal, a landowner could spend between $20k-$50k annually on fence repair.
After suffering the shock of a high-speed automobile crash — provided survivors are not too injured to carry on — an ejected passenger from a bailout needs to locate water, shade, and orient themselves northward. Many of these stunned passengers try to outrun law enforcement, and are never seen again. None are briefed by their traffickers on environmental conditions. None have the necessary survival training nor equipment. Carrying enough water for their 350-mile trek to Houston isn’t possible. Crashing through a fence and bailing out into the brush is certain death.
Most migrants come to the United States looking for work. And from what I hear in the news, many in the U.S. feel that because migrants choose to travel this elective, but harrowing journey, they are not deserving of our consideration, nor our tax dollars. But what consideration are the local landowners afforded? Even though we are U.S. citizens and pay taxes, we are ignored as well.
If a ranch is located in an active portal, a landowner could spend between $20k-$50k annually on fence repair. We need fences, to keep our animals in, and (ironically) keep trespassers out. No insurance, government program, nor county agency covers the expense for repairing crashed fences. We may have large acreage, but the numbers on our ranch profit and loss statements indicate we are small businesses. For area ranchers, fence rebuilding has become part of the annual “cost of doing business,” an amount that is often more than ranchers pay themselves.
It goes without saying that human life is more valuable than a fence. Building heftier fences to keep migrants from attempting a life-threatening cross-country trek is not an option, as the result would be intensified impact upon bailout, with higher human casualties. Breakaway fences are great for crash survival, but are quickly flattened by 2,000-pound bulls that simply want a bite of distant, greener grass. Landowners are responsible for keeping their livestock off the road, as they would be held responsible for any cow/car collisions. Landowners could be held responsible for human life on their property, regardless if they are trespassing or not. Bottom line: as long as a landowners owns property, they are responsible for rebuilding their fences.
By comparison, a human trafficking coyote, if caught, could be held responsible for the lives they are risking on their treks northward. But prosecuting an individual coyote will not deter other coyotes. Tomorrow, a new group of coyotes will be leading the sheriff’s department on another early morning high speed chase in an overloaded vehicle. Most likely, they will crash into another fence (or perhaps the same fence as yesterday). The landowner has no option but to rebuild the exact same fence, again. And again.
Although fences are designed to separate, the paradox is that our fences have become the 6:00 AM muster point for the two individuals that pay in the immigration debate: those that bear the financial burden, and those that pay the human cost.
IV: Frequency, Identity
On July 2, 2017, I got a text from my brother, sharing pictures from the latest bailout. Three men had crashed their pick-up through our fence after a high-speed chase with law enforcement. I didn’t get too many details. Did they have bales of marijuana or cocaine? Were they human smugglers with passengers that fled the scene? I was curious, but not enraged. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
On July 21, three ejected passengers from Honduras used their cell phone to call 911, only 200 yards from our home, my test kitchen. They were young men, in their early 20’s, headed to Houston to look for work, escorted by a coyote. Their vehicle crashed into the fence on another ranch, about eight miles northwest of our house. Their coyote abandoned them in the brush, distancing himself from their illegality. The men walked for two days. Disoriented, they were walking south.
There is a large pipeline gathering plant on our ranch with a tremendously loud compressor. I’m sure they followed their ears in hopes of finding a human. Although they were carrying water, they were in dire physical distress, with the temperature hovering around 104°F (40°C). The sheriff’s department located the men at the pipeline gathering plant on our property. They were rescued, and taken away by ambulance.
Our biggest problem is that we cannot determine if a person emerging from the brush is a migrant or a drug trafficker.
I am not afraid of migrants. The vast majority are simply looking for a paying job. But once they emerge from the cover of brush, they are in need of medical attention. There is a low probability of a human smuggler or migrant being armed. However, drug traffickers use migrants to walk their payload to a designated delivery point, in order to avoid law enforcement that patrol the highways, and canine units that are used in drug detection at border checkpoints. If substances are part of a trek, a drug trafficking coyote will most definitely be armed, not only to keep the valuable payload intact and moving forward, but to defend the drug payload against usurping rival gangs. I am afraid of drug traffickers.
Our biggest problem is that we cannot determine if a person emerging from the brush is a migrant or a drug trafficker. Or a migrant under the control of a drug trafficker. Each trekker has a story and a mission. You may be able to offer help, but you may also be an obstacle. Not knowing the intentions of a trekker is the uncontrolled variable that could change a regular day at home into a volatile situation. In the 19-day span of time from my brother’s text until the Honduran men called 911, there were six bailouts on our farm road, with two on our property.
Why did I decide to write about living in a migrant portal? Because if I didn’t speak up, you would never know. Unlike Paris, London, New York, or other media-relevant urban locations that food bloggers call home, I live in a remote rural area that few people have heard of. If it weren’t for our current turmoil with international immigration, few would be interested in our community at all. Plus, talking about the lives of immigrants deserves attention. If I didn’t describe bailouts, perhaps you would never have come across the term as it applies here. The national news has reported on the plight of immigrants in the past, but it’s occasional. For me, this is daily life.
As I started taking food blogging more seriously, I quickly found that there was a cool deceptiveness in posting. Perfect food, perfect styling, dazzling light of an almost religious quality, synthetic colors courtesy of Photoshop, and perfectly crafted descriptions. It felt like what actually happened in my daily life at the ranch should be stuffed into a kitchen cupboard, the door quietly shut. It seemed distasteful to include fragments from my “real” reality into my food-perfect one. In contrast to politicians, a food blogger’s carefully curated audience would be lost if themes abruptly turned to social justice now and again.
But, if I didn’t tell you that three migrating men from Honduras were succumbing to heat exhaustion only a short walk from where I was styling a Concha Fruit Cup post, you would never know. And all of a sudden, that felt equally important. While our life at the ranch rolls on, migrants will continue to journey northwards through our property. Washington will mandate. We will oblige. And all of us, our local humanity, will continue to pay.
The second entry of our Border Series looks at the connective roads through South Texas and the many migrants that travel on them.
A visit to a local oyster bed in the Rio Grande Valley offers insight into the environmental implications of a wall.
Stranded teenagers spark an emotional l reaction near a the daily crossing of the Falfurrias Checkpoint just north of the Texas-Mexico border.
Faith healing and La Santisima Muerte, as well as the importance of narco-saints, along the Texas border.
The way that border occurrences are often discussed and shared — in whispers at parties and social gatherings.
A visit to a respite center for legal migrants, which is run by nuns, in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexico border.
Getting in the car with Border Patrol along the US-Mexico border.
The conclusion of the multi-part series culminates at a border wall protest.