Oh, Mexico

"The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth--persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." - JFK, June 1962

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Oh, Mexico

When we were young and starting our life together, we lived in a 14-foot-wide mobile home on a ranch that was less than a half mile from the Rio Grande. The entirety of the world and its problems seemed very distant, and we often sat on the wooden steps at our back door and talked about our dreams. The town was small, and the roads were lonely and that meant the air was usually quite clear. After a storm or a cold front had blown through, we were able to see the shadows of mountains in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico far to the Southwest.

The exotic allure of Mexico was irresistible, and very affordable. On weekends, we either walked across the international bridge in Laredo to spend our evenings drinking rum punch and listening to mariachis sing and play on the palm-lined plaza or we drove toward those mountains and overnighted at villages like Bustamente where there was no pavement but an abundance of kind and interesting people. More adventurous trips took us down the Pan American Highway to Monterrey and Saltillo and stops at cantinas to eat pickled eggs and drink cold Mexican beer beneath the endless sun of the south. Even more memorable was an overnight New Year’s Eve run on the Aztec Eagle train from Nuevo Laredo to San Miguel Allende.  

The border was open and friendly in those days, and nothing more than a driver’s license was needed to travel within 25 miles south of the big river. Culture of the two countries mixed languages and food and art into an educational and humanizing experience where our differences became attractions and commonalities provided reassurances. The river was a ribbon that sewed together two countries. An undying belief was that the boundary was only a legal construct and the Rio Grande united rather than divided people.

Consider that the perspective of most people who live and love along the border and then contemplate what they must think as the Texas Governor Greg Abbott brags that he’s unspooling $3 billion dollars of razor wire between our state and Mexico. The fool believes that putting up barbed wire and rolling National Guard armored vehicles along the river will stop the crush of immigrants, and he makes it a point to appear on right wing television to explain how he is joyously misusing billions of taxpayer dollars to militarize the Mexican frontier with Texas.

Imagine looking out your kitchen window and seeing the U.S. military’s guard division in Texas lined up with weapons and machines of war along your property. There is a grand chance that people with homes near the border are confronting a military presence daily or getting tickets from bored DPS officers; especially if they are brown and traveling away from the river. Abbott says there are 6500 guardsmen and women and DPS troopers running around catching transgressors of our border and trespassers of private property.

Pretty Cars All in a Row

I cannot name or recall in my decades of running the river as a journalist and a resident a more absurd tactic than sending thousands of Texas lawmen and soldiers to arrest immigrants when the job belongs to the federal government. The amount of resources Abbott is wasting is exceeded only by his endless anger at people suffering on his doorstep. Police cars are being used to make an iron fence. They appear to be parked so close together that the drivers must have climbed out the window. How long will they stay there, and can the guy who has the breakfast taco truck keep up with demand?

And now there is razor wire? Three billion dollars’ worth of razor wire. Surely, unspooled, that must reach to the moon or at least down to Guadalajara. I guess our governor is thinking that Mexicans and Central Americans have never heard of wire cutters, but the Great Wall of Texas is a kind of Walmart version of obstruction; it won’t stop, won’t last long, and will only delay the inevitable. Wire cutters are a lot cheaper than ladders, Greggy boyo, and they are easier to tote around. Hell, you could grab a pair in Guatemala on your way north, hook ‘em to your jeans and be good to go when you pulled up to the riverbank. My cynicism makes me suspect one of Abbott’s political donors is making a sweet profit selling razor wire to Texas.

There’s other good money to be made, though. The governor has also decided to strategically place shipping containers at points along the border. Those gigantic steel crates that come off cargo ships bringing Americans their toys and appliances from China can now be repurposed to turn back immigrants along the Rio Grande. Maybe they can be turned into tiny homes for the National Guard and cops to live in while they are deployed and playing their parts in Circus Abbotticus.

While the biggest increase in illegal immigration is in the stretch of the Rio Grande Valley from Starr County to Brownsville, Abbott has sent his military assets to stretches of the border around Del Rio and down toward Eagle Pass. There is no shortage of cops and soldiers around McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville, but the wall made of cop cars has been located around Del Rio because that is where the Haitians surged in great numbers. My view is that it’s reasonable to ask why the governor deployed all his manly barriers around Del Rio. Does he have a contract with the northbound caravans that guarantees they will show up where he’s putting up his façade of a wall?

Think, however, about Mexico. What does the border look like from the south bank of the river? Families have, historically, lived and worked on both sides of the frontier between the two countries. Razor wire is not meant to be welcoming, of course, but what kind of a message does it send to Texas’ largest trading partner when we militarize the entire length of the Rio Grande? Our state exported about $120 billion dollars of products and materials to Mexico in 2019, which helped to keep our southern neighbor the U.S.’ number one trading partner, and what’s better for improving a critical economic relationship than $3 billion dollars of razor wire strung haphazardly around the place where our countries come together? Maybe this is tolerable for the Mexicans. If experience is any guide, they may have the contract for manufacturing the spools at a maquiladora plant.

Unfortunately, none of this is funny. Much of the Mexican side of the border is already being shredded by drug cartels fighting for control of territory. Gunfights break out in the streets of Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa because there is big money to be made supplying Americans with the drugs they voraciously consume. Being a mayor or member of the media in Nuevo Laredo, a once sleepy city where I spent many warm evenings, has often turned into a death sentence. In Juarez, across from El Paso, just this week, police discovered a severed head and body parts scattered on the street as gang wars continue and 1170 homicides have been recorded this year.

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Americans, especially Texans more familiar with Mexico, have taken solace in the fact that the violence has generally been confined to certain parts of the country that are not frequented by tourists. Unfortunately, the cartel wars are moving into the resort communities. More than a million visitors, mostly from the U.S., hit the beaches and resorts in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and all along the Yucatan Peninsula. On Thursday this week, gunmen powered ashore on a motorboat outside of a Hyatt on a Cancun beach and opened fire, claiming the area was now under their control for drug sales and transport. Two people, likely from a rival cartel, were killed and vacationers scattered for cover as automatic weapons fire sprayed the beach. Two weeks previous a California travel blogger and German tourist were killed in the crossfire of a gun battle in the beach town of Tulum. Mexico’s reputation for keeping its vacation spots on the Caribbean out of the field of fire has probably been ruined and business is likely to suffer.

Texas and the U.S., it must be acknowledged, is complicit in those shootouts, too. Mexican authorities estimate there have been 120,000 homicides in their country in the past three years and that murders have likely been facilitated by guns from north of the border. The government says about 500,000 guns cross into Mexico every year, illegally, from the U.S., and they tend to end up in the hands of drug cartels that use them to do battle for territory and murder anyone in their paths. The firepower for the cartels must come predominantly from American gun runners because getting a license to possess a gun in Mexico is inordinately difficult. The country has one agency that licenses guns to individuals, which is run by the national army, and issues only about 200 permits per year.

There seems to me something characteristically American about not taking responsibility for the social chaos and disruption in Mexico and Central America and then putting up razor wire to keep out refugees who are also victims of our addictions. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have been displaced by the drug wars, though we tend to see that as a sovereign Mexican problem to which we are not connected. An unknown number of those have come to the border. The Texas governor, meanwhile, may only be posturing with our billions of tax dollars to attract hard right voters in the GOP primary, but he is also exercising a policy we support with our silence. We do not accept responsibility for anything that has happened outside our borders, regardless of our complicity in helping to create those social afflictions, and we just want you to go away. Don’t come marching to the American doorstep like some zombie that had trod across a continent to scare us. You can’t make us look in the mirror you are carrying.

A Reprise of Tom Russell’s - “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?” (The National Guard?)

We can also no longer guarantee you will have human rights if you make it through the razor wire and containers and police car wall. Il Douche’ the governor has ordered brown people who look like their clothes are wet to be arrested on criminal charges of trespassing and thrown into a state prison. The legal problem, of course, is that unless the trespasser is on private property, they are not violating Texas laws. Not to worry, we will arrest them, regardless, and stick them behind bars without knowing what they are charged with or giving them access to an attorney. In Texas, the U.S. Constitution exists only when it can be used to conveniently advance a conservative political cause. By the end of last week there were an estimated 900 immigrants held in old prisons turned into Texas state jails, and Democratic members of congress had written a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation of potential violations of constitutional rights.

Potential? Lol, I believe is the appropriate expression.

You might think that all those National Guardsmen and women doing active duty for months away from their families are being treated kindly by the governor and the state that they serve. (But another LoL might be the best response to that assumption). Because they are deployed within the state borders, the service members are treated as Texas employees and not as active-duty soldiers. That means no accrual of federal benefits under the G.I. bill and if they get hurt or sick, they are not covered with healthcare or disability from the Veterans Administration because they are not technically serving the U.S. military.

A significant part of the reason many soldiers remain on reserve duty with the state guard is because of a tuition payment used to attract and retain their commitments. Until Greg Abbott decided he could spend their tuition money on razor wire and shipping containers, a guardsman carrying a full credit load toward an undergraduate, post-grad or professional degree, was provided $4500 in reimbursement per semester. The minor cost to Texas taxpayers was around $3 million for 2020 and 2021, which seems like piss in the ocean compared to the $300 million Abbott and his conservative Reich expended to fund guard troops on the border in 2022 and 2023.

In a budget move that got seemingly no coverage by state and local media, the legislature cut tuition funding for guardsmen and women by 54 percent to $1.4 million while they are spending the next two years “guarding” our border. Instead of a guaranteed $4500, the most a soldier can receive now is a one-time $1000 grant. They will also have to compete for that money as the guard says it can only fund 714 such grants, even though there are 20,000 people serving. My suggestion, upon learning of this criminal act, is that the next time Abbott or Little Gov. Dan Patrick demand you get teary-eyed over a national anthem that is ordered to be played by state law, tell them to kiss your red, white, and blue arse. Hell, tell ‘em to do that anyway should you happen to see them in public; would have to be cathartic.

Texas, and more broadly, the U.S., of course, have a right to protect sovereign borders even if the people standing at our gate are there partly because of our policies. Because history is written by the conquerors, though, we have tended to ignore our hypocrisies regarding our treatment of Mexico. In fact, white Anglo-Saxons have recorded most of the history of the Southwest that is taught in Texas and U.S. public schools and it decidedly ignores the fact that our current border problem can be ironically juxtaposed against the story of Americans invading Mexico to start a war and violating its border.

In 1846, the southern border of Texas was considerably north of the Rio Grande at the Nueces River. President James Polk, though, increasingly under the pressures of westward Manifest Destiny interests, saw an opportunity to increase American land acquisitions through a war with Mexico. Polk supported expansionists and all their visions for a nation that reached from sea to shining sea, but their collective ambitions could not be realized with Mexico still governing California and territories that included much of present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and even Utah. Polk offered support and resources to a revolt of Anglo immigrants in California, but that did not provoke his desired war with Mexico, nor did a previous decision to admit Texas to the Union as a slave state, an institution Mexico had outlawed.

His next tactic was to send a small detachment of U.S. soldiers across the Nueces River into what was then Tamaulipas, Mexico, and confront Mexican troops. The Americans were ordered to leave but refused and were then defeated in a battle by the Mexicans. Polk characterized the incident, which in the 20th century would have been described as a false flag event, as an attack on American soil, even though it was in Tamaulipas. The U.S. subsequently invaded Mexico, and started a war that lasted two years and resulted in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded 55 percent of sovereign Mexican territory over to the United States and moved the southern border of Texas to the Rio Grande.

The immorality of Polk and the congress that authorized the war was later confronted, though little noted, by then Congressman Abraham Lincoln, as a “war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.” (See also: WMD?). An officer who served in Mexico and later under Lincoln to lead the Northern troops in the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, was far more critical.

“I was bitterly opposed to the measure,” Grant said. “And to this day, regard the war with Mexico, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

The victory against Mexico was glorious, of course, for the U.S. because it now had a sovereign reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The acquired and abundant natural resources meant the country’s future was certain to be economically strong and there was room to grow agriculture and industry. A myth took hold that Mexico had provoked U.S. soldiers and that was written into the historical narrative to justify the conflict. You would have a hard time finding a high school textbook that even remotely suggests a different scenario. That history was written by the victors, who, not incidentally, were white European men.

White men are still writing and rewriting the history of Texas. Herr Abbott, as Texas governor, signed a measure into law banning the teaching of critical race theory, a concept that does not even exist. Abbott wants to make sure students do not learn of white supremacy or the racism and slavery that were integral to the growth of this state and our nation. Critics believe the law outlawing something that does not exist will chasten teachers who want to have open discussions in their classrooms about race and historical inequities.

Chasing after a separate ephemera, the governor sent a letter to the Texas Association of School Boards expressing his concern about pornography in public school books. The group has no control over textbook selection and Abbott’s communique’ appears designed to make certain he gets some attention from conservatives. He does not want to be upstaged by the Republican state representative from Fort Worth, Matt Krause, who wants to be attorney general and is beginning his campaign by sending letters to unnamed school districts around the state to ask them about 850 different books students are reading. Krause wants to know what they are learning about AIDS and HIV, sexuality and sexually transmitted disease, and race, and even how much school districts paid to purchase such texts.

Who got the list, Krause won’t say because he says it’s a big, ol’ examination by his House Investigations Committee. We need to see if our kids are learning about things they need to know about because if they are we need to stop it. Before people like Krause and Abbott are done, there will be no such thing as race and AIDS and HIV will be phony diseases and viruses cooked up by lefties wanting to control our lives. We will be right back to the bullshit of the Reagan administration where conservatives privately, and some even publicly, let it be known they thought AIDs was their god’s judgment for homosexuality.

And, yes, this is connected to Mexico because when we make all our truths benign and white people are good then we are much more comfortable looking back at the brown-skinned homeless, hungry, and poor who are staring across the border at our razor-wired shining city on the hill, wanting just a tiny sliver of hope. We are better than them and we’ve proved it by writing our own sanitized history. We didn’t create your problems. You did, and you don’t get to bring them here because we’ve got ourselves together and have our comforting myths worked out and don’t need anyone asking hard questions or invading us the way we invaded them.

I started traveling through Mexico in 1975. My reporting work down there began with the inauguration of Miguel de la Madrid as president in 1982. The list of stories I covered ranged from drug cartels to hurricanes and the Mexico City earthquake, a papal visit, murdered Americans, floods, and droughts that ruined cattle and produce markets, economic conflicts at the border and the collapse of the peso, and I once even went in search of the battle flag from the Alamo that had disappeared from a national museum in Mexico City at the time of Texas’ 150th birthday.

I’ve learned a few things. Maybe not a lot. But I know this with certainty: Mexico’s problems are our problems. Mexico’s culture is our culture. Texas is of Mexico. And no matter how much money this state’s governor wastes on his little wall, he won’t be able to change those facts.

(Note: If you have any interest in learning more about the mutual history of Texas and Mexico, please consider attending the Rio Grande Guardian’s one-day conference on the 175th anniversary of the U.S. - Mexico War. Tejano historian and author Jose Antonio Lopez will host the event along with the Guardian, the Rio Grande Valley’s pre-eminent news source. The conference will be held December 9th at the Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center).

Bonus Video below: “I Like Austin, But I Love San Antone.” (Cool as hell song).