Image from Flickr via Scott Laleman

The journey begins driving south on Highway 77. The story, however, starts long before I reach the Texas-Mexico border. It is a story of confusion, of place and self, of desire to belong and to escape, of freedom and entrapment. It is a story that begins with what this region—the borderland and its landscape, culture, and people—means to me and ends with what it has made out of me. I got out many years ago, yet I have an urge to return. I often drive from Austin to Brownsville. For many years I’ve done this, and now I do so with my wife. We often drive in silence, she staring out the passenger-side window. She is a borderland outsider in a way that I am and am not an outsider. She calls what she sees outside her window a twilight zone. I’ve asked her, “How is this a twilight zone?” And she smiles, “Look around you.”

I have been looking.

The Rio Grande Valley lies in what first appears as the sparse, the uninteresting, the familiar but is in certain ways an alien region: not just the Rio Grande Valley of the quiet, grassy plains and serene subtropical evenings you notice on the drive but a harsher Rio Grande Valley. One where the sun ravages either side of the road, leaving dry, brittle grassland the color of buff leather, extending into thickets of mesquite trees, flattened and weighed down by the oppressive humid air off the Gulf Stream. My family always drove this road during breaks in farming seasons. On those long drives it took to get through South Texas from either northern Michigan and central Florida, I peered out the window, faced pressed close, and witnessed the late-afternoon landscape as it broke for occasional livestock, a few goats and cows ruminating fields or lingering around an irrigated stock tank. It is easy to notice the beginning of El Valle because there’s nothing to see until you get to small-town Raymondville, then suddenly palm trees line the sides of the highway in a hospitable welcome to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

To many, the north is a welcome respite; to others, it is an escape, those who flee hear a sharp ringing in the ear: vete pero no me olvides. It is the writing found over a thousand miles west on a Tijuana border wall: Go, but do not forget me.

Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King, steamboat captains and business partners, settled their ranches here in the mid-1830s after the Mexican-American War. Their expansive farmland is one of the largest ranches in the world, even larger than Rhode Island. The ranches take up most of the terrain in the upper valley, but the ranches are fortresses: secretive, remote, mysterious. Inside the King Ranch, the Kineños, the King’s People, were hired Mexican ranch hands uprooted from the decimated village of Cruillas, Tamaulipas, Mexico by the King family in 1854 in order to run the livestock, a duty many of the descendants of the Kineños do to this day. Driving along Highway 77, you would not know the King Ranch influence outside of the farmstead: the political savvy conglomerate, the well-connected lobbyists, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Vatican, Brazil, Cuba; or the controversy: illegal land appropriation, shady farm subsidies, Bay of Pigs, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, tropical deforestation.

But it is not just farmland. Driving south, past Raymondville, you would not know of the local folklore: how throughout the 1970s and the 1980s South Texas residents believed in a flying reptile, a pre-historic bird, thought by many to be a pteranodon with grayish-brown leathery skin and a wingspan of 15 to 20 feet, that inhabited the skies. The anomaly didn’t fly so much as glide through the sky and prey on ranch livestock. You would never realize other phenomena: la chupacabra, the Lobo Girl of Devil River, La Llorona, el coui coui, unidentified flying objects, La Mano Pachona, the Virgin on a tree, hauntings, apparitions, devil worshipping. But such unnatural things, the conspiracy theorist’s dream, the skeptic’s nightmare, only adorn the borderland periphery. You wouldn’t imagine these things alluding to more. But they do.

Look around you.

This is a place where everything is and is not: where hundreds of years ago the Rio Grande Valley was a delta, a floodplain, a wild, flat prairie. It is now parched ranch land feeding off its riverbed and creeks. It was never a valley. This is where everything could be and should not be, a place where in the 1960s hundreds of factory plants, las maquiladoras, began producing cheap imported materials and developing a rush of industrial business along both sides of the border. What these maquiladoras build in economy it strips away: in the environment, toxic waste in the local rivers and deserts; in health, babies born without brains; in wages and benefits, long hours no pay; and in absent labor rights, unfair gender rules. This is a place where families often flip-flop between living in Mexico and the United States, sometimes for several generations without much concern for understanding a line of demarcation; a place where it does not matter what side of the line you live on, you will always be Mexicano; where speaking English exposes the tourist as an outsider and the local as a gringo-wannabe. Where you are judged by what high school you graduated from or by how far north you settle because it determines how far you stray from your heritage, culture, and language. To many, the north is a welcome respite; to others, it is an escape, those who flee hear a sharp ringing in the ear: vete pero no me olvides. It is the writing found over a thousand miles west on a Tijuana border wall: Go, but do not forget me. Those who flee do so to escape living in the midst of everything they have seen or have been. It is a dream. It is a nightmare. This is the borderland, a land of misunderstanding, where you cling to the past because you are afraid to embrace the future. But it makes no sense. And it makes perfect sense.

* * *

Imagine the five-and-a-half-hour drive, because the trip’s length can numb you over the 349 miles, from the slow gradation that leads you away from your America and into my America—into Brownsville, into that twilight zone. Now imagine Brownsville as an unfinished puzzle: each part not fitting where it should. These parts do not fit because the culture remains contained and hard to peg. Brownsville is misunderstood and very seldom studied unless it’s cultural, social, or mass media exploitation.

Associated Press, 1993: “Third World Poverty Found in Medium Sized Cities—Brownsville, Texas Cited As Worst in The Nation.

I heard with embarrassment of this report as a young boy, the national news reporting on a breakthrough. I was twelve years old, the son of migrant farm workers living in Central Florida, sitting on a cement floor watching the five o’clock news tell the world about the city where I was born, the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley; tell the world of the city’s dilapidated infrastructure, its depressed economy, and its poor immigrant residents. I was unaware then that this was not the first time my birth town was in the national spotlight, for better or worse.

Kris Kristofferson was born there and so was Freddy Fender, both successful singer-songwriters in country, rock, and blues. It was Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” his bluesy swamp pop ode to Southeast Texas and Southern Louisiana that my mother often sung on our long drives towards Brownsville.

Essayist Joan Didion immortalized Brownsville in Slouching Towards Bethlehem when she wrote about how a Bay Area addled youth “hitchhiked seven hundred miles to Brownsville, Texas so [he] could cop peyote,” sold for thirty cents a button on Brownsville streets.

During this time, renowned artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel moved to Brownsville at the age of fifteen and spent his time surfing, drinking and doing drugs, and in turn discovered his love of art.

Brownsville was also the place where in 1989 Mark J. Kilroy, an affluent American college student with strong ties to Washington, vanished during his Spring Break. He was found a month later in Matamoros, Mexico, decapitated: his skull split open, the spinal chord removed and made into a necklace, his brain cooked and eaten as sacrifice for a drug-trafficking satanic cult.

That same year, British acid house duo The KLF recorded a concept album portraying a mythical journey up the South Texas coast that ended in Brownsville. Their song “Brownsville Turn Around on the Tex-Mex Border,” an inspiration for a later hit single “Justified & Ancient,” sampled with hypnotic orchestration of gulf water sounds, rumbling of trains, and a far-off Spanish radio disc jockey.

Meanwhile, novelist James Carlos Blake, perhaps known best for his mythical take on the “American outlaw” in the Southwest, spent his formidable years in Brownsville despite being born in Mexico.

Brownsville native Oscar Casares crafted an award-winning collection of short stories often cited as a South Texas equivalent to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

More recently, another Brownsville native, writer Domingo Martinez, was nominated for a National Book Award for his memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, based in Brownsville.

Singer-songwriter Jim White contemplated a love affair in his song, “The Girl From Brownsville, Texas.”

White said: What you cling to, that’s the thing you had best forget.

I got out and have traveled far north and wide west and still I can’t forget.

It is more than that.

Look again.

When I do, I see a landscape that struggles with its past and its future. I see a city founded 150 years ago on a low-level subtropical terrain, a land where sabal palmettos, bur oaks, and sugarberry trees once rose over 20 feet high; and shrubs: the Mexican olive, the purple bougainvillea, and ebony thorn grew on the banks and in groves that used to extend miles north of the river, now restricted, divided and cradled by a wrought-iron border wall. The mere 557-acre bend of original Rio Grande terrain no longer exists. It is a past and best forgotten.

What results makes the Mexican multiethnic, unique, and exotic and turns the Mexican-American into a comic victim of two cultures. Modernity conflicts with native thoughts.

What I see is a city that does understand itself for what it is. Indio. Brown—people made of thrusts and strides, of mixing pits melded and extracted: tenebrous hair, widened nostrils, marrón eyes, lush lips. If what is extracted, the brown, is mestizo and mestizo is an indio who has been dislocated from his origin by assimilating into western “thinking” and customs, then what I used to see in myself was a mestizo whose face could never portray the ambition I brought to it.

What I will never be—white. Güero.

Archetypal Americano—the blue-eyed and blonde, the well-educated. This was what I witnessed growing up in my America as a migrant farm worker in Northern Michigan and in Central Florida. And it was not me and it was not Brownsville. But it was and is Mexico. Mexico profundo. A land that seems of much richer seed and soil. It is so because it is not a melting pot, but a fusion of European blood with lo indio. But what results makes the Mexican multiethnic, unique, and exotic and turns the Mexican-American into a comic victim of two cultures. Modernity conflicts with native thoughts.

A rift between paradigms.

There is no way around this comedy for myself: I have spent years yearning for my past to be gone, but it’s stronger than the aims I have.

My future—

I am married to a woman of a rich German and Czech heritage, a mixture herself. Each of us looks forward to starting a family, and we wonder, our children: a curious amalgam of the old and the new world. How will they identify?

—fuses into my past.

Biracial: Multicultural: A strange generation.

To me it makes perfect sense. And it makes no sense.

I will elaborate:

This is what I saw on my mother’s side, in my Mexican uncles, los tíos, light-skinned and hazel-eyed. “Your abuelo,” my mother made sure to tell me, was half-Spanish. Era güero, rubio, con ojos claros.” I never knew my grandfather. I was not like him or like my mother: fair-skinned and clear-eyed. But that never stopped my mother from suggesting my children have a high probability of being light-skinned and hazel-eyed. She assures me of this. She is certain of my children’s white-washed future, as if that was the reason I married a white woman.

Another example:

During our breaks on the migrant circuit, my paternal grandfather often joked with me as a child. He’d ask if I had a girlfriend yet, Donde esta tu novia? Simple. Perhaps an innocent joke an adult poses to a child, Do you have a girlfriend? But my grandfather was always quick to add this knowing bit of information, Ya se que va hacer una novia negra or A César le gustan las negras. An innocent joke turns dark, I bet your girlfriend is black! You like black girls. My grandfather reserved this joke exclusively for me for some reason. Funny. Perhaps charming at first. Did my grandfather see something in me, something different or was there more to his joshing? This inside joke grew old, tired when I neared my teens.

Confusion in idolization revealed only when they pull down their panties. Brown. Dark. An open book of hair.

This is what I wonder:

Did I really want to be white? Was that my aim after all? The native costumbre surfaces: I could change my identity but my genetic makeup, which determines my features, the Indian, remains.

Then what am I?

I am Brown—

A city made up of 87 percent Hispanic, Latino, Mexican-American, and Mexicano-whatever—and 10 percent White, Anglo, Black. More labels.


A city homogenous and confused in its desire to not be what it sees everyday.

Just look.

Brown women dye their hair a platinum blonde, others streak it para verse rubia. A desire to appear white. These women get it from both sides: the rich blondes on American television—the California valley girl; the rich blondes on Mexican telenovelas—niñas popís, muy fresas. It is not them. But blonde is desirable on both sides and there is an urge to cover imperfections with make-up and chemicals. Eres La Tesorito: Laura Léon. Estilo tipo Lorena Hererra. Se crée la Madonna. Confusion in idolization revealed only when they pull down their panties. Brown. Dark. An open book of hair. This is not what we want to see. Change yourself. Reinvent yourself into something you are not; it is okay to look güera, but be certain you keep your culture.

Here is an example:

At a cousin’s wedding, an aunt told my wife: “Don’t talk to me in English, a mí me hablas en español.”

She said this half jokingly. My aunt, a Mexican-American, the youngest on my father’s side, the only woman in her entire family with a high school education, a fluent English speaker and the fairest skinned of her entire family, habitually dyes her hair blonde and refuses to talk to my wife in English. This aunt to this day refuses to acknowledge her own daughter-in-law, a Filipino-American, because in her words, “She already looks Mexican, she should learn to speak Spanish.”

Ignorance? Confusion? Irony? All this from my peroxide aunt.

What is it?



(Te gustan las negras?)


In the last decade, as the city has thrived establishing big-box stores and chain-franchise eateries to the north of the city, it has begun to leave behind its past. There’s a common inclination for small towns to discard the old and embrace the comforts and niceties that weren’t there before. I notice this pattern, this change whenever I visit. Now the drive as one enters the city is lined with franchises—IHOP, TEXAS ROADHOUSE, CHILI’S, APPLEBEE’S, CHEDDAR’S.

I admit in having no pleasure from eating at any of these establishments.

A story:

I once had lunch at a Texas Roadhouse. I was famished and tired after driving the entire Austin to Brownsville trip nonstop and in no condition to protest. My brother was excited to show me the restaurant’s “Texas” theme. “When you walk in, you step all over peanut shells,” he told me as we entered the restaurant doors. “They encourage you as you eat, to throw your shells on the floor.”

Which Texas is this? I remember thinking before I nodded the question away. I was irritable. Instead, I snidely asked my brother, “Are we encouraged to throw our leftovers on the floor too?”

But I was curious. I took notice of the bright Dos XX beer sign on the wall as we were escorted to our table. I was thirsty. I wanted beer. I asked our waitress for a Dos XX and was met with a blank stare. They don’t serve that beer at Texas Roadhouse, the waitress informs me. I remember I couldn’t hide my contempt. Pointing to the Dos XX sign just a few feet from our table, I asked tersely, “Why is there a sign on the wall if you don’t have it?”

I wonder:

I’m right on the border. I am right next door to Mexico. Close enough to be able to buy a Mexican beer if I please. Close enough to be a part of Mexico, but my brother soon reminded me that I’m not. “Why do you want to eat and drink Mexican stuff, when you can have this!” he says.

Our waitress then tells us that Texas Roadhouse was first established in Clarksville, Indiana.

I glance back at the menu. I order a Miller Genuine Draft.

Will there be anything else, sir?

No, nothing else, thank you.

A local idiom I grew up hearing: “Pinche indio mí compañero.”

In order to understand this idiom you need to know the culture, understand the idiom’s origins. Fucking Indian, my companion. We say this phrase as a jibe to a friend, a stranger, a family member. We say it half jokingly. The Indian is our compatriot, our compadre, our conterpart—our Tonto—said to a tonto. Although this idiom loses its wit and its bite in translation, the phrase says a lot about how we fear what we see in ourselves.

Recently, I told another aunt, my mother’s Mexican half-sister, how Southern Arizona, the part of the country I live in now, thrives on its identity, its individuality, and its indigeneity. And she glared at me. She was silent when I told her how South Texans and Northern Mexicans hate the indio. I was bold. I said it bluntly. I craved a reaction. I added that Southern Arizona indigenous cultures like the T’hono O’odham and Pascua Yaquis work hard to preserve their identity, culture, and language. She listened and admitted my abuelo had always identified as a native Otomí. He spoke his language often, but felt no need to pass it along. His world, left behind: replaced by a new one. With my abuelo’s death nearly twenty years ago went his culture. My identity. Later, I asked my aunt: “¿Que somos?” My aunt cracked a smile: “Yo soy Mexicana.” That smile told me tu eres Americano.

* * *

Imagine now a soccer field in Round Rock, Texas. Round Rock, the middle-class Central Texas extension north of Austin. Here you’ll find Dell’s corporate headquarters, IKEA, Westinghouse. The town prides itself on its upper-middle class conventionality. The town motto: Keep Round Rock Normal, the antithesis of its neighbor’s motto: Keep Austin Weird. It is 2006, the year Congress contemplates the immigrant by erecting a 700-hundred mile wall along the Rio Grande River bend; of millions of immigrants marching for their rights across the country, of the return of ¡Sí Se Puede! and ¡Un Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido! Round Rock plays host to the State of Texas 5A soccer championship. But this year it is more than a championship match. This year the state of our nation is on the field. A border wall is erected on the field. The lines are drawn. Coppell High School, the nation’s second-ranked team from the north side of Dallas, where the median income range is $106,783 and the racial makeup is 84 percent white against Gladys Porter High School, a team out of South Brownsville, an area that is predominately brown and the income average is $24,468, where nearly 50 percent of residents live below the poverty line. It was not just a simple battle of oppositions: white against brown, upper-middle class against lower class, Goliath against David, but a blunt contrast. A strange experiment.

“Are you a U.S. Citizen?” as border patrol dogs sniff every inch of my car. “Are you bringing anything illegal from Mexico?” I always answer appropriately although a part of me wants to tell the agents that I’m carrying la llorona and el coui coui in my trunk.

The Porter High School team had driven five-and-half hours north to Round Rock for the championship game when U.S. Border Patrol agents and their drug-sniffing dogs stopped them. The agents and dogs boarded the bus and asked the players, “Everyone American citizens?” Meanwhile the Coppell High School crowds arrived with personalized chants: USA! USA! USA! implying the Porter High School soccer players and their fans were not American citizens. And of course the Coppell fans arrived equipped with banners depicting Speedy Gonzalez about to get stomped. It read: STOMP ON BROWNVILLE!, the omitted letter intentional. As intentional as the Coppell High School fan that later yelled down at the field: “You suck, you beaner!”


A pejorative. A facetious calque, that I now reclaim and redirect in an assertive fashion: “No me digas beaner, Mr. Puñetero. Te sacaré un susto por racista y culero. No me llames frijolero pinche gringo puñetero.


It is good to note just as Speedy Gonzalez outsmarts and outpaces Sylvester the Cat, the Porter soccer players, several inches shorter and outshot 12-3, beat the Coppell team 2-1 in overtime. You can’t fight the change. Since then, Brownsville high schools have won three other state soccer championships. But one understands how this story unfolds and the rest of the details begin to mirror the sign of the times.

The U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint where our Porter High School soccer team’s bus was searched is located 5 miles north of Sarita, Texas. The small town echoes the name of Mifflin Kenedy’s granddaughter and is situated at the center of the ranch compound. I have stopped many times as a child and later as an adult and have been asked the same question: “Are you a U.S. Citizen?” as border patrol dogs sniff every inch of my car. “Are you bringing anything illegal from Mexico?” I always answer appropriately although a part of me wants to tell the agents that I’m carrying la llorona and el coui coui in my trunk.

In the dark of the South Texas night La Mano Pachona reaches across this country. You can’t fight the change. Change yourself. Reinvent yourself. All that doesn’t matter, La Mano Pachona’s reach is long. If the borderland comes with you, La Mano Pachona knows how to find you, and it pulls you back.

To Brownsville.

¡Pobre indio mí compañero!

To all those wasted days and wasted nights I dreamed of running so far away—for Brownsville, you don’t belong to me, your heart belongs to someone else.

But I do belong and my heart is here.

* * *

In a way my birth was as conventional as it gets in Brownsville. A midwife and a family friend delivered me in her wood-framed two-bedroom home on a triangular intersection between 17th Street, East Jackson Street, and International Boulevard in downtown Brownsville, across the street from the University of Texas at Brownsville and a ten-minute walk from the Mexican border. My mother knew nothing of seeing her child in an incubator or a hospital stay. I was home on the day I was born, in South Brownsville, three blocks from Porter High School, one of the poorest areas—a “third world area”—of the city.

Oscar Casares, a Porter High School graduate, now shed a literary light on this part of my city, making Brownsville interesting, hip, worldly for the literati who have read his book and the upper-crust Central Texans who have read his features for Texas Monthly, but very few Brownsville residents even know who he is. Who? This town has a short attention span and very little patience.

¿Quien es ese fulano?

He graduated from Porter High School.

Ah, ok, que nice.

In Brownsville there is very little use for English. It’s just not spoken. It is what you learn in high school to get by. It is what you discard along with your diploma, collecting dust somewhere in the back of a storage closet. The certificate is not the proof of an education so much as the graduation picture, often displayed like an altar for the dead on living room walls in every house in town. As a senior in high school I refused to take a graduation picture or even buy a graduation ring. I found it foolish, but I also didn’t feel the need for my parents to venerate me over my two older brothers. I went to a better high school, a privileged high school. I do not want that decorating a living room wall.

In Brownsville, as it is in much of the Rio Grande Valley, once you cross the graduation stage, shake your principal’s hand, and step off, diploma in hand, that’s it, you’re done. Time to trabajar como hombre! Books and knowledge are for those who are not like us. La mujer fares worse. If she graduates high school then goes to college and works, it is because she is brazen and working against the grain. An anomaly.

Did I say that women fare worse?

A man endures just the same—

¿Que eres joto?

Work with your hands!

Paper pusher!

Lazy gringo wannabe!

Desk job lover.

This is who you are in Brownsville. But no one will tell it to your face. All smiles no frowns. The city’s Convention & Visitor’s Bureau refers to Brownsville as being “On The Border By The Sea.” In high school, I used to call it “The Hell Hole By The Sea.”

If you drive south on Southmost Road heading towards my parents’ house you will notice the smell of rank sewage. The road is shoddy and bumpy. My parents’ house is just outside the Brownsville city limits, just a five-minute walk from the Rio Grande River, the edge of the border town. This area is made up mostly of shadowy thickets and an occasional country home found among acres of uncut grassland.

I recall my parents’ warnings: “Be careful out there when you’re walking. You don’t want mojados to mug you.”

Watch out—


I used to wait for my school bus under a dim streetlight on the gravel road behind my house. That gravel road was a terracotta trail of broken glass, worn cardboard boxes flattened and branded with tire tracks, crusty wads of rags aged and hardened and turned a reddish brown of earthenware, the a worn heel of a pair of Keds dug deep into a pit of foliage. Things discarded. Things left unsaid. That was the gravel road where in the first minutes of dawn in the humid dank air, I saw mojados crossing.

Good for nothing wetback.

I watched as a group of men, only a few years older than me, darted through this dark dirt road. I looked away, but my curiosity forced me to clutch my books tighter and to stare. One of the crossers paced closer to me. Our eyes met, briefly. And I looked away as he continued his path and disappeared in the shadows of the morning. I understood those eyes. The eyes of escape. A fear, a desire—for something better.

Look again.

Each of us chooses our escape. He, the mojado, the immigrant, chose to cross a river. I chose to cross the boundary of education. That these boundaries come with lesser pain and struggle is subjective; that they indeed are lines and borders we all cross is very similar and real. Boundaries very few cross.

In Brownsville you don’t dream of education first. Family primero. You want to get an education? Did you not graduate high school? Mijo, get a job. Find a wife. Start a family. Why do you want to reinvent yourself into something you are not? Why do you struggle out there on your own doing God knows what? It’s okay, you graduated high school, just don’t spend your life trying to be something you’re not: ¿Un escritor?

I began to question myself in this environment. What do I have to prove? I wondered, does writing opens doors?

Please, I’m just a scholarship boy.

Is that why I went to school, to learn big ideas and then use that power to talk back to tell off my own family? Is that what you are learning inside of those books? To disrespect? To hate who you are?

A fact my family knew since the first time they caught me with my nose inside a book. Books. They were my family’s worst fear and my first form of retaliation. I recall my mother yelling at me, para eso vas a la escuela? Para aprender como resongar? Is that why I went to school, to learn big ideas and then use that power to talk back to tell off my own family? Is that what you are learning inside of those books? To disrespect? To hate who you are? To think you know more than your Mexican parents, who have spent an entire lifetime nurturing and loving you? It is a very pronounced fear. It is that my parents saw their child’s own growth that was all too foreign.

My mother in anger: “And now you leave to college?” She comes at me and tries to snatch a book from my hand. “Is that what you use education for, to ward off your Mexican-ness? To ward us off?”

I threw the book at my mother. We both stood there stunned. The action set a rift, a border between my mother and I and the rest of the family.


No. I decided then I wanted to turn away. My heart belonged elsewhere.

My mother said as she began to busy herself in the kitchen, “Vete.” Go.

I was a lost cause. Lost. I was lost because at twelve I actually listened to what my mother and father told me: “Get an education. Do you want to live a life like this?”

I’ve come to understand that very few parents really mean it. A dichotomy. An opposition. A conflict. “We want you to make a better life than what we had.” Yet when you do there is friction. It is because my mother and father don’t understand the line that has been crossed.

To my parents it makes no sense. And it makes perfect sense.

My mother and father failed to see the eyes that the mojado saw—eyes of determination, of a better grain. Perhaps America spoils the Mexican-American, the Chicano/a, the pocho/a. While the immigrant risks his or her life in the crossing, in this country the Mexican-American remains comfortable, complacent, and even complains: “Those damn good-for-nothing wetbacks.”

Pinche indio mí compañero.

This frijolero has more in common with, and a soft spot for, the immigrant.

I once worked as a teacher at an adult basic education center where I had immigrants of all races and ethnicities asking for help. I often heard them chew through their English: “I want to learn English. I want to get an education.” And I would respond to the immigrant in Spanish: Venga, yo le ayudo.

“Yes, come, I will help.”

* * *

To leave and to return.

I found a rift, a borderline between the Mexican-American and the Mexican in Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley. This region remains as conflicted as I was when I threw that book at my mother in anger, in disbelief. The betrayal. I recall going back to my room, and I thought to myself how as a child my parents were more accepting of the American dream, of getting an education, of the illegal immigrant working the fields and finding their own. Of course, at the time my family was outnumbered, and in a different environment. Your environment alters your thinking. And it fades fast. My parents often advocated for them. My parents didn’t care that we were often confused as part of them. I thought otherwise. My brothers and I would complain to our parents: why must we live in ruins, in these shanty migrant camps when we can rent an apartment, a house? Away from them: the Honduran, the Mexican, the Guatemalan.

Fuckin’ wetbacks, I thought.

Pinches indios mís compañeros.

I am already an outsider. Los de afuera. I am not part of you.

But I was. I am—un guachito.

They are a part of me, as is everything about this land.

* * *


“And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense” and “And it makes perfect sense/And it makes no sense” are lines taken from Alejandro Escovedo’s “Chelsea Hotel ‘78.”

“…face could not portray the ambition I brought to it” is from Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father.

“A comic victim of two cultures” is a comment by Richard Rodriguez from “Crossing Borders: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez,” The Sun.

“Open book of hair” is inspired by Gary Soto’s New and Selected Poems.

“No me digas beaner/Mr. Puñetero/Te sacaré un susto/Por racista y culero/No me llames frijolero/Pinche gringo puñetero,” are lines taken from Molotov’s “Frijolero.”

“You don’t belong to me/your heart belongs to someone else,” is a line from Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights.”

César Díaz is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He teaches writing at Austin Community College and creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University. He is feverishly thinking, reading, and writing a memoir and a collection of essays. He is a very busy man.

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3 Comments on “The Effects of the Rio Grande Valley on a Scholarship Boy

  1. You should be careful. Brownsville has a population of over 180k… Your Brownsville isn’t everyone’s Brownsville. I know that in many ways, it isn’t mine. Because in mine, I was, and my parents before me were, encouraged to get post-graduate degrees. I never, ever was treated as though my proper place was at home with a husband and kids after high school. My grandmother (a Brownsville native), after all, got her bachelor’s degree and took some masters classes in education when I was very young. And when we drive the 5.5 hours from Austin to Bville, we don’t eat at Tx Roadhouse. We join my parents and extended family at their favorites (and ours, too): Four Corners, Estrellita’s, El Torrito, international cafe, etc. where we speak in Spanglish (though mostly English) to each other and usually Spanish to the waitstaff in a fluid, very natural way. And, to my knowledge, nobody thinks we are weird or putting on airs. It’s just a multi-generational city with different life experiences and we shouldn’t rush to pigeonhole what it means to be a Brownsville native.

  2. This piece makes me want to say so many things; after 28 years in Texas, I made my first trip to Brownsville this summer; for my work, I’ve now been back four times. The first thing that struck me was that the illustration is from the totally opposite side of the state, hundreds of miles away from Brownsville.
    I go through that checkpoint at Sarita, and to my chagrin and surprise, I am not even really asked if I’m a citizen. No, with my apparently extremely gringa appearance (though dark-haired and brown-eyed) the officer makes the statement, “You’re a U.S. citizen.” I say, “yes, I am.” and he waves me through. I drive off, feeling guilty, having watched the same officer spend several minutes talking to the people in the car ahead of me.
    The reluctance to encourage kids to go to college, or if they must go, to stay close to home, just flabbergasted me at first. I hope that will change soon.
    I look forward to reading more of your writing, Mr. Diaz.

  3. Hi Cesar,

    I loved reading your lengthy article. It brought up a ton of feelings to the surface. I was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley. I left after high school to go to college and have yet to move back to the Valley. Thankfully, my parents encouraged me to leave home and pursue a higher education.

    When I was growing up in the Valley, there was not much to do. Drugs, gangs, and teenage pregnancy were common. There are more stores, malls, movie theaters, restaurants, bars, and clubs now than when I grew up. That area is still economically depressed though. There is a high need for more clinics, hospitals, mental health facilities, colleges, and museums.

    I, too, feel torn between having roots in the Valley and not missing the difficult life down there.

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