Your fearless fellow borderlander returned to Miami just in time to ride out Hurricane Irma. With 6.5 million under mandatory evacuation, it was safer to stay put than add to the chaos of the roads – where gas shortages were prevalent 4 days prior. Then, a day or two before landfall it became likely that Irma was wobbling west. Evacuating inland from the coast would only bring one closer to stronger hurricane winds. In the end, it turned out there was no safe place to escape to in all of Florida, 500 miles long.
Like the true grit shown by Texans during and after Harvey, Floridians also exemplify the we-will-rebuild ethos of many borderlanders, especially those along the hurricane-prone southern edge.
#1 lesson from Irma: what a blessing neighbors are.
From the ever-borderland of Miami Beach, here is some water ballet from the Momentum Dance Company, performed at an Art Deco gem, the National Hotel. ★Happy Independence Day!★
This sprawling journey along the Mexican border is a classic in borderlands literature: it sings the songs of unsung lives while also crossing into identification with our southern neighbors. Identification can help understanding, yet also risks a multi-culti lifting of non-American cultures above our own, on moral or political grounds.
The author is upfront about his fascination:
…I suddenly felt impelled to embrace that country [Mexico]. I was not satisfied to visit, but I had to live there, absorb its language and colloquialisms, master its local gossip, learn to drive in its cities, to seek Mexican comrades, and fall in Mexican love. [p.xiii]
His visits, accordingly, became more frequent and of longer duration. As I also lead a bi-country life, between the U.S. and Brazil, I understand it when he writes, “I returned to Mexico, and eventually learned that when I was in one country, I missed the other.” [Ibid.]
Lucky for him, and lucky for us, he then moves to the border town of Groom Creek, Arizona, where:
In 1985, I spent a year exploring an area of both nations I’d mostly ignored: the common ground between them. I felt amazingly at home. [Ibid.]
As any good exploration of the border entails, our differing histories is revealing (even if the author’s Pilgrim history is distorted):
Their differences were evident in their response to the discovery that the New World was already inhabited. One, here to enrich a distant kingdom and church, originally came with no women. Its conquistadors bred with the locals, and its missionaries shepherded them into its religion. The other arrived with entire colonies, and either killed the natives who were in the way or fenced them off. [p.5]
The journey starts in Brownsville and goes west. In Brownsville, a local politician is quoted:
“Poverty,” he tells his students, “is a normal by-product as capitalism produces wealth and a high standard of living. But if growth is too fast, poverty may become a direct product.” [p.14]
This tendentious view of growth and capitalism bubbles up throughout the book, as interested outside parties push their agendas, causing confusion as well as pushback. The author visits a community organization along the Rio Grande called Valley Interfaith, whose pamphlet
cover bore the silhouette of a Hasidic Jew, supposedly Alinsky.
“What about this?” Ofelia was asked in a meeting by a worried gardener. “Are we communists?”
“The dictionary,” she answered, “says that word means ‘community.’ I don’t know anything about Castro or Russia and I don’t really care about them. I’m not interested in anybody’s regime. I’m just interested in our community.”
While Ofelia may just be interested in community, her definition of communism is a deceptive one and Saul Alinsky was, indeed, the radical progressive who wrote “Rules for Radicals” which he dedicated to Lucifer. The worried gardener was on to something, but that is not the message the book wishes to get across.
It is a pity. For the author tries to be more balanced by book’s end, including this meditation on unemployment (as the justification for illegal immigration):
But the economics of no hay trabajo is the real struggle, and it is North America’s too. For whatever historic and current reasons, economic systems that do not support their populations proliferate in the hemisphere. At this point, ecology, not ideology, takes over, because organisms seek and move toward resources that will sustain them. [p.142]
A certain fatalism extends elsewhere. For neither is Weisman positive about the logistics or validity of the international border, speaking here about the Rio Grande’s Big Bend:
From this perspective, with Texas and Coahuila equally exquisite and overwhelming, the international boundary is pure fiction. The idea that some human being’s whim in Washington or Mexico City could steal the river that carved all this astounds her. To think that the water could drain away during a tug of war between government reduces the glory of wilderness to the level of a functionary’s warped vision. [p.66]
Besides the human trade, of course, is also the drug one, which Weisman positions this way:
The boundary between morality and depravity intersects la frontera. At their junction, narcotics and weapons pour between the Americas. The political division itself add to their value. Danger heightens and profits increase. As they do, hopes decline and drag the future along with them. [p.81]
On the Mexican side, we get an idea of what facilitates the drug trade, with this quotation of a “military commandante” about governmental corruption:
“You know,” he says, “the system is so rotten that it’s what lets us live in peace. It’s so bad, it’s good. The law doesn’t let you do anything. It encourages you to be crooked. You are guaranteed much more that way.” [p.79]
Yet the author’s enthusiasm for the borderlands and Mexico is still contagious. His detailed and exhaustive journey on both sides of the nearly 2,000 mile border, interviewing dozens of people along the way, is admirable. While I have visited Mexico under a dozen times, and my longest stay was only six weeks, I can smile in agreement when he writes, “Beauty being irrepressible in Mexico, in some places even poverty has a sweetness about it.” [p.11]
About my favorite border-hugging road in existence, Texas Farm Road 170, he writes rhapsodically (if incorrectly in one detail by implying Mexico is not part of North America):
On the Texas side, the road is a dinosaur hide, filled with primeval cracks. Blood veins descend the mountain faces, widening into bleached yellow alluvial fans. Rimrock crops out in organic waves. Above the narrow valley, the wind and runoff carve hoodoo canyons of red and gray clay, filled with cathedrals, minarets, hourglasses, and torsos. Few North Americans ever see this country. They generally avoid these forbidding roads that connect distant segments of nowhere familiar, but Mexicans cherish them as lifelines into regions where no one bothers to come look for them. [p.84]
In the book’s final chapter, he sums up:
The border snaps like a taut band. Its ends fly together and converge in this single issue. Aliens are guilty for invading the United States to earn dollars. Employers are guilty for encouraging them. Congressmen are guilty for failing to pass laws that punish employers for doing this. And everybody is guilty for wanting cheaper vegetables.
Mexico, too corrupt to share its wealth among its own people, is perhaps guiltiest of all. But Mexico blames a legacy contaminated by dictators, churches, kings, viceroys, and Aztec emperors, whose centuries of behavior aren’t easily eradicated overnight. Besides, it reminds critics, American corporations and U.S. Marines created the same kind of plutocracies in a chain of banana republics, which in turn produce more hungry, invading aliens. The United States inherited this disregard for native populations from its own brutal history of manifest destiny.
Everyone – our ancestor and ourselves – is guilty. No law or fence will contain the hungry, devastated people we bring into this world, if there are too many of them to subdue. Blaming this on the communists will not help. It is equally doubtful that visions of nineteenth-century cowboys will solve things, either. [p.181]
His last lines are somewhat ominous:
This frontera is the border between the present and the future. Along it, its people must eventually create yet a newer world. [p.186]
For how exactly are newer worlds created? Cue, Saul Alinsky? La Raza?
But don’t be put off by the mildly biased reporting. This classic of border literature is well worth it if only for the abundant history and beautiful black & white photos, many of the them portraits, by Jay Dusard.
[La Frontera, The United States Border with Mexico, Alan Weisman & Jay Dusard, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, NY, 1986]
Where else but in the borderlands of New Orleans can you visit the spiritual borderland of voodoo? Last year I visited the town’s Voodoo Museum, which boasts that it is “the ORIGINAL and ONLY actual VOODOO MUSEUM in New Orleans, and the World.”
Beyond the starkness of the claim, much else is in flux. The brochure, for instance, grants “Voodoo is neither scriptural, nor does it have any central authority, therefore, the only consistency in Voodoo is inconsistency.”
Originally from West Africa, voodoo’s local history interests: its earliest record in NOLA is from 1713, when the first slaves arrived. By 1773 the term “gris-gris” (an object and/or act of “magical supernatural power”) was recorded when a slave was accused of killing his overseer. By the early 19th century, voodoo dances in Congo Square were common on Sundays. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 helped to mainstream the Creole (mixed breed) culture.
The most famous practictioner, Marie Laveau, known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, was a practicing Catholic (as syncretism abounds) and specialized in affaires d’amour and love potions until her death in 1881.
Even if in need of love potions, caution in the museum is advised, as “one does not choose Voodoo, it chooses you!” [please hover over images for captions]
Up from Brownsville, TX, the land border changes to a sea one, arcing across East Texas, through Louisiana all the way to Florida. The luxury of hugging the Gulf and escaping the interstates is pure road bliss. [please hover over images for captions]
After Big Bend, Texas plunges south again, transitioning from the desert southwest of Pecos (where law, west of the Pecos, was the Wild West) to the balmy tropical climes of the Rio Grande corridor, with the border towns of Del Rio, Laredo, Hidalgo, and Progreso. Come see parts of the U.S. very few tourists visit. [please hover over images for captions]
In the midst of the Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend is so large it contains its own mountain range, the Chisos. Tucked in the lower-S of the Rio Grande, it is three-sided by Mexico for 118 miles, with the US only to the north, which may explain why is it the least-visited large park in the continental US – it is not on the way from any place to another. Here I spend an afternoon down the long Santa Elena Canyon road, which after 35 miles south dead-ends at the border. The desert southwest colors and landscapes enrich the soul. [please hover over images for captions]
Among the most beautiful, and long, border-hugging roads in the US, Texas Farm Road 170 runs alongside the Rio Grande and, further south, enters Big Bend State Park. This is my third drive along the enchanting valley, whose desert blooms and emerald rivering startle every time. Running fifty miles from Presidio to Lajitas, this delight of a road has more curves and rolling hills than a roller coaster. [please hover over images for captions]
El Malpais: the badlands of central-west New Mexico offer sharp lava rocks covering a 40-mile valley sided by smooth sandstone bluffs, just east of the Continental Divide. The McCartys Crater poured lava 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, making the valley all but uninhabitable. Sandwiched between Navajo and Acoma reservations, the badlands reached peak occupation between 950-1350 AD, with ancient trails and lava tube cave systems (one up to 17 miles long), crisscrossing it. Homesteading increased in the 1930’s, with families of sheepherders try to eke out a living during the Great Depression. As always, New Mexico amazes. [please hover over images for captions]
On a recent roadtrip, I got to take my time along Florida’s Gulf Coast, from Tallahassee south. What a quirky variety the coast boasts, with more old time Florida than the Atlantic corridor. Unfortunately, my mission to see the Mermaid Water Extravaganza at Weeki Wachee was stymied for the second visit in a row, the first attempt made over a decade ago. (This time, there were no shade trees for the car or Zeno, with no kennel or dog-aid offered.) My mermaid dreams-come-true will just have to wait; in the meantime, the attraction’s entrance is still quite evocative. Meanwhile, the “Smallest Post Office in the U.S.” provides gator-mail while a backroad dirt track through the Everglades is revealing. [please hover over images for captions]
An edited video from the reading:
My nephew Christopher is the professional-level videographer. Thanks to everyone who attended and asked such good questions. As reward, a bunch of us went out afterwards to eat the famous chili cheeseburgers of the old Bobcat Bite (now Santa Fe Bite).
You are cordially invited to a reading & signing by Ben Batchelder of his recently launched American adventure, Borderlands USA: Or, How to Protect the Country by Car, presented by the op.cit. books and Earthdog Press, in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Friday, July 10th from 6-7pm.
Come travel with Ben on a journey in which, circumnavigating the Lower 48 by silver-plated Beetle, he explores the remote borders as closely as possible, without getting arrested.
Along the way he gets to know his country again and meets many unheralded borderlanders, whose stories of hard work, patriotism, and perseverance go well beyond the usual headlines. Instead, he finds that the nation’s edges reveal much about its core – and in the process comes home to a place of gratitude.
The remote border between southwest Texas and Mexico is among my favorites. It follows the Rio Grande and dips down into Texas’s big bend (following the river), entering several of the least visited parks in the nation: Big Bend Nat’l, and State, Parks. TX Farm Road 170 has to be the most beautiful border-hugging road, as it curves, winds, and rollercoasters over the Rio Grande’s many tributaries and washes. It is so remote, during an early visit I spotted a speed limit posted in kilometers, not miles. Enjoy the ride. [please hover over images for captions]
The Miami launch of Borderlands USA in October had three separate readings, with an exhibit of photos from the journey plus a “border tasting” of Blenheim Ginger Ale (lots of ginger!) from South Carolina, and took place in the lovely Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Thanks so much to so many visitors and to all those who took home signed books with them!
Come to the book launch, hosted by Earthdog Press, of Borderlands USA, with public readings and a one-night only photo exhibit of images from the journey by author Ben Batchelder. Signed paperback books will be on sale for only $10.
The Botanical Gardens are located at 2000 Convention Center Drive, in Miami Beach, between the Convention Center and the Holocaust Memorial. At night, the main entrance at 19th & Convention Center Dr. and the one by the small parking lot on 19th will be open. There is plentiful parking around the Garden and at several nearby parking facilities, including 18th and Meridian.
Inside the Garden, the event will be held at the Butterfly Room, across the atrium from the Banyan Room, and signs will help guide you.
Come join us for this unique event!