Gabriel C. Pérez

I Grew Up on the Texas-Mexico Border, but Now I Barely Recognize It

In Brownsville, you can't go home again.


Above: The Rio Grande passes under the Gateway International Bridge between the border cities of Brownsville and Matamoros.

The Rio Grande passes under the Gateway International Bridge between the border cities of Brownsville and Matamoros.  Gabriel C. Pérez

It’s a part of the human condition to romanticize your place of origin, to look nostalgically back upon the things you grew up with, and then wistfully shrug off or ignore the negatives.

I grew up in Brownsville, so I’ve never been burdened with this particular sentimentality; I’ve always known Brownsville for exactly what it is, the good and the bad.

Unexpectedly, I spent the last 10 months here, after living the previous 23 years on the West Coast, and the changes I noticed were terrifying at first.

The immediate and most significant was, of course, the border fence, this 21-foot-tall iron monstrosity with the presence of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, serving as a constant reminder that you, as a citizen of the border, are not free. It’s really quite chilling, the first time you see it up close.

The second thing I noticed, because I lived here before the Patriot Act, was the militarization of the border: sheriffs, constables, Border Patrol vehicles of every sort, Texas Department of Public Safety trucks circling and circling every five or 10 minutes in the outer farming areas where I grew up, back when we could go months without seeing a single olive-green vehicle — and when we did, it meant no threat whatsoever.

The Rio Grande has become a militarized zone, and it is fucking scary.

When I was growing up here, there was a tacit understanding between the farmers and workers and people who lived near the river — land that was unusually undervalued, especially in the eastern part of Brownsville, in the farm country. It was more common to have families building their own ramshackle houses over the course of a generation, bit by bit, as they could afford it through seasonal work. It was hardscrabble living, and the government and the people shared many grandfathered understandings: Wave and smile at the Border Patrol when they drive by. They’ll wave back. If you meet them at the store, say hello. They’re probably related. Don’t say too much. They don’t want to know, anyway. They know where people are crossing, and they’re probably on someone’s payroll. Certainly don’t ever snitch on your cousins. Chances are, the government won’t do anything to them and you’ll just get shot. It was the way things had been on the border for centuries.

Still, we make accommodations. I lost my health insurance when I moved here, and I travel across to Matamoros once a month for my medication; if I purchased it here, I’d be spending $300 a month, but instead, I’m paying $40 on generic brands right across the river. So every third Thursday I park my sister’s Suburban downtown, about a block from the Gateway International Bridge, and I’ve learned how to make the trip my grandparents had made often. I pay a dollar in quarters at the bridge to walk over, maneuver through the laughable Mexican “customs” station (I’ve never seen it open), negotiate with a “pharmacist” (usually a kid around 20, who uses a Samsung to Google your generic prescription), and then walk back across to Brownsville and get harassed at the checkpoint, because I look “different.” There was a time on the border when simply saying, “Yes, I’m an American citizen” would be all you needed to move freely. Now, it draws suspicion: Don’t you know it’s dangerous? What are you bringing back?

The Rio Grande has become a militarized zone, and it is fucking scary.

Mexico can be dangerous, if you’re driving a sexy pickup truck after 3 p.m. But on a Thursday at 11 a.m., no one gives a second glance to an American who looks like Caillou.

These 20-something Border Patrol agents take their jobs very aggressively and seriously. Once, I giggled at the fact that the agent was wearing tactical combat gloves while typing. “Ha,” I observed. “You’re like the very picture of the keyboard warrior.” That cost me most of an afternoon, and I made a conscious choice then: Don’t try to joke with the Border Patrol.

A few months after I moved back to Brownsville, my brother invited me to spend a weekend in San Antonio in order to watch some Cowboys game or another. Having more time than money, I decided I’d take a bus rather than rent a car. Maybe I’d find something interesting to write about. (I didn’t, unless you’d like me to describe in detail what riding Valley Transit is like, which is to say, it’s about three chickens and a goat short of riding a bus in Karachi.) I curled up uncomfortably and proceeded to annoy the few other Mexican farming types with my loud snoring.

Some hours later, the bus stopped at the checkpoint in Falfurrias and I was still in quite a deep hangover sleep. I was awoken by someone grabbing my foot and shaking vigorously. Now, yes, I was unshaven, hungover and dressed in a black T-shirt with fancy denim, and wearing dark glasses — likely unusual for the regular travelers on that route. And perhaps that’s what triggered the agent’s suspicion. Maybe he thought I was a Syrian terrorist.

Border Patrol agents had already reviewed everyone else’s documents. But I sat up, cleared my throat and produced my passport, which I now carry everywhere in this climate. The agent, a white guy with a Midwestern accent, was unconvinced.

“Where are you headed?” he asked me.

“I, uh… north,” I stammered, my brain still hazy.

“You’re just headed north? With just what’s in this bag?” He was still looking at my passport, which said I was from Seattle, and picked up my small duffel as if it were his to handle. This annoyed me, and my natural defiance of authority started coming online.

“I’m headed to San Antonio to see my brother for the weekend,” I said, “and I can tell you there’s three pair of boxers and four T-shirts in there. I travel light.” I was just about to say something about how I didn’t have to answer any more questions, when he snarled under his breath and was called forward by his partner. The kid threw my passport onto the duffel and walked away, dissatisfied and thinking maybe he was onto something nefarious, and leaving me furious.

I made a conscious choice then: Don’t try to joke with the Border Patrol.

It used to be that speaking in English, answering questions and not being dressed like a vaquero would get you waved through any checkpoint. Not anymore, apparently.

And that interaction was light compared to what other people go through, I know, but I was deeply annoyed at the mild interrogation and the unnecessary contempt with which I was regarded. I fumed the rest of the way and had some choice words memorized by the time I was on my way back home.

But when I made it back to Brownsville, I felt an unusual level of frustration at the languid complacency of the people here who are allowing this militarized occupation to happen, who are not formally organizing, who are not pushing back against an overtly racist, prejudicial administration intent on a culture based in hostility, and even more frustration at those who are actual proponents because they see working for the Border Patrol as “good jobs.”

The hypocrisy and political naiveté is enough to make a centrist liberal blow a gasket.

It’s easy to lean on your better angels from a distance; there’s no stress test in moral absolutes from afar. But if your belief system can withstand an extended firsthand exposure, then your better angels should be canonized into sainthood.

Clearly, mine didn’t survive my moral indignations and West Coast sensibilities. This is an incredibly complicated place, and every day I vacillate from admiration to sheer disgust at my hometown in its complacency and incompetence at self-determination.

I no longer consider myself a “knee-jerk liberal,” but more of a “liberal jerk.” After spending 10 months on the border, I have to hold two disconsonant truths simultaneously in my mind: that there are bad people on the good side, and good people on the bad side, which I think is really rather difficult for an entire culture to come to terms with. The message that the border isn’t solved by a wall needs to be voiced more loudly. A border deserves to be managed by the people who live immediately on either side of it, not bloviators from a capital who can only relate to nonwhites as antiquated stereotypes from the 1980s.

It used to be that speaking in English, answering questions and not being dressed like a vaquero would get you waved through any checkpoint. Not anymore, apparently.

I think the people who live here need to be much more involved in the determinations of their own future, and be far more vocal, instead of passive and submissive while waves upon waves of occupational government forces move in to make their future for them, not only building horrific, psychically wounding structures, but also inviting toxic, environmentally catastrophic industries to pitch their company tents right on the river. It’s just naïve. You don’t joke with these people, not anymore.

The people who live and cross the border every day are about to lose the border to people who’ve never seen it or crossed it. It’s in the national dialogue, and the people who should be shouting down the out-of-towners who don’t depend on it are being dangerously, stupidly silent.

Read the response from Brownsville residents.