Essay

On the Texas Borderline, A Solid, if Invisible, Wall

By Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 24, 2008

Under a lavender canopy of jacaranda blossoms within sight of the embattled frontier, Luis Peña imagines an unintended and comical use for the future border wall.

"If anything, it will be a new sport. People will pole-vault," says the biology student with thick black hair. He kicks up a long leg and shouts, "¡Salto con garacho!" ("a high leap to garacho music"). Cue the Mexican violins!

Laughter erupts from his fellow nature lovers from the Gorgas Science Society. They are here, after all, to chant "Don't fence us in" in protest of the 60-foot-high wall that will slice straight past their border-side campus -- which combines the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College -- and right through the Rio Grande Valley borderlands.

I laugh weakly. I'm feeling dejected. Jokes about pole-vaulting, about lizards doomed by the wall, aren't what I expected when I trucked down to the very tip of my home state. I'd expected indignation about the border wall. I expected people to take it as personally as I did, like a slap at my identity, my South Texas culture, the Mexicanness in my Americanness.

I imagine my ancestors felt the same way oh so long ago, in 1848, after the newly drawn border cut through their lands, marooning them in a netherworld with Mexico on one side, the United States on the other. In the 21st-century version of that alienation, the new border wall may transform once-private lands into a de facto DMZ complete with spotlights and armed patrols.

Land, you see, is everything to us. Our culture is tied to the land. It is passed down as our inheritance, as my father did for me and my siblings, fulfilling his long-held pledge. In these borderlands, the fates of families like mine have hinged on the land. And so my instincts insist this wall is not just about illegal border-crossers, not just about Mexicans. It is, in a deeply historic way, about people like me, people whose identity was forged in generations of struggle over land.

Peña invites me to see a campus monument marking the old war between Mexican and gringo: an old cannon standing erect along the Rio Grande. Check it out, he says. "This might be your last chance before the wall goes up." The cannon sits on the wrong side of the planned wall.

Peña and I stroll through the campus, with its buildings of somber desert browns and reds and its sky-blue tile domes of Spanish-Moorish influence. This once was Fort Texas (later renamed Fort Brown), erected in 1846 when the United States charged the original southern border at the Nueces River and invaded Mexico to push the frontier 123 miles south to the much-coveted Rio Grande. What once was Mexico suddenly became the United States.

As we walk toward the river, it's jarring to see the bullet-riddled walls of the campus's buildings -- a reminder of the old border battles. "All of this is battleground," says Peña, his playfulness quieting to philosophical musing. "These are bloody grounds."

"They fought for it," he says of the United States. "But it's 'the enemy' that's left," he adds ironically.

First, in that original war of conquest, the Mexican was the enemy. Then, it was the newly minted U.S. citizens, the Texas Mexicans, branded as bandits when they rebelled against colonial subjugation after their families were annexed with the territory.

The war might have ended, but people like us, like Peña and I, still are regarded as the enemy by some.


CONTINUED     1              >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company