Monday, September 28, 2009

Baja y alta, un rio, dos republicas, dos capitulos de vida

Lower and upper, one river, two republics, two chapters of life

From the rooftop of my childhood home in south Texas in good weather I could see sun glisten ten miles away on the dome of the cathedral in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Between us was the river that divided and united two countries and two cultures. The Rio Grande or Rio Bravo del Norte was simply always there to me; it irrigated the fields from which our family's livelihood eventually derived. During the millenia before modern human engineering attempted flood control, the river's periodic floods and changes of course had deposited rich soil. Later, irrigation and flood control systems, railroads, mechanized agriculture, ice manufacturing plants, and significant settlement and cheap labor would serve to make the subtropical land blossom with vegetable fields and citrus fruit groves, helping meet the country's demand for the luxury of year-round fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Rio Grande was the crossing point for our adventures across the border. Routinely we drove across, for as simple a reason as for Sunday dinner or to buy rum with little plastic black bears chained to the necks or Coca Cola (tm) (hecho y bottellada en Republica de Mexico) in green-tinted bottles in wooden crates. Or, crossing the river might be the first page in a weeks-long summer adventure of travel into the interior of Mexico.

The Rio Grande originated in some far off place; as a child I never gave its origin much thought. It was somewhere in the mountains of our West, many hundreds of miles away, in a land whose contours and culture were utterly alien to me and to where I had no expectation of travel or of further acquaintance.

What little I heard of points upriver came from occasional visits in which my mother would bring me along to visit with an elderly couple, Les and Helen Wheeler, and sometimes their neighbors, Chris and Myra Wache. Both Helen and Myra became widows long before I reached my teen years. Most of the adult conversation excluded me, so I was left to play with some building blocks, or roam outdoors. Hints of past life activities included some old-timey wooden water skis hanging from the rafters of the attached carport. The Wheeler's house also contained some art and decorations from New Mexico that I remembered, including a striking Navajo rug.

Years passed. For farmers and agribusinessmen the river had its good and bad years. Border trade waxed and waned. Immigrants arrived from north and south; the latter to enjoy better economic opportunities and the former mostly as retirees and vacationers, sometimes called "snowbirds" or "winter Texans". These came for relief from brutal northern winters and the attraction of inexpensive living conditions and the proximity of moderate adventure across the nearby border.

I gave no particular thought to the bicultural or multicultural environment in which I was immersed. To me, it was perfectly normal that I learned some Spanish (though never quite fluent) in my youngest childhood, or enjoyed Tex-Mex or actual Norte┼ło (northern Mexican) cuisine. I much preferred fresh corn tortillas to almost any other form of bread, and devoured cabrito al pastor (roast kid) with Spanish fries in elaborate multi-course Sunday dinners. Starting about at age five, I was brought along on trips into the interior; by the time I was sixteen I'd visited all but a handful of the states of Mexico, sometimes wandering alone in towns and on beaches. Yet, I'd never been outside Texas in the United States (EEUU, Los Estados Establecidos Unidos). Those of us who lived near the river shared more than just a watercourse as languages and customs intermingled and created curious cultural combinations.

And throughout all this the river flowed from its unknown origin.

High school ended and I was off to college in far-away Houston, Texas, 360 miles up the coast. To most United States residents, Houston is considered a warm-climate Gulf Coast city, known for muggy, steaming weather for a good part of the year. Not so to my family. They strugged to find warm clothing for me to take to college, as protection against the arctic blasts of the frigid north. (To be fair, it snowed once in the Lower Rio Grande Valley during my first eighteen years of life, whereas I think it snowed at least twice in only seven years in Houston. So, it really was a much colder climate!)

And then I met a young woman. And we married. But the local economy tanked and we decided to try her home town. Which was near a river. Carol Anne grew up ten miles from the same river where I was reared, but about a thousand miles upstream.

Since that time we've had many adventures, and some of them continue our close relationship with the Rio Grande. Of course, it supplies the fields from which we eat and from which our neighbours harvest chile verde (green chile) to spice our meals. It provides most of our water for drinking, household use, and irrigation. We live now in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about five miles from the Rio Grande -- only half as distant as in our childhoods.

And our Rio Grande has been used to create our lakes. Without the Rio Grande we'd not be sailors in New Mexico, for all lakes of any significant size in this state are artificial reservoirs created for flood control and irrigation purposes, but also used for recreation.

Sailing is our recreation and the Rio Grande's water is what we sail upon.

In the northern part of New Mexico, we sail and paddle on high-mountain Heron Lake, which is fed by specially routed water which feeds into the Rio Chama and thence to the Rio Grande. Sometimes we explore the high mountain country of southern Colorado, not fair from the Rio's origin. We've rafted on the Rio Grande near Taos and in west Texas and camped near its banks. In the south, we sail at Elephant Butte Lake, a place where the Rio Grande pauses and is gathered to irrigate fields in southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico.

From there, the reduced remaining flow turns southeastward from El Paso del Norte, beginning its long demarcation of the federal borders and some recharge from the Pecos River and more numerous rivers from the mountains of northern Mexico. Eventually the Rio Grande passes a scant distance from my childhood home, passing by the zona frontera cities of Reynosa and Heroica Matamoros, debouching just a couple of leagues south of South Padre Island, where I passed much of my childhood and had all of my formative experiences afloat.

Agua es vida. Water is life.
May it flow ever on.
Vaya con dios, todos.


At 10:59 AM, September 30, 2009, Blogger Zen said...

muy bueno!

At 8:48 PM, September 30, 2009, Blogger The O'Sheas said...

Wow, great post. I don't know that the hoi polloi bloggers, such as myself deserve such a literate offering in our midst, but I'm grateful for it!

At 10:12 AM, November 01, 2009, Blogger Jerr Dunlap said...

Thank you for your warm and insightful essay in Rio Grande culture. When I lived in Denver, I'd trailer my 505 to lakes in nearby states and your blog reminds me of those good times. I really do like sailing on oceans better, though. I'm looking forward to following your blog.
- Jerr


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