The Edge Of Nowhere
words and photos by Chris Adams
Del Rio, Texas is somewhere. It may be the final stop before one falls off the earth, but it is somewhere. It is in Val Verde County, resting comfortably between Laughlin Air Force Base and the banks of Lake Amistad. What it isn’t is Ted Cruz campaign signs, overexposed SXSW, or a spillway for Mexican drug cartels. But it is Texas. And it is America.
Once a place for gringos to party, the Texas-Mexico border has now become synonymous with divisive illicit immigration and drug cartel violence, except that is not entirely true. Although the border is a hot topic amongst Americans nationwide, for those residing in border cities, immigration is not a major cause for concern.
Del Rio is not just a border city, it possesses a colorful, prosperous, and distinguished 20th-century past. Between the 1940's and 1960's, its prized angora goats rendered it the mohair capital of the world. At differing times during the ‘50's and ‘60's, it boasted a minor league baseball team and stadium, the global 50,000-watt radio station XERF with Wolfman Jack as its signature DJ, and the CIA’s covert U-2 spy plane program. Next door, in Brackettville, Texas, John Wayne set up production for his career-defining Alamo cinematic project.
Hot and constantly baking under the Chihuahuan Desert sun, God provides Del Rio a munificent sunset of orange, pink, and magenta come dusk to soothe the impatient nerves that have emerged by 5PM. Then, a comfortable darkness falls upon this border city possessed by dozens of loan outfits (but no bookstores), 5,000 square foot facades, and crumbling third-world like dwellings. And one would be remiss for not mentioning the Republicans who don’t like to have their picture in the paper for fear of losing customers, and the residents caught in the void of cultural identity.
Here, the president’s Twitter musings belong to an administration seen as disconnected. His recent tweet, “If you don’t have Borders, you don’t have a Country,” loses its meaning in a place where two cultures are so interconnected that many Del Rioans will root for Mexico in the World Cup this summer, with or without an American presence, and then go on to follow the Dallas Cowboys week to week come September.
His tweet also referred to a policy that separates parent from child. Like much of America, Del Rio does not want to see the fracture of families. It has experienced the acute fallout from single-parent or sometimes absent-parent homes and knows the devastation and hardship it creates. But now, public opinion has compelled the current administration to rethink this policy. If they do, much of Del Rio will rejoice.
Then there’s the fence. A symbol of reality and illusion that runs between the city and a kind of no man’s land that ends at the Rio Grande. For some folks, it has become white visual noise, but for others, it elicits disgust or contempt. “We already have this Jurassic Park fence...and it’s not even done...it’s a joke the way it’s built,” said Del Rio native Lupita De La Paz, who is active in the Democratic county party and the director of a local cultural center. “Is that supposed to make us feel safe? It’s pointless.”
To most Americans, the border seems to be a strange and ominous place of danger. On the north side of the water, in particular Del Rio, that is a grand misconception. It’s really very safe. The presence of the law alone provides a real and perceived sense of security. There are approximately eight fully active law enforcement agencies in this isolated city of 36,000 residents, with the aberrant amount of U.S. Border Patrol agents being the most noticeable. Their aggressive visibility can be disconcerting at first, but then anxiety succumbs to ambivalence and ultimately acceptance. When it comes to safety, Del Rio is second to none.
“Before I moved here I had bought a brand new GMC pickup truck that I lent to my wife. She went to a wedding in Houston at the First Baptist Church. It was stolen out of the parking lot,” explained Bob Corbell, a Del Rio radio talk show host. “I’ve had three cars over the value of $40,000 that sit in my driveway in Del Rio...sometimes I leave the keys in them, never had a problem. I live nine-tenths of a mile from the border where it would be perfect for somebody to take a car across.”
No Zetas or the Sinaloa men (the two most prominent Mexican cartels) prowling about here, just the pickups and SUV’s of the federal government, Texas Department of Public Safety, Val Verde County Sheriff’s Office, and Del Rio’s finest. “Every other person in your neighborhood is either a Border Patrol agent, a deputy sheriff, an immigration officer, or someone that works with the Air Force,” Corbell added.
Some attribute the safety factor to a community steeped in faith. Father Henry Clay Hunt, a priest at St. Joseph Parish in Del Rio, believes that gospel values are reflected in the everyday actions of residents here. “There’s a lot of those beautiful qualities of the Christian faith that are woven into the fabric of the people of this place.” He credits them for keeping Del Rio peaceful. “Just a mile away from us there’s tremendous violence in the streets and discord and injustices that take place, abuses of power...but here, somehow it seems like we’re just in a safe place...a tranquil, little place on the border.”
And those sentiments seem to correlate with the issue of open carry. Joe Americana talking to a buddy at a roadside bar in Ohio, or socially conscious Suzy conversing with a friend at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto, might think that some updated form of Old West justice prevails in rural Texas, but nary a soul is openly strapped with a firearm in this community. Open carry is almost non-existent.
“We have common sense...we completely get it. We’re not going to be doing stupid things with our weapons. We’re just not and that’s just how it is here. I think the middle-of-the-road people, probably like you and me, understand that,” commented newly elected millennial mayor, Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano. He expressed that people in Del Rio don’t feel a need to open carry when they are already protected by a plethora of law enforcement and military personnel. “That’s how we walk in a war zone. That’s what I was doing when I was patrolling in Kuwait. We veterans recognize that’s not what you do.”
But not all has been unlocked doors and neighborly waves here. According to Mexico’s Revista Proceso, Los Zeta’s top leader Omar Trevino “z-42” allegedly told a Mexican state investigator to search Amistad Dam on Lake Amistad regarding mass disappearances. Supposedly, several bodies were dumped there. Rumors had been circulating for a while. But where hasn’t darkness fallen in America? And does past darkness call for a wall? Del Rio, and seemingly the rest of the forgotten border communities, don’t think so.
“I can understand where they probably want work...but I don’t think everyone is on the side of the wall. Not everyone agrees that we need a wall,” De La Paz emphasized with passion. “Some people see it as a disconnection with our Mexican sister city (Ciudad Acuña). It’s offensive to them and I don’t blame them. I have friends in Acuña and they’re like, ‘why would they even consider that?’”
De La Paz was in a group that protested the construction of the current fence in Del Rio. They were successful in causing a short work stoppage on the project. While De La Paz won’t unequivocally quantify the statement that most people in Del Rio are opposed to the wall, she did state that the circle of friends she spends time with also agree that the wall is not needed.
“I feel like it’s such a waste of resources to go and build this wall when you have the natural barrier, Rio Grande and the lake (Amistad) for example, that are already there,” Lozano said.
Mayor Lozano feels that illegal immigration will continue regardless if there is a wall or not.
“The Chinese come here illegally...the Russians and the Polish, they expire their visas illegally in Chicago. So this is not just a Mexico-United States border issue...I think that’s a message that really needs to be informed to the public up north.”
There is already a high availability of government jobs, federally and locally, that have established a comfortable stasis and psyche among the citizenry. However, those jobs have arguably become an inhibitor of economic growth and risk-taking mentality that is associated with booming economies. He approximated that 25 percent of the workforce earns good salaries working a federal or school district job while the remaining 75 percent struggle.
“Texas has gone away from being a rural state to a...three to four town state...the legislature doesn’t look too far beyond North Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio or the Rio Grande Valley,” Corbell continued. “If you escape those urban areas you’re really seeing Texas.”
Though Del Rio seems to be somewhat conservative economically, it appears to be socially progressive, or perhaps centrist is a more accurate term. The most obvious example is the election of Lozano, who is openly gay and the youngest mayor in the history of the municipality.
“I’m just excited that our community saw past stereotypes...when we’re at a point in our city where we can elect an openly gay mayor, I think that’s great progress. We’re not holding back just because someone is different or because we can’t relate or connect to that person because we don’t believe the same things,” De La Paz said.
In the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial and Congressional primary runoffs, Del Rio voted for two lesbian candidates.
“It has never been about the candidate’s personal life. Never. It has been about the issues...that Mr. Lozano happens to be gay is neither here nor there with us...that he happens to be gay we could care less,” declared Sandra Fuentes, co-chair of the Border Organization, an entity that trains people to be public citizens by teaching them to effectively advocate through the political process. “I’m personally curious and excited to work with Mayor Lozano...he came across to us as articulate and a thinker.”
Anchored in Catholic values, a bending but unbreakable morality is prevalent among many of the residents. “Everybody in Del Rio has their roots in the Catholic faith. That’s the reality of it. If not in their own lives, in a generation separated or two generations,” Father Clay said. “And even though there are a lot of people that may not go to church the roots of the faith are deep in this community.”
However, there are certain issues that aren’t up for moral negotiation either, primarily abortion. “I’m so annoyed with people feeling they have to question my faith just because I’m pro-choice. I grew up Catholic but I know what I will and will not do with my own body and what I will or will not do because...of my own faith-based beliefs. But I still think it’s my choice to actually make that decision on my body,” De La Paz said.
Interestingly, there are a large number of socially conservative Democrats. The Democratic Party reigns supreme in Val Verde County, though many of its members identify with the Republican Party’s socially conservative message. Some have even crossed over.
“The issue of abortion is important to folks from the Republican Party,” Guzman said.
Conversely, he mentioned the border has always been more accepting of those who weren’t well-received in the mainstream of society. At least within Mexican culture, stating the geographical edges of Mexico, especially in the north, have been a sanctuary for the individuals or groups living on the edges of religion or sexual orientation.
“In Chihuahua, you have Protestants and Mennonites. They weren’t as welcomed with all of the Catholics in Central Mexico. So they went north and they traveled to the edges. Tijuana and all along the border have the highest concentration of the LGBT population in Mexico.”
As is the case with thousands of cities across the nation, peace, love, and understanding can sometime become distorted in Del Rio. A June meeting between Mayor Lozano and Father Clay resulted in the mayor asking his administrative assistant to call the police and have the priest removed from city hall due to a faith-related comment Father Clay made regarding Mayor Lozano’s lifestyle. One claimed it was badgering and the other a polite address. This scenario certainly isn’t unique to Del Rio. And what does the mayor have to say about all this local progressiveness?
“I think we’ve always existed as being progressive...what happens is the people with the loudest voice are the ones getting their message across. There are a lot of middle ground people who aren’t getting their voice heard because you have the two extreme sides being the loudest. I’m trying to unify the fact that I exist, you exist, they exist. We need to start communicating with each other.”
Mayor Lozano, a United States Air Force veteran, participated in last year’s Veterans Day parade wearing heels. But it didn’t really cause a stir. “I expressed my heels in the parade and I got some controversy but the reality is that the veterans understand what it means to have freedom of expression, just like they understand the right to bear arms, they understand these are the rights that we’re protecting.” He insists the majority of Del Rioans sit in the middle politically and consistently exude understanding and compassion, and that it’s an embracing city curious about the world. “We are progressive in the sense that we understand common sense here. It exists.”
Perhaps common sense plays a role in connecting nowhere to somewhere. And more specifically, Del Rio to America. And maybe that’s why most Del Rioans choose to keep these issues on the shelf and remove them only when necessary.
A Del Rio day reflects something familiar: lunch breaks at the food truck serving tacos; Netflix; Tyler Perry films; the sounds of banda; the Cowboys-Eagles game; celebrating a wedding, a birth, an anniversary, a communion. Can you relate? The residents of this city live day-to-day in a cultural context; one that passionately kisses the border yet affectionately hugs America. And when the resplendent sunset’s shift ends and a full moon clocks in, “Del Rio, America” falls asleep assured in the fact that it’s unique, but very similar.