LIVING ON THE EDGE
Every day at the Culture Crush, we work hard with writers to tell the stories they want to tell about the communities they belong to and navigate. We don’t chase the latest breaking news or trending hashtag. Instead, we tend to take the temperature of society. Unsurprisingly, this philosophy allows us to address some of the most pressing issues of the moment, and through the lenses of those who are uniquely positioned to understand them.
That was exactly the case this week, as author Chris Adams paints a picture of his community, the town of Del Rio, Texas, in his new column “The Edge of Nowhere.” Adams argues that Del Rio exists in a weird space, as both somewhere and nowhere simultaneously. And while it may be hard to pin down what it is exactly culturally, “what it isn’t is Ted Cruz campaign signs, overexposed SXSW, or a spillway for Mexican drug cartels.”
Saying that Del Rio exists on the edge of nowhere is not only a reference to its physical place on the US-Mexican border but also a reference to the fact that the stories usually told about it are told by those who don’t live there. As Chris explains, “the border is a hot topic amongst Americans nationwide,” with modern narratives attempting to make the area “synonymous with divisive illicit immigration and drug cartel violence.” However, for those residing in the city, “immigration is not a major cause for concern.”
Given the current times, it is easy to get lost in the reactionary media narratives people tell about the border and forget that it is a place where people actually live, work, and play. Real people, gay and straight, religious and secular, White and Latino.
In contrast to the focus that people outside the community put on border security and the United States’s tenuous relationship with Mexico, the lives and preoccupations of those at the border seem odd, oddly familiar, and occasionally defy expectations.
For example, it is hard to fathom that the town of Del Rio, deep in the heart of Republican Texas, would have an openly gay mayor who occasionally wears heels. Even if he does sometimes butt heads with the local Harley-Davidson riding Catholic priest. But, as Chris explains, the existence of colorful characters does not preclude the town from dealing with incredibly relatable issues. It seems humorous that while politicians in states like Virginia and North Dakota are railing against the dangerous Mexican Cartels troubling our borders (which is why they need open carry in Fargo, of course) when the people who live on the border with Mexico are more concerned about the things that we are all concerned about: jobs, civil rights, and community. Contrary to what you might hear, despite living on the border (or more likely, because they live on the border) Del Rioans’ relationship with Mexico and Mexicans is not viewed as some existential clash of nations, but as a normal part of everyday life. It is easy to forget, when you live far away from one, that national borders are political constructions, and not always reflective of geographic or cultural realities.
For the most part, there is not a big line that separates the United States from Mexico. And, as most people can tell you, our cultures and peoples have mixed historically and that they continue to mix. In reality, the closer you get to the border the less meaningful it actually seems. After all, what does a border even mean “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?”
However, it would be impossible to live on the border and not consider the national discourse surrounding walls and immigration, to consider the stories that people tell about the place you live. In this sense, the wall represents an unwelcome intrusion into their lives. Not only is it an eyesore, but a blow to their sense of self and “a disconnection with [their] Mexican sister city (Ciudad Acuña).” However, that is not to say that their lives have been unaffected by this national conversation. They still live under occupation, with DHS, Border Patrol, and ICE an omnipresent military force, one that they equate to a tour of duty in Kuwait.
What is clear from Chris’s piece is that life for those on the border is exactly like life everywhere else in America. While a cliché, it truly is a land of contrasts, but more importantly, it is a land that exists, not just to be talked about or used to advance reactionary agendas, but as an example of the reality that, in fact, cultures and people are always mixing. And that is exactly what the world is, and always will be. It brings into sharp relief the fact that much of the animosity towards Mexicans being described is manufactured hatred, unrepresentative of the people who engage with them the most. Ironic as it may seem, if we were all as open to that reality as those who live on the border, we might be in a better place.
As Chris Adams explained, the US-Mexico border is more than just a lawless wasteland. It has a rich cultural history. Perhaps the best example of the contributions made by those on of the border is the story of Wolfman Jack.
In 1963, disc jockey Bob Smith gained a national following on XERF, where he developed his now legendary, larger-than-life, on-air personality, “Wolfman Jack,” a figure immortalized in George Lucas’s 1973 masterpiece, American Graffiti. The movie profoundly changed the career of Lucas himself, as well as Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and more. It follows a group of teenagers during the last night of summer in 1962, as they cruise around in souped-up jalopies looking for the last good time of their lives. Blaring from every car radio and diner sound system was the voice of all voices, the Wolfman himself, and the incredible soundtrack that gave this story of soon to be lost innocence a mood of racy and dangerous fun, just like the rock ’n’ roll and blues music he had championed earlier in his own career, and at great risk.
Lucas was a huge fan of the radio host and cast Wolfman to play himself in the movie. His broadcasts tie the film together, and Richard Dreyfuss's character vaguely glimpses the mysterious Wolfman Jack in the film’s climactic scene. Lucas was so thankful for Wolfman Jack’s participation in the film that he actually gave him a division of the profits. American Graffiti was a huge financial success and became a cultural memento that allowed Lucas to go on and make his passion project, a little western-in-space about the tragedy of the Skywalker family, and Wolfman’s Jack’s role made him a household name and provided him with a regular income for the rest of his life.
So back to the Mexican border, XERF-AM was a powerful signal system set up to subvert the censorship and decency rules the U.S. government strictly imposed on radio. Without American FCC regulation to police content, the Wolfman’s early '60's pirate radio program was able to include his racy and sometimes raunchy banter and howling along with R&B and rock-and-roll songs. He’d often growl into the microphone and tell listeners he was naked while suggesting that they disrobe as well. Wolfman was able to play any record he wanted, which brought a lot of new and unknown music into the homes of everyday Americans.
With broadcasting signals far more powerful than U.S. stations, these Mexican “border blasters” could be heard over large areas of the U.S. from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. This caused immense tension and annoyance to American radio stations, whose signals could be overpowered by their Mexican counterparts. XERF-AM was broadcasted out of Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, the sister city to Del Rio, Texas. By the early 1950’s, the XERF radio transmitter had been upgraded to a powerful 250,000 watts (five times the U.S. limit), which carried programming far and wide, coast to coast.
The border stations made money by renting time to Pentecostal preachers and psychics, and by taking 50 percent of the profit from anything sold by mail order. The Wolfman did pitches for dog food, weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, rose bushes, and hundred-packs of baby chicks. He also sold rhythm-and-blues music collections, which, at the time, could not be found in most white-owned record stores. He is credited with introducing black music to a broad American audience, especially teenagers. Wolfman Jack was the faceless hero of AM radio and his eclectic show and raspy voice became the sound of a certain generation. He was a radio show host until the day he died, in 1995, and his legacy lives on in pop culture as does his undeniable influence on both the radio and music industry.
But as Neil Young said, “hey hey, my my, rock n' roll can never die.”