It’s part of the tourist attraction to San Antonio, besides the Riverwalk and the Alamo. Even though this part of South Texas is still a good few hours drive from the actual physical border between Mexico and the United States, the River City is still closer to it than most of the rest of the continental states. It falls well within that ambiguous and fluid zone where people on both sides of it have shifted back and forth so many times that it would be hard to pin down a consistent attitude about it all. This is a place where a fourth or fifth-generation descendent of German Hill-Country immigrants may speak perfectly colloquial Spanish and collect Diego Riviera paintings…. And the grandson of a semi-literate Mexican handyman who came here in the early 1920ies looking for a bit of a break from the unrest south of the border, may have a doctoral degree and a fine series of fine academic initials after his name. And the fact that the original settlers were from the Canary Islands, and all non-Hispanic whites are usually referred to as “Anglos”, no matter what their ethnic origin might be, just adds a certain surreality to the whole place.

San Antonio is in fact, about half Hispanic: surnames like Garcia, Martinez. and Gonzales with an s or Gonzalez with a z being so common they fade into ordinariness. In this bordertown, Garcia and Gonzalez are your next-door neighbors, or your co-workers, everyone knows what a quincianera is, and loves breakfast tacos, and faijitas, and believes with the faith of holy writ that the hotter the salsa is, the better, and knows a smattering of Spanish. Quite often, in fact, it’s the kids named Garcia or Martinez who have to learn it as a second language in high school… just another surreality of life in a city where at least one place on every block of every main avenue serves up takeaway breakfast tacos… and some of them feature drive up service.

The cross-border flow is neither one-way or steerage class, either. Mexican and American shoppers and entrepreneurs criss-cross every day… it’s pharmacy visits and surgical care in both directions, bargains on clothes and garden pottery, and high-end gadgets. North Star Mall, close by the airport has been for years a shopping destination for wealthy Mexicans. During Santa Semana, the Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter, you could walk the main floor from one end to the other, and not overhear a word of English in conversation among the throngs. The wealthy Mexicans who come and go sometimes mesh uncomfortably with the local middle and working class Hispanics; the mother of a friend of mine grumbled about how they were so rude, and left the sales tables in such a mess, and left rejected clothes crumpled all over the floor in the dressing rooms at Talbots. Local people most always made a stab at putting them back on the hanger, instead of assuming that someone would come along and straighten out the mess after they were quite finished.

There was a small protest, this week, by mostly high school students— just old enough to be aware of of the problem, but not old enough to grasp the very real ambiguities. We are all immigrants, one way or another: many of us can name the ancestor, and the country he or she came from, and make some intelligent guesses as to why they climbed out of the ancestral rut and lit out for the new territories, the new world, the frontier, the north . Most of us suspect that those ancestors improved their lot; if not immediately for themselves, then for their descendents. I know that my own immigrant grandparents certainly found much nicer weather and better plumbing than what they variously left behind in Three Mile Town, Reading and the Merseyside, and I can’t grudge some dirt-farmer or shade tree mechanic in Jalisco having a chance at something a little better in their turn. I can’t, I really can’t. What a country this must be, when they are willing to risk their lives in the desert, or in the packed back of an 18-wheeler after paying money to a coyote–a people-smuggler— all for a chance to work in the fields, or packing plant or stapling asphalt tile in the hot sun of late afternoon in a Texas summer… and how crappy is the situation they are leaving. Even if all they want is a couple of seasons to work in the North, and send money back home, why do they have to come north in the first place?

What is with Mexico, that they must bleed off their most ambitious and hardworking, but frustrated citizens to the North, that part with paved roads and factories? Why is there nothing for them, back where they came from in some dirt scrabble- village? Why do the “activists” at Aztlan demand that the Southwest be turned back to Mexico, when it was Mexico setting the conditions that made their parents or grandparents head north in the first place?

Tejanos, Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, citizens of the borderlands, call them whatever; they have pulled their weight always: a good proportion of the Alamo defenders were actually native Tejanos, and Juan Seguin might have been their commander, instead of William Travis. (It was an item of crushing historical stupidity and Anglo arrogance that the Alamo Tejanos and Seguin were never given proper credit and attention during their 19th century lifetimes.) They enlist in large numbers generation after generation; machismo is untrammeled, and makes for a large proportion of soldiers who are admiringly described as “crazy-brave”. Citations for battlefield heroism run well above the norm for other ethnicities. Mexico ought to be a military powerhouse, with all that raw soldiering talent, but somehow, that never works out. They did beat the French once, but then hasn’t everyone? The Garcias and the Gonzalezs come north, as they always have; the suspicion on this side of it, is that the Border is Mexico’s safety valve, bleeding off the potentially politically restless and/or economically ambitious.

And the fear has become, this, this year along the borderlands, and in other places, is that the situation is out of hand. Ranch owners along the border, who had heretofore dealt with the illegal transients by sympathetically looking the other way, are fed to the teeth with aggressive trespass, with gates being left open, taps left running and fences cut, with not being able to go about their properties after dark without being armed. Law enforcement along the border are similarly fed to the teeth with well-armed gangs operating across the border, apparently with the connivance of Mexican authorities, whether authorized officially or not, with finding dying border crossers in the back of trucks, and alone, dead of thirst and exposure in the desert. Hospitals in border towns are being driven close to bankruptcy by medical care which they must give to the illegal, and for which they are not reimbursed. And legal immigrants everywhere, who have gone through the hassle and expense of doing the proper paperwork, and waiting patiently in line, are apoplectic at seeing that not playing by established rules may be rewarded.

And so, that is where people of good intent are stranded. De Nile is the river that runs through Egypt… but Ambivalence is the other name of the river that runs through the Borderlands.

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