It’s Sunday in March 1990 when Manuel calls me to say he’s mobile with a new car and wants to hit the island. The island of which he speaks is South Padre Island, and during spring break, it’s Texas’s answer to Myrtle or Daytona Beach, where vacationing college kids let it all hang out, an almost mythical debauchery that had been going on every year since we, as teenagers in Brownsville, could remember.
Manuel says he has his hands on a white 1973 Firebird Trans Am with an elaborately detailed but fading blue phoenix painted on its hood. “Dude,” he says, “it’s a cool car.”
It isn’t. It’s a tired car with bucket seats up front, cramped bucket seats in back, and cigarette burns dotting every vinyl surface like tattoos on the arms of a fifty-year-old roadie, an exhausted veteran of the seventies and eighties rock and roll culture who has heard way too much Aerosmith. This effect is punctuated further by its source of audio: an outdated cassette deck, stuffed inelegantly into the radio port, that chews up tapes like neighborhood strays chew up unburned garbage.
Manuel just loves this car. He knows it won’t be his for long, because his father frequently buys and sells cars from auctions and junkyards. I’m not a motorhead, so I really don’t care when Manuel talks about the “lines of the car,” the “raised intake,” the back tire width, or the spoiler on the trunk. I’m usually embarrassed to be seen in a vehicle like that, but being poor and living in the farmlands beyond the city limits, I don’t really have a choice in the quality of the cars willing to pick me up.
At that time, we lived in a barrio way out of town and off a dirt road. And it was certainly a barrio: on our side of Oklahoma Road, everyone was related in some way or another. Marriage, sexual assault, sibling exchanges, in-law or out-law—we were all related. On the other side of the road, it was a bit more of the same but with a different family.
Where Manuel lived, it wasn’t the same. His family lived off a paved road, near a highway that hugs the meandering contours of the Rio Grande, just behind the Brownsville airport. Unrelated families lived next door to one another, like in a real neighborhood, and not in the spirit of clannism. But his neighborhood was low and hot and quiet, the same as it was four miles away where I lived, in the interior geometry of farmland: heat, hanging pollen, and little to do on those days when there was nothing around except the high buzz of insects and the slow, sweaty movement of defeated mammals at high noon, needing refuge from the sun. As teenagers growing up there, well, these kinds of days normally meant trouble; either it was looking for you or you were looking for it. That’s when Manuel calls me.
I’m in a pair of denim shorts and a decaying T-shirt and sitting on a towel to avoid sweating directly into the cushions of the no-longer-new sofa my mother still feels rather fond of. I’m probably watching a VHS video I’ve seen a hundred times when he rings. “Dude,” he says, “it’s spring break.”
Now, spring break in South Texas is not what it is elsewhere. Here it’s less a quantifiable series of days on a calendar before you return to class than an excusable period of depravity and a gold mine for those invested in the business of vice. It’s what Mardi Gras does to New Orleans, except on a beach and for two or three months at a stretch. It’s more like a season—or a war against good decisions. It’s a chance for beautiful people from all around the world to drive down to South Padre and get a sunburn or a speeding ticket, maybe a case of manageable herpes.
South Padre is the destination for every Texas university and college during spring break, when the doors to what feels like every sorority and fraternity house in this state are thrown open and hundreds of thousands of normally compliant, long-suffering students, on the drive down to South Padre Island, become hysterically Cyprian, debauchees of catastrophic levels descending on this awaiting island, the developed portion of which is just four miles long and about half a mile wide. And it’s a clusterfuck of epic proportion. Booze, drugs, brawls, nudity, and instantly regrettable tattoos flow freely alongside a sewer of vomit and urine, like closing time in the last days of Rome.
If you’re a visiting college student, losing your identity and sense of self is the rule here; blending and dissolving into the crowd is your best chance at finding a potential, momentary mate. So you dress at the median level and pump your arm in the air to the booming music, whoop at the wet T-shirt contests and barely skim the surface of anything important or sincere, and then turn around and do it again with the next person. Here the crowd hates the individual. Merging into the larger, drunken herd and conforming to the banality of the crowd guarantees you a good time. Being a penguin in a crowd of penguins is what you’re after. You get to rub up on sexy, bikini-clad girls when you yell, “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! ” to the hit single of the summer, and they won’t press charges or file a restraining order.
But being Mexican kids from the area population, we felt automatically excluded, not just because our names ended in a z but because we couldn’t afford to dress like those fancy boys who descended on the island like an occupying force. Try as we might, we couldn’t become absorbed in the throng, partly because we simply couldn’t buy those identical baseball hats and white boating shorts with the pastel collared shirts that so many of the frat guys wore, walking around in a cohort with a posture of innate self-assurance, knowing that if anything happened, Mom and Dad would sue someone.
Growing up, we never really talked about it. We didn’t have the language or critical analysis to fully express the exclusion we felt. But we somehow concluded, nonverbally, that the rejection we internalized was because of race. Most of the privileged college students invading the island for spring break were white—some Mexican Americans and blacks among them, sure, but mostly white—and we decided in an unspoken agreement that the pushback we locals felt was because we were not white. Getting called “Pedro” by drunk white guys when you tried to strike up a conversation and having girls turn their backs to you (and not suggestively) happened so often it wouldn’t even bother us after a while. Or it wouldn’t bother others. It always bothered me.
In reality, the exclusion was not because of race. Or at least not just because of race. The other factor was class. As the teenagers from Port Isabel, Brownsville, Los Fresnos, and the surrounding counties, we would drive to South Padre Island to see the spectacle, hope beyond hope that we would be allowed to participate, usually with less than $20 on us. We were rural boys, and most of us listened to shitty music, thought growing our hair long would make us look “cool.” Obviously, we were not the clientele the owners of monolithic bars like Louie’s Backyard and Tequila Frogs hoped would wander through their faux-bamboo doors, all guarded by the same Mexican gargoyles, instructed especially to keep out the people who looked like themselves. It was a physical pathology, right out in the open, but no one talked about it.
Complicating it further, most of the working class who support this annual event are Mexican and Mexican American. The island has others too: dropout artists, surfers, and genuinely kind families who really get the area—who all make up the tapestry of the place where spring break is somehow executed every year with a limited amount of homicides, assaults, rapes, and highway casualties. It’s just a wonder of human management, a controlled debauch. Really something to behold.
So obviously that Sunday, at age seventeen, I’m drawn to this, as is every other hormonal Mexican kid in Brownsville. I mean, it’s just sitting right over there. And Manuel is calling, says he has the Trans Am.
“Dude,” he says, “it’ll pick up the chicks.”
And I have nothing to do except sweat, with $6 burning in my pocket.
“I’m ready when you are,” I say.