It’s just past dawn near San Agustín Plaza, in downtown Laredo, my mother’s birthplace, and the sun is beginning to singe the tips of the lanky cane along the Rio Grande. Already, an unshaded queue of Mexicanos, crossing over for day work or shopping, stretches well beyond the span of International Bridge #1, the city’s oldest, also known as the Gateway to the Americas. And these are just the folks with visas. Uncounted others will have crossed the river surreptitiously under the protective cover of night. Still others could be waiting to cross, arduously hidden away under false truck beds or packed like cargo into crates, hoping luck is with their coyotes as they warily approach the checkpoint. Who knows?
Anything involving Mexico is bound to lead to mystery eventually, so it’s not surprising that the question of the border and immigration is no exception. But the mystery here doesn’t so much involve the border as it does the story of migration itself. The deep subconscious of Mexican culture is full of mythic stories of ancestral migrations, captured in the ubiquitous images of footstep trails that appear in many of the earliest codices that have been preserved. The most important of these myths is the ancient story of the pilgrimage of the tribes who would become the Aztecs. Exhorted by their god Huitzilopochtli to leave their homeland of Aztlán in search of a new home, they uprooted and wandered for years before encountering the promised sign, an eagle standing on a cactus, devouring a serpent. There they founded Tenochtitlán, which later became Mexico City. Since then, it seems that every generation of Mexicanos, indigenous and mestizo, has been searching for a new homeland of great blessings, even if it should require a long journey to find it. It’s an Exodus-like theme that you can trace from the oldest pictographic records of the indigenous world to the modern accounts of the undocumented people captured by the Border Patrol.
An hour passes, and the line barely moves, as the heat of the sun grows more unforgiving, minute by minute. I watch this scene from the balcony of an air-conditioned room in the Hotel La Posada, thinking how every one of those bobbing heads I see could be me. As with many other native Texans, immigration across this increasingly fractious border is a family legacy for me, and a personal issue. My mother’s ancestors first came to the northern hinterlands of Nueva España that would eventually become north Mexico and South Texas sometime in the early 1600’s, and later they were among the families who founded a constellation of villages along the river, including Laredo, in 1755. The U.S.-Mexico border appeared well into their saga, like a haunting wraith of separation laid across lands already long settled by people of an emerging nation.
As an inheritor of this legacy, I can’t count the times I’ve crossed the border—back and forth from Eagle Pass into Coahuila, from Laredo into Nuevo Laredo, from McAllen into Reynosa, from Brownsville to Matamoros, from Presidio to Ojinaga. On my father’s side, my great-uncle Francisco Garcia crossed out of Coahuila at Piedras Negras, fleeing the turmoil of the revolution, sometime around 1914. He later recalled it as a quiet passing across a steel bridge that cost him a nickel, with no customs or border officers asking for papers. Now traffic is perpetually stalled at the bridges as agents scrutinize papers. Innumerable Border Patrol SUVs crisscross the highways and back roads of the region, often as helicopters hover overhead. Drones patrol the skies, seeking crossers who’ve avoided the patchwork cordons of agents, walls, and fences. Soon, we are promised, National Guard troops will arrive to establish forward operating bases to surveil the land, just as in Afghanistan.
Today’s border is a landscape of ghosts, a geography populated with a host of specters from a long, fraught history, all the upheavals of the past five hundred years in our Texan patch of the New World. For decades, immigration policy has found it hard enough trying to close the border to the living. But it is truly powerless to detain the ghosts of the past. They continue to pass freely, some heading north, some heading south. No policing stratagem will ever capture them, nor can we ever fully know the magnetic force they exert upon us.
But what difference might it make if our immigration policy were shaped in full recognition of our complex past? The current debate has emerged from an extremely narrow spectrum of historical awareness. In a recent radio interview, Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano observed that “the border is a big and complicated place.” By contrast, in the current tumult over immigration, the matter is often presented in the media as a simple choice between law and anarchy, between protecting American values and identity and abandoning them to a wave of immigrants from the south. Fueled by a spiraling whorl of fear and mistrust, the debate has reached the point that many hot-button issues come to, where they detach from reality and history and begin to create a new, self-justifying mythology.
I had come to the balcony at La Posada in Laredo to try and reattach to reality. In late summer, as the radios and televisions buzzed with discussions of racial profiling and birthright citizenship and amnesty, I set out from my home in San Antonio on a journey through South Texas, where the ghosts of history are as much a presence as the visions of the future. I went in search of those ghosts and in search of the living too, those who are telling another sort of story about migration that makes a full reckoning of the deep history of our contested, shared borderlands.
My first stop was the Kenedy Ranch Museum of South Texas, in Sarita, twenty miles south of Kingsville down U.S. 77. Encompassing 400,000 acres of former Spanish and Mexican land grant territories, the ranch has a uniquely South