On a cold night in late December, Café Radical was buzzing. A few chatty customers in the new Laredo establishment were warming themselves on lattes. Others had come to taste natural wines. Near the bar, Laredo City councilwoman Alyssa Cigarroa blended in with the millennial-heavy crowd and dispersed Santa hats to a group of runners ahead of the city’s second annual Santa Run.
It wasn’t something the 34-year-old had expected to be doing when she moved back to Laredo four years earlier from Israel, where she was studying painting. For one, Cigarroa never thought she’d patronize a natural-wine bar in the land of Bud Light and Buchanas. She also never expected crowds to be venue-hopping just blocks from the Rio Grande River, near the warehouses and train tracks. And, more significantly, she never thought she would be a member of the city council, representing a district that covers downtown Laredo and straddles almost ten miles of the international border with Mexico.
“This wasn’t part of my plan,” Cigarroa said with a laugh, discussing her path from artist to city leader. Shortly after her return home in 2019, she founded the Daphne Art Foundation with a goal of connecting and energizing talented Laredo artists who had been largely alienated by a lack of outlets and venues. In 2020, frustrated by how the city was managing a new arts budget, she ran for office and beat an incumbent. Now she is reveling in the changing city. “You have a generation that has left and come back to Laredo seeing these really cool spaces and really cool things the city is doing. It’s such an exciting time,” she told me.
The following morning, on race day, bundled-up runners stretched and shivered as they lined up at a Café Radical stand for steaming coffee, courtesy of founders Rochelle and Billy Hrncir, who learned to roast coffee beans in 2018 when Rochelle was studying optometry in Puerto Rico. Cigarroa’s tall elf hat poked above the crowd as the racers took off toward the International Bridge. As she cheered them on, she couldn’t help but think about all the recent national news coverage on Laredo, which had focused on a cartel shootout right across the border in Nuevo Laredo. Some pundits had touted the shooting as proof of an impending invasion. Instead, Cigarroa watched the racers run parallel to the Rio Grande as Border Patrol officers cheered them on, with Nuevo Laredo backdropping their sprint about one hundred yards in the distance.
Despite Laredo’s global significance, it has long been considered by many nothing more than a pit stop for those on their way to make history in greener pastures. Santa Anna’s army extorted Laredo’s poor locals for food and supplies before he marched north to take the Alamo. Celebrity psychologist turned hippie Timothy Leary was arrested for pot in the city while crossing back from Mexico, briefly interrupting his mission to spread the gospel of LSD in the 1960s. More recently, high-level politicians have made semi-regular stops—Nancy Pelosi often attends the annual Washington’s Birthday Celebration, and Donald Trump visited in 2015 “despite the great danger,” as he put it.
Indeed, in the years before the border became a political battleground, the main draw of Laredo for countless Americans was its Mexican neighbor. For decades, Nuevo Laredo attracted American tourists, as well as many underage Laredoans who sipped their first shots of tequila after a quick walk across the bridge. The city’s downtown club scene was roaring when I finished high school in 2004, but the party was over just a few years later when I returned home from the University of Texas. Conflict among splintering drug cartels spooked tourists, causing pedestrian traffic to Nuevo Laredo to plummet and turning the city’s tourist district into a ghost town. According to a spokesperson for then-president Felipe Calderon, approximately 2,400 businesses in Nuevo Laredo shut their doors from 2004 to 2007. A few years later, when I began my law career in Houston, many old-timers spoke wistfully of their wild stories of Boy’s Town, Nuevo Laredo’s red-light district.
The “loss of across” also left a huge cultural void in Laredo. Iconic Mexican restaurants tried to follow American dollars by building locations north of the river but had difficulty recreating the magic of Mexico. When Mexican cartel violence spiked from 2007 through the early 2010s, some locals and many statewide officials had great fear that “spillover violence” would reach Laredo. Indeed, in 2007 there was a brief spike in targeted murders in the city, which was even the subject of New York Times best-seller Wolf Boys by Dan Slater.
But, rather than draining Laredo, the cartel violence unwittingly pushed investment and talent from Mexico north. Since the beginning of the cartel wars in 2005, foreign direct investment from Mexico into the U.S. has quadrupled to around $17 billion. The period between 2006 and 2010 saw a corresponding spike in EB-5 investment visas, granting residency to wealthy Mexican nationals who invest at least $500,000 into the United States. And Laredo’s violent crime rate has steadily decreased over the last decade and a half. The city’s crime rate now sits below the rate of Texas at large and consistently ranks much safer than comparable non-border cities such as Lubbock.
The city leaders I spoke with—including Cigarroa, newly elected mayor Victor Treviño, and Councilman Tyler King—were clear they aren’t concerned with spillover violence, and agreed Laredo is in a better position to deal with its domestic problems than non-border towns because of its proximity with Mexico. As King put it, the “Rio Grande is the largest and most important water pipe,” referring not just to Laredo’s sole source of drinking water but also to essential cross-border commerce that in 2022 contributed $74 million in revenue from bridge crossings, one of the city’s most prized funding sources.
Indeed, in recent years, the city has emerged as perhaps America’s key port of entry. As global enterprises began to shift from Asia to North America because of trade wars and as the pandemic raged, Laredo has become a center of economic activity. With almost $1 billion in goods passing between Laredo and Mexico every day, it is America’s most important inland port, and often surpasses even the Port of Los Angeles in trade volume.
As economic activity has flourished, new businesses have followed. In the early 2010s, bars, clubs, and shops, attracted by cheap rents, began trickling in to the long-neglected downtown district. If global commerce was the fuel, the spark was Laredo’s artists. In 2011, spoken-word poet Chibbi Orduña founded Laredo BorderSlam Poetry, which eventually found its home at Gallery 201 downtown. Eduardo Medina, a Nuevo Laredo native who has planted deeper roots in Laredo like countless others who found this side preferable to its Mexican counterpart, started the rock venue On the Rocks Tavern. The trickle snowballed in the mid-2010s, aided by business leaders and groups that lobbied for rezoning and incentive packages to create the thriving club strip “It Street” on Iturbide that still vibrates with club music reminiscent of Nuevo Laredo’s heyday.
But that development seemed to stall in the years before the pandemic. In 2017, city leaders unanimously enacted a downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, a development tool that has been successfully used in major Texas cities to set aside projected tax revenue in a designated area and allocate it toward capital improvements such as parks and bike lanes. In the same year, the council also implemented Plan Viva Laredo, a master development plan for the city’s urban renewal. But coordinated downtown revival was difficult to carry out, as the city suffered under scandal-plagued administrations led by a series of short-lived city managers.
City council members in Laredo each have enormous discretionary power for brick-and-mortar projects, and until recently possessed budgets of around $1 million per member. (No similar discretionary budget exists in comparable cities like Brownsville or El Paso. San Antonio’s council members each receive $50,000 in discretionary funds.) This exacerbated a tendency against citywide collaboration in favor of old school patrón practices. In a recent public forum where citizens shared input on the newly enacted Laredo Public Arts Master Plan, some citizens criticized how the discretionary funding has tended to benefit a small handful of artists commissioned by individual council members at the expense of larger, more collaborative projects that benefit the greater public.
Leaders like Cigarroa tell me that these factors have discouraged significant private investment for remaking downtown, especially with the large number of downtown absentee landlords satisfied with the status quo. Concerns are hand-waved away; as I heard a handful of times during my visit: “that’s a District 8 problem.”
When I spoke with Treviño after he was sworn in as mayor on the last week of 2022, he told me his top priorities are expanding health care access and ensuring that Laredo has a sustainable source of drinking water after aging infrastructure led to several boil notices over the past few years. After that, he’s targeting downtown revival, and said he agrees with Cigarroa and other leaders about the need to challenge the culture of each council member focusing on their respective “mini kingdoms” at the expense of larger citywide projects.
And indeed, after the pandemic, things appear to be changing. In March 2020, the U.S. banned all nonessential border traffic, causing an estimated $2 billion loss to the retail sectors in Texas border counties, according to Rice University’s Baker Institute. To this day, pedestrian bridge traffic remains 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels. But as they say in South Texas, no hay mal que por bien no venga. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Historically, according to Cigarroa, Laredo has “never marketed or built our downtown around our own residents,” instead catering primarily to outsiders, from American tourists going south to Mexican shoppers coming north. But the border shocks of recent years required a new approach. Many spaces downtown that originally housed businesses such as textile wholesalers are now being replaced by shops catering to domestic consumers: there’s been a proliferation of downtown cafes, bars, and artistic venues since the pandemic. In contrast to when I grew up here in the early 2000s—when the entertainment district was limited to a handful of seedy cantinas and two high-end restaurants at La Posada hotel—downtown now has over a dozen bars and cafes, a monthly art walk called Caminarte, a farmers market, alternative music venues like Los Olvidados, and a business incubator, MileOne, that is helping many more small businesses get started around town.
“Laredo is thirsty,” David Garza told me, as we sampled frontera-themed beers at Saludos Brewing Co., which he opened last year. During my tour through town in late December, I stopped in for the brewery’s top-selling libation, TXMX Mexican Lager, which serves as a bridge for people who come in for a Bud Light and leave with a fresh appreciation for local brews. Drinking it, it felt like an eternity since the days when the closest we got to craft beer was $1 Indios at El Tunel across the border.
Garza’s statement applies to more than beer, however. It’s hard to keep up with all the new artistic spaces and restaurants downtown. Later that day, I dined at Kai Tod Thai Kitchen’s new brick-and-mortar, a block south from the large street mural spanning two blocks that screams: “Defund the Wall, Fund our Future.” I crossed the street for a drink at Cultura Beer Garden, another pioneer of the downtown boom that often hosts several artistic events in one night, including live music and stand-up comedy. After I listened to that night’s band and volunteered to judge a crowded slam poetry competition, I was moved by how much of a powerhouse the local arts scene had become.
Soon, there’ll be even more. Maritza Bautista, another local artist who returned to Laredo after some time away in Chicago, is now the executive director of nonprofit arts organization Cultivarte. She told me about a newly planned five thousand square foot Cultivarte headquarters that will serve as Laredo’s first artist incubator, expected to open in early 2024. Down the road from the planned location is the historic 1940s Plaza Theater, which hopes to reopen soon with the help of $12 million in funds from the city council and an additional $750,000 earmarked by U.S. representative Henry Cuellar. These efforts are aided by the Laredo Film Society, another new group that emerged shortly before the pandemic that collaborates with local film productions. The theater’s facade was a set of the recently filmed The Son Who Can’t Play Trumpet, an HBO Max Pa’Lante short film by Laredo native Isaac Garza, another artist who decided to return and pay tribute to the town that made him.
As I concluded my tour of downtown, I walked along Iturbide Street, which vibrates with club music. My body was warm from tequila distilled from Mexican agave, aged in bourbon barrels exported from Kentucky after they were emptied of the distilled corn grown in the Midwest but created by the indigenous people of Mexico ten thousand years ago. When you dissect something as Mexican as tequila in this manner, the idea of “us vs. them” seems outdated and silly. As I waited for a taxi, I could hear the distant sound of pops. Iturbide is close enough to Mexico that it’s not clear whether each pop came from this side or that. What was clear was that they were not the sounds of cartel gunshots—they were fireworks. ¡Saludos!