Post Script to Texas
I’ve never created an audio file before, but the voice came to me so strongly when I sat down to write this evening, that I got a notion to record the post. Blogger doesn’t allow audio files, so I had to set the sound to a still image. If all goes well, you can play the “movie” and the sound will start about 20 seconds in. The last two sentences are cut off, so the text is below in standard post format.
Oh Texas, I have not been forthright with you, for in fact we have met. But I was in my twenties then, and so wholly self-defined as a teacher (and only a teacher), that if you met me today it would take weeks before you could trace the lines of that old self back to the woman I was in your arms, you Lone Star State.
I will tell you that I was chaperoning an 18-day road trip with two other teachers and nine teenagers. Early March and we all stank, cramped into a 15-passenger Ford van hell-bent on the border.
We’d been driving all night from New Orleans and in my mind I could hear Lucinda Williams singing (“He had a reason, to get back, to Lake Charles”), but we pressed on, past hub after hub of offshore drilling platforms. They glowed like distant cities on the horizon, except less hopeful—all that bargaining illuminated along the Gulf of Mexico as if there were no shame in it, no shame at all. We rode silently, even the students, but later they would talk about it, saying: “It felt like being watched, like those oil rigs were keeping time while the rest of America tried to sleep.”
Sometime before midnight, we reached North Padre Island near Corpus Christi. I flipped the high beams on the Ford and we rigged tents along the beach, grains of sand in our ears before we could even get the flaps zipped. All night long the waves crashed, warm wind whipped the tent fabric in constant percussion.
By lunch the next day, we’d reached our destination: Refugio del Rio Grande in Harlingen, Texas, a stone’s throw from the border. A friend of a friend new the manager there, a Salvadoran refugee name Pio who’d survived the 12-year war only to take refuge in the very country that killed most of his family. He greeted us with a half-toothed smile and arms wide enough to hug the world.
“Here is where the refugees sleep,” he told us, pointing to a dusty row of bunks. “And here is the special room for families.” Another room, this one with its own door. “One more, upstairs.” He nodded, proud.
“But where are they?” a student asked. “Where are all the refugees?”
We’d come to help dig water canals, repair kitchen sinks, do work on the grounds of the refugee camp.
Pio shook his head. “You’ll see them mañana,” he told us. “When you go to Border Patrol.”
The next day in Brownsville, a tall agent with a wide-brimmed hat and broad shoulders shuffled us through metal detectors and into the surveillance room. The students hushed. I bit my tongue, swallowed my own heartbeat. There, right in front of our eyes: row after row of mounted television screens displaying live surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico border. Two other agents swiveled on their chairs, craned their necks to look at our unruly bunch. Surely we asked them questions, but I cannot recall any words. Just their tone—so proud, so accomplished, so thoroughly pleased with their work.
On our way back across the office, we walked past several holding cells. On the other side of the bars, just as Pio promised, stood the refugees. Two men, not much taller than my teenage students were at the time. They looked exhausted, thirsty. One wore tattered jeans and a striped collared shirt. I caught his eyes, held the gaze, planted it somewhere deep inside.
Oh Texas, I will tell you also that we crossed your border, passports in hand. Only one student caught the eyes of your agents: an 8th grader with dark skin and slick, black hair. American by every document, but born in Honduras and adopted several weeks later. “No,” we told your agents. “We’re all traveling together and no one is staying for more than a day.”
The students practiced basic Spanish and bargaining in Reynosa. I sang “Los Corezones” with two children on the street, then bought a handful of Chiclets from their basket. Sometime that afternoon we were pulled over by the police who accused us of breaking a traffic law, then feigned a lack of language skills. Here was the decision I’d never thought I’d have as teacher—to model illegal behavior in the face of an unjust use of power, or to endanger my students’ safety by dragging them to the police station, where the officer told us we would have to “plead our case.” We bribed him with cash (there had been no violation). He smiled and winked, smugly returning to his vehicle.
We spent the afternoon in Matamores on a driving tour of the colonias. From the safety of our van, we saw children playing in sewer water, factories churning out their stinking commerce, families of nine stacked into 6’x6’ shacks. I have never felt so ashamed and so proud—ashamed for my privilege of driving by, yet proud to be a teacher that helped my students see first-hand the results of NAFTA and immigration laws we’d been studying in the classroom.
Texas, if you are with me still you will see now what I am trying to say: That as much as you are surely your own state, you are also a borderland. I cannot think of you without thinking of that long, invisible line between one set of laws and another. Without thinking of that refugee, his gaze from behind bars at the Border Patrol. At what point is the present day un-tethered from history? Where does your story cleanly begin? I’ll be listening, Texas. I’ll be ready.