Dec. 9 – We make the short trip down 35 and enter Laredo proper. We turn off San Bernardo just before the interstate highway dissolves into the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge (aka International Bridge No. 1) and Mexico.
We ease onto Farragut. We find easy parking beneath an elegant pecan tree on a brick-lined portion of street. Parking is free today.
The dollar stores on Farragut are a big draw on Sundays. The streets are lined with cars bearing license plates from Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, two of Mexico’s northeastern states. We wander for hours, in and out of shops. I circle, circle, circle, seeking an opening into the inner world of Laredo.
I find nothing. We look but do not see, listen but do not hear. I try to employ my disarming smile on strangers, but it has little effect.
We make our way to the city plaza. It is a winsome place, exuding an old-world charm. It is bordered on all sides by a short brick wall and lined with brick walkways.
It is hemmed in by Farragut Street to the south, Matamoras to the north, Juarez to the west and Salinas to the east.
The evangelists have commandeered the place. This is not all bad. The missionaries from Hunger Rescue give us free tacos while the evangelists did their soul-searching work. The God tacos are good. They’d be better if they weren’t laced with cut-up hot dogs.
Once we accepted the tacos, then they came at us with the scriptural brochure. It was entirely in Spanish, thank God.
We are in a Mexican town north of the border.
There is a cultural dissonance at work. Nearly everyone on the streets and in the stores has a swarthier complexion than me. Only the junkies and evangelists are white.
The Sunday afternoon streets are a welter of Spanish. Official Laredo is the final bulwark of Anglo dominance. Signs in the plaza warning of penalties for alcohol possession are written in English only. All the official signs are in English.
We walk past the William N. “Billy” Hall county building. This takes me back to 1836, when Texas was a foreign concept to Americans and Mexicans alike. Only in Texas would the nickname “Billy” be included in the memorial naming of an official building. Oh, I could see it happening in Alabama, or Mississippi, or Georgia as well. There’s also a William N. “Billy” Hall Student Center on the campus of Laredo Community College.
Billy Hall was a good ol’ Laredo boy. He was a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1973-87, where he served for a time alongside fellow Laredo native Tom DeLay. Later he was the treasurer of (James) Webb County, serving in such capacity until his death at 61 in 2002. As a youth, William N. “Billy” Hall was a football star at Laredo’s Martin High School (Once a Tiger, always a Tiger!). He graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism and became publisher of the South Texas Citizen, a newspaper owned by his father, William N. “Billy” Hall Sr.
All of which is of little import, except to note the days of James Webb, Billy Hall and Tom DeLay are long past in Laredo. The mayor is Raul (Raaaooouuul!) Salinas. The city council is occupied by seven men, one woman and zero gringos. They have names like Roque, Estaban, Alejandro and Jorge. Carlos Villareal is city manager. Gilberto Navarro is interim police chief. Jesus Torrez is assistant chief. I could go on ad nauseum. Perhaps I already have.
Every now and then I look down and see a Texas license plate, and the sight jars me out of my indolent reverie. I have daydreamed myself into a pleasant international vacation. I was sure we had crossed the border from the Peoples Republic of Walmart and were taking a siesta in some exotic land.
But we are in the United States of America. Suddenly I long to be in Mexico. From a thousand miles away, it had seemed alien and dangerous. The closer you get, the more it exerts its pull on you. Unfortunately we had mailed Max’s birth certificate to Pennsylvania in advance of our journey. He was, for our purposes, undocumented.
We didn’t want to turn our beloved son into an undocumented immigrant.
I have friends who think I hate America. I deny this charge. I love America, from sea to roiling sea. From Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, from Frederick Douglass to Mark Twain, from Robert Johnson to Jackie Robinson, from J.D. Salinger to Martin Luther King Jr., from Malcolm X to Paul Newman, from La Push to Laredo, from Hermosa Beach to Valley Forge, I love America.
Do I protest too much?
I hate only the blindness, the arrogance of America, just as I hate the arrogance and blindness in myself. I am sure arrogance and blindness prospers everywhere. Only I am an American, and so am on more intimate terms with American hubris.
And we are, and perhaps it is only an accident of history, the world’s ogre. We dress ourselves up as beneficent sheep, albeit armed-to-the-teeth sheep, yet we have a wolfish aspect. China longs to supplant us, and maybe it will be best for all when it does.
We run into an ice cream vendor on a back street of Laredo, not far from the William N. “Billy” Hall county building. We decide to buy two chocolate popsicles. In an unforeseen turnabout, Becky actually speaks more Spanish than the ice cream man speaks English.
We get one for Max, and decide to split one. When she says “dos,” and he grabs two more for a total of three.
“Solamente dos, por favor,” she interjects. I am impressed.
I hand him a ten, and then heartbreak ensues. All my interactions with Hispanic Americans seem destined for heartbreak. He doesn’t have nearly enough change for the two $1.25 treats. I know I should simply let him keep the change, but I’m a penny-pincher.
This has been established over and over. Plus, I thought part of the charm of purchasing from a wandering vendor on the back streets of Laredo is to get a good deal. So my stinginess costs us a nice snapshot of Max and the ice cream man. Oh well.
We sit for a long time at the next bench over from a quartet of older men. I listen to them speak Spanish and wish I could understand. I think about studying Spanish, but suspect I never will. I rummage around in my head for a possible opening, but I find none.
Having probed the streets of Laredo but found no openings, having struck out with the ice cream man, we trek back in the behemoth.
After a little lunch, we walk over to the border station at the end of I- 35, little more than a block away.
We wander over to where a small fleet of buses go through customs check before taking off for San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Raleigh and other northern points. We pass the buses on their left flank and find ourselves on a sidewalk face to face with an orange plastic barrier.
There are no accompanying signs warning us to halt.
We stand and debate what to do next. While we idle, Max runs a bootleg around end. Dutiful parents, we follow close behind. We don’t want him to fall into the Rio Grande or anything.
We continue to walk in the general direction of Nuevo Laredo, expecting to find a fence or a wall or some sort of barricade. We don’t.
Here on the actual border, blue-and-white trucks driven by U.S. customs agents supplant the green-and-white trucks of the border patrol we’ve seen everywhere else lately.
We stroll forward at a diffident pace. Then we hear the distressed call of an official-sounding voice.
It is a blue-clad customs agent. He stands before us with a bemused look on his face. He has questions. He wants answers.
Where were we going? Where had we come from? Just what the hell did we think we were up to?
His name is Moses Espinoza.
“You’re in a restricted area,” Moses says. “How did you get back here?”
He ask if we’re traveling on one of the buses.
When he figures out we were just wanderers, he relaxes a bit. The alarm disappears from his face. He pegs us as stupid tourists. He explains the downtown shopping district is just a block away.
I guess he thought we were looking to buy a straw hat or a bottle of Patron.
I take the opportunity to ask him about Nuevo Laredo. He says the downtown area is plenty safe, particular during the day.
Then I ask about Laredo.
“It’s fine,” he says, betraying a trace of exasperation. “You’re in the United States.”
Yes, I nod.
Yes we are.
p.s. A little Laredo rock and roll redux, courtesy of Jon Dee Graham: