Dec. 9, Laredo – We bid adieu to friendly (enough) customs agent Moses Espinoza and wander across the street. After half-heartedly perusing the high-toned tequilas and cut-rate perfumes at a duty-free store adjacent to International Bridge No. 1, we leave empty-handed and make our way back to the behemoth.
We loiter inside for a bit, drinking a little rotgut wine and snacking on cheese and crackers. I pick up my well-worn copy of “Ernie’s America,” the anthology of columns Ernie Pyle wrote when traveled the country in the mid-to-late 1930s as roving reporter for Scripps-Howard. Bereft of inspiration, I need to refresh my memory of Pyle’s visit to Laredo.
He came here in 1936. It was pretty much as it is now, save for the hive-like activity at the border. Ernie came here on a Sunday, too.
“It was a quarter to nine on a Sunday night in Laredo, Texas. The thermometer at the corner of the plaza said 82; the air was soft and a light breeze washed past. Stars twinkled, a brittle blue in the dark sky. All Laredo was bathed in a sweet odor of orange blossoms, which faded and came back as you walked along.”
How winsome, the streets of Laredo. Alas, we came at the wrong time of year to bathe in the redolence of orange blossoms, just as we came too late to sample the fruit of the pecan trees in the plaza. Much like Pyle, we walk about a town awash in the bewitching melodies of the Spanish language. Much like Pyle, we understand very little of what we hear.
“The sidewalks were crowded with walkers, all dark-skinned. Loungers, two by two, lay or sat on the grass. You heard no English spoken, for Laredo was eighty percent Mexican, or Spanish American, as the transplanted Mexicans prefer to be called. Boys and girls, coatless, hatless, were everywhere. They strolled, and talked, and took their time. …
Gradually it came to you. The boys were all walking in one direction, and the girls in the other – in twos and sometimes threes, row after row, walking along rather rapidly, like an army on a broken-step march. They never paused – just kept going round and round the square. And then you noticed that the outer edge of the sidewalk, clear around the plaza, was lined with still more young men, standing in a solid row like a picket fence. they stood mostly in silence, watching the girls as they passed.”
With a population that’s roughly 96 percent Hispanic, Laredo is now even more “Mexican” than it was in 1936. Not that it matters much. It is, as the kids say, what it is.
Something about Pyle’s “dark-skinned” walkers made me stop and and consider the passage anew. I had to read it a couple more times before the fullness of Pyle’s xenophobia became obvious. That he felt like an outsider here is obvious.
Thinly veiled judgments undermine the simply beauty of his prose. It is a fair guess that many of the boys and girls promenading in opposite directions around the perimeter of the plaza were born in Texas. They weren’t transplants at all, whatever you preferred to call them. They were Americans, all of them.
I’m not here to engage in any politically correct assault on poor, old Ernie Pyle,who has been dead for more than 67 years. It’s one or two passages in one piece among thousands. I’m simply interested in the way words betray our world views. And the ways we still view Hispanic Americans as outsiders.
Failure has its perquisites, after all. It must be a hidden blessing to be forgotten entirely. No one can come along more than a half-century later, pick over your bones and examine your flaws in detail.
I stood for a long time watching the girls’ faces, and never saw one that would launch a rowboat, let alone a battleship. They were nice faces, but not what we in our country consider beautiful. The girls were all in light summer dresses. Some were quite small, still in short skirts.
At first this struck me simply as not very nice. I got lost in his uncharitable verdict upon the the comeliness of the girls in the plaza. “They were nice faces, but not what we in our country consider beautiful.”
Our country. Damn. Surely the notion of a national standard of beauty is absurd on its face. More startling is the implicit, unconscious casting out of the Laredo youth from our country. Ah, perhaps we can forgive Pyle. Laredo certainly bewitches you with the illusion that you’re visiting a foreign land. I had to be reminded several times that we were in Texas. Big, bad Texas. Don’t mess with Texas, baby.
As we sat in the behemoth, I didn’t think much about Pyle’s ethnocentric prose. I was too busy fretting about a lost day in Laredo. I wondered if there was a chance in hell that this antiquated tradition survived in any form till the present day. I asked Rhoda, but she just laughed at me. And so we stepped down out of the camper and back onto Farragut Street. We were going to give Laredo one more shot before darkness fell.
Fifteen minutes later, I stood on the sidewalk outside the Dollar Tree on Farragut. Becky and Max were inside doing a little poor-folk Christmas shopping. As I listened to the karaoke singer on a nearby corner belt out rock and roll oldies in Spanish, I felt stymied. I thought about chatting him up. But he was busy. And I was about to strike out in Laredo.
I turned my gaze from the singer and focused on an older gentleman in the foreground. He stood right in front of me, as if placed there by fate. The ballcap on his head indicated he was a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. If that was not a softball lobbed into my wheelhouse, I would never see one.
“So,” I mumbled, “you served in both World War II and Korea?”
I asked him his name.
“Jose J. Arnold,” he said.
“That’s a gringo name,” I said.
His grandfather, he explained, had come from somewhere in Scandinavia and married a Mexican lass in the Texas town of Rio Grande. Then his dad married a Mexican girl. And Jose kept the tradition alive by marrying pretty Ermelina from Nuevo Laredo.
He was amiable. He told me a bit about his service in the Army. He told me the units he served with in each war. I thought I wrote it all down, but now it’s nowhere to be found.
Jose Arnold grew up in Laredo. His family moved to San Antonio when he was 13. He joined the Army at age 16. He is 85 and, he said, going on 86.
I asked him how much has changed around here in the last eight or so decades.
“When I was young, there were about 35,000 people here,” he said. “Now there are more than 200,000.”
And then, thanks be to the previously maligned Ernie Pyle, I thought to ask him about the Sunday night promenade.
His blue eyes flashed. His face broke into a grin. The afternoon light fell on his face, illuminating his features. He paused, as if to consider the memory of a long-ago Sunday night, when the beguiling scent of orange blossoms filled the air as he engaged in a halting conversation with a beautiful young girl he’d only just met.
“We used to stand on the sidewalk holding a rose, hoping to invite some pretty girl to talk,” he said.
Back then Jose Arnold and his buddies went back and forth across the border without so much as a thought. Sometimes they’d promenade in Laredo, sometimes Nuevo Laredo. Both cities had promenades on Thursdays and Sundays.
A young man’s chances of meeting a pretty girl were better south of the border, he said.
“Where the girls would walk in twos and threes here, there’d be six there. The crowds were so thick, like from here to across the street,” he said, gesturing across Farragut at the Bona, the store where I bought the headphones which are in my ears right now. “Sometimes we’d go there on Thursday night and walk here on Sunday. Sometimes we’d promenade here on Thursday and over there on Sunday.”
Speaking of Nuevo Laredo, he asked if I planned on visiting.
“I wouldn’t recommend you going over there,” he said. “They’ve got 30 or 40 murders every day.”
Just looking out for me, Jose was.
I wonder now what Jose Arnold, who went off at the tender age of 16 to fight for “our country,” would make of Pyle’s words from the Laredo plaza. Probably not much. He’s probably seen a lot worse in his day.
But I’m sure he’d dispute Pyle’s characterization of the girls’ faces. He married a beautiful Mexican girl, who presently emerged from the Dollar Tree. I could see how her face must’ve sent his emotions tumbling on their first meeting.
He introduced me, and I was happy to have met Ermelina Arnold.