The border between the United States and Mexico is in the news every day, in ongoing debates about immigration and spending on security initiatives. But what is it like to visit destinations along the border? To find out, writers for Travel spent time in five pairings of places: El Paso and Ciudad Juárez; Big Bend National Park and Boquillas; San Diego and Tijuana; Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico; and Brownsville, Tex., and Matamoros.
We were both headed to the bridge, in her case so she could cross back to Mexico after a long day of work, and in mine so I could eat and drink at one of the places I used to go when people still did things like go across the international bridge to eat and drink. She was an older woman, maybe in her mid-60s, and like so many others she lived in Matamoros and worked in Brownsville. My sister, Sylvia, happened to be back in town teaching a cooking class at one of the local museums where the woman cleaned and today had stayed later than usual to help her pack up. Now my sister was asking me to give her a ride to the bridge. It was late afternoon and once she crossed over she still needed to grab a bus to the other side of Matamoros and then walk the rest of the way home.
I had pulled up to the curb expecting her to get in the front seat, but she opened the back door to set her purse and two plastic bags with leftovers down on the seat and then sat next to them. It seemed kind of impersonal, like she’d just hailed a taxi, but then again, she was no one I knew. My sister had told her my name but she kept calling me Cesar, which I didn’t bother to correct. We were just going to the bridge.
First she thanked me, then asked if it wasn’t an imposition. “De nada,” I said to let her know she was welcome. It was only a five-minute ride through downtown Brownsville. I glanced into the rearview and mentioned that later I was meeting my sister and brother-in-law and we’d also be walking across the bridge. She didn’t say anything and only shook her head and looked out at the discount clothing stores and fabric shops and shuttered storefronts that make up most of downtown, the remains of the recurring peso devaluation and over the last 40 years customers leaving for first one mall and then another. We were still four blocks from the Gateway International Bridge, but from the signs in the windows — Ropa Para Toda La Familia, Casa de Cambio, ¡Precios Bajos Garantizados! — and the cumbias blaring from stores, you might think we had already crossed over.
“I don’t know why you and your sister need to go to the other side, with the way things are,” she told me, referring to the sporadic but stunning violence in the turf war between the Zetas and Gulf Cartel for control of this lucrative drug smuggling route into the United States. “The way things are” also includes the armed robberies, sexual assaults, carjackings, murder, extortions, and kidnappings, the traditional kind with ransoms, and the express type, where the victim is driven to various A.T.M.s and forced to “max out” his bank account, which, depending on the current balance, may take a matter of hours or days. “The way things are” means life with La Maña, as the cartel and, in general, the bad guys are known in Matamoros, according to Dr. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on border security and author of “Los Zetas Inc.”
Maybe the woman had a point.
Matamoros is where in 2010, the Mexican Navy killed Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, the Gulf Cartel leader more widely known as “Tony Tormenta,” hailing down bullets and grenades in a squall of violence that lasted over eight hours. Afterward the government announced the official death toll at six, while the media reported it at 47, but people living in the city, like the woman in my back seat, figured there had to be over 100 dead.
“With so much danger,” she said, and muttered something about her grandson, already grown, having disappeared without a trace six years earlier. Even though he’d been living on this side of the river, in Brownsville, to her it all seemed to be connected.
But the reason she thought we shouldn’t go across was the very reason I had come home to the border, to write about how going across to Matamoros had changed from my childhood in the 60s and 70s, my partying days in the 80s and early 90s, to today when it’s difficult to find anyone in my hometown of Brownsville willing to risk crossing over. There are still those brave souls, like my passenger, who make the trip for work or to visit family, to save money on a dentist appointment, on a prescription, maybe even for lunch, so long as they stay on the main drags and clear out before dark.
She crossed back and forth out of necessity, to eke out a living at a job that paid better than one she could find in Matamoros. When I crossed it was to see something I couldn’t find in Brownsville, maybe it was the restaurants and bars, but maybe also because when you grow up here, on the border, at least part of your life and memories exist on that other side. You remember your dad taking you across for your first haircut, buying a case of Joyas and hearing the soda bottles clinking all the way home inside the trunk of the Oldsmobile, attending a wedding in Brownsville and then crossing over for the reception in Matamoros, eating at places like Los Norteños with the cabrito aflame in the front window, and your last night in town at Los Portales with its rustic interior and enormous glass case with the embroidered saddle and sheathed sword, your grilled fajitas and costillas sizzling on the hibachi set atop a rickety orange side table.
She wasn’t the first to warn me.
“Depending on which way the wind is blowing you can hear the balazos,” Dr. Juliet García had told me of the rapid-fire sound of the gun battles taking place across the border. Until 2015, she was president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, now renamed the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which stands close enough to the river that police once found a stray bullet that had been fired in Matamoros and lodged itself into the exterior of a campus building. Which is another way of saying that what happens on the Matamoros side of the river, good or bad, tends to wash ashore on the Brownsville side.
Part of what’s always made Brownsville an attractive destination is its proximity to Matamoros and South Padre Island, only 30 minutes away. But the sound of the balazos has scared some tourists away, especially Winter Texans, those retirees from the Midwest who drive their motor homes south to spend part of the year in Brownsville and other cities north of here, all close enough to the bridges connecting them to Matamoros and Nuevo Progresso and Reynosa, where the drug war is even more intense.
Now a few of the restaurants that tourists and locals might have crossed over for can be found in Brownsville. Some, like Mi Pueblito and Bigo’s, still have their original locations across the bridge, but Mariscos De La Rosa, a seafood restaurant, left for good after 22 years and reopened in Brownsville in 2010.
“I didn’t decide to move here, they sent me,” Rodolfo De La Cruz, the owner, would later tell me. I went there because several people had told me La Maña had taken over his Matamoros restaurant, something he preferred to neither confirm nor deny. “I’ll never go back. The ones who have never lived through it don’t know what it’s like.”
Along with the restaurants and smaller taquerias have come wealthy Mexican families with the means to relocate out of choice or necessity. Drive the north end of Brownsville, near the country club and other upscale neighborhoods, and you’ll see a minimalist look favored by many Mexican nationals, the box-shaped homes, the symmetrical gardens and ponds, the tiled driveways and queen palms.
It makes sense they would escape the danger to live in Brownsville, a city currently listed as one of the safest in the United States, and almost everyone being of Mexican descent and speaking Spanish. Less than two weeks from now, Feb. 22 to 24, Brownsville will celebrate Charro Days, a festival with parades, dances, concerts, regional food and costumes, all celebrating its cultural ties to Matamoros. Back in the day, before security tightened because of Sept. 11 and immigration concerns led to the United States to build the border wall that connects to the bridge, the Grand International Parade would toddle down the middle of downtown and turn onto the bridge where the floats crossed into Matamoros until they reached the main plaza and wound back to the bridge. Charro Days, now in its 81st year, offers some testimony to our roots being deeper and more lasting than the current violence on one side of the river or the shadow cast from an 18-foot high steel beams of the border wall on the other.
“This moment will pass, will run its course. It’s part of the ebb and flow of living on the border,” Dr. García reminded me. And she’s right. We forget Matamoros was here 70 years before there was a border, before there was a Brownsville. We forget Matamoros survived Mexico’s War for Independence, the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the French Intervention, and the Mexican Revolution. We forget Matamoros endures.
In the end, my sister, brother-in-law, and I did walk across the bridge, all 700 feet from here to there, and then to García’s, a popular restaurant and bar, maybe another 300 feet from the Mexican Customs office, in an area some people refer to as the green zone. We sat upstairs, by the window overlooking the manicured avenue, and later, three other friends drove across to meet us there. About the only peril we encountered was not being able to hear one another talk because the lounge act was warming up for that evening’s performance, something our waiter was able to remedy by shuttling us off to the dining room. There we ordered another round of margaritas, a las rocas, and our meals. The menu came with the prices listed in pesos and dollars. Someone at the next table had ordered the steak Diane and the waiter flambéed the meal before the table. It wasn’t Los Portales, it wasn’t Los Norteños, it wasn’t where we’d be if we could be where we really wanted to be, but for a moment, we could imagine it was like old times.
Two weeks later I asked my sister to help me contact the woman I’d taken to the bridge. Until she sent me her number I still didn’t know her name. I wanted to ask the woman what exactly she’d seen living in Matamoros and if she’d heard anything about her grandson, but she was too afraid to talk, of something happening to her family if they, Los Mañosos, found out, and none of my assurances that her name wouldn’t be printed here could convince her to answer my questions.
“Que Dios te bendiga,” she said as she hung up, “May God bless you,” which was the same thing she had told me a couple of weeks earlier when I said we would keep crossing the bridge.
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