I’d Rather Be the First Bridge Someone Burns Than Their Last

(Monday, March 21.)

Back in 2008 I took a little tour of the old Kress building in downtown San Antonio. Dora Pena was the head of the video component for the first year of Luminaria. Several rooms on the ground floor of the building would be set aside for video projections. It was an interesting space. Rough, and in various stages of demolition from it’s previous tenant, some sort of music club. Four years later (tonight, in fact) I entered the same space, now dramatically transformed into the restaurant Texas de Brazil. But the purpose of my visit was strangely similar — an echo through time. This is where a party was being held for the 2011 Luminaria Board and Steering Committee. I invited Deborah along because it helps to have a pretty woman to hide behind when one has little to say to a bunch of people — besides, Deborah knows about as many of these people there as do I.

We were in a side meeting room with a spread of munchies and a little bar area where a couple of guys were making some damn tasty caipirinhas. There was a point where the noise level in the room pretty much negated my ability to hear what people were saying to me (especially those of diminutive stature). So, I apologize to those of you who I was smiling and nodding to while you told me about your daughter’s divorce or that recent procedure to correct a prolapsed rectum. My condolences.

Deborah and I rode the trolly from King William to the Alamo and walked the three blocks to the Kress Building. Afterwards, we walked back to our neighborhood. It was a beautiful night, and it’s always a joy to walk through downtown and King William, especially with a good friend.

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My plan is to make it out to the Big Bend in a couple of weeks. Not the National Park, but the tiny town of Redford, AKA, El Polvo. It’s a tiny, impoverished farming community along the Rio Grande. The fertile river valley is between the Bofecillos Mountains on the US side, and Sierra Rica, on the Mexican side. I’d love to stay for a couple of weeks with my friends down there, but I’m involved in three projects which need my attention in April. And I can’t slip out of town until the very end of this month because of an unwise commitment I made. Well, there is also a fun gig as well (some work which will actually pay!).

(I feel a need for a digressive parenthetical rant. Many of us in the arts and the production communities find ourselves, on occasion, doing work for free. There are various reasons we do this. Me? I volunteer for loads of reasons. And sometimes I never explain why. The reason, at times, might be personal, and no one needs to know. But I’ve come to discover that many people who I find myself helping out take my willingness to give, as a form of weakness. This must be a common mindset, because I often see people treat their unpaid crew in shockingly crass and cavalier fashion. God, I hope I don’t do that to the wonderful people who have been so gracious to help me out. The bottom line is, if you ask me to help on your movie project and you don’t treat me with the slightest regard, and, in the future, you wonder why I don’t want to continue to do pro-bono work for you, well, it’s because I have had my fill. If you’ve brought me on to your project and I realize I’m not there to qualitatively enhance your production (such as adding a certain technical expertise or creative insight), but, instead, I see that I’m essentially a quantitative component (another pair of hands who will show up on time), well, don’t expect to see much of me in the future. This is not to say that I’m all pissy and will never help people again. Far from it. I love collaboration. But collaboration means mutual respect. I also am fine with helping intelligent and creative people on their excellent projects, if I’m quite certain that they will help me on mine. Mutuality and reciprocity kick ass! I will give until I have nothing left to like-minded and community-minded people and institutions. But ego-driven projects are pure poison to me. And the truth is, I’d rather be the first bridge someone burns than the last, because that sort of crude and dismissive behavior is bullshit–particularly when it dribbles down upon an unpaid crew.)

But I was talking about a trip to the desert. I hope that March has brought a fair amount of rain. The cactus flowers — yellow, white, and red — are beautiful. And the ocotillo, when in bloom, are amazing. This weird plant of twisted, thorny stalks, produces a tear-shaped cluster of blossoms at the tip of each stalk. The flowers are bright scarlet. And when they bloom, the desert is covered by a mist of red, floating five to twelve feet over the ground.

I also want to replenish my stocks of popotillo. This is a low-laying plant usually found in the arroyos. It grows as a cluster of green sticks, a little thicker than wooden matches. The plant has leaves, but they are so tiny they are often missed. Popotillo is cut from the bushy plant, allowed to dry, and boiled and drunk as a tea. It is also known as Mormon Tea and Apache Tea. The Mormon’s prize it because it has a kick to it which isn’t caffeine, which they avoid. The active alkaloid of popotillo is ephedrine. There is much evidence that the “soma” drink mentioned in the Vedas, half a world away from the Chihuahua Desert, utilized a plant almost identical to popotillo.

And what’s it like? It’s a tasty tea, when you add honey and lime. A bit bitter without. When I lived in the desert years ago I would make sure my canteen was filled with popotillo-infused water. And I would go out on ten hour hikes back into the Bofecillos Mountains in July and August, where it would get over 115 degrees. Yep. I swear I could walk all day. It’s the good stuff. In fact, I’m pro-popotillo.

The truth is, I’m afraid what I’ll find when I make it to Redford. It was freaky enough when I visited three or four years back and discovered that my friend Enrique had lost his leg to infection, compounded by diabetes. And while I was there he came down with some respiratory infection and was rushed to the nearest hospital over a hundred and twenty miles away where he almost died, and was eventually kicked out, still undiagnosed, because he had no insurance. The people of Redford have much in common with the people of the Rio Grande Valley, (where so many of my San Antonio friends come from). Crushing poverty, poor to nonexistent health care, and, to make life almost intolerable, they are essentially living under occupation in this insane war against drugs. In southern Presidio county there are paranoid bastards with badges over every hill and behind every bush. ICE agents, the DEA, Border Patrol, state troopers, National Guard, the US Marines (who are supposed to have been removed from the region following the shooting of Esequiel Hernandez in Redford some years back, but there are those who say they have returned), and  on a good day throw in the Texas Rangers, FBI, and, if you can believe some of the locals, the CIA. All this for an empty stretch of inhospitable desert, sparsely populated by some of the poorest people in the United States. It’s a pretty ugly situation. There are helicopters at night, unmanned drones, and motion detectors and hidden cameras placed on private property without the owners’ knowledge.

The history of abuse and violence directed towards the American citizens of Mexican heritage along the river in the Big Bend area goes back to the 1870s when citizenship and land was offered to Mexicans to settle this wild frontier. And ever since then, they have carried a metaphoric target on their backs for any American thug in uniform with a gun and a badge. This despicable heritage goes back much longer, because the Mexicanos of the Big Bend are, for the most part, descended from the Jumanos, the indigenous people who worked this rough region before European contact. If you want to know what THEY had to put up with, ignore the history books and pick up Cormac McCarthy’s grisly “Blood Meridian.”

I have visited this area often over the decades. The locals call it La Junto. Or, La Junto de Los Rios. This is where the Rio Conchos joins the Rio Grande. Archeologist have learned that this region has been settled, uninterrupted, for ten thousand years. These are proud people. They once had a sort of playful defeatist outlook. But when an American Marine, with a secret drug interdiction force, happened to shoot to death a young high school student who was out taking care of his family’s goats after school, well things changed dramatically on the US side of the border. A patient, pragmatic, and patriotic people were allowed to see just how ugly and boundless American institutionalized racism can be. These were law-abiding and innocent men and women who had problems mostly with the harassment of the Border Patrol agents and the corrupt legacy of Sheriff Thompson, of Presidio County, who is currently serving a life sentence for drug trafficking. But many of the men of La Junto proudly served their country in the armed services. And yet, the Marines, the best of the best, had been skulking around the farms of Redford, unknown to anyone. They were outfitted in ghillie suits which blended into the desert scrub. And when a young Marine, hunkered down with his camouflaged crew, grew suspicious of a carefree teenager, who was out walking on his family’s property with a small herd of goats and a couple of dogs, and happened to be carrying an ancient rusty single shot .22 rifle … well, some naive, ill-advised “profiling” got way out of control. We might never learn what really happened that day, but by the time the sun set, Esequiel Hernandez lay dead, having bled out before the Marines ever got around to radioing for help. And that’s when it all changed on this stretch of the border. When a large region of the United States views the US Marines as monsters because their most beloved and innocent teenage citizen was slaughtered by the most noblest branch of the US military, well, something has gone terribly wrong.

The most beautiful region of Texas has been wounded. The people are still in mourning. And the occupation continues. I want to go have fun, tramping around in the desert. But I know the locals aren’t the carefree gente I used to know.

We seem to always come in and fuck up paradise. We do it abroad, and we do it here at home. This is what happens when we turn our back on community.

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