Enjoying My Non-Illegal Contraband

It’s Friday night now. Last night I arrived back home to San Antonio from occupied Redford,Texas. The whole of southern Presidio County is (as usual) lousy with Border Patrol and other assorted men in uniform terrorizing the locals.

The plan was to get away for a week or so and visit my friends down in the desert. Also, I thought I might shoot some interviews of people, with a bit of cacti and mountains thrown in for b-roll, and see if I might return with something I could submit to the Texas Monthly film contest.

The first person I interviewed was Rosendo Evaro. When I lived in Redford, about twenty years ago, Rosendo was already an old man. Now he certainly qualifies as one of the town’s elders. I’ve always enjoyed Rosendo’s wry humor. But as Redford’s most committed capitalist, perhaps not everyone is a fan. Years ago, when he was farming cotton on his land, day laborers would come and work in the fields (back then it was legal along the border). One of the guys from Palomas (the tiny town across in Mexico) wrote a corrido about Rosendo, claiming he was so pinche that he paid a one-legged man only half a days wage, because he was only half a man. I assume it loses something in the translation. And, really, who of us gets to have a corrido written about him. I believe Rosendo’s somewhat proud of this fleeting fame.

Rosendo has spent his life trying to scrape a living in the poorest region in the poorest county in Texas. Through hard work he’s managed to take care of his family. But it was never easy. and because of his tenacity (opportunism, if you will), Rosendo’s life parallels the ups and downs of the Redford economy.

The problems in the farming industry in Redford are rather complicated, involving the US government’s slippery laws which allowed, at times, Mexican day laborers to freely cross in the border regions, as well as NAFTA, which did a number on small farms along the US-Mexican border, on both sides. But by the time I arrived in Redford in the early 1990s Rosendo had stopped farming. He rented his land out to other families. The cash crop at the time was alfalfa, and Rosendo’s hay fever forced him to change careers.

When I moved to the area, Rosendo was the hardest working man in the town. He was about 60 at the time. He turned his old packing shed into a convenience store. He also built several apartments which he rented out to the Outward Bound field school. The Redford Post Office was moved into the store and Rosendo became the local Postmaster (the previous Postmistress had worked out of the living room in her house half a mile down the road). And Rosendo also drove the school bus. (The story of education in Redford is long and sad — Redford is in the Marfa school district, and there was a time when they bused the kids to school ninety miles away.)

As I interviewed Rosendo, I was surprised to learn that his convenience store had been built just a year before I arrived. It had seemed so well integrated into the community.

Everything seemed to be going fairly well for the year or so I lived there.

But things started to really go down hill when high school student Esequiel Hernandez was gunned down by an ill-trained group of Marines on a covert operation as part of this obscene “war on drugs” (which is quickly morphing into the Mexican front of the “war on terrorism”). Half of the town was related to Esequiel, and everyone loved him. Even the infamously pinche Rosendo dug deep into his savings to help send a delegation of Redford citizens to Washington and remove the Marines from the border.

Because there are already plenty of documentaries about this horrible incident, I never asked Rosendo to talk about Esequiel. Besides, I knew it to be a very painful memory, still.

Instead, he told me that because the Marfa Independent School District shut down the one-room school house in Redford and took with them that little bus, Rosendo lost one of his many jobs. With no school, they had no need for a school bus driver.

And then the war on terrorism. A month after 9/11 the federal government closed all the legal crossings in Big Bend except for the International Bridge at Presidio / Ojinaga. The footbridge at Candelaria was dismantled. The chalupas (the little boats) at Redford, Lajitas, Boquillas, etc. were all shut down.

And this is why Rosendo closed his store. You see, the population of the little hamlets across the river in Mexico is greater than on the US side, and therefore the majority of Rosendo’s customers were coming from Mexico. Remember, this was a legal crossing. And when it was shut down, it wasn’t just commerce which was impacted. There were families divided. Siblings, cousins, and even parents and their children were suddenly denied what was once their sense of extended community. And then there was Rosendo. He told me with a smile and a shrug, “I remember the year I sold 35 thousand dollars of Bud Light. But when the chalupa stopped running, I couldn’t go on.”

In 2008 a huge flood came into Presidio and Redford. Heavy rains were filling the reservoirs in Mexico which were fed by the Rio Conchos. The Mexican authorities began releasing enormous amounts of water to control their flooding. But the Conchos feeds directly into the Rio Grande. This was the worst flood in recorded history for the region. Redford was cut off. The river road was washed away both towards Presidio and towards Lajitas. The entire farming fields were inundated. The levee was destroyed. And when the waters receded, requests for federal assistance were met with a terse reply that the land wasn’t of great enough value to rebuild the levee system. Nothing has been done to restore the farm lands.

And then there’s the Outward Bound field school. I don’t know how long they’d been in Redford. But I do know two important things. Their Big Bend adventures were immensely popular. And they were a huge economic driver in a town which could no longer farm. The organization rented houses and apartments from five families that I knew of. They also paid some of the locals to use their land up in the foothills of the Bofecillos Mountains for camping. No one in Redford has a clear idea of why Outward Bound pulled their most popular school. The speculation is that the continued government propaganda that Redford is the drug capital of the southwest had given them cold feet. (I know these people. The only citizens of Redford with enough money to need a financial advisor would be the parents of Esequiel Hernandez who were awarded a couple million from the US government who murdered their son, the most innocent person on the border.) So, without the Outward Bound rent, Rosendo has placed a big For Sale sign in front of what was once a decent operation. But now it’s just a cluster of empty buildings in front of a half-mile strip of dusty and now un-irrigable farmland which runs down to a river patrolled by paranoid passive-aggressive assholes, the Border Patrol, who seem to mainly consist of skittish city-boys in their mid-20s.

Que cosa!

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The other interview I did was with my friend Enrique Madrid, If you’ve ever seen a documentary about the Big Bend region, it’s likely to feature Enrique. Even the great Michael Wood talked with Enrique in the Cabeza de Vaca section (“All the World is Human”) of his four part BBC production, Conquistadors. You can see him in Alan Govenar’s excellent documentary, The Devil’s Swing. He’s a prominent figure in heart-breaking POV documentary, The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez. He’s also in this low budget documentary about the closing of the Texas border crossings called, I believe, The River Never Divided Us. It’s weird, but I have seen all these four films in the living room of Enrique and Ruby Madrid’s home, in Redford, Texas. And each of these viewings would slip into deep and lengthy discussions of border issues.

Anyway, all I wanted from Enrique was something light and simple. I hoped to create a short film which, if nothing else, would be a vehicle to humanize these beleaguered people who have been shamefully libeled as immoral criminals.

After an amazing meal of asada, with rice and beans and homemade corn tortillas, I set up my camera in the Madrid’s backyard. It was night. The clear sky brought down Orion and the Pleiades, close enough to touch. I set an old steel tubed chair in from of a mid-sized cactus tree. I placed my little battery-powered camera light on a battered table off to an angle. And then I coaxed Enrique into the hot seat. I wired him up with a lavaliere microphone and he told me about what this little town was like when he was a kid. He told me about the Gypsies who used to come across from Mexico. They’d buy goods from his father’s shop. And they’d read palms, tell fortunes, and they would show films from an old rickety 16 millimeter projector against the white washed wall of the adobe church. He told of the old timers who still followed the Indian ways of their grandparents, building sweat lodges, fashioning moccasins, and giving morning thanks to the gods of nature, such as Sierra Rica, the mountain to the south which brings the rains. He told me about the current economic privations, as well as the intrusive nature of all the armed men in uniform on the border. “They say that every seven seconds men think about sex.” Enrique looked down at his hands. Then he looked back up. “Every seven seconds, we think about the Border Patrol.” He paused. “I wish we could think about sex.” His thoughts on the future of Redford were not terribly heartening. But, because Enrique identifies with his Jumano Indian ancestors who have been in the area of for thousands of years, he takes the long view. “Our people have been farming this region for over 3500 years. I suspect we’ll be here for thousands of more years.” He shrugged and offered a sad, pragmatic smile.

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Before heading back from the Big Bend, I harvested a medium amount of popotillo (AKA, Mormon Tea, Apache Tea, Ephedra, Soma, etc.). This common desert shrub is perfectly legal. You boil the sticks for about 20 minutes. The infused water is a great relief for bronchial obstruction, such as that caused by asthma. But it also gives you a bit of a lift, but not so ragged as caffeine. Back when I lived in Redford I would take ten mile hikes during the insanely hot afternoon hours. My canteen was usually filled with popotillo water. Refreshing, and you could walk forever.

I also was carrying three leafy branches of creosote (AKA, Greasewood). My sister wanted this common desert plant to hang in her home. Creosote is a humble and ignoble botanical critter, beautiful in its own way. Whenever I walk past a creosote plant — especially if it’s dried and dying — I reach over, strip off some of the leaves, rub them to dust in my hands, and then I inhale the scent from my hands. It’s the smell of the desert. A mixture of ozone, blood, and soil. When rain falls in the Chihuahua Desert, the smell is magical, evocative — it’s the smell of water on the backs of the dry and thirsty creosote bushes.

Anyway, I made sure to put these suspicious botanical samples in the bed of my pick-up. On my drive from Redford to Dallas I passed through two (or was it three?) Border Patrol checkpoints. I only noticed confusion once. The guy was leaning over the edge of my truck, clearly looking at the plants, which were openly displayed. He blinked and wet his lips. And instead of asking “what the fuck is that?”, he stepped back from my truck, swallowed, and told me to have a nice day as he waved me through.

I wanted to wink, and tell him that I thought about him every seven seconds, but I just returned his guy-to-guy nod, and drove on.

Fuck the border. All borders. We’re human. This is our planet. Goodbye nation states, goodbye. Brothers and sisters, you’re now free to walk around your world. I hope to see you all soon!

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Here’s a pretty picture I took of the Rio Grande.

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And here’s a taste of my next blog post. This is a still from a film I’m shooting for my good friend Amanda Silva.

And so now, good night!

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