If you spend time along the Rio Grande, you begin to learn that most of the history on both sides of the river is about families and cooperation. We civilized and modern Americans and Mexicans are responsible for putting up borders and cameras and pointing guns and turning the watercourse into a frontier. In fact, before westward expansion had filled up the southwest with outsiders and capital opportunities, a border was rough concept and the river was a vein that united and gave lifeblood on both banks. Lucia Madrid, a schoolteacher who lived her many decades in the weary desert town of Redford, Texas, said, “Anglos have tried to divide it, for a different country, but no, the Rio Grande has never, never divided people.”
Madrid was honored in 1990 as one of President George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” and was also given the Ronald Reagan Award for Volunteer Excellence at the same ceremony. Mrs. Madrid spent years gathering 20,000 books for children to read at her home because the poor community of Redford, which her grandparents had helped to found, could hardly keep open a small school.
She is featured in Jefferson Morgenthaler’s brilliant 2004 book, “The River Has Never Divided Us,” which examines the cultural and archaeological evidence of life in the region known as La Junta de los Rios, the junction of the rivers where the Rio Grande and the Rio Conchos meet in a valley that today includes the cities of Presidio and Ojinaga. Research shows it to be the longest, continually cultivated site in North America, a locale where nomadic peoples and sedentary farmers co-existed for centuries in peace.
Undoubtedly, very few of the people in Washington contemplating writing new immigration laws have even heard of Morgenthaler’s work, which is a clear and considered portrait of a history and life so far removed from political discourse that even its victimization under amended policies could expect to receive little notice. (If any officeholder gives a damn, however, they will read Morgenthaler’s book before even contemplating a vote.)
One of Mrs. Madrid’s young students was Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., a boy whose life will not go out of my memory while I breathe, and, perhaps, even longer. I thought about Esequiel when I heard the current Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, candidate for governor as a Republican; say he wanted to spend $300 million on another 500 state troopers to patrol the border. Abbott, no doubt confounding potential South Texas supporters, used the phrase “third world” to claim there was “creeping corruption” along la frontera.