18. January 2007 · Comments Off on Into the Borderlands · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

And I met a kind man
He guarded the border
He said, “You don’t need papers,
I’ll let you go,
I can tell that you love her
By the look in your eyes, now”.
She’s the rose of the desert
In old Mexico….*

I wrote here once before of the shifting cultural terrain of the borderlands, of how the wash of people back and forth across the Texas-Mexico border over the last century or so made it extraordinarily difficult to have some kind of firm opinion about the current rush of illegal aliens from Mexico. Most people are truly torn about it, but the current rash of cross-border incidents and the open and ongoing warfare in those towns just to the south of the border give pause for concern. Just this last week a post on the American side of the border, guarded by National Guard soldiers had a brief, tense encounter with a heavily armed party on Mexican intruders… the first time this has happened with the National Guard.

But not the first time in history, either recent or long-past; the borderlands are fluid. I realized this only when I started doing the heavy research for the next book (“The Company of Noble Men” – A Thrilling Epic of the Settlement of Texas’ German Colonies, with operatic levels of drama, passion, murder, stolen children and revenge… plus a heroine who can beat the crap out of Scarlett O’Hara every day of the week and still have energy to slap around that simp Melanie. I’ve a detailed chapter outline finished, and six of them completed already…Where was I? Oh… border. Texas. Two way traffic. Gotcha)

I mean there was a heap of traffic here, going back and forth: a lot of it not strictly open and above-board in the legal sense for practically the last 200 years. Some was open, with the blessings of the governments involved, some with only quiet sanctions. The Texas War for Independence was just a particularly fractious divorce, the opening round in a long and contentious relationship… which if it were between two humans would likely show up on one of these Jerry Springer episodes where they throw the furniture at each other. It’s the sort of love-hate relationship which can exist when you know each other really, really well.

The historian Charles Robinson, in writing a history of the Texas Rangers, remarked that by the mid 19th century, Anglo Texans and Mexicans had become more like each other than they each would be comfortable admitting. Anglo Texans absorbed a taste for tortillas and hot chili, and a preference for working cattle from horseback from Mexican vaqueros— the touchiness about personal honor and affinity for violence was already there, courtesy of the Scots-Irish borderers. And perhaps the Mexican borderers absorbed something subtler from their Anglo neighbors, or maybe it was just the distance from Mexico City; one senses a sort of energy, a striving for something better than what they had, and a willingness to do the necessary to get it, even if a political culture that would have made it possible was tantalizingly just out of reach.

So, in between open war are all the incidents consigned to the footnotes of the history books:
Who knows that the Mexican general Adrian Woll raided San Antonio in 1842, capturing the entire district court which was in session; lawyers, judges, defendants and all… and was pursued all the way back to the border by a harassing force of Texas Rangers? Or that a retaliatory expedition after Woll’s raid was captured, marched into the interior of Mexico, and ordered “decimated” by none other than General Santa Anna; that is, one in ten to be executed, those to be chosen to live or die by drawing black or white beans from a pitcher?
Has anyone save those who live around Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley know of “Cortinas’ War” in 1859, when a hot-headed rancher, Juan Nepomuceno Cortinas raised a party of bravos and the flag of rebellion and took over Brownsville for a time? Or that his actions set off a cycle of retaliation that was only halted for the time being by the diplomacy (and let it be admitted, a very large club) wielded by the US Army commander in Texas, one Robert E. Lee?

During our Civil War, the Union blockade was broken by transporting supplies through Mexico: During the Mexican Civil War, Pancho Villa, and his men raided Columbus, New Mexico… probably for supplies to carry on with his war. Each of these conflicts sent refugees from the fighting and once the fighting was done, die-hards from the loosing side over the border. And some of this is only a little removed from living memory: a frequent reader emailed recently, that her grandfather ranched in west Texas, and used to buy cattle from Pancho Villa, who would drive up in a Model A Ford to collect payment, after his men had delivered the cattle. And when I was a senior in high school, I met an elderly man at the local Republican Party HQ who while we were supposed to be stuffing envelopes, told me how as a very young cavalryman, he had been part of Black Jack Pershing’s expedition into Mexico, chasing after Pancho Villa. And so it goes. I sense that what is happening now is just more of the same old, same old.

No, history isn’t past. And it isn’t even over.

(*Evangelina – Hoyt Axton)

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