Like a 1,900-mile-long needle and thread, El Rio Grande del Norte (Rio Bravo) stitches together seven states; three in the U.S. (Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas) and four in Mexico (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas).
It stretches from its Rocky Mountains source in Central Colorado until it drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
To the descendants of Spanish Mexican pioneer settlers in Texas, the Rio Grande has long been a symbol of family unity, exploration, and mutual commercial co-existence of its multiple vibrant, bi-national communities. Sadly though, today, the Rio Grande is a divisive reminder of the contentious immigration and drug trafficking debates.
All it does is invite unfavorable media attention. Sadly, the ongoing pessimism hides the Rio’s honorable history from view. As such, below I offer a contrast to the negative notion most people in the U.S. have of the river.
Clearly El Rio brings together not only its organic landscape features straddling both banks, but blood-related families living in the Borderlands, as well. Hopefully, Texans of all backgrounds will see the Rio Grande in a new light and appreciate it with a fresh perspective. What follows is a brief upriver recap of notable aspects of the Rio’s untold story.
Before we start, I must explain that Spanish chroniclers record that several native tribes in New Mexico had names for the Rio, most referring to its powerful strength. For example, the Navajo call it “Tooh Ba’ áadii”, while it’s “Kótsoi” to the Jicarilla Apaches.
The Tewa tribe named it “Posage” (Big River). In the Keresan language of the Keres Pueblo people, it’s called “Mets’ichi Chena” (Big River); in Tiwa, it’s “Paslápaane” (Big River); and the Jemez Pueblo people call it “Hañapakwa” (Great Waters). No doubt Coahuilteca and local Texas tribes had their own names for the mighty Rio Grande.
Sentimentally, it’s “El Rio de la Esperanza” (River of Hope) to today’s Native American descendants looking for work, risking all to cross it just as their ancestors did for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
Don Chipman records in his book, “Spanish Texas, 1519 – 1821”, that Cabeza de Vaca and his three shipwreck companions crossed the Rio Grande in the early 1530s near today’s Falcon Dam in present-day Zapata, Texas. Wandering slowly upriver, he performed surgery on a Native American by removing an arrowhead from the man’s chest. It’s for that first recorded medical operation near today’s Presidio, Texas, that the Texas Surgical Society honors Cabeza de Vaca as its patron saint.
It’s also after crossing the lower Rio Grande in 1554 that about 200 Spanish men, women, and children lost their lives. They were survivors of an ill-fated Spanish flotilla sailing from Veracruz to Havana. A powerful storm wrecked three of their four ships, whose wreckage drifted northward, landing off the Texas coast (Matagorda Bay). Their ships beyond repair, they began to walk back to Veracruz. At a snail’s pace, the party followed the coastline southward, defending themselves from constant attacks from unfriendly indigenous tribes. Eventually, they reached the Rio Grande near where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico (Brownsville/Matamoros).
While all successfully crossed the river, the small raft containing their supplies and weapons sank in the rapid currents. Defenseless, the entire group (except for one) died at the hands of hostile natives. This incident brought new attention to Texas and plans for exploration.
Of interest to South Texans is the fact that Don José de Escandón chose the Rio Grande as the site of Las Villas del Norte. Between the years 1749-1755, he established over 20 settlements on both sides of the Rio. It’s clear that many Spanish-surnamed Texans have Villas del Norte roots.
San Juan Bautista (Rio Grande) Presidio and the Spanish missions located near modern-day Guerrero, Coahuila (across from Eagle Pass, Texas) were most important during the earliest exploration of Texas. At the time of its construction in 1699-1700, this Presidio was referred to as “The Gateway to Texas”. That is, no European could enter Texas without first receiving permission from the Presidio Commander. After entering, travelers had to abide by strict rules contained in the permit.
Incidentally, it was from this area south of the Rio Grande that San Francisco Solano Mission was moved to San Antonio and given a new name, San Antonio de Valero (AKA, the Álamo).
The establishment of El Paso is a most significant event on the Rio’s banks. In 1598, the Spanish first reported its existence in El Nuevo México during the initial settlement of the territory. Also, it was then, near El Paso that the Spanish held what is recognized as the First Thanksgiving in what is now the U.S.
Initially settled on the southern bank in what is today Juárez, Chihuahua, El Paso’s settlement on the northern bank was a practical move. After the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, Spanish settlers abandoning Santa Fe made modern-day El Paso their temporary headquarters. It must be noted that even after the re-conquering of Santa Fe in 1692, El Paso remained the largest town in New Mexico until 1848, when the U.S. took over the territory and made it part of Texas.
As to its source, following is a short summary of the Rio Grande’s origins in Western Colorado. The Rio starts by the joining of several streams in the San Juan Mountain range, part of the Rocky Mountains chain. As it flows into New Mexico, it makes its way south through Española, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and on to El Paso/Juárez.
By the way, it’s in El Paso where the Rio Grande becomes a political boundary between Texas and its sister Mexican states. Thus, our New Mexico and Colorado brethren are indeed blessed, since the Rio Grande continues to unite countless Spanish Mexican-descent families living on both banks, just as they have since 1598. That is, they can cross the river without the need of a passport, something that we in Texas are not allowed to do.
Although named for its power, the Rio Grande’s flow, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico would be slowed to a trickle if it weren’t for its life-saving partners, The Conchos River in the Mexican State of Chihuahua and the Pecos. That’s because due to heavy irrigation demands, the Rio Grande’s water flow would nearly disappear. In reality, it’s mostly Rio Conchos water that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, la junta de los ríos is a thing of beauty!
Finally, as the “Backbone of the Borderlands” El Rio Grande preserves both our ancient native and Spanish roots, forever harmonizing unified traditions on both sides (ambos lados). In the final analysis, the Rio Grande is not a river of acrimony to the descendants of Borderlands pioneer founders, but one of harmony. Its waters don’t divide, they unite. We just need to learn to tell our Borderlands story in a more convincing manner. That’s the bottom line.