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Remember the bridge to NEW Progreso (old Las Flores, Mexico)? Many in the famous Rio Grande Valley of South Texas know it.

For others, up state, out of state, it is a hidden secret, waiting to be discovered.

Many Snowbirds (Winter Visitors) and Valley citizens cross that bridge frequently. They shop for boots, buy tequila for their margaritas and eat at Arturo’s. Many have their teeth fixed by very competent dentists (well over 100). It is probably the safest little town on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Ironically, Progreso, the U.S. town of the same name is allegedly the more corrupt of the two. Nepotism prevails, easily out-stripping that of Mexico. The Mexican town, Nuevo Progreso — also about 5,000 residents – is a unique creation of the juxtaposition of two cultures, two economies. A visit, usually most pleasant, does not qualify one to say he or she now “knows Mexico better.” You still must visit at least Monterrey, largest major city in the north. Ideally, you should include a trip to Mexico City and/or other southern regions to achieve that enviable goal.

You will not see in Progreso (yes, the word is Spanish, so just one S) Mexico’s great architecture, not even great art. You will see, increasing in quantity, quality and diversity, delightful Mexican folk art. Amid the cheesy knock-offs can be found the famous black pottery from Oaxaca. Or choose colorful, hand-crafted “Trees of Life” or “Eyes of God” for your Christmas or Hanakkuh tree. If you are so inclined, purchase a cross, hand-carved from dried cactus or one of the hundreds of earthen pottery “chimeneas” for your patio—gaily painted or plain.

What is for certain is the “find” of a friendly, often bi-lingual people, offering good prices for a shoe-shine or a bargain orthodontic procedure. One friend of mine waited a mere hour for replacement of a chipped tooth amid his plates, those choppers previously prepared by the same dentist. Cost? $20US.

My spouse, most fastidious and choosey, also had inexpensive, professional dental work performed in Progreso. Most of it is done for one-third the price on the U.S. side (or less) by dentists licensed and hygienic. What might be “off-putting” is the hype on the street to persuade you to choose one doctor over another. Word of mouth is probably the best way to locate what and whom one prefers. Google, read the blogs, cheers and complaints, from previous visitors.

If one has a bi-lingual friend, use him or her to help you out, if you are not sure enough of your Spanish. You probably will not need that service for ordering food from the many alternatives on and off the streets. Many speak three languages—English, Spanish, and the fusion of those two languages some call “Tex-Mex” or “Spanglish,” a syncretic dialect.

This, by the way, is not a term of derision, as some in their ignorance see it, but is a perfectly normal, very creative, practical use of language. Its development was a natural outcome of proximity. The U.S. and Mexico share the longest border – almost 2,000 miles – anywhere in the world between a developed and developing country. It was inevitable this new language emerged. It enhances communication.

Do they, in NP, understand the internal politics or exigencies of Mexican politics? Probably, like most citizens here, they go about their daily lives a bit (or more) perplexed, somewhat alienated (ok, well, more-so in Mexico), yet hopeful. They hope for a better economy and know intrinsically how closely their lives are intertwined with ours and the rise and fall of our economy. (“The U.S. sneezes, Mexico catches a cold.”) They keep up with news from this side.

Progreso citizens share the fear of a Mexican-hating candidate, possibly able to become President of the U.S. They love to ask questions and hear opinions from visitors. They hope for reassurances. (I told them “no, it won’t happen; “tonto pero no tanto” — “we’re dumb but not THAT dumb”). They sell “piñatas” — gigantic paper Mache parodies of Donald Trump, alongside Mickey Mouse, Pikachus and (when ordered, but not so common) Pancho Villa.

Many Progreso citizens are intrepid entrepreneurs. A few succeed. Many more manage with a precarious existence, surviving on the left-overs of both U.S. and Mexican middle class largesse. They are proud their own town is quite safe. Confrontations in the past involved Mexicans, not U.S. visitors. (Not so true for the larger border city of Reynosa or, up stream, Nuevo Laredo.)

It is not useful for us on this side to persist with the stereotypes about Mexico. Many White, Anglo Saxon Protestants, or “WASPs,” (a generic, descriptive, not a pejorative term) have been subjected to decades of repetition of negative images about Mexico. The beat persists and has been decried in these pages and elsewhere by various writers, business and political leaders from both sides.

All I can say is, “the proof is in the viewing.” That is, a brief or longer visit, well planned, with guidance and, if possible, friend/s to translate, goes far to correct the past misunderstandings about Mexico. These stereotypes are fading, especially with millennials. We also have available to us, through the University of Texas in Edinburg, and through writers and speakers from both sides of the border (Sister City, educational and business contacts) leaders who are aware of the strengths of both cultures. They lead in creating more opportunities for awareness.

A great example: consider Dr. Francisco Guajardo, Professor of Education, University of Texas—Rio Grande Valley. He was born not far from Progreso, in Rio Bravo. He is one bridging the countries, the cultures in his classes and in the community. He speaks this Sunday, August 7th, 2:00 p.m., Courtyard Gallery, Museum of South Texas. Guajardo’s topic: “Building a Bilingual University” (full story: “Taming a Wild Tongue,” The Edinburg Review, August 3, 2016, page 1).

Others with the university and from the broader community, on both sides, are well poised to continue the effort at bi-lingualism and improved international communication. I was saddened, after speaking and hearing both English and Spanish in Progreso; I met friendly but linguistically challenged clerks in the grocery chain, H-E-B. Though Mexican American, they didn’t know “chabacano” – apricot or “durazno” – peach. We should make Spanish mandatory in all public schools in South Texas. Don’t let our fortuitous geographical location and our native cultural advantages go to waste.

The U.S. is now the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Mexican Americans are the majority minority and the fastest growing ethnic group. In a unique way, we in south Texas ARE the U.S. We ARE Mexico. The bridge runs both ways. We can, we should strive to make Texas the leader in outreach to Mexico. We “cast our bread upon the waters.” As with the Marshall Plan of President Truman or the Alliance for Progress of President Kennedy, our investments will come back to us many fold.

We need and must demand federal and state funds for improved education and infrastructure. Those investments will be returned economically. We will reap benefits through the enrichment which comes from increased cultural contact among peoples and civilizations. We can start, as individuals, with a simple trip to” New Progress,” to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, comporting ourselves wisely and savoring the Mexican culture at our doorsteps. The progress need not be a secret any longer.

Editor’s Note: The pictures accompanying this guest column were taken by its author, Gary Joe Mounce. They show the tourist town of Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas, Mexico.