How do we here in south Texas, near the famous Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, the border between the U.S. and Mexico, survive?
On one hand, it is, per capita, one of the poorest regions in the nation. On the other hand, it is a vibrant community, fifth fastest growing in the nation, with a culturally mixed population (87 percent Mexican American, but also Anglo, Black, and Asian), unique in its geography and rich in its historical traditions.
But the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” do come zooming in at us, often from all sides. Some of the most recent onslaughts are found in a book by Jeanine Cummins, one quite controversial. Her novel covers a contemporary immigrant’s journey and, among other things, “life on the border,” one allegedly filled with violence. Valley leaders of south Texas, ordinary citizens, and the academic community believe her work is very misleading and have been active in exposing what they see as her considerable mischaracterizations.
A discussion (“American Dirt” amid a national “Dignidad Literaria” campaign) was held at the campus of the University of Texas Rio Grande on Friday, 31 Jan 20. Professor David Bowles, also NPR commentator, opined: “At a time when Mexico and the Mexican American community are reviled in this country… to elevate this inauthentic book… is to slap our collective face.”
Joining Bowles in his critique is Teo Armus, who notes critics have panned a “sloppy, stereotypical portrayal of a Mexican family” (“Serious Mistakes,” Washington Post, 31 Jan 20). Cummins, not Mexican, Mexican American nor an immigrant (though she noted her husband was an “undocumented immigrant” – he is Irish!), received a boost from” Oprah,” a seven-figure contract, and a movie deal. Other Hispanic authors, who have written widely and well of the same subject (and from whom Cummins borrowed notoriously), received nothing. Salma Hayek has apologized for endorsing the novel, and many accuse the author and publishers (Flatiron) of “cultural appropriation.” There is push-back to the critiques; defenders cite “freedom of speech,” etc. The debate will go on. But there are more serious, more pressing (and oppressive) “arrows” aimed at the Valley of South Texas.
Some of those pressures include President Trump’s constant threats to increase tariffs on goods from Mexico, if they don’t obey his whims. His previous threat (five percent) was dropped, partly due to resistance from Valley and other business leaders. Jesus Cañas, senior business economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, observed Texas farmers, whose prices for agriculture products have dropped due to Trump’s trade wars, have only survived due to the subsidies they received from the government (Bob Sechler, “Prices Low,” Statesman, 17 Jan 20). In addition, Global Warming affects production in Central America. And for each ten percent drop in crop yield, immigration increases two percent; 1.4 million Hondurans and Guatemalans will head north by 2050 (Kimberly Amado, The Balance, 18 Dec 19), Trump or no Trump.
Meanwhile, Mexico has become the U.S.’s number one trading partner. “More than 15 percent of U.S. trade is with Mexico,” resulting in a grand total of over $330B, more than with Canada or China, three times that of trade with Germany or Japan (Dan Kopt, “Mexico/U.S.,” Quartz, 8 Aug 19). But now, it appears, Trump can do anything, in trade, in foreign policy, even in his threats, and in leveraging foreign or military aid for personal gain.
Many fear further threats or insults to Mexico or others. Watch for ripple effects of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, halting the import of needed labor in the U.S. and increasing the economic pressures on Mexico. Citizens, businesses, and workers along the Rio Grande, here in south Texas, will feel the pain first. As a perplexed Senator John Cornyn has said, “We’re holding a gun to our own heads” (Andrew Selee, “Mexico’s Migration Dilemmas,” Foreign Policy, 8 Jul 19).
But the good Senator’s dilemma was not serious enough to convince him to join Democrats and two other Republicans to ask for witnesses and documents in the recent impeachment trial, as would be expected in any fair trial. The purveyor of insults and threats remains in power. The arrows, the pain—on both sides of the border—resulting from his erratic, egoistic policies will only increase. We survive the pain only by continuing to pray, to study, to debate, to vote, to practice local democracy, even if it seems to many our national Democratic system has been dealt a death blow.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows an encampment area where hundreds of asylum seekers are staying near the Gateway International Bridge that connects Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. (Photo credit: Reynaldo Leaños, Jr./Texas Public Radio.