There’s a Starr in your future—and in your past and your present. So near, yet, in many ways, so far. 

I took a trip yesterday to Starr—Starr County, Texas–destination, Rio Grande City, driving from my county, Hidalgo, with natives of that region. We had not returned in many years. 

On the “back road” (State107, to avoid traffic of US 83), we marveled at the intense business traffic we had hoped to avoid. Que cosa! Tanto trafico! So surprising, so much! 

Also, so much of the names and symbols remains of conservative days past (yet, not totally gone). One drives past “la Shary,” then “la Bentsen,” roads named for major south Texas Anglo political families and officials that dominated for so long. Starr was named after James Harper Starr, Secretary of the Treasury, Republic of Texas. The wider geographic (now, political) area, on up to San Antonio, was once occupied by Coahuiltecans, Tonkawas, and Lipan Apaches, then Spaniards, then Mexicans, now, predominately, Mexican Americans, the nations’ largest non-Anglo ethnic group. 

The road, 83, which will ultimately by-pass Sullivan and so many other picturesque, tiny towns (where I once researched pelea de gallo, or cock fights) will end, I suppose, in Laredo, once the capital of the independent Republic of the Rio Grande, in 1840. Driving the speed limit (I remembered the speed traps of the 70s and 80s, but, actually, all the others were passing me) one reaches an imposing, large white building, part of La Joya high school, memorably named “Juárez-Lincoln.” It honors those two great friends, two great presidents, each opposed to slavery, President Abraham Lincoln, killed by traitorous Confederates, and el Benemérito Benito Juárez, first indigenous president of Mexico. 

We continued our journey, not to nowhere, but, at once, to old and new adventures. One’s aesthetic senses are teased by the glowing spectacle, along the highway, of what could be our own massive “Taj Mahal,” the golden tower of La Grulla’s High School. Their mascot? The “Gators.” (Guess the gators ate the grullas, the cranes?) Often, our most splendid public monuments are now our educational facilities? Not a bad idea.

Then, westward bound we continued; finally entering Rio Grande City, surely the longest city in the Rio Grande Valley—miles of traffic and scrambled, frenetic businesses, most commercial signs in Spanish. One must travel even further before reaching center town. And what a town. Still quite busy, but you’re in the old west, son. Five degrees hotter than Hidalgo, narrow streets, adobe buildings, some with turn-of-the-century (19th) high, ornate balconies. So much to see. Neither my friends, although they were from that area, nor I, had returned in a long while. It was comforting, thought-provoking, to do so—the return, like a promesa

But, amid the hubbub, under the familiar cross, high on a hill, leading into town, the mansions, some abandoned, some in the process of restoration . . . strange, there was not yet a single campaign sign for Henry Cuellar, Congressman of that 28th District, nor for his Republican opponent, Cassie Garcia. He is running for re-election. She was former Deputy Aide to Cuban-American, Senator Ted Cruz. (Lots of other, local campaign signs, however; Starr is nothing if not extremely politically active). One of my older friends remembered President Eisenhower’s visit, many years ago, with his ranching family, to see the president cut the ribbon to open the Falcon Dam. Those were the days of “El Partido Viejo,” (Republican) and El Partido Nuevo (Democratic). Some of those divisions remain. 

The 28th congressional district includes Zapata County, named for Colonel José Antonio de Zapata, a rancher who rebelled against Mexico in the mid-1800s. Starr dominates the lower part of the district, with a population of 60,000; it includes Rio Grande City (11,000). Part of Hidalgo County (775,000 residents) is also in the mix. Perhaps there is more partisan activity up north, San Antonio way? I cant say, for I haven’t driven up there recently.

Representative Cuellar is in a race for re-election in that district, November, 2022. He defeated a Democratic opponent in the primary, Jessica Cisneros, by only1,000 votes. He might have lost, if another Hispanic female, Tannya Benavides, had not run and received 2,000 votes. The 28th spans nine diverse counties, (extending even to southeastern Bexar County, San Antonio,l hundreds of miles away). Interesting to note, as well, 51% of the population is female, only 49% male. Hidalgo County, too, is witnessing a progressive female, Michelle Vallejo, challenged by another female, but quite conservative, Monica de la Cruz; may the best woman win! 

To compare, the 15th Congressional District, of which McAllen is, perhaps, the head of the “lizard,” the congressional district; it appears, if not as a Salamander (from whence came the term “Gerrymander”), at least as a Gila Monster? The district snakes up all the way to (more Republican) Seguin. The narrow 28thwinds up, similarly envisioned by the Texas legislature, considerably north.Who did this to us? Who sliced our districts into narrow, meandering, probably unconstitutional, non-compact sections? Republicans.

Whichever party is in power, at the state level, each new decade, gets to decide the shape of even federal districts. So, for over 25 years, guess who has the power? Republicans. The idea? To dominate, they hoped, southern Texas’s largely Mexican American voters, over-powering its largely Democratic votes with “northern,” more Republican votes. Now, allegedly, big money, especially from Republicans, is flowing down this way. In power, controlling our lives, for over a quarter of a century–Republicans; and third term for Governor Abbott. Democratic voters, and others, many be saying “time for a change.” Quien sabe?

But away from politics and back to culture . . . Once in historic Rio Grande City, we did our intended business at the old Court House, paid respects at the nearby replica of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, and toured the La Borde House, in the old Fort Ringgold Hotel. The hostess, Señorita Virginia, so pleasant, so full of wonderful stories (ghost stories and others–”Lady Bird stayed here,” etc.) showed us the beauties and elegance of that historical showcase. Our imagination took over when she showed us the “secret” entrance to the tunnel to the river, that had allegedly aided Al Capone (so one version goes) in the early smuggling days.

Nothing would do but to end our sojourn with lunch in town at Caro’s, famous for its exotic, “puffy” tacos, followed by sopapillas. The townfolk eating there ranged from tattooed, muscular workers to elegantly dressed young ladies, who could have just stepped out of the tapa bar at the La Borde House. We returned, still talking politics, of course—who doesn’t, who can’t in south Texas–but reveling in our “step back in time” and our chance to renew our love of Hispanic culture and our Valley heritage. Viva el Valle! Viva our our sister city, Rio Grande City! Viva our sister County, Starr!

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by UT-Rio Grande Valley Professor Emeritus Dr. Gary Joe Mounce. The column appears in The Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Mounce can be reached by email via: [email protected]

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