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Down Mexico Way

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June 30, 2010 by wcobserver

By Steve Worden

Who Knows Motivation?

Why would a person ride a Greyhound bus for twenty-three hours to go down to Brownsville, Texas and then go into Mexico?  Maybe it was my belief that transcontinental bus travel is the “Check Engine” light of American culture.  (It was glowing alarmingly red . . .)  Maybe I wanted to see for myself the flotsam being carried by the vast tidal wave of anxiety washing over America.  Or, was it to see what Hispanics coming to Arkansas are fleeing?   Or, maybe it was the search for that perfect pair of exotic skin cowboy boots.

That’s right:  cowboy boots, not “western boots.”  You know, the pointy-toed kind made out of python, crocodile or something similarly unusual?  We used to call them “snake boots.”  Of course, the crowning touch on a nice pair of snake boots would be those shiny silver toe caps.  I don’t know about you, but for me, nothing fairly screams “classy” more than a pair of black snake boots sporting silver toe caps.

Anytime I want to talk to a banker or someone important and I just walk in wearing silver-toed snake boots and well, I just get treated differently.  When I am dozing off in a faculty meeting idly listening to university types haggle over the precise wording of the third sentence in the second paragraph in a personnel document, I merely cross my foot up on my knee and let my colleagues take in the full glory of quality snake boots with their shiny silver tips and they promptly lapse into stunned silence.  True beauty just has that effect on people, I guess.

So, I rode the “Dawg” down to Brownsville, and headed for Mexico in pursuit of the classic snake boot with the silver toe caps, catching a ride with my brother-in-law Stewart, who lives in South Padre Island.  He points his Chevy Tahoe toward Nuevo Progresso, Mexico, as everyone tells us that Matamoros is way too dangerous.  The local newspaper reported that fliers have appeared on the windshields of cars parked on the U.S. side of the border, telling people to stay out of Matamoros this weekend because the Zetas and the Gulf drug cartels will be having a gun battle.  If you have to go, the fliers instructed, you should avoid wearing a black shirt because that’s what the cartel gunmen wear.  We decided instead to go to Nuevo Progresso, and heeding fashion advice, I wore a light shirt.

But, first I imposed on Stewart by asking him to drive us to see the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, a shrine visited by over a million people a year.  Seen from the outside, a gorgeous white building and bell tower constructed out of Texas limestone, inside you find a cool interior full of polished mostly empty wooden pews.  But then as you walk through the sanctuary savoring the silence, the mosaics, and the stained glass, you might make your way around to the side to look more closely at the area near the altar.  There, on a lower level, hidden from the eyes of most tourists, you see row upon row of kneeling people earnestly praying.  They are praying for peace in Mexico and in the Rio Grande Valley.  As well they might.

We left San Juan and drove down to the border, passing green sorghum fields and large squat metal silos.  Almost out of nowhere, the border with its tangle of grey fencing, gates, and guard houses suddenly loomed.  We walked across the bridge over the brown Rio Bravo, as it is known, and strolled on into downtown Nuevo Progresso.  A dry, dusty border town, complete with the now-customary green armored car and green-clad soldiers with automatic weapons walking around and one standing guard on a balcony, Progresso didn’t seem exactly to be in the throes of progress.

In fact, Progresso has been virtually devoid of “Winter Texans,” as American retirees are known, since the last annual Winter Texan Appreciation Day when a running gun battle broke out on the main street between cartel members and the National Police.  As one person recalled, “the cartel members were flopping out of their cars and dying in pools of blood in full view of the horrified retirees.”  Since then, not much in the way of tourism seems to be going on in Nuevo Progresso.  But, on the other hand possibly because of its nearness to the border, Progresso pales in light of the rapes, kidnappings, and murders occurring in Juarez, Matamoros, and Reynosa.  As a Hispanic in Texas had summed it up simply, “I wouldn’t take a woman into Mexico, these days.”

So, Stewart and I wandered down the dusty streets, decorated with little plastic pennants wilting in the afternoon sun, he looking for sandals, I in search of the perfect snake boot.  We found mainly the same old Chinese imports.  It seemed almost every other store was either a pharmacy or a dentist’s office, hawking cheap Viagra or low cost tooth extractions.  After a few hours of walking and sitting in a couple of empty dreary cantinas, we eventually made our way back to the border.

Striking up a conversation with a woman standing about a block from the border, I asked her about the town.  She told me, “I don’t walk into Mexico any farther than this.  If the shooting starts, I want to be able to run back into the U.S.  The MS-13s, the Zetas, and the Gulf cartel are all at war with each other.”  She looked around nervously.  “I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this,” she muttered as she looked down to stare at the ground.

My search for the perfect “snakes” came to naught, Nuevo Progresso depressed me beyond belief, and as we drove back to the Texas coast on the Old Military Highway, the iron border fence looming off to the right in the dusk, I thought about how the most purely graceful sight had been that of the praying faithful back at the Basilica.  Bless them.

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