Feature A tale of two cities 

San Antonians who grew up in Laredo talk about loving, loathing and fearing their hometown

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Interstate Highway 35 is 1,565 miles of persistent blacktop, unfurling like an epic, sun-scorched tongue from somewhere north of the Twin Cities to the mercurial and contentious region where our nation ends and abruptly becomes another. Ride it north from San Antonio, and you’ll eventually be knocking elbows with Canada, neck-deep in erstwhile Jesse Ventura country. Take it south, and in about the average runtime of a Kubrick feature (2-3 hours, say), you’ll find yourself skirting the border at another pair of twin cities, which, if less snowy, are decidedly more notorious: Laredo (Texas) and Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas, Mexico).

Marissa, 26, a San Antonio healthcare worker and transplanted Laredoan, was very happy to escape the border, but not for the reasons one might expect.

“There’s nothing to do in Laredo. It’s boring,” she says. “It’s extremely boring. It’s extremely hot. The only businesses that are there are import-export and education ... I came `to San Antonio` for the work.”

A college scholarship and a job offer were all it took to lure Marissa away from the town in which she’s spent the majority of her life, but she says that she goes back once every two or three months to visit her family.

Many Laredoans come to the Alamo City in search of opportunity or education. Most of them, it seems, will attest to bringing a bit of their hometown along with them.

“It totally stays with you,” says Ethel Shipton, the Laredo-born chief preparator for the McNay Art Museum. “Once you’re from Laredo, you’re always from Laredo. That’s your roots, that’s where you’re from, that’s where your identity is.”

Shipton, who also left to attend college, says she loves her hometown, and certainly was not driven to leave by disdain for her surroundings.

“It was great,” she says, “a really great place to grow up ...The two cities were kind of one ... I mean you definitely knew you were in another country, but ... there was lots of exchange back and forth.”

Marissa, on the other hand, says the border was too homogeneous for her tastes.

“I can tell somebody who grew up in Laredo versus somebody who grew up in San Antonio,” Marissa says. “You’re growing up with 99-percent Hispanic people around you `in Laredo`, whereas here, it’s a pretty good mix. You’ve got black people, white people, all sorts of different cultures and things going on here, and in Laredo it’s totally not like that.”

Peter Glassford, a San-Antonio-based artist and sculptor from Laredo who, unlike Shipton or Marissa, is not Hispanic, tells of his border-town childhood this way:

“It was certainly a different kind of place to grow up,” Glassford says. “I grew up right on the riverbank, so that was something that was always in the back of your mind, ... physically having your house be on the actual border ... So, always having that there, growing up on the edge of the United States, was certainly very interesting, `as was` being somebody who was Anglo-Saxon Protestant ... `when` everybody in Laredo was Catholic and Mexican-American.”

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Glassford says living right on the border put him into contact with a variety of people.

“We met lots of people coming across legitimately, just looking for work,” he says. “And I’ve met some people that weren’t so nice, either, and you know, would steal my bicycle. But for the most part, the interest far outweighed the unsavory aspect of it.”

Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, to hear some tell it, are sister cities right down to their personality quirks: The Stateside sibling is quiet, traditional, somewhat dullish, but is periodically drawn into trouble by its south-of-the-border, wild-child counterpart, whose hallmarks include a vibrant nightlife, an assortment of restaurants and shops, as well as — in recent years — enough kidnapping, drug-trafficking, and murder to keep the media outlets stocked and sated with sound bites and disquieting front-page fodder.

The problems have been widely attributed to a war between the Sinaloa and Gulf drug cartels of Mexico, each vying with the other for control of what is thought to be the primary trade route for U.S.-bound smuggled narcotics: (you guessed it) Interstate Highway 35. While drug-related violence is nothing novel for the U.S.-Mexico border, the carnage “has risen to a new level” in the past few years, as the cartels have enlisted Mexican ex-special-forces troops to supplement their power in Nuevo Laredo and beyond, says Francisco Durand, who teaches “The Politics of Coca and Cocaine” at UTSA.

“In Nuevo Laredo, organized crime owns the police and media,” Durand says. “They are basically intimidating the media, who used to report on crime along the border .... They basically issue a gag order.”

High-profile incidents like the June 2005 murder of Alejandro Dominguez Coello, hours after he was sworn in as Nuevo Laredo’s new police chief (a post for which he was the only applicant) and the attacks on the city’s El Mañana newspaper — the most recent of which was a February 6 assault-rifle-and-grenade newsroom strike that left one reporter in critical condition — suggest the cartels’ unabashed determination to exert their influence over media, law enforcement, and the public at large.

“It’s getting worse,” Durand says. “I’m not optimistic.”

OK, so Nuevo Laredo’s sociopolitical infrastructure could use some good, industrial-strength spring cleaning. What, then, of the quieter “sister?” Has increased bloodshed across the big river led Laredo to an air of increased desperation? Fear? Panic? Try near-familiarity, suggests Juan Rivera, spokesman for the Laredo Police Department.

“I’ve been a cop for 19 years,” Rivera practically yawns. “And you know what? We’ve been fighting this for 19 years ... And it’s this group, and that group, and this group, and that group. They eliminate one group, they bring in another group ... It’s been an ongoing battle ever since ...They come and go, they get arrested, they get killed off, whatever.”

Rivera says that while the fighting in Nuevo Laredo is severe, it’s nothing new, and for civilians, the same adage from years back still applies: Mind your own business, and you’ll be fine.

“Are we aware of what’s going on over there? Heck, yeah,” he says. “And we have been working at this for a very, very long time ...`But` you can come do business in Laredo. You can come do business in Nuevo Laredo. Nobody’s gonna bother you. Stay away from the drug dealers, stay away from the gun-runners, the alien-smugglers, and all that stuff, you won’t have a problem.”

He insists that while Laredo periodically experiences a bit of spillover from its neighbor to the south, it is still, itself, “absolutely safe.”

“You can come do business in Laredo. You can come do business in Nuevo Laredo. Stay away from the drug dealers, stay away from the gun-runners, the alien-smugglers, and all that stuff, you won’t have a problem.”

- Juan Rivera

“The violence is in Mexico, not here,” says Rivera. “Now, I’m not gonna tell you they don’t come over here ... they do. And I’m not gonna tell you they haven’t come over here and caused some problems, because they have. But when they do, they’re dealt with. Quickly and efficiently.”

Concerning the unrest in Nuevo Laredo, Marissa seems, like Rivera, unimpressed and matter-of-fact. As a child, she says, she heard stories and knew danger existed, but her family was able to stay out of trouble by not getting “involved.”

“It’s always been like that. It’s always been real gory and violent over there,” she says. “If you had connections with the drug cartels or anybody in the Mexican mafia or whatever, if you dated anybody, or were seeing anybody, or you were friends with somebody that was in there, and you got involved, I mean, you were just askin’ for it. Those people, they don’t miss.”

Though her family escaped harm, she says, the effects were sometimes plainly visible.

“It’s a lot more close to home than you think,” says Marissa. “One of my mom’s friends, this girl ... she was walking in the parking lot to her car ... and they came and they kidnapped her, and took her, and nobody could find her, and her boyfriend was looking for her like crazy. Well, then they came and they got the boyfriend. It turns out that the boyfriend was mixed up with the Mexican mafia. And they killed her and the guy ... they buried them alive or something. It was on the news.”

Glassford says that while such stories have long been more or less an inevitable fact of life in Laredo, things do seem to have gotten worse recently.

“It’s not like it just happened `for the first time`,” he says. “If you’re from the border, you know that, every once in a while, things like this happen. But it’s been to such a extent that essentially it’s more violent than I can remember ... Somebody would get bumped off every once in a while, that happens in any major city, but nothing like this, nothing that involved the public so much as now. It used to always just be, it was none of your business, and that was that ...There’s a lot of hysteria right now, intimidation of the press.”

Shipton, interestingly, says she doesn’t remember any hints of border discord from her early days, and can summon no first- or secondhand horror stories from either side of the river. But that’s what Marissa’s for.

“I remember one time my brother-in-law, he used to be a manager for Enterprise,” she says, “and he rented this lady a truck, and the truck was stolen the next day from her, like in the parking lot or something. And that next day, the very next day, there was the white truck on the front page of the Mexican newspaper, and there was a couple of dead bodies in it, and it was all shot up ... and you could see the little Enterprise sticker on the back of the truck. You know? There was the truck.”

Rivera says that it’s the circulation of stories like that one that contributes to the town’s poor reputation.

“The opinion that people have of Laredo is a very negative one right now, and it’s unjustified,” he says. “Most of the people that have been involved, unfortunately, in the shootings and the murders and stuff like that, it’s because in some way, shape, or form they have a connection to illegal activity. That’s the problem. The regular, everyday person, the regular everyday tourist has nothing to worry about.”

It bears noting here that of the eight or so San Antonio-resident Laredoans contacted about being sources for this article, two agreed to speak and then pulled out later and many of them expressed some interest in full or partial anonymity. Hmm. Nervous much?

Marissa, Glassford, and Shipton say they’re not. They seem to trust that the loved ones they’ve left behind in Laredo will be safe, and that people will survive in the sister cities.

“You’re talking about a population center of over half a million people, and, you know, day-to-day life continues on,” says Glassford. “It doesn’t matter if a newspaper gets shot up inside the offices, and it doesn’t matter, day-to-day life, if another guy was ambushed on the city street. People still have businesses, and life goes on. It’s going on now ... There’s no reason to go to a nightclub and stay out ’til three in the morning in Nuevo Laredo anymore, that’s for sure, but I mean, when it comes to ... anything in life ... you have to `press on`.”

Shipton says she is very glad of where she was born, and of what her hometown has given her: a deep cultural identity and experience that meshes well with her artistic sensibilities.

“It’s a pretty rich cultural environment to live on the border like that, and you probably know that from `talking` to anyone from a border town,” she says. “The bi-culturalism is just innate. It’s not something that’s like intellectualized or anything; it’s just who you are. It doesn’t have to be defined, necessarily, because it’s pumping through your veins. It’s just there. Whether you’re half Hispanic or not half Hispanic, or `you` have a last name like mine, or Montoya, or whatever. It’s all just what it is.”

Marissa, meanwhile, just sees the same old Laredo.

“All in a nutshell, I mean, I don’t think it’s changed. I think it’s the same place it was. And I think that’s why I can’t stand it. ’Cause it’s the same place.”



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