'Puro Border' anthology humanizes the beauty of la frontera

It is a two-and-a-half-hour drive on I-35 from downtown San Antonio to the bustling, expansive sister cities Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. Tack on another hour or so to get to the Lower Rio Grande Valley; plan to spend all day in the car if you're headed to Ciudad Juárez and El Paso on the western edge of Texas. Regardless of the physical distance to the frontera, there are Chicanos here who have never been to northern Mexico, and North Side Anglos who have never been to the South or West sides of our beautiful, conflicted city. Think of all the borders in your life, the spaces for contradiction and imagination: between Mexico and the United States, Mexican and Chicano; immigrant and citizen; brown and white; the languages we speak and foods we eat; where we work and how we get paid; who we love and how openly we are able to express that desire. Maps and politicians cannot hide what those of us living here know well: San Antonio is a border city. We are a border people.

"The border is the place where we live," co-editor Bobby Byrd states in his introduction to Puro Border, a collection of writings about the border, metaphorical and real, by those who live along both sides of the Rio Bravo. And it is, obviously enough, the place where people live and work and love. Although some of the writers may wax nostalgic for the Tijuana or El Paso of their youth, they don't get bogged down in romanticism or cheap sentiment. Selections organized around the themes of immigration, drug smuggling, and the murdered women in Juárez (an extensive and timely chapter) connect issues related to free trade, the militarization of the border, racial profiling and violence against women and show, once again, that the problems are far more complex (and far less one-sided) than sound bites and nativist catch-phrases could adequately explain.

Edited by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, John William Byrd, Bobby Byrd
Cinco Puntos Press
$18.95, 253 pages
ISBN: 09383171598
Like good essays should be, the selections in Puro Border are all very human stories. An article about Esequiel Hernandez, the teen-aged goat herder murdered by U.S. Marines patrolling for fictitious narcotics traffickers rightly blames American drug policy (as does Santiago Jimenez' corrido about the slain adolescent) for causing an accident that could have been avoided. Several pieces describe the risks taken by workers trying to cross into the states. In search of sustainable employment, they run dangerously close to the world of narcotraffickers; smugglers of drugs and humans who run the same routes, face the same occupational hazards and, ultimately, serve the same master: a U.S. economy jonesin' for a quick fix, whether in the form of cheap labor or powdered pleasure.

Not everything in the book concerns such weighty life-and-death matters, though the personal meets the political throughout. In a more lighthearted piece, Cecilia Ballí tells the story of Jim Johnson, the Brownsville-based businessman who built his empire selling used clothing, and of the women in her family who worked for him. And the final chapter is as much a celebration of the environmental wonders of the borderlands - the desert sky and ancient rock carvings - as it is a call to action: Preserve this now, or it won't be around for your children and grandchildren, they say in so many words.

In this book lies the beauty of la frontera, from those who know and love her. Because of and despite the merging of two worlds into several new, whole, and comfortable in its fludity; urbanism and globalization run amok; velvet paintings and raspa stands; corridos blaring from the trucks in the plaza; the strength and adaptability of a people who call it home. Or, as co-editor Luis Humberto Crosthwaite writes in the epilogue: "The border is my life."

Read it, see it, live it for yourself. •

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