We're heading for Laredo on the Mexican border. It's a trip of about 150 miles and we're making it because we can. My wife is off work for the week and has a new car and it's been a few months since we had a day out.
She was driving her beloved Honda Element back to the dealership on Monday when it finally gave up the ghost. It was getting long in the tooth, or whatever cars have which constitute the equivalent of teeth. It was becoming increasingly cranky - prone to stalling for no reason we could work out, and the air conditioning had been on the fritz for the last couple of months. Air conditioning is important in Texas, particularly in August. Ours occasionally blew cold when the car slowed, but was otherwise alternating between not doing much and kicking out a sort of warm, damp sportswear aroma which rendered journeys of more than a couple of miles impractically unpleasant; so my wife was taking the vehicle for either repair or replacement. The dealership was some distance. There's one nearer, but the last time she went to that place, one guy suggested she come back with her husband whilst the other refused to acknowledge her existence, walking away as she tried to explain that she was hoping to buy a car. The dealership to which she was headed on Monday was the one situated in 2016 rather than 1934, but a surfeit of black smoke pouring from the engine dictated that the final part of the journey be facilitated by tow truck. So now we have a new car. We miss the old one, but the new one is significantly more comfortable, runs smoother, and the air conditioning works; and so we're headed for the Mexican border.
Specifically we're headed for Laredo, because we visited once before and liked it enough to want to go again. Laredo isn't quite the southernmost town of the United States, but both McAllen and Brownsville are much smaller, so you could probably say that it's the southernmost town of any size. We went there in January, 2013 but they were having some kind of festival which made it difficult to get a good impression of the place.
Bess visited fairly regularly as a child. Her grandparents would take her across the river to Nuevo Laredo - which is on the Mexican side of the border - so that her grandfather could buy cheap medication and eyeglasses. This was back when you could cross the border without a passport. Coming back, border security would ask him to confirm that his nationality was American and he'd set them straight by testily explaining that he was from Texas, not America.
Bess and I stand on the east bank of the Rio Grande, the river which forms much of the Mexican-American border. This is our first port of call because I want to see Mexico again, even if only from a distance. It isn't even a particularly large river at this point. I could easily swim across, and I'm hardly a great swimmer. On the other side we see trees, the backs of a few houses and yards, and the tiny figures of people sat around on the riverbank, some fishing, some maybe picnicking.
We are looking at people in another country.
It's a strange feeling in so much as that it feels like it should be a much stranger feeling, less prosaic. A great many of those who have yet to stand where I'm stood might anticipate a very different sight, a west bank crowded with those Mexicans, diving into the water one after another, coming over here to take our jobs, to claim welfare, to set up a taco truck on every street corner, and to breed.
'I don't see what's stopping anyone just swimming over,' my wife observes, looking around. Behind us there is a multi-story parking lot, still very much under construction. A railway bridge spans the river a few hundred yards north of where we are stood. We can see no line of economic migrants stepping carefully from one sleeper to the next as they cross. We've seen plenty of border security vehicles, so doubtless there's some guy with a rifle and a pair of binoculars just out of sight, or at least security cameras.
'I suppose this would be where he's going to build his silly wall,' I suggest.
'Maybe that's it right there.' My wife points to a small wire fence at the side of the river and we chuckle to ourselves.
We stand and watch Mexico for a while. We can see people moving around, but they don't look like they're planning anything. Someone in Mexico could shoot me from across the other side and there wouldn't be anything anyone could do about it, but they would have to be a good shot and they would have to have a reason.
Economic migrants from Mexico have been invoked on numerous occasions of my talking to people back in England, specifically people who've swallowed the line about uncontrolled immigration bringing this country to its knees. Having lived and worked in areas of London with a high percentage of immigrants, it is my belief that uncontrolled immigration bringing this country to its knees is bullshit scaremongering perpetuated by the extreme right, having found a way to pass themselves off as reasonable people taking a bold stance in saying that which we're supposedly not allowed to say because of political correctness; and it is my belief based on information accrued through my own direct experience rather than through the nice man on the telly telling us what we want to hear.
'You're talking bollocks,' I'll suggest in my imagination, which can somehow be heard in the inflection of whatever strategic lies I mutter so as to avoid an argument.
'You know that Mexican border somewhere to the south of you,' the person will begin, before describing Mexicans in sombreros with huge moustaches flooding across to take our jobs, to claim welfare, to set up a taco truck on every street corner, and to breed. I can never work out where they've come by this information, or how they imagine they might be better informed than someone who actually lives in the region under discussion, or how the person has somehow assumed that I'm such a fucking simpleton as to experience a dramatic reversal of opinion now that I've been given a supposed example utilising local points of reference.
Yeah, I didn't understand when you were talking about Polish people, but now the idea seems so much clearer...
Most of all I am baffled.
I've been to Mexico many times. I've been banging on about Mexican culture to anyone who will listen for roughly the past two decades. I live in a city within a couple of hours drive of Mexico, a city with a 60% Hispanic population. Nevertheless, here's some shithead who never even met a Mexican trying to get me on team by playing on my presumed fear of those people down there.
We've come to Laredo because it reminds me of Mexico. Most of the region in which I now live used to be Mexico, and thankfully there are a few places still holding out against the incursion of Miley Cyrus and all she represents. The streets of Laredo are small, lined with old Spanish buildings painted in bright colours, and the pavements are chipped. We eat at a café on a street corner. It's called Ricardo's, and but for the layout of uninhabited tables, it may as well be somebody's front room. We order tacos, which are cooked as we watch then served on paper plates, and are the best tacos I've had in some time - definitely the genuine article complete with burnt bits. Our hostess either doesn't speak English, or can't be arsed, obliging us to speak Spanish; and it's nice to speak Spanish again. It's nice to have a reason to do so, thus dispensing with the point of feeling a bit self-conscious about it.
It feels like we're in Mexico, and facebook thinks we are. Bess takes a photograph and, by some wizardry I don't quite understand, the photograph instantaneously appears on social media with my fat ass tagged as being in Nuevo Laredo, on the other side of the river, across the border.
After we've eaten, we go for a wander around the town. We pass stores named Sanborn's and Liverpool, presumably no direct relation to the much larger department stores of the same names in Mexico City, and most likely just low-rent attempts to get in on the retail action of their namesakes. Everyone looks Mexican. The signs are all in Spanish, and the place even smells like Mexico City - a touch of drains and hot sun but oddly just evocative rather than unpleasant. It's a town where people live rather than just driving through. Everything is kind of cheap, crappy, and broken, but you get a strong feeling that the people here are doing their best and trying to get by. They don't have much but they take pride in what little they do have.
As we leave the centre, we're back out onto the highways and the sprawl of Walgreens then Walmart then Lowes then Applebees punctuated here and there with a blandly efficient subdivision, pale Lego housing of wood and particle board, and we remember we're in America. We remember we're the lucky ones.