This poem was originally published in the fall 2015 edition of BorderSenses.
It was 1983. Saturdays, my dad would rouse me early,
The dawn fumbling blind through the dense south Texas fog,
And we’d drive across the bridge into Nuevo Progreso,
The river roiling and rushing far below.
I was always struck by the skewed sameness,
The familiar differences that tease the mind,
The town a shadow sister of mine and others along the verge
Of here and there, Spanish in mostly all the expected spots,
English missing from official signage but cropping up
Unexpected like hints of jalapeño in the midst of sweetness,
Tourists smiling delighted at the broken but earnest messages
Of curio shops and street vendors, dentists and cops.
We would have breakfast in the same restorán,
Dad sipping café de olla while I drank my chocolate,
Savoring the hints of cinnamon and vanilla,
Sweat beading my face as I ate my huevos rancheros.
We would stroll along the uneven sidewalks, perusing goods,
Dad stopping to chat with strangers or familiar faces,
All of them willing, time-worn greetings and topics interwoven
Into a woof my adolescent eyes could nearly see in the air,
Dense Spanish sparkling with ancient hospitality.
I was the silent güero, pale and freckled, so unlike my darker father,
But my copper hair was tussled all the same.
We would load the car with Mexican cokes and Joya,
So much tastier, more refreshing than American drinks,
Glass bottles tinkling like angel bells,
And driving out to the edge of town to the Pemex station,
We would fill dad’s guzzler to the brim with gasoline
Before heading home.
I remember asking once, as he paid the attendant and exchanged a joke,
Why we could speak Spanish despite our surname,
Why all my cousins were Garza and Pérez and Casas,
Why I was cursed to stand out not just because of my Anglo mother
But also because of his imprecise heritage,
A man that straddled ethnicities without a word of explanation.
“We are border folk,” he said with a wry grin, “bloodlines
That cross and recross boundaries of river and class and culture.
Each of us is who he is, wholly unique unto himself,
A wondrous admixture of language and tradition.
Do not be ashamed. There is no limit you cannot cross,
For you are frontier-forged.”
Now, thirty years later, I traverse that bridge with my own son,
Dark like my father, child of a Mexican mother and this ineffable man.
I pull into a spot along the empty streets, a quick “ahí le encargo”
To the brown-shirted, entrepreneurial, ad-hoc parking attendant.
We walk together into the same eatery. I have coffee, he sips chocolate.
There is a stillness here that worries me, an unraveling of tapestries
That seems to mirror my own losses. On the street, music jangles awkward
Into the emptiness. A few tourists ignore government warnings
And wander like us. Vendors smile and hawk their wares,
Willing to chat though with a forced casualness
That their twitching eyes belie.
My son wants us to hurry. We have come to pick up his glasses.
That is what this place has become for me: cheap medicine and car repair.
The border is diminished, border folk unmoored.
I give the attendant a ten-peso coin.
We drive back in silence.
The river roils, rushes.