International borders often create unusual situations. Few situations are more unusual than the one on the southern end of the Texas-Mexico border. This region, frequently disputed territory in the past, has emerged as neither fully American nor fully Mexican.
Large numbers of Mexicans who cross with temporary permits become semipermanent residents of the border region. They, and thousands of Mexicans who cross illegally, often remain in the border zone because it is harder to get past the second checkpoint seventy miles to the north. For them, the United States starts at Falfurrias and other similar checkpoints.
By the same token, Mexico does not really start at the Río Bravo. Much U.S. industry has relocated to the maquila parks on the south bank of the Río Bravo. Americans generally cross the Mexican border zone with nothing more than a wave of the hand. Mexicans from the border zone, however, drive cars that cannot be taken into the interior of Mexico. Their quasi-Mexican status is formalized with tags proclaiming Front Tamps (Tamaulipas, Border Zone). Mexico, in reality, starts at the secondary checkpoints twenty-two kilometers south of the river.
Sandwiched between these secondary checkpoints are, to borrow a term from Oscar Martínez, the core borderlands. Inside this area, immigration and customs agents from both countries operate under laws somewhat different from those elsewhere in each country. Mexican citizens living in the core borderlands have legal exceptions and requirements not found elsewhere in Mexico. And citizens from either country can enter the core borderlands with fewer restrictions than those governing entry past the secondary checkpoints.
The South Texas borderlands are also different from other U.S.-Mexico border areas. Here, for example, Mexican Americans greatly outnumber Anglos. In addition, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is also the poorest stretch of borderlands, partly because it is home to the United State's largest farmworker population. Its impoverished colonias outnumber those found elsewhere along the two-thousand-mile border.
Mexicans from the lower Río Bravo core borderlands are also somewhat different from other Mexican borderlanders. Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest city and its industrial leader, for example, is only 150 miles to the west southwest. The power of its economy, the strength of its universities, and the independence of its newspapers have exerted a powerful influence on the culture and the economy of the downriver borderlands.
People from the core borderlands are also great innovators of culture. Norteña and conjunto music, for example, took the accordion from German immigrants, much like the Plains Indians took the horse from the Spaniards. Similarly, the Texano culture of South Texas is more than a mixing of Mexican and American forms. In addition, "Tex-Mex" is more than just a combination of two languages. Many foods, customs, expressions, and the form of local speech and culture, are indicative of lively amalgamation.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley is also an exporter of culture. It is hard to find pockets of Chicano culture anywhere in the United States that do not trace some major roots back through the migrant streams to South Texas. And though Valley Anglos used to ridicule foods of Mexican origin, these same foods have become popular cuisine throughout the United States and even abroad. Fajitas, for example, were a local staple long before they became popular further north. Also, thanks to the wonders of science that have taken the bite out of Mexican jalapeños and chilis, salsa has replaced catsup as the number one condiment in the United States.
Valley culture, however, has an impact much greater than its influence on foods, language, and music. As Anglos, Mexicans, and Blacks interact with the predominantly Mexican American population, the culture of each group is affected. Newcomers to the area notice these nuances immediately. While some are greatly bothered by them, others come to feel a new sense of appreciation and belonging.
The sense of adaptability has both cultural and structural roots. Structurally, poverty requires innovation. When low-income housing became unavailable in Valley cities, for example, colonias developed almost overnight as a family-oriented response. Today, when Mexican women find it necessary to help support a family, becoming an undocumented maid in a border city produces one solution. When the homes of migrant farmworkers become increasingly threatened with vandalism, getting a dog or eliciting help from family and neighbors proves an affordable solution.
Mexican culture also encourages adaptability. Unlike Anglos, however, Mexicans tend to respond to needs and new situations by informal means. Less formal relations predominate over formal ones, and outcomes are assured more by personal obligation than by contract and formal systems. As a result, people of Mexican origin in the Valley tend to take the obligations associated with friendship and family very seriously.
This tendency toward responsiveness and warm interpersonal relations may help explain another puzzle of the South Texas border. How can so much diversity exist without serious and sustained conflict? Though Anglos dominated Hispanics in South Texas for generations, relatively harmonious relations characterize their interaction today when Anglos are a relatively small numerical minority. Though some Mexicans consider Mexican Americans "gringoized," and some Mexican Americans regard Mexicans as mojados ("wetbacks"), most individuals from both groups get along relatively well. Finally, though retired Winter Texans generally isolate themselves from local residents, they almost uniformly report very friendly treatment.
When I set out to write this book, I wanted a title that could represent the Valley's uniqueness and its diversity. Batos, Bolillos, Pochos, and Pelados seemed to fit. Bato to young Mexican Americans means "man," as in "Oye, bato" (Hey, man). It expresses in-group solidarity and epitomizes the sense of identity found among many South Texas Mexican Americans. Bolillo (white bread roll) and pocho (faded; off-colored), in contrast, are terms used to designate members of out-groups. The first indicates an Anglo and the second a Mexican American who is overly Americanized in speech and culture. In Mexico a pelado (one who is hairless) is someone suspected of criminal activity, possibly related to the practice of cutting the hair of Mexican prisoners. Along the border, however, it means someone disreputable, whether involved in criminal activity or not. These terms are not normally used around members of these groups except in gentle kidding. They are, however part of local culture. Since the book is also about culture and intergroup relations, I felt these terms, each closely related to the border, were appropriate.
Though I do not say much in this volume about pelados, those to whom this term is often applied will be a major focus of a planned second volume. It will deal with, among other things, the criminal element along the border (car thieves, smugglers, coyotes, and youth gangs).
I hope that the research on which this book is based exemplifies border culture. Storytelling is an important part of the culture of South Texas, and the project was designed to let South Texas borderlanders collectively tell their own stories.
I trust the project also represents Valley culture in its effort to identify and build upon local strengths. The University of Texas-Pan American may lack some of the resources of larger universities, but its students (85 percent of whom are Mexican American) are intimately connected to the local community. Because of these connections, the students who interviewed the borderlanders were able to obtain accounts that more highly trained (or better paid) researchers would have missed.
I anticipate that this project will give something back to the interviewees and to the people they interviewed. Besides learning interviewing skills, many students gained a new appreciation for the sacrifices their parents and others have made. Alma, for example, learned for the first time of the discrimination her grandmother experienced growing up in South Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. "All the time I was growing up," she says, "I never knew about the discrimination and horrible treatment my family suffered in those times. After the interview, I asked her why she had never told us these stories. She told me she didn't want us to live with the hard feelings she had grown up with. Hearing about her life, though, made me feel deep respect for what she became in spite of those obstacles."
I also hope the people interviewed feel vindicated for sharing their stories. Leticia Núñez, a farmworker for her entire life, burst into tears when told the purpose of her interview. "She said she was glad I was doing the interviews," reports the young woman who conducted the interview, "because she wanted the community to know what migrant farmworkers suffer to put food on America's table."
It is our aim to tell the stories of the batos, bolillos, pochos, and other subcultures of South Texas not only with objectivity but also with respect and dignity. They have so much to teach us.