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Rio Grande

Rio Grande

Rio Grande explores the ecology, history, culture, and politicization of the river.

January 2004
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361 pages | 7 x 9 7/8 | 50 duotones |

The liquid lifeline of an arid land, the Rio Grande has always been a vital presence in the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. A source of human sustenance for at least 15,000 years, the river has also been a site of conflict ever since exploring Spaniards first crossed its channel to colonize the Native Americans. Today, it is one of the frontiers in the war against terrorism in the Middle East. Yet the Rio Grande has a life independent of the people who use it as a border, or a hiding place, or an ever-diminishing source of irrigation water. This autonomous life of the river is what the writers and photographers included in this book seek to capture.

Rio Grande explores the ecology, history, culture, and politicization of the river. Jan Reid has assembled writings by an astonishing array of leading authors—Larry McMurtry, Tony Hillerman, Paul Horgan, Charles Bowden, John Graves, Woody Guthrie, John Reed, John Nichols, Robert Boswell, James Carlos Blake, Elena Poniatowska, William Langewiesche, Molly Ivins, Dagoberto Gilb, and Gloria Anzaldúa, to name but a few—who ponder the river's historical and contemporary meanings through short stories, essays, newspaper and magazine articles, and excerpts from novels, histories, memoirs, and nonfiction reporting. Reid also adds his own reflections on the river, drawn from years of traveling the Rio Grande, talking to its people, and conducting archival research.

In addition to the fine writing, historical and contemporary photographs by such well-known photographers as Laura Gilpin, Russell Lee, Robert Runyon, Bill Wittliff, W. D. Smithers, James Evans, Frank Armstrong, Ave Bonar, Earl Nottingham, and Alan Pogue create a stunning visual record of the stark beauty and elemental lifeways of the Rio Grande. As a whole, these voices and visions confirm the river's significance, not only as a real place, but even more as an object of the mythic imagination.

  • Prologue
  • Part 1. Río del Norte
    • Paul Horgan, from Great River
    • Tony Hillerman, from New Mexico, Rio Grande and Other Essays
    • Bill Logan, "The Old Meat Hunter"
    • John Nichols, from The Milagro Beanfield War
  • Part 2. Desert Bloom
    • Josiah Gregg, from Commerce of the Prairies
    • Robert Boswell, from American Owned Love
    • William Langewiesche, from Cutting for Sign
    • Charles Bowden, from Down by the River
    • Dagoberto Gilb, from The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña
    • Cecilia Ballí, "Ciudad de la Muerte"
  • Part 3. La Junta
    • John Graves, "Big River"
    • John Reed, from Insurgent Mexico
    • Don Henry Ford, Jr., from Contrabando
    • Robert Draper, "Soldiers of Misfortune"
    • Aristeo Brito, from The Devil in Texas
  • Part 4. Big Bend
    • Robert T. Hill, from "Running the Cañons of the Rio Grande"
    • Woody Guthrie, from Seeds of Man
    • Molly Ivins, "Mayor of Lajitas Not the Goat He Used to Be"
    • John Spong, "Sand Trap"
  • Part 5. Crossings
    • Stephen Harrigan, "Highway One," from Comanche Midnight
    • Dick J. Reavis, "Gateway to Texas"
    • Larry McMurtry, from Lonesome Dove
    • Elmer Kelton, from The Time It Never Rained
    • Tom Miller, "Confessions of a Parrot Trooper," from On the Border
    • Jan Reid, "Busting Out of Mexico," from Close Calls
    • John Davidson, from The Long Road North
    • María Eugenia Guerra, "Nothing to Declare"
    • Elena Poniatowska, from Guerrero Viejo
  • Part 6. La Frontera
    • Rolando Hinojosa, from "A Sense of Place"
    • Robert Mendoza, "A Piece of Land"
    • James Carlos Blake, from In the Rogue Blood
    • Irene Beltrán Hernández, from Across the Great River
    • Américo Paredes, from George Washington Gómez
    • Gary Cartwright, "Border Towns," from Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter
    • Oscar Casares, "Domingo," from Brownsville
    • Gloria Anzaldúa, from Borderlands
  • Epilogue
  • Biographical Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Illustration Credits

Jan Reid has written for Texas Monthly, Esquire, GQ, Slate, Men’s Journal, Garden & Gun, the New York Times, and many other publications. His books include The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, The Bullet Meant for Me, Rio Grande, Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm, and two award-winning novels, Deerinwater and Comanche Sundown. He lives in Austin, Texas.


Sixteenth-century Spaniards called the stream Río de las Palmas. At first they knew only the river's mouth and its lush delta. Framed by beaches and dunes of blond sand, the broad bright forest of Sabal palm trees around the river's mouth was a landmark for navigators of the Gulf of Mexico. Those being a lonely and anxious few. In 1527, 194 Spanish explorers marooned by a failed expedition in Florida sailed west from Tampa Bay in five barges, hoping their crossing of the gulf would deliver them to the River of Palms and more Spaniards they might find there. Desperation had driven them to the attempt: scores of men had died of disease, starvation, and attacks by Indians, and the Spaniards had eaten all their horses. They caulked and tarred the barges with gummy exudates of palmetto and pine, twisted their rope and rigging from the manes and tails of the dead horses, tore off and stitched together their ragged shirts for sails. An officer named Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca reflected on their chances at the outset. "We resumed our voyage," he would write, "coasting toward the River of Palms, our hunger and thirst growing daily more intense because our scant provisions were nearly exhausted and the water-bottles we had made had rotted."

They tried to keep in sight the coast's barrier islands, sand peninsulas, and mangrove thickets, putting in for rest in the sheltered bays. But after several days the mighty outwash of the Mississippi River spewed the flotilla far out into the gulf, and then in those fragile crafts they ran afoul of a hurricane, which drowned many and crashed a few ashore on Galveston Island, which they named Malhado, the "Island of Doom." Only six of them ever saw other Spaniards again.

Cabeza de Vaca set out on a six-thousand-mile odyssey, at times as a slave of Indians, then as a shaman drawing on prayer and necessity that he could be a faith healer, and ultimately as a trader of copper, turquoise, deer hearts. The survival of Cabeza de Vaca and his few companions was a magnificent feat of endurance, achieved on no more than the strength of wits and prayer, a sheer refusal to give up. Legend has it that Cabeza de Vaca plunged through thorny canyon lands and crossed the glistening jewel of Rio Grande tributaries, the Devils River. Many days later, the wanderers found the first real village beside the river, which ran between stark unwooded mountains—probably the future settlement of El Paso. Aborigines cultivated beans, squash, and corn along the river. Replenished and encouraged, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions roved onward in distance the Indians measured by jornadas—treks between the semipermanent tribal rancherías. The walk carried them several days along the Rio Grande's bottoms of cottonwood and willow, switch grass and cane; they crossed the wide, chest-deep stream in today's southern New Mexico. The Europeans came upon a tribe of planters and bison hunters—"Cow People"—who received them with prescient misgivings and stressed the harsh difficulties before them, whether they stayed near the river or braved a desert crossing. The only things they would find that were halfway edible were juniper berries.

Did Cabeza de Vaca sense that the river he camped beside was the Río de las Palmas his companions had died trying to find? There is no hint that he made that geographical connection. He just had faith that if he kept walking and, basically, rounding back to the left, he would someday encounter Spaniards. Cabeza de Vaca explored enough desert, shortgrass plain, and juniper-studded hills that he ardently believed the stories of Cíbola, the fabulous Indian cities of gold and plantations of cotton that had been founded on the plains, it was said, by seven fugitive bishops. (Fugitives from where, one has to wonder, and whose authority?) At least Cabeza de Vaca relayed the stories of Cíbola as if he believed them—at the end of his long walk he dazzled countrymen with tales of arrowheads made of emeralds. Of course, he hadn't brought any specimens along. This phantom civilization, which the Spaniards hoped would rival the riches surrendered to the crown by the Aztecs and Incas, was always just a little farther on, a few more horizons north or west. Knowing they were not the ones who would find it, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions circled southward through the country of the Gila River and the Chiricahua Mountains; they eventually began to hear from the Indians tales of men who were Christians. Near the northernmost settlement of Spanish empire, Culiacán, New Galicia (which is today the Mexican state of Sinaloa), they found these Christians terrorizing the Indians as slave hunters. The year was 1537.

Cabeza de Vaca must have thought many times in that decade that his luck had run out, that this was his destiny, the place where he would die. He came to love the vast country whose gateway was the Rio Grande and many of the peoples he encountered there. He helped indigenous Americans fend off slave traders from rival tribes, and he wanted to leave all of them peace, priests, and plenty. Conquer them, yes, but make their lives better. As a leader of subsequent expeditions in South America, the conquistador punished Spaniards who had come across the ocean to loot and rape—also ordered his men to carry his bed through a jungle. They mutinied and sent him back across the Atlantic in chains. After so many brushes with death in a place almost as foreign as the moon, he nonetheless came to his end amid his family, a pensioner honored in his country. He died in 1557 at about age 67.

Cabeza de Vaca was a survivor in another important way. Men named Dorantes and Castillo and another known only as "the Negro" lived to tell much the same story. But Cabeza de Vaca had the talent and foresight to put it down on paper—to write about it—and as a result their wild experience has lived on under his signature. La Relación (The Relation, or his account) was first published in 1542; seven years later he retitled a second edition Naufragios (Shipwrecks), which seems to imply an impish sense of humor. Cabeza de Vaca wrote a longer chronicle about his time in South America, but the first one became an ageless book of travel and adventure. For Europeans it provided the first vivid glimpse of a wilderness that would be called Texas, and of a river that one country severed from Spain would call Rio Bravo and that another country severed from Mexico would call the Rio Grande. For the people who came to call themselves Texans, his book was the foundation of a literary heritage. Cabeza de Vaca was not the best-educated survivor of that shipwreck—nor was he the only one to put thoughts and quill to paper—but he wrote with subtle, instinctive flair. "Eating the dogs," he began one chapter, "seemed to give us strength enough to go forward; so commending ourselves to the guidance of God our Lord, we took leave of our hosts, who pointed out the way to others nearby who spoke their language." La Relación is a work of art. And from it has flowed a shared literature of Mexico and the United States.


At 1,885 miles, the Rio Grande ranks twentieth in length among the earth's rivers, yet it has only two major tributaries. The river that Cabeza de Vaca knew as Río de las Palmas has gone by many names, a number of them lovely: Mets'ichi Chena and P'osoge and Paslápane ("big river" in languages of native peoples), Río Caudaloso ("carrying much water" in Spanish), Río de la Nuestra Señora ("river of our lady"), Río Turbio ("muddy" or "turbulent"), Río Guadalquivir, Río de la Concepción, Río de la Buenaventura del Norte, Tiguex River, River of May, Grand River, Río del Norte, Río del Norte y Nuevo México, Río Bravo del Norte, Río Grande del Norte. The river's distinctiveness is captured by the two names that have endured: Mexico's Río Bravo ("angry river" or "fierce river") and the United States' Rio Grande ("great river"). If not for the happenstance of politics, war, and history, it might have attained the name recognition of, say, the Brazos. It was a long river on the Indian frontier. But it became an international boundary—"the Border"—a heavy burden for any river to bear. Particularly one that runs through such dry country.

The story of the Rio Grande of course precedes the coming of Europeans. The river was born through eons of clash and shove of rock and lava and ice, its secrets known by beings that communicate by sniff and howl and rattle, its legends and fables and gods celebrated and passed down through the ages by oral storytellers. The Rio Pecos, which heads in the stunning Sangre de Cristos, may have been the first stream to force its way to the sea, followed by the Río Conchos, which is born in the Sierra Madres Occidental; flattened on maps, the Conchos's tributaries look like the root system of a large old tree. In the river's northernmost reach, the continent's divide sends the runoff and snowmelt racing from the San Juan Mountains. In these mountains, glaciers once crunched and moved rock, melted, and filled basins until one by one they broke through the dams and flowed without ceasing to the Gulf of Mexico.

One cave farther downriver has evidence of human occupation going back fifteen to twenty thousand years. Canyons in the upper Rio Grande have sustained tribes at least twelve thousand years. The cave-dwelling Sandia culture gave way to the Clovis mammoth hunters and Folsom bison hunters and Archaic peoples who learned to grow corn and the Basketmakers who trained dogs to help them hunt. The Anasazi learned to make ceramic pottery, and they used timber for ladders and supports in their construction that evolved from cave dwellings to pueblos; they advanced from spears to bows and arrows and established that turkeys were fine to eat and, perhaps, easier to hunt than large mammals. The Anasazi flourished and then abruptly vanished, giving way to several pueblo-dwelling peoples who enjoyed a sort of golden age along the Rio Grande while Crusaders and Muslims were fighting over another desert's Holy Land. But the pueblo dwellers were always being marauded by nomads. And then in 1540, to their utter stupefaction, they were attacked by Spaniards under the command of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, whose greed for the mythical Cíbola was whetted by the briefings of Cabeza de Vaca.

Within the Spanish empire, the making of a mestizo culture was by then well under way; a granddaughter of Hernán Cortéz and great-granddaughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II married a rich Basque named Juan de Oñate, who in 1598 claimed "all the kingdoms and provinces of New Mexico" for the Crown. As governor, Oñate made the tribes of the upper Pecos and Rio Grande submit to an Act of Obedience and Homage. The Pueblos endured the rule of soldiers and priests until 1680, when Apaches and Navajos joined them in rage and rebellion, killing 413 missionaries and colonists and sending the rest in pell-mell flight down the Rio Grande. Though the Spaniards soon returned and crushed the puebloan revolt, many refugees of that fighting chose not to take any more chances upriver. Their adobe settlement was named El Paso del Norte, but its soil and riverbank was that of Ciudad Juárez, not the city that Texans today call El Paso. The settlers did not build and till north of the river for another two hundred years.


For almost five centuries—a blink of an eye in many civilizations; a long time in one forced with some difficulty on the watershed of the Rio Bravo or Rio Grande—the river has mystified and inspired humans to write about it and make its images and moods linger through (what is for me) the alchemy of photography. Artful painters have also been drawn to the river, composing on rock walls ages before anyone knew of canvas; and writers of poetry, drama, screenplays, and songs, not just fiction and nonfiction prose. The decision to limit the scope and modes of artistic expression in this book was mine alone—a matter of what I'm comfortable with. Though the focus of their reflections and narratives may range far back in time, most of the writers featured in this story of a river are contemporaries of mine. The photographs, like the prose, seek a balance of historic and contemporary. To my eye, presentations of color and black-and-white photographs within the same book detract from each other. The subtlety and starkness of the river and terrain invites black-and-white imagery. Early photographers who did not have the option of color are an important part of this book's scheme, and some of the most superb contemporary photographers of the Rio Grande work only in color. I salute those latter artists with regrets.

This is a book about the river. The border—and the immigration and contraband and music and food and sixteen-wheelers; all the tragedy and richness of its wildly varied culture—are closely related themes, but they are secondary. The other thing I wanted to do in selecting these pictures and pieces of writing was to set the bar high. I was not surprised by the wealth of talent and work I had to choose from, but I was startled by the cheerfulness and eagerness of so many artists, or their estates and archivists, to lend these voices and visions to the undertaking. The magic of the Rio Grande far exceeds its natural beauty and the power of its commerce. A friend who was instrumental in bringing this book to the page discovered that since 1890 at least ninety-seven movies have been made with titles that include the words "Rio Grande." This story of the Rio Grande is meant to be impressionistic and accumulative, not definitive. While gathering material, I was twice challenged by men of gifts and discernment (moviemakers) to identify a single story which crystallized and summed up everything one ought to know about the river. The dominant political issues nowadays are the regional and international strife over its water and the U.S. government's decision that the river and all other borders of its sovereignty are the new frontier of a war against terrorism in the Middle East. Beyond that, all I could reply was: "You got me." The Rio Grande's narrative is like the silt of its bottomlands and delta—a complex layering of many locales and traditions. The river belongs to two countries, and as a consequence it is protected and managed by neither. It is a broken river now, overused and abused and in peril. Yet still it glows, emerald-like, in a collective imagination. And that mystique is its best hope for salvation.


On a warm July afternoon in 2002 I was going to see the river's mouth for the first time. The centuries of clearing for farms and communities have today reduced the Sabal palms known by Cabeza de Vaca to one last stand in a small Audubon preserve outside Brownsville, and a withering drought had this summer left most of the wetlands as dry as chalk. In years of good rain the lowlands along the Rio Grande would be marshes teeming with shellfish and minnows hunted by ibises and herons, stepping sprightly in the brine. But now as I rode eastward on Highway 4, the most striking features out ahead were airborne white swirls of sand and salt. Freshwater inflow is an estuary's lifeblood, but these days the Rio Grande has little of that to give. Symptomatic of its biological illness were crusts of salt that lined the banks for hundreds of yards; they resembled icy slush. The once-sprawling river delta had been reduced to a nearly barren, eroded strip of earth. Across South Bay, which is the lower end of Laguna Madre, I could make out in the haze a few buildings in Port Isabel. My guide remarked that some residents of Port Isabel were having trouble breathing—there was so much windblown grit in the air.

The guide was a pleasant man named Gilberto Rodriguez. He grew up on a farm in the Valley, spent some years working as an investigator for law firms, and now roamed the lower Rio Grande as a watermaster specialist for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In layman's terms, Rodriguez was an unarmed water cop; he spent much of his time checking pump gauges on the Texas side, making sure none of its farmers were drawing more water than they were allowed. For many Rio Grande Valley residents, the mere inference of such cheating sparked outrage, and Rodriguez told me there had been times when he feared violence. "The hotter the water," he reflected, "the more hostile people become."

He was not referring to water temperature. Valley growers were livid over what they believed was Mexican theft of Rio Grande water in the northern state of Chihuahua. In the United States we learn that the Rio Grande begins with snowmelt and rapids in the Rockies of Colorado and New Mexico and then the river marks the plains with graceful lines of cottonwood and willow as it winds southward and claims its legacy as the Texas-Mexico border. Among geologists and geographers, especially of U.S. education and persuasion, that is gospel. Other experts on the river have long contended that the genuine stream of origin is Mexico's Río Conchos. Whatever the technicalities and truth of that science of water and gravity and elevation, these days dams in New Mexico, the thirsty and sprawling border cities of El Paso and Juárez, and giant tangles of salt cedar strangle the Rio Grande's flow by the time it enters Texas. In undisputed fact, if not in science, the river's headwater is now the Río Conchos, which begins high in the Mexican cordilleras, crosses a forbidding pan of Chihuahuan Desert, and revives the parent stream at Presidio and Ojinaga, the storied La Junta above Big Bend.

By terms of a 1944 treaty, two-thirds of the Conchos's flow belongs to Mexico; the remaining third is supposed to be released to the United States. Yet how exactly does one possess a river? In the 1990s Mexico began to amass a huge "water debt." Instead of regularly releasing Río Conchos water downstream, managers in Chihuahua stored it in reservoirs for the use of its towns and for irrigating farms. Texas farmers believed that their way of life was being sold down the river—or up the river—and in their confusion and exasperation they were infuriated by the tepid support of the U.S. government. Because of Mexico's water debt, the growers calculated the loss to their fields at about 489 billion gallons of water and warned that the Valley economy could collapse. Their anger had embroiled Mexican president Vicente Fox in a domestic furor that could only sour his once-bright relations with his American counterpart, George W. Bush. Invoking the rhetoric of America's war on terrorism, Texas agriculture commissioner Susan Combs—an ambitious Republican politician and one of the farmers' key supporters—branded Chihuahua "a rogue state." But the farmers' ire was aimed not only at Mexico. The conflict had embarrassed Texas governor Rick Perry and the hugely popular (at least in Texas) President Bush.

A dwindling supply of water was an issue for all Texans—no less for those in the rain-soaked forests and coastlands whose plenty was eyed enviously by Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other cities. But few Texans raised as desperate a fuss as Rio Grande Valley farmers. For a decade they had suffered a dry spell rivaling the legendary drought of the forties and fifties that had turned most of Texas into a federal disaster area. Because the groundwater is brackish, the Valley could get no help from its underlying aquifers; the Rio Grande carried all the water there was. Every drop of Conchos water was vital to the farmers, but that spigot had been all but turned off.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at the mouth of the Rio Grande, which was further depleted and consumed by spongy mats of hyacinth and hydrilla. At the terminus of Highway 4, Gilberto Rodriguez and I jostled from pavement to loose sand. It was a pretty day at the beach. The white-capped waves were a bright dark blue, and squadrons of brown pelicans folded their wings and smacked beak-first into the surf, trying to catch dinner. Boca Chica, which means "small mouth," had none of the glitz of nearby South Padre Island, but families were out fishing, splashing, building sand castles. Ahead, a portable light tower had been erected. That landmark, Rodriguez told me, was Mexico. Parked on the beach, hood pointed toward the surf, was a green-and-white SUV marked "U.S. Border Patrol." For hours on end two agents sat and stared at beachcombers and the gulf. They returned our nods as we passed, but their expressions were not particularly friendly.

The agents represented the increased vigilance that had come to America since terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside. The pressure of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants on communities and institutions north of the Rio Grande was hardly new. During the Second World War, Texas was excused from the regulations of a federal program that brought in Mexican farm laborers because its own system of making that arrangement was so deeply ingrained. Yet generations later, members of the Texas congressional delegation were instrumental in pushing through a wholesale revision of immigration laws in 1996 that turned away virtually all Latin Americans. They continued to pour across the border illegally.

But the tenor now was quite different. The discord was no longer driven by jealousy over jobs and trade and resentment at the cost of educating and providing health care and social services to illegal aliens, known more politely as undocumented workers. America's policy makers perceived a nation living in fear and resentment of just about all foreigners except the British. Many decades had passed since Juan Cortina and Pancho Villa flouted U.S. power and killed gringos on American soil. But once again, American might was being employed to make the Rio Grande a barricade, not an inconvenience.

Citizens of all nations could now legally cross the border only at official ports of entry. The closest one to Boca Chica was a bridge across the Rio Grande between Brownsville and Matamoros. If any of those beachgoers, Rodriguez, or I strayed past the line marked by the portable light tower, U.S. agents would arrest us when we tried to come back across the sand.

Which added to the surreal aura; for it was all sand. The spot was not unlike other strips of sand and shell that the tide and currents lay out in the gulf's endless construction of beaches becoming dunes becoming barrier islands. The difference was that this sandbar had obliterated a natural frontier between nations and left the celebrated Rio Grande a tepid, stagnant shallow. It had too little push to cross the sandbar and reach the ocean.

Rodriguez and I got out of his pickup and walked. The border was further marked by a couple of barrels and a stretch of sagging, yellow plastic construction fence. Beyond the plastic fence I watched some Mexican boys skimming a pool with fishing nets. One stood in the middle of the great river about a quarter of a mile inland, and the water came no higher than his knees.

"I have not brought you to the mouth of the river," Rodriguez said with a slight smile. "I have brought you to the end of the river.



“Rio Grande is a fine representation of the human histories and lives that are entwined with this great river.”
Southwest BookViews

“In Rio Grande, Reid has assembled an intoxicating mix of prose, conveying the enchantment, struggle, and mystery of the river.”
New Mexico Historical Review