I drove the truck into a ditch, not entirely but enough that I had cab dipping at a slight angle. It was Day Two in the Rio Grande Valley, Day 8 or 9 in Texas, hot and humid and no A/C in the truck. I hadn’t slept in the same bed for more than two nights-nor would I for the duration of the visit -and I really needed Blue Bell Ice cream. I backed out of the driveway, turned the wheel to face the street, and in I went.
I had already clocked, God, a lot of miles on that truck while canvassing the Valley, which is really a delta, talking with activists, landowners, and shooting some footage. Most of the time I’m talking with folks over 70 years old, people who crack open the vaults of family history, erect museum class exhibits of their family trees in living rooms for me, entrust me with years’ worth of their research– copies of ancestral wills, newspaper articles, family trees, letters–the story of who they are.
These are the folks who petition city and state officials to install plaques and monuments of important historical figures, Tejano and Mexican heroes neglected in the “official” history. I’m deeply moved and humbled by their trust and faith.
This truly has been a blessed journey. The Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid folks patiently answered my questions, plied me with documents and offered up desk space, a phone and internet access on my first day in the Valley, which is a huge, huge gift when you’re on the road. I unpacked my thoughts in peace in a borrowed house. A college professor introduced me to some amazing young women, activists. A retired U.S. customs official showed me important sites that I would never have found on my own and took me to meet an elder (too fiery to be elderly) landowner.
I really didn’t understand his gripe other than, of course, for the fact that there’s a wall running through his property. It took some patience and a whole lot of questions for us to understand one another, but once we did, we started chatting about his life, and he mentioned some AG-related job. I said my father retired from the Texas Dept of Agriculture. Who’s your Dad, he asked and I told him. Man, oh man, he said, with a laugh. He knew my dad, says he even has a photo of the two of them in Mexico. I can’t tell you I welcomed this ‘surprise,’ it caught me off guard, and feeling exposed, as if they had glimpsed something very private. I can’t put my finger on it exactly.
“What a coincidence”, he said. My guide quickly corrected him: it’s a dioscidencia, the interference of ‘dios’ to bring people together for a particular purpose. I can accept that. As I left the home of another elder, he said, “I felt like I already knew you”. And I him, and the many others who welcomed me into their homes and shared their family secrets and sorrows and triumphs.
I closed the journey with a considerable amount of footage, a slew of ideas for articles and the assurance that I have chosen the correct path. Before I left, Homero Vera handed me a near complete collection of his now defunct Mesteno magazine, the Encyclopedia Britannica of South Texas and my very own copy of the guide to Spanish and Mexican land grants. I felt as if my initiation had been complete.
As for the truck in the ditch, the man next door tried to haul me out with a makeshift tow– a chain fastened to his bronco and the truck–but my tires didn’t have any traction. His father drove up, climbed out of his sedan, sized up the situation and said: keep your tires pointed straight ahead. I turned the wheel, straightened my tires and out I came. A worthy lesson.