In 1971 I had a low-level job at the British Consulate in Los Angeles. My title was Commercial Assistant which meant that I read through the Yellow Pages in search of export opportunities for British companies. In those days there weren’t many export opportunities for British companies. The Japanese were strong competitors on the west coast and our flagship, Rolls Royce, went bankrupt.
One of my tasks was to help a large international company based in Britain. I hadn’t spotted too many opportunities for them but their Marketing Director and their Chief Financial Officer still decided that it was in their interest to visit.
The Marketing Director was the first to arrive. He was young and quite charming, in a Hugh Grant kind of way. I didn’t have much to offer him, but he admitted his trip was more of a vacation than a trade mission, so I took him out for a drink. He was planning to stay for more than a week and I had nothing for him to do. I felt I had let him down and so I invited him home for dinner. My girlfriend, Kathy, was charmed by him and to my consternation he was with her. We established that he was happily married and tried to think of the best way to entertain him.
“Mexico,” he said. Lots of people in LA went to Baja. It sounded like a good idea. An American citizen didn’t need a visa and it seemed neither did a British tourist but I had a diplomatic visa and thought it best to check. I got a Mexican visa and off we went in our VW bug.
We were stopped at the border. I showed my passport with my diplomatic credentials and my visa but the official decided that my hair was too long. He called me a hippie and said I couldn’t come into Mexico because I might smoke marijuana. Hell, marijuana comes from Mexico. It’s even got a Mexican name but we’re not allowed to smoke it in Mexico? I made a U-turn.
My hair was long, but that’s how I got my job. I was living in Toronto when I fell in love with an American girl. I found myself living in New York undocumented. In those days you didn’t want to be documented if you were young and male because of the draft for the Vietnamese war. One day I was on Fifth Avenue when I saw a protest outside the South African UN mission. I mentioned it in a bar I used to go to on the upper eastside, on Second Avenue. A lot of Brits and Australians hung out there and they told me that the South Africans really needed staff and you didn’t need a work permit. I wasn’t sure about the South Africans but I went to the British UN mission. They loved me. I was the perfect image of swinging England. I started work as the janitor at the British Trade Mission on 58th street. The UN mission and consulate was down on Third Avenue. The porters there wore uniforms but I was encourage to wear flower patterned shirts and bell-bottomed pants. If I needed anything lifted or moved I could call on the 3rd Avenue porters. I shared an office with the head man’s chauffeur and made friends with the typists who were all the daughters of privilege.
I enjoyed my job but I was given a chance at promotion. I sat in front of a panel who questioned the authenticity of my accent. Was it English, Irish, Canadian? I didn’t get the job but I must have made an impression because I was offered a job in the Los Angeles consulate.
The Consul-General in Los Angeles wasn’t so keen on swinging England . He didn’t like the way I dressed and I was sent home to change on my first day.
So, we were turned away from Tijuana. We drove a few miles up the road. I pinned my hair up and we went back. All I remember about Mexico is that we got lost for a while and drank beer in a small bar with an earthen floor, and lively bars in Ensenada and a beach restaurant in Rosarita. It wasn’t much different than California.
In 2018 I planned to spend Christmas with my daughter, Kathy’s daughter, in Los Angeles. I decided to drive. I wanted to check out the border and see what all the fuss was about. My idea was to drive along the entire border and cross over to Mexico at Big Bend National Park. When I got close to South Padre Island I realized I had forgotten my passport.
South Padre Island looks like a typical beach town. Pirate themed restaurants, gift shops, motels. But after driving through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana the Mexican influence was noticeable. My Mexican-American waiter had the swagger and the drawl of a Hollywood cowboy. Even though I knew that Texas had been part of Mexico I was still surprised how Hispanic it was given all the fuss about immigrants. It made me wonder if these Texans were really so afraid of their cousins across the border. I also heard a lot of people speaking Spanish. It didn’t add up.
In 1836, the year that Texas left Mexico and became a republic, the population was about 50,000. 30,000 Anglos, 5,000 black slaves, 3,470 Tejanos and 14,200 Indians. The Anglos had arrived in the last 15 years and brought their slaves. Mostly they had come from the southern U.S. states and had been encouraged to settle by the Mexican government. They were given large tracts of land. The Spanish mission system, successful in California and New Mexico, hadn’t worked in Texas mainly because of the Comanches. The Comanches had been quick to see the advantage of the Spanish horse. They had become expert horsemen and had developed a nomadic way of life following the buffalo herds. They had also been quick to see the advantage of the gun and had armed themselves by trading with the French. They weren’t interested in the mission life of prayer and farming. They had migrated from the Great Plains, in part to get away from the Crow and Blackfoot, where they pushed aside the Apaches who had pushed aside the Jumanos. The Mexican government hoped the Anglos would take care of the Comanches and expected the settlers to obey Mexican law, learn to speak Spanish and convert to Catholicism.
Texas was a long way from Mexico City and the settlers were given a lot of autonomy. They made their own laws based on English Common Law, spoke English and traded with the Comanches when they weren’t fighting them. The Mexicans realised they were losing control and banned immigration from the U.S. in 1830. This didn’t stop the inflow. The Mexican government tried unsuccessfully to regain control but when they passed a law banning slavery the settlers started a war for independence financed by cotton merchants, slave traders and land speculators from New Orleans.
After the revolution the Tejanos, the Spanish speaking Texans who had fought alongside the Anglos, were made to swear allegiance to The Republic if they wanted citizenship. The Tejano’s ancestry could be anything. Spanish, English, Irish, Mestizo. It wasn’t racial. It was cultural. Today when we say Mexican-American do we include Tejanos? Do we include Native Americans? Do we include descendants of the Anglo colonists? I think we call all brown people at the border Mexican-American because we don’t like to admit that they are indigenous. We think of the U.S. as a white country and thus make the natives foreigners.
I’d read that the National Butterfly Center was fated to be on the southern side of the border wall. Presumably butterflies can fly over a wall no matter how tall but the idea of a national anything being inaccessible to the nation intrigued me. So that’s where I headed.
US 281 is like any other American highway. Fast food, discount outlets, motels. But there is a difference. In the air there are reconnaissance blimps and on the road there are lots of green slashed border patrol pickup trucks. As I drove along I saw two of them in a left-turn lane. As I passed one of them peeled off to follow me. He pulled right up to my side, looked at me, saw an old white guy and went back to his staging area.
The butterfly center is in Mission, Texas. It abuts Bentsen State Park. Lloyd Bentsen is the senator and vice-presidential candidate who told Dan Quayle that he was no Kennedy. The area is home to many winter Texans. In Florida we call them snowbirds. They like to ride bicycles, play cards and take advantage of the early bird special menu. The receptionist had a nose ring and told me that because I wasn’t a winter Texan I had to pay eight dollars to enter. She assured me I would be able to see where the wall was going but that I would have to walk because the border patrol was locking the gates. She didn’t sound like she was fond of the border patrol. I drove down to the gate. A dark skinned man with an accent was locking it. He didn’t seem too fond of the Border Patrol either. He told me I might see some of them on horseback if I was lucky. He said “lucky” with a bit of a sneer.
I set off down the road. It was hot. A helicopter buzzed overhead. Every now and again I saw a butterfly. I kept walking. I could hear the river but I couldn’t see any sign of the wall preparations. I’d expected to see surveyor stakes and maybe some excavation. A fit older man approached me on a bicycle. His t-shirt said “Wildlife Volunteer.” I asked him where the wall was going to be built. He told me that the river was all around and then he said he was from Germany. I told him I had been born in England. This made him laugh. ” You are leaving,” he roared “Brexit.” I told him I wasn’t leaving. I was staying in the USA. He was a winter Texan and would be going home to Germany in the spring. He told me that Texas was settled by Germans and that I should stop by Fredericksburg in the Hill Country. I’d never thought of Texas being settled by Germans.
I drove along the border road. There was a state park and a border crossing at Falcon Heights. I headed there and planned to camp overnight.
Two pretty Spanish speaking rangers checked me into the campground which was almost full. Most of the RVs had Texas plates but a few were from Mexico. I don’t see the point of RV camping. People sit inside their mobile homes watching satellite TV. It hardly seems worth the journey. I sat outside my van heating up my can of stew and feeling vulnerable and lonely. After dinner I turned on my TV. I could only get three stations and two of them were in Spanish. I watched ‘Frazier’ reruns.
There is a boat launch in the park with notices warning about the dangers of Mexico. The river is narrow there but there is nothing to see when you look across. Outside the park there is one of the 48 border crossings to Mexico. The Mexican border is the most crossed border in the world with approximately 350 million crossings a year.
People cross both ways. To work, to shop, for entertainment and to visit their families. And it is all legal. Illegal crossing to the US is down significantly. In 2000 1.6 million were caught crossing illegally. In 2001 1.3 million. In 2018 only 396,579 were apprehended. It’s possible that illegals are becoming sneakier or maybe the border patrol is getting lazier or maybe once someone crosses they don’t go home for visits. Many of those caught are repeat offenders. So why build a wall? Trump claims that walls work. His example is El Paso. “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime – one of the highest in the country and considered one of our nations most dangerous cities,” he lied.
In 1993 there were 6,500 violent crimes recorded in El Paso. This number fell steadily. In 2006 the number was less than 2700. From 2006 to 2011 violent crime increased 17%. The fence was started in 2006 and completed in 2009. These figures are actually quite low when compared to similarly sized American cities.
But there is a problem. In 2017 there were 19 murders in El Paso but on the other side of the fence, in Juarez, there were 767. In the Mexican border towns a full scale war between rival drug gangs is being waged and it spills into the US. Maybe not the violence but definitely the corruption.
More than 100 local, state and federal law enforcement officials have been indicted on drug-related corruption charges on America’s Southwest border since the 1990s. 77 Border Patrol employees were indicted or arrested on corruption charges between 2005 and 2017. Drug profits buy cars and houses on the US side and are used as venture capital for legitimate businesses. Drugs are a scourge all over America and the majority of illegal drugs come from across the southern border through ports of entry. A wall will hardly make a dent in drug smuggling neither will a wall stop human trafficking. Trump fantasizes about beautiful young women, bound in duct tape, being driven across the desert and then making a quick turn onto an unguarded US highway but the massage parlors, like the one where his friend Robert Kraft was caught, are staffed by Asian women who overstayed their visas. A wall won’t stop the caravans of Central American families. They give themselves up and request refugee status.
A wall is a bad idea. Yes, there are emergencies. Drugs, poverty and violence. We need to address these problems and stop avoiding them with a simplistic non-solutions.
The wall was boring me and I was beginning to feel angry. I decided to check out the Germans.