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« We Have a Green Party - Not a Revolution | Main | A Different View of Education »

The Border, Then and Now: Xenophobia Rears Ugly Head

By Cornelio Nouel
September 13, 2008

I spent my teen years living in a world that encompassed the best of two nations - Hamburgers and French Fries and Tacos and Tecate Beer - the Texas-Mexico border. This was a world of wonderful and odd contrasts, a unique blended society of Hispanos and "Anglos", folks that spoke both English and Spanish as well as "Spanglish" or "Tex-Mex" - a word salad of English, Spanish and words that had started out as English and somehow were now "Spanish" - "Troca" for truck, for example.

On the Mexican side, the city of Matamoros, we found a vibrant, colorful Latin society with social mores and customs that clearly reflected Spanish Colonial traditions transformed in many ways by the influence of the New World Mexican culture. Living on the border gave me a great view of two totally unique peoples, separated only by the once mighty Rio Grande, then as now, barely a shadow of it's own self and known to many of us as "El Charco", the puddle.

Last century, when I was a teenager (okay I really feel old now), life in Brownsville, Texas was as placid and languid as the tropical summer season. "Gringos" crossed over into Mexico for shopping, drinking and dancing, some of us crossed over to go ogle at the ladies in what we called "Boystown", the red light district just outside the city of Matamoros. But for the most part we would just go to have a few cervezas, eat tacos de barbacoa, and listen to Mariachi music (and ogle at the senoritas).

These are great memories, memories of a time when the relationships that were built between the two countries were based on friendship and trust, relationships that had the strong foundations of a shared bloodline, respect for the land and deep rooted family values.

We, my buddies and I, were the lucky ones. Our families were middle class families. We had nice houses, new clothes, food, TV, some of us even had cars and, most importantly, our families could afford the tuition for us to attend St. Joseph Academy, a Catholic high school for boys, a wonderful place that would lay the foundation for the rest of our lives. But in spite of our own fortune and comfort we were not blind to the glaring contrasts that existed in our world.

Our city was overwhelmingly Hispanic. Over 90% of our population was of Mexican origin, yet all important city government jobs were filled by "Anglos." At that time, nearly 70% lived on incomes that could best described as "modest." Unemployment and underemployment rates exceeded 50% and average annual incomes were the lowest in the United States, and yet many of our neighbors from across the river in Mexico still saw us as a sort of "promised land" a place to find work and raise a family.

Then, as now, many crossed the river without documents and blended into their new "home" finding work, menial as it often was, raising their families and fulfilling the universal dream of financial security and home ownership.

Back in those days, most immigrants as well as many local residents could not afford to pay for medical care so they went to see folk healers, "Curanderos", herbalists, "Yerberos", the barrio version of massage therapists, "Sobadores" and to have their babies, they went to lay mid-wives known as "Parteras".

Thousands of women delivered their newborns with the aid of these Parteras, the cost of this service at that time probably averaged around $100, about 10% of the cost of delivering at the local hospital. Finding a Partera was easy, you would just drive around the old Southmost neighborhood in Brownsville and look for house with a shingle in front of it that said, "Se atienden partos, Partera" (We assist in birthing, Mid-wive).

There were dozens of Parteras providing these very much needed services to poor women, although many women that could afford to have a doctor and have their delivery at a hospital still chose to go to a Partera. It seems that in some families it was a tradition to go to the Partera that had delivered you to have your own children (some Parteras delivered babies for as many as three generations of women in the same family).

Who would have guessed that being delivered by a Partera would now be used by our own xenophobic government to deny citizens the right to a passport thus preventing them the right to travel abroad?

Well, this is exactly what has happened. American citizens, people born in the US, are being told that the birth certificates signed by the Parteras that delivered them are not "valid proof" of citizenship because "some" of the mid-wives were known to have lied about the birth place of children, some of whom were actually born in Mexico. There is no denying that several Parteras were caught falsifying birth records. These women were prosecuted and lost their birthing licenses, but the fact remains that the overwhelming number of children delivered by these mid-wives were born in Texas and the last time I checked the Lone Star State is still a member of the Union.

The ACLU has filed several law suits in connection to these obvious constitutional violations. To read more about this incredible abuse of power I recommend that you go to, this is a story worth reading and keeping up with.

I wonder about some of the friends I knew in Brownsville so long ago. Their mothers more than likely went to a Partera to have them, and I suspect some of them had their own children at a Partera's home somewhere in the Southmost neighborhood in Brownsville Texas, that wonderful place where I grew up in so long ago.

Brownsville Texas remains a unique place, it retains it's cultural traditions, it has strong connections to it's sister city, Matamoros. I make it a point to go visit my two old aunts, Rosario Ramirez who is 96 and Maria Elena Ramirez who will turn 90 next March, as often as I can. Some of my high school pals and I get together there once a year and cross over to Matamoros to eat tacos, drink Tecate beer, ogle at the beautiful senoritas and pretend that we are still 18 years old, carefree and with a lifetime still ahead of us.

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The blog post previous to it is titled "We Have a Green Party - Not a Revolution"

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