February 7, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
A sign above the café adjacent to the motel across the highway from the railroad tracks in Lordsburg, New Mexico, proclaimed the good news in faded red letters on a flaking white background.
“Whiskey and water,” I told the waitress when she came with her pencil and pad.
“No bar,” she explained.
“But there’s a sign.”
“The bar is cerrito.”
She brought a Tecate and a water glass rimmed with salt, and I tried her again.
“I’ll have the filet tampiqueño, medium rare.”
“Sorry. No tampiqueño left for toniiight please.”
“Then I want liver and onions with hash browns.”
“No liver a-gaiiin tonight sorry.”
So I ordered chicken-fried steak and ate while a group of old people were taken from a senior citizens’ bus and fed fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, peas from a can, and Jell-0. Southern New Mexico, where even sane people and grownups see UFO’s and rumors of space aliens are common, bicyclists vanish from lonely stretches of road into thin air, and weird anomalies present themselves unexpectedly in the vast deserts, has a surreal quality that is more palpable still in the area of the Mexican border, which exists as a kind of no-man’s land where the various human elements seem never to merge, to achieve a common form, identity, or understanding.
Around Animas the desert gave way to a yellow grassy plain on which the Animas Mountains appeared to float like bergs of black ice beneath a platinum sky and elephantine cottonwoods already in bud along the winding river formed a pointillistic screen between the greening bottom and the tin roofs of ranch houses glinting in the indirect light. Before Gregory McNamee in Tucson warned against it, I’d planned to drive from Juárez across the Continental Divide where it follows the Sierra Occidental whose stony peaks pointed above the southern horizon. Much of the marijuana grown in Mexico comes from the Sierra Madre; a gringo passing through the region, if he is not shot by the growers, has a good chance of being murdered by smugglers, or by the federales.
At the foot of the pass in the Pelloncillo Mountains from which Colonel Cooke and his Mormon Brigade in the Mexican-American War lowered their wagons by ropes, a Border Patrol officer sat in a green Ford Bronco monitoring his service radio.
“Have you caught any aliens running around up here today?” I asked him.
“It’s too high and rugged for them. But in Douglas we’re overrun by aliens, and smugglers. Our force has been increased recently from 30 to 60 agents, but we figure that’s going to be the ceiling.”
“And you still could do with twice that many men.”
The officer grinned. “Yes.”
Douglas, Arizona, was founded in 1901 by a party that included the family of Justice William 0. Douglas and developed from an economic base of cattle-ranching, cotton-growing, and copper-smelting. Since the 1970’s when the Justice’s environmentalist allies got the smelters closed down the population of Douglas has dropped from approximately 30 to 10 thousand people, while that of Agua Prieta, its sister city across the border, swelled to 100 thousand, many of them waiting to sneak into the United States under cover of the pall of smoke rising from the city’s perpetually smoldering garbage dumps. I took a room at the Travel Lodge where, in an atmosphere pungent with curry, I had difficulty making myself understood by the manager, a native of New Delhi. The Chinese restaurant adjoining the tavern where I went for a drink displayed a crucifix and a hanging of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the wall. At La Fiesta Café on 8th Street they served an excellent menudo–soup made with hominy and tripe–and steak tampiqueño. The patrons were mostly well-to-do Mexican ranchers and their wives: beautiful women of the pure Spanish type wearing tailored slacks and silk blouses ornamented discreetly with silver. The waitress failed to understand when I ordered scotch-and-soda, then brought a water-glass brimful of raw scotch in which two minuscule ice cubes floated.
I was awakened the next morning by crowing roosters and a man in the repair shop behind the motel hammering out auto bodies. On the sidewalk in front of the Gadsden Hotel where I went for breakfast an old man, having recognized the bronc-buster license plates, stopped me to inquire what part of Wyoming I was from. A saddle stiff with two canes, he said he’d cowboyed in Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Idaho, and mentioned in particular a ranching outfit near Douglas, Wyoming.
“Not the Cannon Land and Livestock Company?”
He nodded vigorously. “No, but I’m acquainted with them folks.”
The skylighted lobby of the Gadsden Hotel with its grand staircase descending between marble columns had been filmed for ten or fifteen movies, one of the more recent of them featuring Paul Newman, and Pancho Villa once ate a meal in the hotel’s dining room. I went into the coffee shop and sat at the counter beside a small brown man in his 70’s: spare, weathered, his silver hair touched with Latin black. As I drank strong coffee he leaned to me in the unabashed self-presenting manner Anglos find disconcerting and said confidentially in a heavily accented voice, “We ought to have a Gringo Day around here–eh? Sunday is the only day of the week when they aren’t all over here on our side of the border.” His family, the old man told me proudly, had been in the United States for five generations. His father arrived in the Douglas area in 1898. He himself was part Irish, part Scot, part English. He spoke a few incomprehensible words, paused for the reaction, and asked, “You don’t understand? That’s Gaelic. You’re a Scot, I can tell by looking at you. You ought to know Gaelic.”
A hard wind driving out of Mexico like an invisible broom pushed waves of trash across the chain-link fence along the international border. A pickup truck with Sonora plates and pieced together from the body parts of differently colored junkyard hulks passed noisily in the northbound lane, and a carefully parked sedan burned quietly by itself at the curb along the main thoroughfare. Over in Agua Prieta young men with vacant faces leaned on iron lamp posts rising from the narrow sidewalks built on high stepped curbs above drains clogged by garbage. Eighteen years ago three members of a Douglas ranching family named Hanigan, the father and two sons, were charged with the kidnapping and torture of three mojados who had ventured across the border in search of work. Public feeling in Douglas was strong for the Hanigans, while in Agua Prieta citizens organized a boycott of the Douglas merchants. For some time after the Hanigans were acquitted on all counts in Cochise County Court, Anglos feared to show their faces in the Mexican city.
“Where are you from?” the United States Customs man asked me as I sought to recross the border into the States. “What do you do up there? Are you a rancher?”
He waved on two old women and a family crowding behind, all of them waving their MICA cards. When they had passed through the inspector, speaking deliberately and in a formal voice, said, “The problem is that they breed beyond the capacity to support themselves. Demographics are going to sink us all. I like these people OK, but they’re not my people. This is a war going on down here, and there’s going to be a white backlash in a few years. –Yes, yes: go on through …. See that old lady?” The Customs man pointed to a toothless crone carrying a shopping bag on each arm. “She’s probably responsible for 30 grandchildren. I’m 40 years old, grew up in Southern California where there were hardly any Hispanics at all. Now the place is overrun with them. And it makes me furious: I resent that I should be responsible for all these people. These small-town peasants have no education, no general knowledge, no English. And they don’t assimilate. They can’t support a wife and six kids on seasonal agricultural work; I don’t know what they’re thinking about. They say the Catholic Church has got them by the neck; I suppose they do.”
Dating from 1880, Bisbee is a monument to the times when Americans knew how to lay out a town and build buildings having dignity and solidity, as well as to the heedless destructiveness of those times. The livid red pit from which generations of Bisbeeans extracted ore for the smelters of Douglas remains an open wound in the surrounding desert hills. A lead story in the Bisbee Observer concerned a Ms. Alexis Claire, a local travel agent arrested for allegedly harassing a Border Patrol agent as he attempted to interrogate a Central American client who wished to purchase a Greyhound Bus ticket. Missing from the reporter’s account was an explanation of how Ms. Claire’s face, pictured in the paper, had failed to turn the offending man to limestone. I drove past her travel office and the huge peace symbol formed from a map of the world hanging behind the plate-glass window and on to Naco, a hamlet located a few miles west of Bisbee on the international border where vigilantes from Tucson used to take shots at illegals crossing into the United States. The outskirts of town were festooned with trash, the shoulders of the highway littered with burst bags of garbage tossed from passing cars for the wind and the starving clogs to tear apart. On Main Street all the commercial buildings except for a couple of bars were closed, and the only people in the street were a group of Mexican boys who, after clearing themselves with United States Customs and Immigration, pushed their jalopy through the port of entry onto American soil and stood grinning and waving to their friends in Mexico as if crossing the border were entertainment for them, or some sort of joke.
In the desert north of Bisbee I stopped for an old woman in a black raincoat who stood beside the road holding a can of beer.
“I’m going to Tucson,” she said through the open window.
“I’m going to Nogales. I can take you as far as Tombstone.”
The woman’s face was a bleary ruin, her stringy white hair streaked obscenely with yellow.
“Thank you,” she said, drinking beer. “Are you a real cowboy?”
“I have to go to jail,” she explained, “for six months.”
”I’m sorry to hear it.”
I let her off at the junction and went to have a look at what remains of the OK Corral.
“Well, that’s Tombstone.”
“Yeah. Now, where’s the cemetery?”
Where a century before gunfighters had blazed away at one another, pot bellied old men from Rockford, Illinois, shuffled about like Weeble-Wobbles, lifting their cameras off their paunches to take slow aim. While the Mexicans arriving in Arizona come to work and to breed, the Americans are here to play for a few more years, and die.
South a mile of the displaced Mexican village of Sasabe, a brick building on the American side of the border faced a shack with the flag of the Republic of Mexico drooping above it on a pole. The steel gate at the crossing had been torn away, only a fragment left hanging from one of the posts. Three United States Customs officials as I drove up stood glassing the Altar Valley to the north.
“What’s going on in Sasabe?” I wanted to know.
The men grinned.
“What you see is what there is,” one of them said, making a wide gesture that encompassed a few hundred square miles of desert. He pointed to the ruined gate. “We had a smuggler through here two weeks ago, he was being pursued by the Border Patrol. When he reached the crossing he ducked his head and hit that gate doing 70 miles an hour–took it clean off, along with the chain and padlock, and he was going so fast he did hardly any damage to the vehicle. What we were doing when you got here was watching a red car, followed by a pickup truck, driving out in the mesquite there. Most of the trouble goes around us here. The smugglers have their own road system allowing them to cross the border without having to come through the Port of Entry. All this valley from the border north 20 miles used to be a single ranch until the owner sold out, and now the lower part here is a bird sanctuary. We’ve got all these nice old folks down from Tucson, wandering around with their cameras and binoculars, taking pictures and looking at the birds, and all the time rubbing shoulders with smugglers and desperadoes and never knowing it. It looks to me like the car and van are harmless, though. You say you’re from Wyoming? I know a guy up in Wyoming. Name’s Bob Skinner.”
“I know Bob and his brothers, too. Outfitters out of Pinedale. And I know the man who used to own this valley. He bought a spread near Cora, north of Pinedale.”
It’s a small world,” the inspector agreed.
He stared away as he spoke at the bird sanctuary. The red car and the truck had vanished, and in the vast stillness of the desert nothing could be seen to stir beneath the savage brow of Baboquivari Peak, legendary home of the Papago deity I’itoi.
“In a couple of hours now,” the inspector said, “we’ll be able to see their headlights out there, 20 miles away, and there won’t be a thing we can do about it. The War on Drugs is all in the politicians’ mouths.”
(This story was first published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.)