Dob Cunningham (right) and his friend Larry Johnson stand on the edge of Cunningham's 800-acre ranch in Quemado, Texas, which touches the Rio Grande. On the other side, Mexico.
Dob Cunningham (right) and his friend Larry Johnson stand on the edge of Cunningham's 800-acre ranch in Quemado, Texas, which touches the Rio Grande. On the other side, Mexico. Kainaz Amaria/NPR
My colleagues and I drove 2,428 miles and remained in the same place.
We gathered a team, rented a car, checked the batteries in our recorders and cameras. We moved from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. We crossed deserts, plains and mountains. But all the while, we were living in Borderland — zigzagging across the frontier between Mexico and the United States.
The edge of a fence near the U.S.-Mexico border in Hidalgo, Texas.
The edge of a fence near the U.S.-Mexico border in Hidalgo, Texas. Kainaz Amaria/NPR
We were seeking stories of people, goods and culture that cross the border. Heavily fortified though it is, the border remains the place where two nations meet, trade, clash and influence one another. It's a place to see history — how the United States spread across the West, into lands that once belonged to Mexico — and a place to glimpse both nations' emerging futures. We meant to explore big issues like immigration, crime and business through the personal stories of people who cross.
That's the mouth of the Rio Grande. The foreground is the United States. The far shore is Mexico, where fishermen cast nets in the water. It's so close we could smell the meat they're grilling over there.
That's the mouth of the Rio Grande. The foreground is the United States. The far shore is Mexico, where fishermen cast nets in the water. It's so close we could smell the meat they're grilling over there. Kainaz Amaria/NPR
We began at the spot you see above, the mouth of the Rio Grande. The near shore, that's Texas; the far shore, where the trucks are parked, that's Mexico. People were grilling meat on the far side, so close we could smell it. The river was only 100 feet or so wide, and a Mexican fisherman stood knee-deep in the center of the channel. From there we planned to move up the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas, then strike out across the desert, as the border does, toward the Mexican city of Tijuana.
Within an hour we'd gone from this peaceful spot to a parade: Mariachi music and marching bands celebrated Charro Days, an annual festival marking the friendship of Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — sister cities on opposite sides of the river. We saw how the cities were linked (Brownsville residents competed in a grito contest to see who could deliver the longest and grandest Mexican howl) and also how they were separated. Brownsville residents look at Matamoros with foreboding these days, and many are reluctant to cross because of the drug-related violence and kidnapping of past years.
grito contest in downtown Brownsville, Texas, and its neighboring Mexican city, Matamoros.
Charro Days is a binational festival celebrated with three parades, live music and a
Charro Days is a binational festival celebrated with three parades, live music and a grito contest in downtown Brownsville, Texas, and its neighboring Mexican city, Matamoros. Kainaz Amaria/NPR
It was at Brownsville that we made our first half-dozen border crossings, going in and out of Matamoros by car and on foot, stopping by the old cathedral and also spending two nights in a Mexican Holiday Inn. Once we crossed with Oscar Casares, a novelist who grew up in Brownsville, though he confessed his friends were worried about him going. There was no line to cross the border into Matamoros, no one even to check our passports; there was a big wait at the security lines to get out. The city was calm.
In the central square of Matamoros, we met the first of six public radio correspondents who were adding to our reporting: NPR's John Burnett, a longtime veteran of border reporting. He told us a story of Santa Muerte — Saint Death — the patron saint of the drug trade, whose image has spread out of Mexico into much of the United States.
Many people think of the Borderland as a single region — north and south — linked by history, trade and often by blood ties. Of course the two sides of the border are different in many ways, but they were bound by a single shared experience, the border itself. We will hear their stories in days to come.