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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Let's listen to the start of a road trip along the U.S.-Mexico border. Steve Inskeep drove the whole of it from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. He sought stories of people and goods and culture crossing the border, their stories about to immense country influence each other, and we'll ride along in the coming days.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We rented a car, packed a team of people inside...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right.

INSKEEP: ...and set off toward La Frontera - as it's called in Spanish. We began our journey driving across the sand to reach the eastern-most end of the border.

OK. We're pulling out onto the beach. You can hear the surf coming in off the Gulf of Mexico. The beach was in South Texas, and we followed the tracks of vehicles that had come before.

Oh, this has got to be it. This must be the mouth of the Rio Grande.

The river that separates two nation - barely. I can't say it's a massive river - in fact, it might only be 100 feet or so wide at its mouth. A man stood knee-deep casting a fishing net by hand. I would say he is in the dead center of the river - which means he may be standing in a place where and foot is in Mexico in and foot is in the United States. He'd apparently come from the Mexican side. Pickup trucks were parked on the far shore. Men and women sat on chairs. Hola.

They waved back from Mexico, so close we could smell the barbecue they brought along.

So here it is. We're going to follow the course of this river, zigzagging across. At some point around El Paso, Texas, we'll strike out across the desert and continue following the border to the west all the way to Tijuana - which is more than 1,900 miles from here, as the border goes.

We wanted to see the border differently, exploring big issues - like immigration or trade - by finding personal stories of people who cross. Vamonos.

It was two and a half miles to the beginning of the paved road leading westward, and 40 miles to Brownsville, Texas, where we arrived in the middle of a parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Marching band and mariachi bands were part of Charro Days. It's a kind of Mardi Gras for the border. It was a music festival and a grito contest.

Men and women competed to deliver the longest howl.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING)

INSKEEP: The contest was inspired by the shout that declared the start of Mexico's war for independence in 1810. So the grito tradition stretches back to when Texas was part of Mexico. This year's winner was 19-year-old Clara Dawson, who is Anglo, but says she is Mexican in her heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

INSKEEP: We watched the contest with Oscar Casares, a novelist who grew up in Brownsville.

OSCAR CASARES: This weekend is kind of a homecoming.

INSKEEP: When he was a teenager, he used cross the border to party in the Mexican city of Matamoros.

CASARES: There was an element of danger involved because you knew you were in another country, yet it was the next country over. I mean you knew the street. You probably had family over there, but yet you were in another country.

INSKEEP: But in recent years, spectacular violence - often drug-related - made the element of danger seem too real. The American floats in the Charro Days Parade - which used to cross the bridge to Matamoros - now stop short. Oscar Casares hadn't crossed in years, but agreed to walk over with us.

CASARES: We're roughly about two and a half blocks away from the actual river, but we can already see the wall. Homeland Security will call it the fence, but we call it the wall.

INSKEEP: So do you call it a fence if you want to minimize it and call it a wall if you really don't like it?

I think you call it a wall if you're being more honest.

Oscar Casares says he told his friends he was about to cross the bridge with us.

CASARES: I got these looks like, are you serious? Are you going across? And I...

INSKEEP: It's like a hundred feet.

CASARES: I know.

INSKEEP: But he admitted he was nervous too. We crossed the bridge, paid a toll and arrived at a pharmacy that offers Americans access to cheap medication. Business was slow.

The next morning we found the Matamoros central square. Even without the American floats, they kept up their side of that festival that is supposed to link two nations. Street vendors in tents sold bags of coffee, and churros, fried dough dipped in sugar. We were looking for one of the NPR correspondents we expected to meet during our road trip.

He's going to be hard to miss, he's six foot six. There he is. John Burnett was relaxing by a fountain, observing Mexican Marines who keep security.

Hey, good to see you, sir.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, how are you?

INSKEEP: John lives north of the border, in Austin, Texas.

And around his home in Texas, he keeps seeing a bit of culture that has crossed to the U.S. from Mexico, something connected to the fear often surrounding the borderland.

BURNETT: Santa Muerte, Saint Death. It's a Mexican folk saint which is popular all over Mexico. And I've also seen her, she's crossed into the United States all over the Southwest. I've seen her image in Austin, in Dallas Fort Worth, in Houston, along the border here. And so I was really curious to track her back to her origins. So here we are in Matamoros. She's controversial here because Saint Death is associated with the drug trade, but you can find statues of her for sale just a few blocks away.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

BURNETT: This is Mercado Juarez in downtown Matamoros. Here, amid the onyx chess sets and Yucateca hammocks, you find her: a statue of a female Grim Reaper dressed in a flowing gown. She is Santisima Muerte - Most Holy Death -revered on both sides of the international border. Shopkeeper Abel Ramirez doesn't much care for the death saint, but business is business.

ABEL RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Santa Muerte is sacred for people who mostly are involved in illicit businesses, like smuggling drugs and people, he says. For my part, I'll sell a statue, but I don't believe in her. Ramirez agrees to take me to a healer, or curandera, who works with Santa Muerte. Through a warren of souvenir shops, he leads me to a small store lined with shelves filled with votive candles, incense, soap, perfumes and figurines in the image of the Bony Lady, as she's called. The owner, who gives her name as Senora Tina, has neatly coiffed hair. A small figure of Saint Death dangles from her neck.

SENORA TINA: (Through translator) I have lots of clients who've turned away from Saint Jude and now follow La Santisima. Maybe they were in a terrible highway accident and they beseeched her to spare their life, and they walked away from the crash. She is the only one who can take a life, because she is Saint Death.

BURNETT: I ask Senora Tina why the cult of Santa Muerte is growing so fast north of the Rio Grande, where you see her prominently displayed in flea markets and religious curio shops.

TINA: (Through translator) In the U.S. there's lots of debauchery. Men are always changing partners. That's when the woman appeals to Santa Muerte to bring her man back home.

BURNETT: References to Saint Death date back as far as the colonial Spanish period, but her following exploded at the beginning of this century when she began to be identified in the media as the patroness of Mexican drug mafias. Last year a Vatican official came to Mexico and denounced the folk saint as sinister and infernal. Border mayors periodically order the destruction of public shrines to Saint Death that appear on the edges of poor colonias. The latest clean-up campaign is here in Matamoros. City Manager Jorge Villareal speaks carefully so as not to offend the murderous Gulf Cartel members in his city who venerate Saint Death.

JORGE VILLAREAL: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: In Mexico, anyone can believe in whatever religion they want, the official says, but they have to do so in temples and inside their homes, not in the public roads. The person who installed the statue of the Bony Lady in the median of the Beach Highway - which the city then hauled to the dump - is a middle-aged woman named Claudia Rosales. She says she's a businesswoman who sells clothing and shoes. She has several tattoos of the skeletal deity, and her office houses a large shrine to Saint Death. And there's a very impressive altar here that has six statues to Santa Muerte. And the altar is covered with fresh flowers and roses. And she's got a bottle of tequila here and she's put a picture of her daughter on the altar, asking for Santa Muerte's protection.

CLAUDIA ROSALES: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Well, I think the mayor should not get involved in the beliefs of the people, says Mrs. Ramirez. God sent Saint Death to us as a messenger, as a mediator. She's like our lawyer.

INSKEEP: John Burnett, one of the NPR correspondents joining us as we travel the U.S.-Mexico border in the coming days. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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