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  • August 16th, 2019

SOUTH OF THE BORDER

By Joel M. Vance

 

When I was a teenager on summer vacation from high school I  often would stay up until the small hours  searching the a.m. radio dial for a station playing vintage New Orleans jazz records— Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, King Joe Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton. Or if the stars were aligned right, pick up the all night broadcast of Jean Shepherd from Cincinnati and thrill to his hilarious stories of his boyhood, eerily similar to my own experiences in Chicago.

 

 

Failing to find that treasure trove of good radio (of course on AM—(today’s omnipresent FM radio was barely out of the experimental stage), I would search the upper reaches of the dial where the border blasters lurked. Those were megawatt transmitters, located just over the border between the United States and Mexico, not subject to US limitations on transmitter power. Their signals rocketed through the atmosphere over much of the United States, subjecting listeners to seemingly endless commercials for baby chicks, miracle pills and salves guaranteed to cure the ailing, and for decorative portraits of Jesus Christ on black velvet.

 

I wasn’t in the market for baby chicks, despite my tenuous membership in the Future Farmers of America, but I did listen to those weird radio stations hoping to hear a static-warped song by the Carter family. After the breakup of the original Carter Trio, Mother Maybelle took her three daughters, teenagers Helen and June and adolescent Anita, to South Texas where they could commute across the border to perform on one of the border blaster radio stations.

 

Those were the days when a Yankee could cross the border into Mexico without fear of anything other than Montezuma’s revenge from eating a dicey taco. No need for intensive security checks, passports, identity cards, or anything other than Yankee dollars to feed into the Mexican economy. It was just as easy for a Mexican to cross into the United States to shop, visit relatives, or, for all I know, revel in the fledgling American fast food industry— a vacation from burritos.

 

Now, these many years later, Mexico is a country rife with drug related crime, often inhospitable to Yankees and suspicious of a US government seemingly dedicated to inflicting humiliation and economic mutilation on our one time friendly neighbor to the south. Not to say that there are not genuine reasons for tensions between the two countries, but the Trump administration has spent the past two years plus rubbing salt in an increasingly festering wound without working constructively to medicate the rift between the two neighboring countries.

 

Since those late nights of listening to South of the border songs by the Carters, I’ve been to Mexico a couple of times at widely spaced border crossings, including El Paso, which, according to Trump, is the current bad guy among the gates between the two countries. I remain unscathed.

 

A few years back I was in the recovery stage of a debilitating siege of pancreatitis, the low point of which was several months of being fed through a tube for quite a few hours every day a concoction of what appeared to be Purina Hi Pro dog food. This unappetizing remedy was thrust past my touchy pancreas through a tube inserted through one nostril and out the other, down my throat into my tummy. It was a less than pleasant experience but it actually caused me to gain a few pounds and did allow my ailing internal organ to heal. No aftereffects, except that I now have to suppress a desire to pee on trees.

 

Through it all I had one overwhelming desire threaded through the long hours digesting dog food—that was to attack a shredded chicken quesadilla lovingly prepared by a Mexican cook, and to savor every bite of it.

 

Decades ago, I was on active duty at Ft. Bliss, Texas, adjacent to El Paso. The several couples in our apartment complex on Fort Boulevard all were young marrieds who became close friends since we all were stuck in the same boat. We partied and we would journey across the international bridge to Juarez to shop for 90 cent a quart rum and, once, to visit a nightspot featuring well endowed strippers. We all were embarrassed. My wife and I spent one afternoon in the Cavern of Music, a club featuring twin pianos, manned by classically trained musicians who played lovely duets while we sipped icy rum and Coca-Cola. If there was crime and pestilence in the border city we never saw it. Afternoons and nights in Juarez certainly beat training exercises in the broiling heat and dust of the Fort Bliss reservation.

 

The Mexicans we encountered invariably were friendly and welcoming, even including the clamoring hucksters trying to sell souvenirs to us Yankee tourists near the entrance to the country. I even bought a bota bag which I filled with cheap wine so I could squirt it in my mouth from a distance. Don’t tell me I wasn’t cool in those days, even if I did miss my mouth most of the time and decorate my shirt with wine stains.

 

A close friend I had worked with on a newspaper had been stationed at Fort Bliss. He was fluent in Spanish and had wangled a job as the base commander’s interpreter and would frequent Juarez with his boss and in his down time would organize a baseball game with Mexican kids. It was through him that I learned both about the Cavern of Music and that Mexican beer was infinitely tastier than the watery stuff on our side of the Rio Grande.

 

Donald Trump’s’s latest effort to overturn more than 200 years of immigration law and deny immigrant status to anyone whose skin color is different than his (an unhealthy artificial orange) is a proposed regulation that anyone seeking immigration must be both wealthy and healthy. Forget it if you don’t have a happy pocketbook and private health insurance— if Trump has his way anyone who is poor, has health issues, or (unbelievably) might possibly ever seek any form of public assistance like food stamps, Medicaid, or any other social service assistance will not be admitted to the United States.

 

The words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” would be replaced, according to Trump’s acting director of immigration services Ken Cuccinelli by adding “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

 

Trump grumbles that we need more Norwegians and that immigration was designed for northern Europeans, not those shithole country folk who pollute Trump’s Aryan gene pool. A guy named Hitler had somewhat the same eugenic outlook on life. You remember him—he wound up committing suicide, somewhat like Trump’s dear friend and fellow party animal Jeffrey Epstein.

 

Skip ahead several decades to a trip to Brownsville, Texas, for a conservation conference just across the border from Matamoros, Mexico. Our tour group consisted of three Missourians who had driven the zillion miles from central Missouri to the Texas-Mexico border because my boss was afraid of flying and a fourth member, Arkansan Civil War buff Jay Kaffka who brought along a metal detector hoping to find minnie balls left over from a battle near Brownsville when Union forces tried to disrupt Confederate blockade runners along the Gulf Coast of Texas.

 

Jay found shards of a beer bottle and managed to put together enough to declare it an authentic Civil War relic. We were more interested in a cross-border foray into Matamoros to sample Mexican beer brewed more recently than 150 years ago.

 

We drove into Mexico, spent the afternoon in a cantina, delightfully cool, beating the intense heat back with several rounds of cerveza after which we went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. The food was superb (I don’t remember, but I probably had a shredded chicken quesadilla). Jay struck up a conversation with a gentleman at the next table who turned out to be the mayor of Matamoros.

 

Jay said that he loved Mexican spicy food, and there was no pepper hot enough to daunt him. Sticking up for Mid-America values Jay said that he often nibbled on jalapeno peppers while watching television. The mayor countered by saying that he would bet a fifth of tequila that he could furnish a pepper so hot that no one could tolerate it. Jay accepted, thus sealing a friendly cross-border challenge. The mayor produced a small bowl of an innocuous looking sauce and suggested Jay sip a spoonful of it.

 

I dipped my fork in the sauce touched it to my tongue and immediately felt my tongue and lips go numb. Jay filled his spoon stuck it in his mouth and swallowed. For a moment suspended in time he looked as if an angry bobcat were inside his mouth frantically trying to escape and sweat popped out on his forehead. After a few moments and a couple of hurried gulps of beer, he croaked “that’s pretty good.” The mayor gestured to a waiter and said, “Bring this man a bottle of the best tequila.”

 

Friendly hands across the border. The next day we were due to head home and stopped at the US border station where a burly customs agent who looked remarkably like Boss Hogg shuffled to the car and brusquely inquired “You uns Murricans?”

 

“Yes, Missouri” said the three of us from the Show Me State, and Jay who was small, swarthy and black haired said “Si”  visions of rotting in a Mexican jail flashed through my head! The border cop snarled, “And where you from, boy?”

 

In his best hillbilly accent Jay said, dragging the word out “Arr kin saw.”

 

“Get the hell out of here!” growled the border guardian and that’s the last time I have visited Mexico.

 

Mexico is not an enemy nation. Russia and North Korea are enemy nations despite Donald Trump’s cuddling up to them like a dog let into to the house on a freezing night which somehow winds up sleeping uninvited on the bed. Sure, Mexico has serious internal problems, but so do we. Instead of offering neighborly help, Trump is unswervingly dedicated to building a wall between the two countries and by inflammatory rhetoric dismantling any hope for rapport between us and them.

 

A question. What about the thousands, if not millions of Asians, Latin Americans, black people, and others who have brought their cuisine to this country as immigrants and have started restaurants? Add in Italians who, after all, are not northern Europeans. Are we so addicted to MacJunk food that we would deny immigrants a chance to start a business featuring unfamiliar food unless they come equipped with deep pockets and no possibility ever to need public assistance (something that is likely for any of us with immigrant northern European roots).

 

What an awful human being Trump is, as are those who support him. They will reap what they sow but unfortunately so will the rest of us and our children and grandchildren, potentially cut down by the scythe of history.

 

There is a small Mexican restaurant a few miles from our home in the heart of a solid red town where probably more than half the town’s population voted for Trump. It’s family-run— I think husband-and-wife and daughter. We eat there once a week because it’s convenient, inexpensive, and the food is excellent. Are the three of them legal residents? United States citizens? I have no idea and have no desire to find out. They are pleasant people, obviously struggling to attract enough customers in a community more attuned to eating MacAwful greaseburgers than it is to experimenting with anything Mexican except perhaps an occasional daring stop at Taco Bell.

 

I have a sinking feeling that this little experiment in bringing South of the border cuisine to central Missouri is doomed, but until such time as we go by for our weekly outing and find the place closed down, I’m going to gratefully enjoy their hospitality and their food.

 

Invariably I order a shredded chicken quesadilla.

 

 

 

 

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