The Wisdom of the Border

Someone must have had a birthday party last night. I watched as a long, bright green strip of crepe paper lazily floated over the fence that marks our back yard, and settled amongst the branches of a fruit tree that grows at the back of the house.  Remnants of a piñata, I am sure, and I smiled at the site of that joyful trespasser brightening up the corner of our yard.

I was settled into a chair under the shade of a tree and was checking my mail. The Great Seal of the Republic of Texas announced a bit of formality in my in-box. I opened it and discovered that I had received a summons from the Committee on Redistricting of the Texas House of Representatives.  Representative Burt Solomons, from the north Texas town of Carrollton, the chair of this committee, had requested my testimony, so that his group might appreciate “the wisdom you can provide about your community.”  Seemingly my thoughts would be used “to integrate the needs of Texans and improve our background to create fair and legal maps reflecting the demographics of Texas.”

I am not sure how to proceed. Mr. Solomons is a man who has introduced several bills into this Texas legislative session that would place folks who would appear to be “undocumented immigrants” under suspicion.  He insists that peace officers detain all those folks who cannot prove their immigration status.

I live one mile north of the Texas border with Mexico, and it is precisely the demographics of our community that would make Mr. Solomons’s law such a bad idea. Fully 87% of the residents here identify themselves as Hispanic. A peace officer faithfully fulfilling her mandate would have to stop nine out of the ten people she passes in the local shopping mall, for they would all certainly seem suspicious—“of brown complexion, dark hair, dark eyes, speaking a mix of Spanish and English, and appearing to enjoy life more than most other Americans.”

This would, of course, keep any peace officer busy, and all of the people annoyed. It would cut the heart out of our Texan friendliness and would create a debilitating nervousness, which, over time, seems to lead to meanness of heart, as the evidence would indicate in the case of Mr. Solomons and his constituents, who are, I should note, fellow Texans, and who have supported scores of laws which consequences punish people of color.

They would also be Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, white people, like me, who have probably never had to prove their citizenship to anyone. They would not know of that indignity, particularly when applied in front of one’s children or grandchildren.

In any case, I don’t believe I have the pedagogical skills necessary to help Mr. Solomons and his committee  appreciate the wisdom of this place known as “the border.” In my many years living here, I have entertained hundreds of visitors who came expecting to be able to see some physical point where “here” and “there” are clearly demarcated. I found that in most cases, after listening to the interesting blend of English and Spanish in which stories are told, after attending to the arresting tales of courage and generosity which mark our region, these visitors came to appreciate that the border is not best described by a mechanically drawn map with its sharp edges, but rather by a water color image, one in which the boundaries seep over into each other—the sky bleeding into the sea, the flowers weeping into the grasses, the sunshine exulting onto hilltops.

Unlike Mr. Solomons and his committee, these, though, were people who bothered to come here to the border. Being here, these visitors were able to get a glimpse of the nature of our area–a culture formed by the blending together of different ways of life and of the different senses of self that nations tend to impose upon its citizens. 

Mr. Solomons and his constituents, however, without bothering to visit us, would judge who should and who should not live in our community. This arrogance—and the contempt that informs it—speaks eloquently of Texas’ present political leadership’s poverty of mind and heart and spirit.

But I have been asked to speak with this group as they draw up the lines on a map that will determine who will represent us in the state capitol. This is no small matter, and so I will continue to try and figure out a way to help them appreciate the richness of our part of the state. At the end of the day, this committee will play an important role in deciding who should speak for us.

As I filed Mr. Solomons’ letter away, I looked up and noticed that the wind was tearing the strip of paper from the birthday piñata away from our tree. The ribbon of green flew up and away, bending in the morning light, heading south toward the line that marked the end of the United States and the beginning of the Republic of Mexico, carrying with it the memory of children—American-born children—singing in Spanish, and celebrating, in Mexican—the life of a friend.

This slice of green, this slice of life, disappeared from my view, but not from my heart.

Now, to bring that to Austin–that would indeed be magical.

Exit Interview

Sara, marching behind a nun, at the State Capitol.
Because she has been deemed a suspicious person, I am uncomfortable using her real name. For the purposes of this tale, I will call her “Sara.”

She is a Canadian, and she had come to the Rio Grande Valley with eight other colleagues to see what she could learn about how our community cares for its children. She is a physician, and her life’s work is to care for others. In her case, she carries a special interest in the poor and to the little ones—those who are “other” in our health care system.

Sara is also a faithful Muslim woman, someone who each day wears a hijab, a veil, which covers her hair.

Last week, we traveled together to Austin, to participate in a march protesting Texas’ pending anti-immigrant legislation.

It was 4am when we hit the highway in Brownsville, aiming to join the march by noon.

 “Ok,” I said, driving north, “I know nothing about Islam. Help me understand.”

 “OK,” she echoed, and for the next five hours we talked about God and faith and community, about mercy and forgiveness, about hard choices and fundamentalists.

We covered prayer and fasting, the Muslim restrictions on interest (on loans) and its insistence on charity.

The conversation circled again and again to the basic tenet of religious faith—it is love in action that frees us from ourselves, and brings us peace.

After a couple of hours, it was Sara’s turn to drive. We had been discussing the notion of submission as the key virtue in Islam as she put the car into gear. She went from 0 to 70 miles an hour in fifteen feet, cutting off a tractor trailer, merrily skipping up the entrance ramp onto the expressway. “My mom is a driving instructor,” she noted, as the tires squealed, “but I never really got the hang of driving.”

I submitted myself, rather irreligiously, to total body fright, as she cut across two lanes of traffic and settled into the last part of the drive.

When I recovered my breath, I asked her about women’s role in Islam.

 She smiled and said, “Let’s start with the veil—it is my choice to wear hijab, and to follow this commandment from God.  It reminds me of my faith, it’s like the veil that nuns wear and orthodox Jews. With the veil, I can be an ambassador of Islam to those around me. And because women have become objects in this society—judged on their looks—the veil takes me away from the superficial realm  and allows me to be judged based on my character, on my contributions to society and not on my appearance. It is a form of modesty in the midst of a world that seems to have lost its mind. It is not just my head that I cover—I take care not to put my body on display. It is a way to help me and others keep the right focus in life.”

I discovered that Sara talked the same way that she drove—quickly and daringly. Unlike her driving, which had made me think about whether or not my will was up to date, the conversation with her left me thinking  about life and all of its possibilities.

We made it back to Brownsville; Sara and her colleagues finished up their work and their month-long coursework.  They were impressed by the solidarity in the border communities, worried about children held in detention, overwhelmed by the need and the lack of resources. It seemed to me, as well, that they had fallen in love with this corner of the United States.

Sara was the last one to depart. As she approached airport security, she realized that she was going to have to submit to the indignity of the body scan machine. Like everyone else that was traveling that day, she was electronically strip searched.  Sara’s one consolation was that she would, at least, be spared the shame of being patted down.

But no, her silken-polyester veil, although worn as an effort at modesty, and as a sign of respect for others, made her “other”, and, therefore, suspicious. She was pulled out of line. Her head was patted down, a silly, demeaning act, given that the scanner had already searched her entire body.  There were no scanner-invisible weapons concealed under her scarf, and Sara was allowed to head home to Canada.

Sara called it her exit interview from the course on the Valley, for she had come to our home to discover what it was like to be outside systems of care, to be “other.”  As she left, she was examined and judged to be, “other.”

The lessons of that experience would take hours to tell, and I pray one day to get to have that conversation with her.