It is a blazingly hot Sunday, and a group of us are on an early morning hunt through the back alleys of west Brownsville, searching for left-over brick—stuff that people tossed out that would serve well as a flower bed border.
Bordering one of the alleys was a narrow, two story building that had long been abandoned. A tree was sprouting out of the second floor wall, and parts of the old building was in collapse. We mused at what it must have been like in its prime, and what it would take to bring it back.
My Favorite and Most Capable Attorney in all of Texas was with us, and she smiled and said, you know, all we need to do is establish a presence there and, over time, through this process called reverse accrual possession (actually, I missed that phrase, which was too bad, because it sounded usefully ominous), the property becomes ours. The rest of us looked at her for a further explanation. She said, Oh, Texas is all about property rights. That is why you have to constantly check your fence lines—if your neighbor slides her fence over onto your property, and you say nothing, then after a while, that slice of property is no longer yours, but hers.
We found a pile of bricks, and as we moved them from one property to another, I thought about that notion of a subtle shifting of rights and realities. Our border communities have always known that dynamic—English quietly claims some parts of our discourse (“¡Oyes! Te estoy dejando el niño—wátchelo bien!” or when someone drops a newly accrued brick on his toe, and, instead of saying a Mexican “Aiii!” croaks out a very English “Ouch!”). And it works both ways, as Mexican Spanish has moved its own fence line over a bit (someone sneezes, and the Alabama-speaking fellow responds “¡Salud!” instead of his own lifelong “God bless you!”).
One reality that we border residents worry about shifting over here is the drug-related violence from our neighboring Mexican communities. For now (but hasta ahora) we live in one of the safest regions in the nation (fewest murders, armed robberies, and kidnappings). This is extraordinary, in my mind, as just one short walk south drops you into a land of a vile violence—beheadings, dismemberment, and torture as the daily, sour bread of our Mexican neighbors. But, so far, no spillover violence in our border towns, although plenty of spillover sadness and despair, as neighbors and friends, one after another, talk of losing a friend or a relative in those close-by horrors. Everyone that I know wonders if the violence across the way will be an inevitable presence here, and, if so, exactly whose reality will it begin to claim as its own. So we check that particular fence line regularly, and anxiously.
Yet, gratefully, that is not the only fence line being shifted. When President Obama announced last week his executive order to offer a degree of legal protection from deportation for undocumented young people who meet a set of requirements (entered the US by age 16 and are not over the age of 30, are currently in school, have graduated from high school or obtained a GED, have not been convicted of a felony, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety, amongst others), there was a burst of joy that radiated out through the Valley. Although it was a very small offer of relief (it was not amnesty in any sense of the word, and one wonders, in the end, just how vulnerable those who receive this deferral will actually be), it was, for the first time in a long while, a recognition of these young peoples’ plight that was more than just lip service.
The joy and the hope were universally shared here—for these young people had become part of all of us. Their plight—denied a presence here, with no viable presence somewhere else—was one that we had all come to appreciate. The fence lines had shifted. Those young peoples’ fates had become ours. As one of the stellar leaders in the Valley put it, “There has been a sprinkling of justice.” For a people who have long awaited the recognition of even the most basic form of human rights, the sprinkling was well-received.
And now, we watch, and we wait, not now always in the anticipation of a spillover of violence, but in hope of a flood of overdue justice.