I answered the quiet knock at the door. The very tall, very thin visitor was from Quebec, working on a Master’s thesis in geology. He had emailed me a couple of weeks before, wanting to discuss my experiences of living and working in a border region.
He had said, “I am interested in learning how people living in difficult circumstances organize themselves against oppression.”
I was glad to have that sort of discussion and invited him to our home for a talk.
One of the benefits of living alongside an international border is the number of academics who make their way here, anxious for a conversation, looking for an insight, and searching for a new notion about things they have invested a lot of time researching. They are students of public health and of public education. They are sociologists and anthropologists. Every now and again, they can seem arrogant, but most of the time, they are humble and gracious.
Before he met with me, the Québécois researcher had had a number of conversations with people from across south Texas. He had visited a lot of families and neighborhoods, and our conversation was one of the last ones he would have before moving on.
I offered him some coffee. He said, “No thank you, just water, no ice.”
He sipped his water and leaned forward, with almost monk-like attention. He reminded me that his interest was in the different ways people fight injustice and oppression. He told me that he was disturbed with how little organization there seemed to be down here.
“I find that people here are so disconnected, they are isolated and powerless,” he said, “I don’t understand why they don’t take to the streets and demand better lives.”
That was an observation I had heard before, and often. Good people, sensitive folks, make their way to the Rio Grande Valley, and run smack into the warmness and generosity of the people—as well as into the misery and horrors of poverty on a scale that is impossible to equate with the wealth of the state of Texas. A family flies a Dallas Cowboys pennant on the front porch of a house that is leaning into collapse. Other families drape their chainlink fences with second-hand clothing hung out on the chain link fences, flapping the breeze like flags signaling the presence of yet another hardworking, poor family.
The researchers go into these homes, and they hear the stories of early and unnecessary deaths, of wage-theft and poorly paying jobs. The students of human community come here from California, or Houston, or Dallas, or Canada and they have a deep sense of the degree of inequity at play here. They realize just how damned unfair and unnecessary the poverty in south Texas has become.
Why indeed don’t people throw off their shackles and rise up?
The sentiment is understandable, but the question reveals a deep naïveté about the nature of struggle. It is an insulting question as well, a back-handed dismissal of entire community’s history and sense of self.
I try to explain this to the student from Canada. I tell him that I believe that the resistance to oppression must take many forms, and that not every historical moment is a good one for just any sort of social action.
I tell him that the Valley community is composed of deeply courageous leaders who resist in ingenious ways. They know that there is a moment for taking to the street (as happened during the 2006 protests against anti-immigrant legislation), and that they will turn out, time and again, in public displays of protest against anything that would threaten to steal the future from their children.
I sense that he is doubtful about all of this, but I insist that our communities are in a moment of survival, and that our communities are quietly playing the system. Our families will not so easily surrender their livelihoods to someone else’s best new idea. They opt, instead, to play the long game. Parents focus on the education of their children. They seek, against all odds, to figure out a way to own a home, to fence in a space for their family, their things, and their pride.
The casual observer will miss this, distracted perhaps by the intimations of public corruption and the old, sour tunes of the national candidates who, casting their eyes to the south, talk about walls and roving patrols and torture.
The young man became quiet. He finished up some notes, and then asked me to capture my sense of the border community in two words.
I said, “Young.”
I said “Patient.”
He thanked me, and took his leave.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and the neighbor across the street had five families visiting. His yard streamed with children.
I shouted a hello at him and he crossed the street to greet me.
“My boys are doing really well in school”, he said to me, in Spanish. “All A-s.”
He nodded good-bye, finished his cigarette and headed back through the gate into his yard. A soccer ball careened toward him. He deftly trapped the ball, and then gently tapped it between two posts.
“!Gol!” he shouted.
“!Gol!” agreed his all-A’s sons.
The gods of resistance smiled.