Borderland Black & Brown: Ciudad Acuña & Piedras Negras


Borderland dreams seem hazy, beset by preconditioned, perceptive forays into the collective unconscious and symbolic visions. The morning dawns brightly and adventure beckons, minus a singular feminine wile. Contextual narratives define experience, in this case bounding a field excursion into unfamiliar terrain – both physiographic and psycho-spiritual – with the familiar, i.e. known companions and culturally referential group perceptions in turn delimited by a tripartite racial/cultural differentiation. Perceptive meanderings achieve sentience, and the journey begins.

The physiographically-defined milieu: shades of the low, flat and rolling terrain of the Blackland Prairies upon the horizon-dependent framework revelation – dualistic discourse, unstilted…Anglo and Mexican American compatriots bonding, whilst African/Native American drumbeats support the melodic, two-part harmonics. Laughter and sardonic notes skip across the cacophonous meanderings of the Claiborne Group, Balcones escarpment becomes Interior Coastal Plain between thoughts best expressed as hopeful, free of expression. And yet, the song continues, vibrantly sung the tune of Chicano revolutionary music and 80s dance, then morphing synchronically into socialist marching songs and an admixture of hazy remembrance and placid scenarios.

Del Rio evokes martial thoughts and urban realms of the Edge City exemplified by strip malls and expansive space, the absence of a central business district a gaping, black hole in my diaphanous mental map. Air Force jets dot the early afternoon air, taking off and landing in syncopated beats, between subjective remembrances of military life, Thunderbirds and Air Shows long passed. Borderland dreams are reinforced by dead space between town and the international border, to be abruptly crushed beneath the weight of the Rio Grande and the absent masses. A 75 cent toll paves the way across tarmac and concrete, while the strictly-controlled marshlands of the river give way unwillingly to emerald green and gray, sandbars and trash heaps as the otherworldly vista of Ciudad Acuña draws nearer experiential gnosis.

A single Mexican National creeps beneath the bridge, meeting my eye in furtive acknowledgement as the riverbank rises into the glittery-yet-banal cityscape of Ciudad Acuña’s core, situation directly upon the border. Garish signs front curio shops and bars, dental establishments and pharmacies dependent upon cross-border economics and the patronage of the young military and college populations of America’s/Mexico’s borderlands. My eyes avert, disdaining acknowledgement as we traverse an umbilical passageway into the city proper.

Tourist traps give way to dusty streets and bus-traffic, the drudgery of daily life and toil replacing the glamorous unknown. Variegated shades of brown skin comfort my gaze. A dying dog evokes compassion and irritated unfamiliarity. Evening approaches on crimson wings as traffic through the umbilical increases and white, male American tourists peruse gaudy delights. A two-sentence revelation posing as an entreaty-to-buy transpires within the darkened interior of a curio shop. I find unexpected solidarity as brown and black compatriots sympathize in marginality. Recognition dawns as night falls and the trip back across the borderlands deposits me within familiar terrain. Still immersed within the day’s sights and sounds, the Sci-Fi channel and Battlestar Galactica usher me into the throes of a relatively sleepless night, tossing and turning in-between abbreviated spurts of vivid, REM activity.

The next day’s journey proceeds south and east across the interior coastal plains between Del Rio/Ciudad Acuña and Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras. The landscape flourishes; medial desert flora sparks shared geographic musings as we near our destination. The ambience of Eagle Pass is sharply different from that of Del Rio, possessing an elevated sense of self and other, clambering over a landscaped floodplain separating two, distinct cultural entities, each possessing primate characteristics of their host cultures as well as the imperative of shared urban marketing dictates. The garish excesses of Ciudad Acuña are not reiterated in Piedras Negras, thankfully. A cool breeze washes the central Plaza, shaded copiously by mature dryads posing as mere trees.

Within a colonial church, I find a statue of a Saint with skin the color of my own and I remove my hat and pray a prayer of thanksgiving, engaging quite enthusiastically in perceptive Catholic idolatry. As was true on the previous leg of our journey, I find only a minimal melanated presence. Only two other African Americans have been present in the borderland region. One works at IHOP in Del Rio, the other travels with companions, there in Piedras Negras. We spend the afternoon shopping for gifts in a small Mercado. The afternoon is languid and passes in a state of unremarked beauty as my compatriots explore the possibilities and friends reconnect in contextual solitude and the easy familiarity of spiritual resonance. Jarring memories include a dark toilet and a young boy, watching me urinate curiously: a loud and obnoxious hawker of goods and services, asking to touch my hair: hip hop blaring incessantly from shiny trucks and automobiles as faux-gangstas – or possibly Coyotes – “roll by”, tipping chins beneath cold, yet dark and curious eyes. I respond similarly, their coldness matched by my ethnic and cultural distance.

Mired in clay by blood, this conceptual journey without represented an abject subordination of fantasy to reality’s most desperate scenarios. Media representations of the Borderlands did the reality no justice, being revealed as mere surface depictions of what can only be considered as a slippery and uncontrollable descent into cultural and ethnic relativity. The presence of familiar cultural identifiers, i.e. Coca Cola, Nike, Ford, Beer and Tacos, only increased the cognitive dissonance in the face of an unfamiliar language and culture. Continued reflection upon that weekends sojourn reveals additional depths and requirements, the resolution of which, perhaps, precede a return to the Borderlands for additional experience and study. For it is only through the acknowledgement of the inner journey – of empathy, recognition and understanding – that the outer journey – of cohabitation and the appreciation of shared humanity – can truly begin.

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