Roma’s sandstone bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande were an ideal landmark for travelers and settlers. Three arroyos used as travel routes converged at Roma where the Rio Grande was shallow and easily crossed…After the Mexican-American war, Anglo-American settlers swelled Roma’s population and the economies of both sides of the river changed dramatically…Due to Mexican tariffs and customs, it was more expensive to purchase goods in Mexico than [in] the United States; this encouraged the smuggling of goods into Mexico. In response, the Mexican state of Tamaulipas instituted an informal free trade zone on its northern border, which made it very profitable to smuggle cheaper goods from Mexico to sell in the United States…Consequently, Roma grew with substantial commerce of both legitimate and contraband trade during the 1870s and 1880s. A Customs House was built in 1883 on the bluffs’ highest point to regulate commercial traffic…and collect taxes and tariffs.
Texas Historical Marker, Roma, TX
Our current obsession with the southern border, despite seeming new by virtue of its coverage and political attraction, is not new. Since its establishment, this slow, ragged, almost dainty River has been a source of pain and plenty and blood and treason here, on the edge of reason.
Before the Mexican-Ameican war, a group of Mexicans sought to form the Republic of Rio Grande. They were irritated with Santa Ana’s decision to abandon the newly formed republic of Mexico to which he’d been elected President, in favor of a Centralized government over which he had sole control. Their’s was one of several such efforts and though it failed, one of its commanders was influential enough to see the county in which Roma resides named for him – Zapata. The reminders of this area’s struggles are permanent and don’t seem to have been easily forgotten.
It’s not difficult to look at a map and see where Mexico ends and America begins, but reality is less clear. Like Roma in 1870, there is a constant stream of commerce back and forth across the river. Highway 83 is a wall of commercial enterprises that thins only briefly between bridges over the Rio Grande, but is otherwise a constant beckoning for loans, groceries, tires, cell phones, tortilla factories, garden statuary, passport photos, quick marts and all manner of goods and services. Distinguishing the legal from the illegal is impossible, though the constant presence of law enforcement suggests someone is trying. Mostly the state troopers and border patrol agents sit on the side of the road, or on strategic hilltops and watch. There is a blimp in the sky doing some sort of electronic monitoring – of what I don’t know – but one assumes the custom house of old is now the virtual eye in the sky with a somewhat diminished ability to tell the good from the bad.
Falcon Reservoir (which in my mind I’m pronouncing fal-CONE because it sounds more appropriate) was built cooperatively by the US and Mexico in 1953. Somewhere out in its 83,000 acres of water is an edge agreed to in an international water commission agreement. Good luck finding it when the fish are biting. The Rio Grande was dammed with an earthen dam to provide flood control, hydroelectric power, and drinking/irrigation water. Here on the murky edge of reason, commercial interests saw another option. In 2010, in the midst of a shadow war over drug distribution routes, rival gangs were looking for an edge. The Zeta gang controlled everything above the dam, and the Gulf gang controlled everything below it to the Gulf of Mexico. So, in an effort to wipe out the competition (and millions of people incidentally) the Zeta hatched a plan to blow up the dam. Whether gaining the now completely flooded territory of the Gulf gang would have resulted in any commercial benefit seems to have been overlooked in the planning. Fortunately, the plan was thwarted and the Falcon Reservoir remains – a rich ecosystem of bird, plant and marine life, that manages water and slakes the thirst of an unworthy people.
My ride along the edge from Rio Grande City to Langtry has shown me an edge of conflict. The rolling terrain of mesquite and sandstone, arroyo and riparian plain, is home to many. The density of commerce and settlement is significantly greater than that of the eastern edge. The history of struggle, of conquest and secession, is a testament to an edge more permeable — an edge established not by the hand of some Creator, but by the hand of man. As such, no wall will ever eliminate the constant ingenuity of people on both sides of the edge who seek opportunity. No wall will make life on one side safer or better than the other (see Falcon dam plot for crazy attempts to use barriers against each other). It’s been going on for over a century, whether when this was Mexico or the United States. In the end, I think the good folks of Roma got it right – be aware of who is Mexican and who is American, facilitate the benefits of our differences, monitor and profit from them, and keep a close eye on the Customs House here on the edge of reason.