Bor­der Con­tra­band: A History of Smug­gling Across the Río Grande

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - by Ge­orge T. Díaz, Univer­sity of Texas Press, 241 pages — Casey Sanchez

In 2000, nearly 80 years af­ter his death at the hands of Texas Rangers, Le­an­dro Vil­lar­real’s body was dis­in­terred from an un­marked grave at the be­hest of his Mex­i­can fam­ily. He was re­buried to great fanfare with a Catholic me­mo­rial mass and a mas­sive head­stone on which was for­ever chis­eled his mythic, part-time Pro­hi­bi­tion-era oc­cu­pa­tion: tequi­lero — a cross-bor­der smug­gler of Mex­i­can liquor and Amer­i­can food­stuffs.

Texas news­pa­pers de­picted Vil­lar­real as an armed thug while Te­jano troubadours li­on­ized the man in the fa­mous cor­rido, “Los Te­qui­leros.” In re­al­ity, Vil­lar­real was a re­luc­tant smug­gler from a poor ranch­ing back­ground, a wi­d­ower with kids who floated con­tra­band across the Río Grande to sup­port his fam­ily. In that sense, he was quite typ­i­cal of most other smug­glers, who were mostly young fathers look­ing to make ends meet. That’s the con­clu­sion of his­to­rian and life­long bor­der res­i­dent Ge­orge T. Díaz in his new ac­count of bi­na­tional smug­gling on the U.S.-Mexico bor­der through­out the 19th and 20th cen­tury.

Read­ers look­ing for lurid, mod­ern ac­counts of mov­ing meth and mi­grants should turn else­where. For most of the bor­der’s history, con­tra­ban­dis­tas op­er­ated like folk mer­chant lib­er­tar­i­ans, wav­ing off oner­ous Mexico tar­iffs to bring to­bacco, flour, sugar, and bolts of cal­ico back to their home­land. De­spite the il­le­gal­ity of their trade, typ­i­cal smug­glers would have shud­dered at the term; most were bound by a moral code of com­mu­nity ethics. Run­ning liquor to Amer­i­cans and food­stuffs to Mex­i­cans was seen as prac­ti­cal, mid­dle­man work. Rustling cat­tle or horses in ei­ther di­rec­tion across the bor­der, how­ever, was an of­fense just short of mur­der in the eyes of most bor­der res­i­dents, as it de­prived work­ing fam­i­lies of wealth and prop­erty.

By its na­ture, smug­gling is an elu­sive sub­ject for a doc­u­ment-bound his­to­rian. Díaz digs past news ar­ti­cles and court cases, which he be­lieves only echo the bi­ases of cul­tural elites. In­stead, he ex­am­ines the oral his­to­ries con­tained in Mex­i­can smug­gler bal­lads and looks at court cases with an eye as to whether sus­pects were ap­pre­hended by author­i­ties or turned over by dis­grun­tled lo­cals.

Other no­table parts of the book in­clude Díaz’s dis­cus­sion of fe­male mescal smug­glers. While women had long been in­volved with mov­ing cloth­ing and other home goods across the bor­der, the ap­pear­ance of fe­male liquor run­ners in the late 19th cen­tury out­raged both An­g­los and Mex­i­cans alike, as it vi­o­lated no­tions of proper fe­male con­duct. It also had the sec­ondary ef­fect of sub­ject­ing Mex­i­can women to searches by Amer­i­can of­fi­cials. As a re­sult, lo­cals were quick to turn over sus­pected fe­male al­co­hol smug­glers to cus­toms of­fi­cials.

The book also pro­vides one of the few his­tor­i­cal ac­counts of il­licit Amer­i­can firearms sales to Mexico. While Mexico’s re­cent drug-car­tel wars have put this sub­ject in the news, arms traf­fick­ing has been a bi­na­tional se­cu­rity con­cern since the end of the Mex­i­can revo­lu­tion in 1920. As a num­ber of church-af­fil­i­ated and con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions re­sented the land re­dis­tri­bu­tion and oil na­tion­al­iza­tion re­forms of the new Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment, rad­i­cal­ized in­sur­gent groups un­der­took oper­a­tions to ob­tain Amer­i­can guns and am­mu­ni­tion through­out the 1930s and 1940s.

Ul­ti­mately this book is as much an ac­count of bi­na­tional smug­gling as it is about bor­der­land cul­ture. For nearly two cen­turies now, the con­tra­ban­dista has been so tightly wo­ven into this area’s econ­omy and mores that it is lit­tle won­der that for a few months in the mid-19th cen­tury, re­gional res­i­dents se­ceded from both Mexico and the fledg­ling Re­pub­lic of Texas to form the Re­pub­lic of the Río Grande.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.