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Texas History: The Rio Grande is 'The River That Runs Through Me'

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
High winds move the water along the Rio Grande at Sunland Park upstream of El Paso on Feb. 16. Author Beatriz Terrazas, originally from El Paso/Juarez, wrote a moving reflection on the changing Rio Grande that appears in "Viva Texas Rivers!"

"Think, Texas" readers know that I'm crazy mad for Texas rivers.

It follows then that when Texas A&M University Press published a whole new volume of writings on Texas rivers in 2021, I dove right in. 

In brief, the water is fine. All 300+ pages of gorgeous writing are enclosed in an imaginative book jacket with art by painter Clemente Guzman, which might look familiar since the same image adorned the 2021 Texas Book Festival poster.

"Viva Texas Rivers!" is the brainchild of editors Steven L. Davis, literary curator of the Witliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, and Sam L. Pfiester, a Texas novelist, screenwriter and movie producer. 

The editors gathered together dozens of memoirs, histories, poems, reflections, adventure stories and other assorted writings about our state's main streams. In a sense, the book also serves as a travelogue about the rivers that we love and must preserve.

Classic Texas writers of the past, such as John Graves, Américo Paredes, Larry McMurtry, J. Frank Dobie and Elmer Kelton, wrote some of the pieces. Top Texas writers of our era, like Attica Locke, Octavio Solis, Sandra Cisneros, Stephen Harrigan, S.C. Gwynne, Bill Minutaglio and Joe Nick Patoski, contributed.

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Perhaps more exciting are the authors that "Viva Texas Rivers!" helped me get to know better, including Wes Ferguson, Michael Berryhill, Joe Holley, Pat Mora, Margie Crisp — whom I knew mainly as a visual artist — and featured today in this column, Beatriz Terrazas.

Disclosure: The book includes an article that Joe Starr and I wrote for Texas Highways about two of the state's half-forgotten rivers. We donated our modest royalty fee back to the project.

The editors have divided the book along sensible geographical norms — East Texas, South Texas, North Texas and so forth. Terrazas' essay, published here with the author's permission, is about the El Paso/Juarez part of the Rio Grande and therefore appears in the West Texas section.

Born in El Paso, Terrazas is a writer, photographer and video producer. She was part of a Dallas Morning News team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about violence against women around the globe. Her personal essay, "The River That Runs Through Me," originally appeared in "Literary El Paso," edited by Marcia Hatfield Daudistel (TCU Press, 2009).

I chose this excerpt from the book, not just because Terrazas wrote it so beautifully and evocatively, but also because it reinforces a historical memory that many of us share from a time when the Rio Grande was not seen as a barrier, but rather as a connection. 

Clemente Guzman created the art for the 2021 Texas Book Festival poster. It includes all sorts of contemporary and historical Central Texas visual themes and serves as the book jacket art for "Viva Texas Rivers!" a new collection of writers about the state's streams.

Terrazas: 'The River That Runs Through Me'

I miss the Rio Grande.

In my mind I see it, and I smell menudo spiced with oregano. I see it and I hear the clop of horses' hoofs outside my grandfather's house in Juarez, feel the beat of a corrido lifting my feet.

I've been away from El Paso/Juarez for 20 years now, but I still call it home.

Early this year, driving along Interstate 10, I caught a glimpse of the Rio Grande.

The river lay there between the two cities where I grew up, dry and bare in spots, looking more like a snake that had slithered up to the wrong end of a farmer's hoe than the mighty force implied by its name. It lay there, broken, totally passable for anyone wishing to cross it either north or south but for the white border patrol vehicles planted like sentinels along it.

The river — and all it stands for to me — has become invisible despite being in the background of our daily political discourse. I read or hear story after story about international border fences in Texas: The town of McAllen agreed to reinforce its flood walls rather than submit to new fencing to deter trespassers. A federal judge ordered Eagle Pass to surrender more than 200 acres of land for fence construction.

I keep hoping others will see what I see: not borders and fences and illegal immigrants but the Rio Grande itself. To those of us who love it, the river is not merely a boundary with Mexico, it's a living thing. And to those of us who carry it in our veins, it is the story of our lives.

The river haunts me.

Several years ago, I traveled long stretches of the Rio Grande from its headwaters in Colorado to its mouth in South Texas. Meeting others along its trajectory was a lesson in how this bony, nearly 1,900-mile channel has shaped and influenced people. I came to see how the river is irrevocably intertwined with the child I was, the woman I am.

It tethers my soul to the arid landscape in West Texas, and to Mexico. But today's Rio Grande is oh so different from the river I once knew.

The river of my youth flowed deep and strong near Las Cruces, N.M., where my family used to picnic. Once, when I was 6 or 7, my mother commanded my siblings and me to stay on the bank and wait for our father before jumping in to play. While he unloaded sandwiches and chips from the trunk, she stepped into the water for a quick swim.

In 2021, the Rio Grande was bone dry by the time it reached Anthony, N.M., just upstream from El Paso/Juarez.

Then she was shouting, and in just seconds, her voice sounded far away and she looked tiny, her arm a matchstick floating on the water. She was drowning!

I shouted to my father: "Mi mamise esta ahogando!" My father, all white skin and plaid trunks, leaped into the water, but by the time he reached her, she was standing on a sandbar. Later, she told us that la corriente, the current, swift and unseen beneath the river's surface had carried her away from us, but shhhh, it's OK now.

Another memory: I was about 10 and in Juarez playing quinceañera with my cousins on a packed-earth patio. We dreamed about that first dance and the white pearly dress like an upside-down tulip that would signal our passage to womanhood.

We shuffled our feet to the song we sang aloud, our budding hips bending to the beat of the cumbia: "Ven a bailar quinceañera. Ven a gozar, quinceañera."

Beatriz Terrazas wrote "The River That Runs Through Me," which appears in "Viva Texas Rivers!"

And though we couldn't see the river, as dusk fell, coloring the neighborhood purple and gray, its ghosts beckoned us. You know La Llorona drowned her children in the river. You know that, right? Now she wanders the river crying, looking for other children, so watch out!

In high school, some Latino boys threatened to throw into the river a white kid one of my friends was dating. Looking back, I wonder: Were they thinking of the deep symbolism of drowning a white boy in the waters that embodied their different ethnic histories? Probably not; they were just angry, disenfranchised in the way that brown-skinned boys were then, looking for away to vent their feelings.

But what some people fail to understand — about me, about those boys — is that for us the river wasn't a barrier. An inconvenience, perhaps, when we had to cross the international bridge to visit our abuelas and primos or wait in longlines of chugging, overheated cars on the way back to our American lives.

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But the river was our connection, a witness to our attempts at straddling two cultures — to the fact that we could learn U.S. history in school during the week and spend Saturday nights celebrating weddings al otro lado. To the struggles of navigating two languages, two collective histories, and finding that with the passage of time, we were completely at home in neither one nor the other.

That's why seeing the disappearing Rio Grande fills me with such longing. I see it and taste the cinnamon coffee of mornings in my grandmother's kitchen. I see it and feel the sweat trickle down my back on a hot day, while my grandfather is lowered to his final resting place in a dusty cemetery.

I see it and hear it calling my name as only a loved one can. It is the mirror that reflects the middle space between cultures and countries where I spent my formative years.

Yet, for several months out of the year, even Google Earth would be hard-pressed to find this river between El Paso and, say, Presidio. During the summer it is dammed upstream for irrigation, its flow so greatly compromised that it dries up in some places and disappears.

The river seems to be vanishing just as I've realized I can't live without it. I worry that for all of our border talk, we are so blinded by political and economic issues that we don't really see the Rio Grande. I worry that we won't be able to control the invasive salt cedar breaking up its banks. I worry that we will divert its waters to the point of no return.

What happens then?

La Llorona, the restless spirit whose existence calls for water, will have a tough time calling forth a child by a dry channel. As for me, would losing the river mean losing a part of myself? Sunday picnics, high school raft races, crossing into Mexico to watch my grandfather die — would all these memories dry up as well? I hope and pray the river outlives my family as the natural world is supposed to do.

And if I'm lucky, the Rio Grande will have been the great witness I think it is and will have carried the bones of my memories to be cradled in the sea.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.