Part 1: My Home
Every now and then, late at night, you can hear thumping in the air, a little to the west. I will look up, to see if I can catch sight of the blinking red and white points as they track across the darkness. When the night is clear with a full moon, the tail lights of the helicopter mixes with the stars, and I can’t tell them apart. The huffing rhythm fades into the distance, but I know they might circle over our house again later in the night.
That’s the time when I am usually washing an epic pile of dishes, after a long day of cooking, tasting, styling, photographing and editing. I’ve always written about food, but in the last year, I’ve decided to delve more into food blogging. I’ve become a better photographer, and I am learning the subtle art of crafting pithy phrases that match my seductive food shots. I try.
South Texas has always been my home. I was born here. I spend a great deal of time thinking and writing about our history, but through food. Even though I have lived elsewhere, this is the place that most inspires me, and my husband. The plentiful wildlife, the rugged environment, and our wide-open skies are stunning, but more than anything, it’s the people. Our community culture is one of boundless pride in our land, and our children. Most of our parents were raised in this community, as were our grandparents, great-grandparents, and even further back. We choose to be here, and in our individual ways, we work together to make our part of the planet a better place.
And together, we struggle with the reality of being a notably active portal for human smuggling and drug trafficking.
It occurred to me that I might be the only food blogger in the U.S. whose work kitchen is in an undocumented migrant portal. As the crow flies, the cattle ranch where my husband and I live is about 35 miles north of the Rio Grande. Daily, there are groups of men, women and children trekking through our area, burdened with back packs or bundles, guided by coyotes, or smuggling guides. Almost every week there is a dramatic car chase, a torn-up fence, a rammed front gate, or a flaming flipped pick-up on our two-lane farm-to-market road. And there I am, in my kitchen, styling a food photo of a dulce de leche glazed donut, or a chicken enchilada.
As I create an artfully lit virtual destination for my blog and Instagram feed, dehydrated and disoriented immigrants stumble through our property on their very real journey northwards. The dark irony of what I do and where I am is not lost on me.
We didn’t recently move to this area: my family has ranched here since the 1740’s, when they received a land grant from the Spanish crown. I married the boy next door, and his family has been in the area for just as long. Both of our families, as the other families in our community, have spent generations observing migrant patterns. It’s been part of our everyday conversations for as long as I can remember.
When I was about five or six years old, I remember a man scratching on my bedroom window screen one night. He wanted food, and directions north. Although my parents quickly shuffled me back into bed, I think the man got what he requested, and he continued his journey. These days, illegal immigration is highly organized, and much more sophisticated, with GPS, drones, cell phones, and semi-automatic weapons. The man at my window only had what he was wearing.
When I tell people that I live and work on a ranch located 3 ½ hours south of San Antonio, they are shocked. “I didn’t think anything was there” is the usual quip. Yep, we are here. About 1.2 million of us live along the southern tip of Texas. Our demographics are distinctive: 85% of us speak Spanish, and most counties in our area are over 90% Hispanic. And in 2016, our community saw about 186k undocumented immigrants attempt to enter the U.S. That’s equivalent to roughly 15% of our area population.
But with those exceptions, our community is just like any other small town in the United States. My neighbors are intelligent and hard-working, and I see them in church on Sundays, in their usual pews. We linger at the post office, chatting about family, weather, the latest mangled fence, recent high-speed car chase or perhaps the human remains found when out checking the cattle. We are the same as you, just different.
Part 2: The Game
There was an uneasiness among my family members when I mentioned that I was going to write about where I live. I talked to friends who work in local law enforcement, politics, education, and spoke to my priest about my blog post on living in a migrant portal. As usual, the subject of immigration elicits a response of glum fatigue that necessitates a shift to more productive conversation.
Away from here, the same conversation is much more energized. Talking about immigration is a popular political Hot Potato Game in Washington. Agree, disagree, the debate goes back and forth. Picking the popular side of the debate results in more followers, and more votes. Disputes and polarizing arguments energize voter turnout.
Politicians opinions on immigration many times are simply laughable, because very few from the Beltway have spent more than a photo op afternoon on the border. Out of the 535 congress people and representatives in Washington, only about 10 reside on the Mexican border, less than 2%.
As a community, we do not debate immigration. We do not have the luxury or time for theoretical rhetoric. Immigration theory is for Washington. I live in the epicenter of an active immigration crisis. We live the reality, and reality comes with obligations.
We are obliged to stop at immigration checkpoints on our commutes, watch the road shoulders at dusk for bedraggled pedestrians, live under aerostat balloon cameras and night vision helicopters, and prepare ourselves for a Berlin style wall that will separate us from our family that live just on the other side of our local river. Washington mandates. We oblige. No debate, and little protest.
The chaos, danger and expense of border security is woven into our daily lives, and few outsiders can process what it is like to live here. The current immigration crisis is our personal crisis. Our community bears the full responsibility of upholding and enforcing immigration law, although our firsthand knowledge and opinions are rarely taken into consideration when creating these laws.
When I started this blog post, I cited immigration law, carefully crafted my watertight arguments, exercised my right to free speech, etc. I stayed up late and wrote for hours. And the debate kept surfacing. The Hot Potato Game was presenting itself in what I wrote, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid. My daily reality is not a debate.
I transferred my writing focus from opinion to description. Maybe my personal interpretation of current immigration law could be disputed, but not my day-in-the-life experience.
This post is simply to give you the facts of what it is like to live here; to set a back drop for border life. No debate. No Hot Potato Game. This is how we live on the U.S./Mexico Border. We live the reality of what Washington decides.
Part 3: Fences
“There’s a rollover and bailout…we are searching the ranch to see where they went.” We usually get this type of phone call around 6:00am.
The farm to market highway that runs through our ranchland community appeals to drug transporters and human smugglers, as it is a direct, but forsaken East-West route between the Gulf Coast and Laredo. The fences along this route are torn down on a weekly, if not daily basis. When we get the calls at 6:00am, the men of the family will head to the scene of the crash to talk to the sheriff, assess the damage, and count the animals or humans that were lost. I usually stay home, sipping coffee, watching for strangers that might appear in our yard. I always lock the doors, and listen for the dog, if he barks.
Fence line crashes happen when an overloaded vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed loses control. The vehicles transport human cargo, substance cargo, many times both. Upon crashing, the driver will abandon the vehicle, to distance themselves from the undocumented passengers, or the illegal substances. This is known as a “bailout.” The men, women and children passengers scatter into the heavy brush, most times with no water or provisions.
The Rio Grande Valley has been described as a quasi-desert like rangeland, with an average summer temperature of 98°F (37°C.) In our area, there is only one remarkable river, no natural lakes, with only the occasional artesian well converted to an animal water trough, marked by a windmill. We have a robust venomous snake population, in addition to poisonous spiders, scorpions, acid bugs, ticks, and killer bees. Our environment is alarmingly inhospitable for the unfamiliar.
So, after suffering the shock of a high-speed automobile crash (providing they are not too injured to carry on) an ejected passenger from a bailout would need to locate water, shade and orient themselves northward. Many of these stunned, ejected passengers try to outrun law enforcement, and are never seen again. None are briefed by their traffickers on environmental conditions. None have the necessary survival training nor equipment. And carrying enough water for their 350-mile trek to Houston isn’t possible. Crashing through a fence and bailing out into the brush is certain death.
Most migrants come to the United States looking for work. And from what I hear in the news, many in the US feel that because migrants choose to travel this elective, but harrowing journey, they are not deserving of our consideration, nor our tax dollars. But what consideration are the local landowners afforded? Even though we are US citizens and pay taxes, we are ignored as well.
If their ranch is located in an active portal, a landowner could spend between $20k-$50k annually on fence repair. We need fences, to keep our animals in, and (ironically) keep trespassers out. No insurance, government program, nor county agency covers the expense for repairing crashed fences. We may have large acreage, but the numbers on our ranch profit and loss statements indicate we are small businesses. For area ranchers, fence rebuilding is now part of their annual “cost of doing business” budget. The cost of rebuilding a fence is more than most ranchers pay themselves.
It goes without saying that human life is more valuable than a fence. Building heftier fences to keep migrants from attempting a life-threatening cross-country trek is not an option, as the result would be intensified impact upon bailout, with higher human casualties. Breakaway fences are great for crash survival, but are quickly flattened by 2,000lb bulls that simply want a bite of distant, greener grass. Landowners are responsible for keeping their livestock off the road, as they would be held responsible for any cow/car collisions. Landowners could be held responsible for human life on their property, regardless if they are trespassing or not. The array of landowners in migrant portals never changes, and as long as they own the property, they are responsible for rebuilding the fence.
By comparison, a human trafficking coyote, if caught, could be held responsible for the lives they are risking on their treks northward…But to what end? Prosecuting an individual coyote will not deter other coyotes. Tomorrow, a new group of coyotes will be leading the sheriff’s department on another early morning high speed chase in an overloaded vehicle. Most likely, they will crash into another fence (or perhaps the same fence as was crashed into yesterday.) The landowner has no option but to rebuild the exact same fence, again. And again.
Although fences are designed to separate, the paradox is that our fences have become the 6:00am muster point for the two individuals that pay in the immigration debate: those that bear the financial burden, and those that pay the human cost.
Part 4 – Photos
On July 2, 2017, I got a text from my brother, sharing pictures from the latest bailout. Three men had crashed their pick-up through our fence after a high-speed chase with law enforcement. I didn’t get too many details. Did they have bales of marijuana, or cocaine? Were they human smugglers, with passengers that fled the scene? I was curious, but not enraged. This has happened before, and it will happen again. Here are some pictures of the scene:
After briefly studying the text, I went back to my work. I created this yummy, easy Concha Fruit Cup, a red, white and blue recipe for #4thofjuly. Here is my carefully crafted food pic:
Of these photos, which do you like the best?
Just yesterday, July 21, there was incredible drama here at the ranch. Three ejected passengers from Honduras used their cell phone to call 911, only 200 yards from our home, my test kitchen. They were young men, in their early 20’s, headed to Houston to look for work, escorted by a coyote. Their vehicle crashed into the fence on another ranch, about 8 miles northwest of our house. Their coyote abandoned them in the brush, distancing himself from their illegalness. The men walked for 2 days. Disoriented, they were walking south.
There is a large pipeline gathering plant on our ranch, with a tremendously loud compressor. I’m sure they followed their ears, in hopes of finding a human. Although they were carrying water, they were in dire physical distress, with our typical summer temperature of 104°F (40°C). The sheriff’s department located the men at the pipeline gathering plant on our property via their 911 call for help. They were rescued, and taken away by ambulance.
I am not afraid of migrants. The vast majority are simply looking for a paying job, and take clandestine routes to ensure they will achieve their goal. Once they emerge from the cover of brush, they are in need of medical attention. There is a low probability of a human smuggler or migrant being armed. However, drug traffickers use migrants to walk their payload to a designated delivery point, in order to avoid law enforcement that patrols the highways, and canine units that are used in drug detection at border checkpoints. If substances are part of a trek, a drug trafficking coyote will most definitely be armed, not only to keep the valuable payload intact and moving forward, but to defend the drug payload against usurping rival gangs. I am afraid of drug traffickers.
Our biggest problem is that we cannot determine if a person emerging from the brush is a migrant, or a drug trafficker. Or, a migrant under the control of a drug trafficker. Each trekker has a story, and a mission. You may be able to offer help, but you may also be an obstacle. Not knowing the intentions of a trekker is the uncontrolled variable that could change a regular day at home into a volatile situation.
In the 19-day span of time from my brother’s text until the Honduran men called 911, there were 6 bailouts on our farm road, with 2 on our property. During this last incident near my house, my husband was serving lunch to some invited guests, and missed the call. He was unaware of the commotion on the ranch, until he saw the ambulance pull away from our front gate.
We didn’t get any pictures.
Part 5: Reality
Why am I writing about living in a migrant portal when I’m a food blogger? Because if I didn’t speak up, you would never know.
Unlike Paris, London, or other media relevant urban locations that food bloggers call home, I live in a remote rural area that few people have heard of. If it weren’t for our current turmoil with international immigration, few would be interested in our community at all.
Also, talking about the lives of immigrants deserves attention. If I didn’t describe bailouts, perhaps you would still be uninformed. The national news has reported on the plight of immigrants in the past, but it’s an occasional feature, unlike the daily presence that I experience. Similar to scrolling through a social media feed, the immigration crisis pops into our national line of sight, and then out.
As I started taking blogging more seriously, I felt that there was a cool deceptiveness that was expected when posting. Perfect food, perfect styling, dazzling light of an almost religious quality, synthetic colors courtesy of Photoshop…What actually happens in my daily life at the ranch should be put into a kitchen cupboard, and the door quietly shut. It seemed distasteful to include fragments from my “real” reality. In contrast to politicians, food bloggers would lose followers if their theme abruptly turned to social justice.
But, If I didn’t tell you that 3 migrating men from Honduras were succumbing to heat exhaustion only a short walk where I was styling my Concha Fruit Cup post, you would never know.
I began to understand that all bloggers live in an alternate reality of their choosing. There certainly have been terrorist attacks in both Paris and London, and yet their citizens carry on. There are food bloggers in the Middle East that I follow, who are amazing artists. All food bloggers are submerged in their own grim realities, but float above them, creating in a space of hope.
By extension, I suppose all humans do the same. Just like our natural instinct to seek food, water, shelter, and companionship, humans are compelled to improve their circumstances. Maybe anthropologists are questioning how humans arrived in the Americas, but there is never a question that one of our strongest primal human instincts is to look for a better place to be. People immigrate. Bloggers create virtual realities. We all believe that we could make our lives better by being someplace else.
It’s hard enough for a food blogger to establish their voice without veering off course into other subjects such as immigration. I don’t believe I will write about living in a migrant portal again. However, I will share the occasional update. The virtual reality of food blogging is where I choose to stay.
Our life at the ranch will roll on, as usual. Migrants will continue to journey northwards through our property. Washington will mandate. We will oblige. And all of us, our local humanity, will continue to pay. Humans will continue to search for that better place, the place of their choosing, to deliver their body, or their mind – the place that brings the assurances of peace and prosperity.
And as for me, I will continue to float in hope.