The Rio Grande is a long long river, and when you tell someone you live in the Rio Grande Valley they generally assume you live somewhere in an actual valley between a couple of large hillsides, such as you might expect at the New Mexico end of the Rio Grande. However the Rio Grande Valley (or RGV as its denizens refer to it) is actually a huge floodplain at the southernmost tip of Texas smack up against Mexico. It is an irridenta: an area which politically belongs to one country but culturally aligns with another. The Anglos here refer to it uncharitably as "Mexico with foodstamps".

As an honorary Anglo because of my pale skin - I'm a middle-class middle-income Jewish boy from Manhattan, but down here you're either 'Rich Anglo' or 'Poor Mexican' - I have to choose my words carefully; the area is somewhere between 80 and 95% Hispanic depending on whose figures you believe, and the one hanging offence left down here short of horse stealing is to admit that there is any friction between the races. In fact you're not even allowed to admit that there are any races - you're either Anglo, which we're supposed to pretend means culturally American rather than someone with a pale face; or you're Hispanic, which means culturally Spanish rather than someone of Mestizo blood who looks like a native South American. We have cultural diversity which is a Good Thing, not racial differences which are a Bad Thing. The race issue is not complicated by the presence of African-Americans; the Hispanics do not mentally associate themselves with people of black skin, and prejudice by Hispanics against blacks here is at least as strong as that from whites elsewhere, with the result that very few African-Americans settle here for long. The local cinemas have their programming chosen by white guys from Up North who see Hispanics only as dark-skinned people who must therefore identify completely with black Americans, and so they frequently send us Spike Lee movies and other Black Cinema productions. Unless it's a movie that interests a few Anglos (usually out-of-towners like myself) such as BarberShop, the theatres in the megaplexes showing those movies are empty on those days.

An Anglo can call his compadres Gringos in a jocular way, but a Hispanic wouldn't dare use that word in Anglo earshot; and the Hispanics regularly refer to themselves as Mexicans, but if an Anglo uses that word he should expect a tirade about how a Mexican is someone from the other side of the border. Although the Hispanics call themselves Mexicans in common speech, and more likely have a Mexican flag bumper sticker than an American one, they look on their true Mexican neighbors with a disdain than never ceases to surprise Anglos.

The Hispanics and the Anglos get on well. That's official. What no-one mentions is that when the Anglos get together, all they talk about is how ignorant the Mexicans are, and how you have to be careful never to say anything about them that they may hear in case they sue you. Pseudo Anglos like myself with a Hispanic wife are treated as race-traitors when the local Anglos finally discover who your wife is and panic over whether they may have said something indiscreet in your presence. And when the Hispanics get together, they talk about the crazy shit that the Anglos do every day, like complaining about the spelling on the menus at the restaurant where they work.

So I have to watch what I'm saying. Lawsuits are a big deal here, and there is no lawsuit too frivolous to strike fear into the Anglo heart. If a national company is told that the jurisdiction of a case will be in the RGV, they usually try to settle. Too many Anglos have crashed and burned in the Valley. This is an unbelievably poor part of the country, and if you've never saved more than three figures in your life, you don't really grasp the significance of large sums of money - lawsuit awards of millions of dollars are the order of the day for infractions that might on a good day merit merely tens of thousands elsewhere.

This is a land of stereotypes that no-one admits to the existence of. There have been a few movies made either in or on the subject of the Valley, and perhaps the most telling is Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (where a Yankee is tricked into buying a worthless citrus grove), if only for the scene with the stereotypically Anglo depiction of the locals as "Lots of happy Mescins, eating grapefruit".

But don't get me wrong, this is a great place to live and I call it home. I'm just glad I wasn't raised here, because then it wouldn't be half as funny to watch.

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