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.