Ebb and Flow Colors Our World

Dagoberto Gilb's most recent book is "Woodcuts of Women" (Grove Press, 2000). He won the PEN/Hemingway Award for "The Magic of Blood" in 1994

Those of us who have grown up and lived on the Southern desert border of the United States have heard many brutal stories--betrayal, theft, rape and death--of men and women who had journeyed far and were stopped so very close to it.

These are the meanest, most horrific asides of a larger story of what some want to describe as an invasion of people from the outer side, from Mexico, whose name tags change depending on the times and the speakers--wets, illegals, aliens, undocumented, immigrants. Sometimes just saying “Mexicans” can be heard, and meant, like a dirty word.

All countries have borders, and everyone knows them well. Mexico itself has a southern border it worries about. Protecting its citizens’ work is one of the intrinsic functions of a nation. France, such a cliche of liberality in matters sensual and intellectual, is one of the most restrictive of all about letting non-French find employment there.

But every border isn’t natural. Most, even, are markered by historical contrivances.


In El Paso, what is now called the Chamizal National Monument is really an area of land that the Rio Grande would swing to the north and south of on its course toward the Gulf of Mexico. The monument was created to resolve the confusion over which nation residents lived in when the river meandered.

I am just back from Andalucia--that word derived from the Arabic al Andalus. So much of what is considered architecturally spectacular about this region of southern Spain is what remains of the culture that came up from the south of it. The fountains and the courtyards for them, and the love for and worship of water, the lines of orange trees criss-crossing patios and plazas, the idea of a central patio itself, all Moorish. The palace arches and grounds of the Alhambra in Granada, the startling interior columns in the Mezquita of Cordoba, and in Sevilla, the Alcazar’s fortress walls and towers, and the bone-carving complexity of the Giralda of the cathedral there, a minaret before it was a Christian bell tower. The radiant azulejos-- which decorates all the envied rooms of these masterpiece buildings and so much of southern Spain, that glazed ceramic tile that we now consider a Spanish style when we remodel our bathrooms and kitchens even today--it too is Arabic in origin.

The Moors arrived in 711, and by 929 had established Cordoba as the capital of Andalucia, having taken the region from the Visigoths who themselves had conquered it from the Romans, who had been there since the 200s. It wasn’t until 1492 when Catholic monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand defeated Granada, the last Moor stronghold, that Arabic political power was finally expunged. They had been there eight centuries.

It has been a little more than 150 years ago that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, shifting the governmental power and property that once was Mexico’s to the U.S.


That land includes what we call the Southwest--Arizona and New Mexico, as well as California, Nevada, Colorado and Texas.

For two centuries previous, before the pilgrims, before a tea party or Paul Revere, Spanish was the primary language of these lands.

Spanish words have named the mountains, the rivers and the cities. Spanish architecture still dominates and identifies the cultural landscape.

What is most loved about the West--from its art and the rainbow of colors used in it, to the food, those spices, chiles, and tortillas, from horseback-riding to barbecuing--is all Mexican.

Those people who cross that political border are not crossing a cultural one. The language that is spoken in the communities that harbor these “immigrants” is nothing like, say, one of a Turk’s commuting to Germany. Mejicanos go to the first historical communities in a city, often within walking distance of the oldest churches, where several generations had lived before the English-speaking world sprawled.

Those people who risk everything to cross the border do so to work, to earn money for a poor family. They take the hardest jobs and the least wages for it and, once employed, offer back an almost overly romanticized pride and patriotism.

As a carpenter more than 20 years ago, I worked on a federal housing project on what then (not now) was still only a desert, El Paso.

Even for El Paso, the pay wasn’t so good--at least the contractor didn’t let it be. The guy I partnered with was there with two brothers who worked together. They were from a small town between Juarez and Chihuahua, and it was their first time on this side of the border. Of the things we talked about as we worked every day, enough was about the INS raiding this job site.


I liked him, and so I told him to say, when he was asked, that he was from El Paso, not from the United States. You know, to be local, you have to sound local. The INS knows it makes people nervous (though not the employers) and it counts on mistakes to be made.

I taught my partner things to sound like a bilingual Chicano. And when the migra did come one day in their green van, as many of the workers scattered and were being chased, others stood and answered the questions of an officer quickly passing through the job site.

I was at a distance at that moment, and I saw my partner replying, and then the officer moving away from him. He smiled over at me. But instead of walking the opposite direction, he followed that officer, who was headed toward the other brothers.

They did not pass the test.

Just before he got in the van with them, I went to him. He didn’t want to be here without his brothers.

What those brothers would bring with them every day was jamaica, a bright red drink made from dried hibiscus flower, that they didn’t oversweeten as others might have. They brought it in a beat-up, five-gallon plastic jug, full, iced, and many times a day I’d open my mouth under that little spigot. It was hot working.

Before then, I’d never heard of or tasted this drink. I loved it, and not just because it was always cold. It seemed to have made me love the job, because once it wasn’t around either, I was glad when I was done with it.