Life on the line

We lived on the Texas-Mexico border for four months, next to residents, smugglers and Border Patrol. This is why we went

Some neighbors asked us if we were narcs, informants for the Border Patrol. Others asked if we were narcos affiliated with Mexican drug cartels. One gave me a Miraculous Medal for protection, another earrings bearing the image of Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases.

Many suspected we had ulterior motives. Had we come to write another “bad” story distorting the reality of border life?

Such was the reception when photographer Robert Gauthier and I moved into a house in Roma, Texas, a short walk from the Rio Grande separating the U.S. and Mexico.

We are white. In a town that’s 99% Latino, we stood out. Some people thought I was a school teacher or missionary. Many didn’t know what to make of Rob and his cameras. Everywhere we went, even to larger Rio Grande City to the east, strangers would approach to ask who we were: at Wal Mart, HEB grocery, El Tigre gas station or the movie theater. We told them we wanted to capture their stories, and the resulting conversations informed our awareness of what it’s like to live on the border.

Roma is a popular spot for visiting journalists to shadow Border Patrol agents, or “ride along.” Passing residents who have become used to seeing reporters parachute in for a few hours of action and then leave. Which is exactly what we set out not to do. So our first choice when it came to locations wasn’t Roma.

I began scouting for border housing last winter, asking residents across the Rio Grande Valley, from immigrant advocates to deputy constables, academics, Border Patrol agents, local reporters, people I met at Starbucks and Taco Palenque, where was the best community to live on the river. Some suggested colonias in neighboring Hidalgo and Cameron counties. I checked them out, but I always came back to Roma.

Rodolfo Villarreal fetches his grandson, Rene D’Jesus, 5, before sending him to a school bus stop across the street from their home in the De La Cruz neighborhood.

Roma is unique, in part because so many of its people live on the riverfront and are directly affected by immigration. Townspeople proudly recall how it served as the ultimate western backdrop for “Viva Zapata,” starring Marlon Brando in 1952. The central plaza still looks much as it did then — with migrants dashing through.

As the Times Houston bureau chief, I headed to Roma first to find a place to stay. Rentals on the riverside were scarce. But in the De La Cruz neighborhood, a descendant of the colonia’s founders with a house for sale agreed to rent to us. Rob and I lived there for about a month; off and on for the next three months. I spent the past two months following up with visits.

Molly inside the notorious “pink apartments.”
Robert Gauthier on the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas. (Verónica G. Cárdenas)

During those six months, we met local officials, business owners, Border Patrol commanders, agents and immigrants. We photographed and filmed, working with videographer Verónica G. Cárdenas, a valley native, and Maritza Pena, who’s from Roma. We interviewed dozens of neighbors, in English and in Spanish. Most had never been interviewed by a reporter. Some lived right where President Trump’s border wall might rise.

I’ve reported in Texas for seven years, had been to Roma before and knew some of what to expect. Rob, who is based in Los Angeles, had envisioned a city infected with crime and violence, which is often how border communities are portrayed.

Instead, he was greeted by tight-knit families making the best of their lives: old men wearing T-shirts with ironic messages (gifts from their millennial children); toddlers chasing doting grandparents up and down the streets; dogs roaming a lush landscape of palms and cenizo brush.

Anita Loera caresses granddaughter Brianna, 3, as sister Rosie Benavides watches. The women were taking a break from cleaning their parents’ home in colonia De La Cruz.

We became accustomed to the sights and sounds of life along the river: Border Patrol vehicles racing up and down the neighborhood, helicopters pounding the air above. Birds chirp and dogs bark at all hours, and we learned to interpret the sounds as signals. When Rob heard a chorus of barking dogs in the middle of the night, he would grab his camera and head out to photograph passing migrants. Sometimes I joined him, but I spent most of my time talking to residents.

Rob rose at all hours to capture activity along the riverfront: Border Patrol agents, migrants, guides and smugglers in waiting cars. One day, he interrupted a smuggler making a pick up. Flustered, the man drove off, leaving a migrant in wet clothes to retreat into the weeds with her guide.

Another day, Rob and Veronica approached a smuggler they had photographed for an interview.

“Not now,” the man said before hustling toward the river through a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. “I’m working.”

We found that the way residents described immigrants could be misleading to outsiders. Many call them “illegals” in English or mojados in Spanish. But they do so matter-of-factly, without the vitriol of the English equivalent. Some even use the diminutive form in Spanish, mojaditos, which can connote affection.

En Roma

Cristina Cruz, 82, who suffers from dementia, is cared for by her daughter, Lupita Rios, who lives across the street in colonia De La Cruz. During our stay, her husband, Guadalupe Cruz, 91, died. She likes to tend to her yard late every afternoon.
Brianna Loera, 3, cools off in a pool at her grandparents’ house on the Rio Grande in colonia De La Cruz.
Brianna Dominguez shows off her lasso skills in her yard in colonia De La Cruz.
Members of the Roma High Mariachi Nuevo Santander prepare to perform at the annual Cactus Country Festival.
Juan Silva pauses while doing maintenance on his apartment in colonia De La Cruz.
Selima Cavazos, 58, cuddles her cat on the porch of her colonia De La Cruz home.
Donato Garza, 82, lives alone in a small apartment in colonia De La Cruz. His caretaker is a neighbor. When he’s not at an adult day-care center, Garza enjoys sitting under a tree overlooking his pumpkin patch.

We also found that, although residents in the colonia were not happy about immigrants coursing through their neighborhood, they were not fans of the Border Patrol, either. Agents tended to be stand-offish with residents, though a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman told us that the agency holds numerous outreach events. “Our agents and officers live in the communities in which they serve, and are often active in their communities,” she said.

A recurring theme was suspicion and a lack of trust. Residents were wary of their neighbors. Border Patrol agents were wary of residents.

An agent patrolling the colonia declined to have his photo taken outside our house, implying he never knows who is in league with the cartels.

“I don’t want to see my family hanging,” he said.

The agency spokesman wouldn’t comment directly on that exchange, but said agents do dangerous work and that, as a standard practice, “we do not release photos of the agents on the front line, without their prior permission.” Before the end of our time in Roma, we would ride along with Border Patrol, by land and by river, meeting a local commander and hearing their perspective.

Our goal was to recede into the background to observe. To some extent, we did.

Molly always carried puppy treats for the neighborhood dogs. (Verónica G. Cárdenas)
Robert Gauthier photographs Miss Roma Melanie Gonzalez on the bluff overlooking the Rio Grande and Mexico. (Verónica G. Cárdenas)

As neighbors adjusted to our presence, they invited us over for homemade tacos rojos, enchiladas and picadillo. We went out to eat with them at Los Molcajetes, Taqueria Elias and Burger King. We went to church, to karaoke at Rancho Cafe, City Council meetings, high school mariachi team practice and the Cactus Country Festival.

At times, we joined them crossing the border bridge to their sister city in Mexico, Miguel Aleman. We shared some of their joy at church and family parties; their sorrow when neighbors became ill and died. Now we hope to share their stories.

Family and friends gather to celebrate Joaquin Delacruz’s 93rd birthday next door to the house we rented in colonia De La Cruz.

@mollyhf

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@rgaut999

robert.gauthier@latimes.com

What are your questions about life at the Texas-Mexico border? Tell us here.

Credits: Produced by Sean Greene. Video by Rob Gauthier and Verónica G. Cárdenas. Video editing by Yadira Flores and Rob Gauthier. Lead photo: Elias Ceballos plays his trumpet for his wife, Hermalina, and visitors in their living room. The family lived across the street from us in colonia De La Cruz. Ceballos, a retired mariachi, often crosses to Miguel Aleman, Mexico, for gigs.