Laredo, Vaquero Capital of Texas, and Commerce at the Border

Distance travled from San Antonio:

 

Location: Laredo, Hebbronville, and McAllen, TX

Churches: Christ Episcopal, St. James’, and St. John’s

 

Opening Prayer
May I walk this day in the realm of grace, walking with You my feet firmly on your earth-path, my heart loving all as kindred, my words and deeds alive with justice. May I walk as blessing, meeting blessing at every turn in every challenge, blessing, in all opposition, blessing, in harm’s way, blessing. May I walk each step in this moment of grace, alert to hear You and awake enough to say a simple Yes. Amen.
Robert Corin Morris 

 

Welcome to Laredo, Hebbronville, and McAllen!

Laredo
Laredo has a population of 260,000, and along with its sister city across the border, Nuevo Laredo, there is a combined metropolitan population of around 640,000. Laredo is 95% Hispanic, making it one of the least racially diverse cities in the United States. Texas’ largest trading partner is Mexico. The Port of Laredo is the number 1 inland port along the US-Mexico border and ranked No. 4 in the nation with $205.88 billion in imports and exports in 2020.  In 2018, the Laredo port of entry handled northbound border-crossing traffic of about 2.3 million trucks, more than 5 million cars (with nearly 11 million passengers), and more than 3.7 million pedestrians. 

When visiting Laredo, attractions are not hard to come by. Restaurants and shopping options are in abundance, museums featuring history and arts and culture are prolific, and festivals, concerts, and carnivals are scheduled throughout the year. Laredo is home to the Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos baseball team, the world’s only binational baseball team, splitting their home games between Mexico and the United States. Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) is also located within the city.

Christ Church Episcopal has been serving the Laredo community since 1881, with a mission church meeting as far back as 1871, and Episcopalians being in the area since the 1840s. Christ Church was located in downtown Laredo until in the 1960s, in order to expand, they moved to a new location farther north. 

The Rev. Paul Frey, Rector, writes about Christ Church, “Christ Church, like many churches in our Diocese, in its early days was largely Anglo dominated. But even the earliest parish records starting in the 1880′ contain Hispanic surnames in lists of members, weddings, baptism’s confirmations, etc. When I arrived in 2004 the perception of most folks was that this was an Anglo parish, but the reality was that it was a mixed group of people. And during the last 16 years as a parish, we have been very intentional about welcoming all people, and we are certainly more like our majority community than when I arrived.  Our last official parish directory had 80 households listed and 47 of those households would be Hispanic or “mixed” Hispanic and other ethnicities. We use Spanish in one service and English in two services. Most of our baptisms, weddings, and funerals will have some of both. I would venture that most of our congregation is functionally bilingual, with probably 50 percent of our adult members able to communicate effectively in Spanish and English. Having said that, we’ve got members originally from Switzerland, Jamaica, South Africa, Kenya, and more. We are active as a parish in various ministries in town with many members on the board and workgroups of Casa Misericordia Domestic violence shelter. We have in the past been active in Habitat, and most of our folks help support various social agencies in town from Azteca which helps folks with immigration issues, to the Holding Institute which helps with immigration, education, and more. In addition, many of our folks are part of TAMIU, (Texas A&M International University), as well as both our local school systems.”

As we have walked the footsteps of this pilgrimage together, we have also brought to the forefront many instances and stories of injustices from the past that have not always been included in the historical narrative.  While it would be easy to think that these stories were not major news in their own time when we look at writings from individuals from the past we find that even in the face of these injustices there were those willing to stand up for the rights of others.  One of the most famous Civil Rights icons of the time, and still celebrated among Tejanos and Mexican Americans alike, is the native of Laredo, Jovita Idar.  Idar served as a teacher, journalist, writer, nurse, political activist, and civil rights leader throughout the first half of the 20th century, fighting for the rights of Mexican and Mexican Americans on both sides of the border.  To truly understand Idar’s life and passion for social justice, one also has to understand her background and her hometown of Laredo.

Jovita Idar was born September 7th, 1885 into a family well established in the Laredo intelligentsia community.  Idar’s parents, Jovita and Nicasio Idar promoted a love of education among their children, and Jovita would be provided an education that was far above that which was available to many of her fellow Tejanos at the time.  Earning her teaching certificate in 1903, Idar would quickly come face to face with the great disparities that existed in the “separate but equal” schools for Hispanic children.  These segregated schools often lacked basic facilities we take for granted, such as stoves to heat the classrooms in the winter and enough desks for all the students to sit at.  Books, if available at all, were in chronic short supply and despite the students’ parents paying taxes to support education, little of that money ever went to their own children’s schools.

Idar wrote of the situation, “There were never enough textbooks for her pupils or enough paper, pens or pencils; if all her students came to class, there were not enough chairs or desks for them.”

During the years of the Mexican Revolution (a time of increased racial strife all along the border), Idar would leave the career of teaching and begin work as a journalist at her father’s newspaper La Cronica (The Chronicle).  Idar would dive headfirst into writing on the inequalities faced by the Hispanic population, writing a multitude of articles that criticized the response by both the State government and the US government to the acts of violence being perpetrated along the border against Mexican Americans.  In 1914 Idar would write an article that criticized President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send US troops into Mexico which would anger local Texas Rangers.  The Rangers attempted to close Idar’s newspaper, resulting in Jovita barricading herself in her office and denying the Rangers a chance to silence her.  However, the Rangers would return while Jovita was away and destroy the printing presses.

In addition to her work as a journalist, Jovita advocated strongly for the education of Mexican American children and would serve as the president of the League of Mexican Women.  Idar would also recruit and lead groups of Mexican American women across the border to serve as nurses whenever the battles of the revolution came near, such as when major fighting broke out in Nuevo Laredo.  After her father’s death in 1914, Jovita would become the editor and writer for La Cronica, and would go on to found her own newspaper, Evolucion in 1916.  After the closure of Evolucion in 1920, Idar would move to San Antonio and found a free kindergarten for Hispanic students, and continue to write about the injustices faced by the community.

While Jovita Idar’s story would subsequently be overlooked for much of the second half of the 20th century, a spate of biographies at the start of the 21st century would bring her story to life and ignite a remembrance of Idar and her accomplishments well beyond the Tejano community.  Idar would even be celebrated in a Google Doodle in 2020, with the Doodle portraying her famous act of barricading her newspaper office from being destroyed by the Texas Rangers.

 

Hebbronville
Hebbronville is 56 miles northwest of Laredo, with a population of 4,600. The town was established when the Texas-Mexican Railway came through the area. It is a hub for ranching, and at one time was the largest cattle shipping center in the United States. Visitors can enjoy a variety of attractions, including many historical museums and buildings. One such attraction is the Scotus College Campus, a Franciscan seminary built by priests in 1926 who were fleeing persecution in Mexico. The seminary was open until the 1960s. 

Hebbronville is home to St. James’ Episcopal Church, a bilingual, bicultural congregation whose mission is, “to honor, love, and serve Christ through worship, fellowship, and outreach within the community.” They are currently served by The Rev. Ernest Buchanan, Vicar. 

The story of Texas is one that is intertwined with the legacy of ranching and the beef industry.  The image of the Texas Cowboy is one that can be seen all over the state from the giant cowboy boots in front of North Star Mall in San Antonio, to the greetings of Big Tex at the annual State Fair in Dallas.  Now to be a successful cowboy one needs two things, a cattle to herd and a horse to herd from.  Despite these animals being synonymous with ranching, neither of these creatures are native to North America but were instead like the ranching traditions used today brought over by the Spanish.  To understand the modern Texas cowboy, we must first understand their origin in the ranching and herding practices of Spanish and Mexican Texas and the original Texas Cowboy, the Vaquero.  And to find out that history, a journey to Hebbronville is necessary, as it is the Vaquero Capital of the world.

The land that the town of Hebbronville sits on was part of a land grant dating back to 1740.  While the town itself wasn’t founded until 1888, many of the families in the region and their cattle brands can trace their history back to the 18th century.  These early ranching families would employ Vaqueros to tend to the cattle, using many of the same tools and skills still seen today such as the lasso and western saddle.  The use of wide-brimmed hats, chaps, and the traditions of the rodeo were all learned and borrowed by the modern Texas Cowboy by their Vaquero counterparts, and Hebbronville continues to celebrate this exchange of cultures in their annual Vaquero Festival.  Guests to the festival have a chance to see and experience rode and roping events, taste true Tex-Mex dishes and learn the history of the town and the role the vaquero has played in the state’s history.  While last year’s festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s festival is back and planned for November later this year.

McAllen

McAllen rests in the Rio Grande Valley, with a population of 146,000. The city was settled in 1904 and for most of the 20th century, it was a small agricultural township. Since the introduction of the North American Free Trade Association in the 1990s, McAllen continues to grow as a large metropolitan area along the border. McAllen is home to a variety of museums, a symphony orchestra, and several fine art galleries. The city holds its own Fiesta celebrations each year, alongside the MXLAN, a 5-day event where traditions are rarely seen outside interior Mexico happen alongside modern artists and revelers honoring their cultural roots. 

St. John’s Episcopal Church serves the area of McAllen. They are involved in both local and international outreach in the form of a food pantry and regular mission trips to Guatemala. They are currently served by The Rev. Rod Clark, Rector. 

If one were to stand along the banks of the Rio Grande river in McAllen Texas, they would find themselves at the line on a map that marks the border between the United States and Mexico.  As we have already explored during our pilgrimage, for much of the state’s history and for many peoples, the border was not a true dividing line, but instead an open bridge through which thousands have crossed both in the past and today.  While it is easy to think of McAllen, and its sister city of Reynosa on the Mexico side of the border, as two distinct entities, they are truly dependent on one another in a myriad of ways and have allowed this once rural area of Texas to grow into a booming metropolitan trading city.

The construction of the railroad in 1904 opened the first door to large-scale trade between the residents of the Reynosa-McAllen area with the rest of the state and nation.  Where once ox carts were the mainstay of getting goods across the river, the railroad allowed for greater interconnectivity of both communities and the members of the same families on either side of the border.  This growth of trade truly began to boom in 1994 with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with McAllen becoming the first inland Foreign Trade Zone in the US.  This Zone is overseen by both the US and Mexico and is a representation of the joint nature of international trade, with thousands of tons of goods crossing through the zone every day.

While there has been a lot of positives to come about through this increase in international trade, we must also look to some of the negative impacts that have developed.  During the early 90’s many US corporations began to move their factories to Reynosa for cheaper labor, establishing the maquiladora economy.  Thousands of Mexican citizens flocked from their home states to Reynosa to find work in these factories despite the hard work and long hours for wages far lower than those found just over the border.  This mass influx quickly outstripped the number of available homes, resulting in shanty towns being built to house the workers with little access to electricity or water.  Once these companies found another country that allowed for even lower wages, they would relocate the factories, leaving many former workers stranded far from their families and without work.  This environment of impoverished and unemployed workers proved to be the recruiting ground for many of the cartels that have fueled much of the violence for the last three decades that has ravaged Mexico.  As the restrictions on border crossings have been strengthened in the last decade, many families that resided on both sides have found themselves cut off from loved ones.

The McAllen-Reynosa metropolitan area is a representation of just how interconnected the border communities are with their counterparts on the Mexican side of the border.  While there may be a river and a line on a map cutting through this region, the peoples that call this region home have long traded and shared their cultures with one another, and continue to rely on each other as the trains continue to rumble up from Mexico to various points across the US.

 

Closing Prayer
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn
but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the
strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that
all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of
Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and
glory, now and for ever. Amen.
A Prayer for Peace, BCP p. 815

 

Next stop coming Tuesday, July 13th
Segregation in 1921, the Underground Railroad to Mexico, and the Birth of Conjunto Music

 

Location: Weslaco, Harlingen, and San Benito, TX
Distance to travel: 82,000 steps to Weslaco
Churches: Grace Church, St. Alban’s, and All Saints