Donald Trump wants to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. It will be a beauty. He builds nice fences. Fences are easy. Will Donald’s beautiful wall replace the billions of dollars of fencing that has already been erected along parts of the 1,933-mile border interspersed with a "virtual" fence of cameras and sensors? Or will it merely fill in the gaps, some of which experts have already determined to be hazardous to workers, environmentally devastating, or prohibitively expensive?
Oh, right, Mexico is paying for the wall and it will be their laborers put at risk, so not a problem. And the U.S government has already exempted construction of a border fence from any laws. Apparently, that was easy too.
A 2005 rider to a bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gave the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to dispense with any legal requirements that impeded the construction of barriers and roads. With this new power, Michael Chertoff waived the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and a grab-bag of other environmental protections to bolster and expand fencing through the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve near San Diego. Challenges by the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and others were dismissed because the legislation decreed that the decisions of the Secretary of Homeland Security are not subject to judicial review. Elsewhere, the fence has blocked bison herds in Arizona, caused erosion and flooding in New Mexico, and sealed off the habitat of ocelots in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge.
In Laredo, Texas, the setting for Ito Romo’s stories in The Border is Burning, the fence would have to be plunked in the middle of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, where it would bisect the International Bridge that connects the two countries.
Such a barrier would have made the events in the opening story of the collection impossible. In “Baby Money,” a two-headed baby preserved in a jar of formaldehyde is swept from a carnival on the American side to the Mexican side when the river overflows its banks during a tropical storm. On the American side, a boy had thrown up at the sight of it. When the carnival owners offer a reward for the return of the baby, a young mother on the Mexican side exclaims, “Gringos bárbaros,” and yells over and over across the river, “I don’t want your dammit baby money.”
This dead baby, deformed and pickled in chemicals, signifies the shared relationship of the inhabitants on the border. Hideous and aberrant circumstances created at the border have sacrificed the humanity of people living on the margins in poverty, addiction, and neglect.
Romo, born and raised in Laredo in a family that has lived on both sides of the border for nine generations, is a professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He gives us dark and gritty stories in this collection about a place and people he knows well. The sun is oppressive and the landscape bleak. The people are alienated and depressed. The stories are all quite short, as if even Romo can give them only so much attention. As if the brief focus he lends them is a mirror of the small consideration they’re given by society.
But if the stories are brief, their impact is not. Romo’s language is mostly unadorned, but still packed with tension. The story “Flatbed” opens with a family stranded on the highway.
“They could hear the fire engine coming for a long time before they could actually see it. The father cried. The mother, holding the youngest, an infant, a little boy, in her arms, cried too. Two others, another boy about nine, and a girl, six or seven and freckled, stood by the ranch fence, collecting pebbles to throw at each other.”
Romo reminds us often of the harsh surroundings his characters inhabit, though the harshness is not without a bizarre beauty. In “Splinter in the Gut,” a man, hobbled by a pain in his belly, sees his own wound replicated in the streets of his city.
“The hot asphalt opened up in wounds, he thought, cracks that oozed little streams of tar blood when the morning buses and the eighteen-wheelers headed for Mexico rolled heavily over them. The hot breeze the vehicles whooshed cooled his skin when they passed by. As he turned the corner at Salinas and grant, something fluttered on the ground a few feet ahead of him; in the noon sun, it blazed pearlescent. He was astonished as he drew closer and squatted to the ground, careful not to fall over his feet. A hummingbird, fluttering iridescent green and red and black feathers, had the tip of his long, thin tongue stuck to a piece of red hard candy that was melting on the hot sidewalk.”
Several of the stories take place on the road, though often the destination is never reached. Treachery or tragedy intervene. Or in some cases, Romo suddenly ends the story, and the reader is left wondering, but not even daring to hope for the best.
After the two-headed baby floats across the river in the first story, there are only a couple of other instances of border crossings. In one story, “Splinter in the Gut,” Miguel crosses to Mexico to buy medicine for his infection, risking jail on his way back. In the last story, which is the title story, a man forced to act as a drug mule returns to his home to find it in flames. The conflagration is accompanied by sudden and unexplained explosions on the other side of the river, as if the two sides are in agreement that they are in this together, a recognition of the prospect of mutual ruin, or maybe a game of one-upsmanship — in any case, a full display of the volatility at the border.
In Romo’s earlier collection El Puente/The Bridge, published in 2000 before the partial fencing, both physical and virtual, the tone is lighter with a fable-like quality so even when tragedy strikes, the effect is more allegorical than the visceral hits of The Border.
After an old woman scrubs the burnt beans from her clay pot in the river, the water turns red and carries the smell of mulberries, causing a commotion on both sides of the border. Thirteen women in this collection each have a reason for heading to the bridge to see and marvel at the red water where their lives intersect in various ways.
There is a sense of fluidity across the border, of freer passage, an exchange of commerce and culture through a revolving turnstile that is not without its consequences. Whatever is turning the river red joins the two countries. Likewise, the air seething with the smell of mulberries cannot be contained on one side or the other.
Thirteen years separate the publication of these two collections. In that time, the politics around the border has moved toward increased division as evidenced by the fencing, which in turn has increased tensions and despair among those living in the shadows of those politics. These are the people Romo writes about in The Border is Burning.
“I want to shake people up,” Romo says in a profile of him on the St. Mary’s University web page. “I want to bring attention to the people we’ve pushed to the fringes of society — people we’ve demonized.”
The Border is Burning predates by a few years Trump’s remarks about criminals and rapists pouring across the border from Mexico. Soon after those remarks, Trump visited Laredo even though it was “very dangerous” so he could deliver a ten-minute press conference on strengthening our borders with a wall before scurrying off again in his private jet. While the book will have no influence on those ignorant, and therefore fearful, of the border and its inhabitants, anyone who reads Romo’s fiction is bound to be shaken up.