the rambling boy
Bridges, not walls
By LONN TAYLOR
Candelaria, Texas is literally at the end of the road. It is 48 miles northwest of Presidio, where the pavement of FM 170 ends. In 2010 it had a population of 75. I was down there last month, visiting with Rosa Madrid and her son Reynaldo Pantoja. Rosa is a retired schoolteacher. She was born in Mexico, in the town of San Antonio del Bravo, which is directly across the Rio Grande from Candelaria, but she was brought across the river when she was an infant and grew up in Candelaria. “The seed came from San Antonio del Bravo but the tree was planted here and here is where my roots are,” she told me as we talked at her kitchen table. Her life is a metaphor for the two towns. They are separated by an international border but linked by kinship, language, and common interest.
Rosa’s house, a commodious bright yellow adobe, is directly across the street from a compound that houses several large adobe buildings and a corrugated metal cotton gin, abandoned for many years (“I am 65 years old and I have never seen cotton here,” Rosa told me.) But in 1920, when there were 500 people living in Candelaria, that compound was the home of the Kilpatrick family, who owned Candelaria. James (J..J.) and his brother Dawkins (D.D.) owned 800 acres of irrigated cotton land along the river and he and his brother ran the gin; their sister, Mary Kilpatrick Howard, ran a mercantile store that was part of the compound. During the border troubles of 1911-1920 a detachment of the 8th Cavalry was encamped on the hill behind the store. Reynaldo Pantoja took me to a point in the cemetery where we could look down on that hill and pointed out the stone cistern built by the troops and the concrete slab floors of the buildings they had occupied. But the Kilpatricks did not trust the army; they kept their own .30 caliber machine gun mounted on the roof of the store to discourage bandit raids from across the river
By the early 1980s the troops and the machine gun were gone, the cotton gin was defunct, and the population had shrunk to less than 100, but the store was still there, run by Mary Howard’s two daughters, Marian Walker and Frances Howard. The store drew the two towns across the river from each other together. “It was the only store within 50 miles,” Johnnie Chambers, who was teaching in the two-room school in Candelaria then, told me. People from San Antonio del Bravo, many of whom had relatives in Candelaria, waded across the Rio Grande to do their shopping.
No one remembers exactly when the footbridge across the Rio Grande connecting the two towns was built, or how many people were involved in building it. Johnnie Chambers thinks it was in the late 1970s, and that the builders were a group of young men who were her former students. Rosa Madrid remembers that two brothers, Cruz and Sixto Flores, were among the builders. I tracked Sixto Flores down in Odessa, where, at 60, he still works as a welder in the oil fields, and he said that he and his brother and some friends built it in 1982 or ’83 because “families needed to come to the store.” Flores himself was born in San Antonio del Bravo but was living in Candelaria when he built the bridge. It was a suspension bridge, with a plank floor about 2 feet wide. The piers that supported it were fashioned from old automobile bodies. But it was technically an international bridge, and since no one went through the rigmarole that is required to build an international bridge, it was totally illegal.
The bridge had unintended consequences. Families in San Antonio del Bravo used it to do their shopping, but families in Candelaria used it to visit the Mexican government health care clinic in San Antonio. “We could visit the doctor there free,” Rosa Madrid said, “and we could get free medicine.” She also said that people in San Antonio crossed on it to use telephones in Candelaria, and that it became a bridge between generations: elderly people in San Antonio used it to visit children and grandchildren in Candelaria. Johnnie Chambers said children in San Antonio used it to attend school in Candelaria.
At first the customs and immigration authorities in Presidio ignored it; it was one of a hundred places along the river where people crossed back and forth informally every day. But after 9/11 the bridge was suddenly seen as a national security threat. “The Border Patrol came here and said terrorists might use it. They told us not to use it. They said we could cross to Mexico but could not come back.” Reynaldo Pantoja said, “but people kept on crossing when they were not around. Then they came and tore out the boards on the American side, but people crossed by walking on the stringers. People needed it.”
Finally, on July 8, 2008, a small army of Border Patrol agents arrived in Candelaria in trucks and dismantled the bridge, with the help of Mexican Federal Police agents working from the other side of the river. The Border Patrol agents loaded the pieces into their trucks and hauled them to Marfa, where they can still be seen in the back parking lot of the border patrol headquarters. And in Candelaria and San Antonio del Bravo people still cross the river every day, but now they wade across.
The fact is that the border is not a line down the center of the Rio Grande but a zone that extends about 100 miles on each side of the river, a country that is neither Texas nor Mexico and is inhabited by people with a common history, a common language, and common family relationships. If the incoming presidential administration is determined to build a wall between our two countries, perhaps they should build it along Interstate 10. There are places there where it might even improve the view to the south.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.