Sept. 2, 2008
BORDERTOWN: The Odyssey of an American Place
Text: Benjamin Heber Johnson
Photos: Jeffrey Gusky
Southern Methodist University historian and author Benjamin Johnson has a passion for gutting stereotypes. His latest book, with photographer Jeffrey Gusky, takes a Texas border town through the looking glass, focusing on both its contradictions and contributions to reveal a new way of seeing the southern frontier.
Click to see a slide show of sample photos
The dusty, mostly abandoned downtown square in Roma, Texas, looks like poverty, sitting hard by the Rio Grande River, with its back to Mexico and its eyes fixed on the United States. But Johnson and Gusky found grace and majesty in a community that, while steadfastly American, refused to suffer the anti-Mexican sentiment that dominated the Southwest for generations.
It started when Roma’s founding Hispanic fathers organized themselves in the mid-1860s into a consortium that bought out Anglo newcomers as they moved into town. It was the flip side to what was occurring elsewhere in the Southwest: Hispanic ranchers watched Anglo-controlled towns and the King Ranch devour their lands. Anglo merchants assumed economic and political power. Even in El Paso, control shifted from the hands of people of Mexican descent.
But Roma’s residents never suffered “No Mexicans” signs posted at restaurant entrances or the loss of voting rights. They did not divorce themselves from the United States – but joined it on their own terms. Bordertown captures both the story of a community with a unique history, as well as the zeitgeist of a region many Americans have trouble understanding – a place of beauty and grace.
Surveyor William Emory arrived in the new American territory not long after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo redrew the western border of the United States to include a substantial chunk of what had been Mexico. A man of his time, Emory blamed the “decline” of Spain’s former empire on the conquerors’ intermarriage with Mexico’s indigenous people. Americans should not repeat this mistake, he advised, but should populate the newly American territory with whites, resulting in “exterminating or crushing out the inferior races, or placing them in slavery.”
Today Roma clings to the southern edge of Starr County with a population of about 11,000 people -- a place the U.S. Census records as the most Hispanic county in the United States. The region’s past is alive and well in the minds of the present generation, Johnson notes, but they are as conflicted as the rest of the United States in how they reconcile self-image with the realities of life on the border.
Most news accounts focus on drug trafficking, illegal immigration or corruption in Starr County. Luis Alberta Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway, writes in Bordertown’s introduction that most people see the southwestern borderlands “like a tourist passing through Hell.” But Urrea also notes that reading Johnson’s haunting stories and viewing Gusky’s deeply felt black and white photos is a chance to see the ghosts of the western frontier in a hauntingly beautiful place -- an American place. Hear Urrea talk about his book at the Gartner Honors Lecture on Sept. 8, 2008.
Benjamin Johnson is a professor of history at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman College and author of the acclaimed Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans.
Jeffrey Gusky is an east Texas emergency physician and fine arts photographer, whose first book of photography, Silent Places: Landscapes of Jewish Life & Loss in Eastern Europe, was published in 2003.
# # #