I grew up in Laredo, Texas, a border town that no doubt causes no small degree of consternation to those who lament Mexican culture in the United States.
I’d estimate that when I was growing up, about 95 percent of Laredoans were of Mexican descent. When Laredoans were summoned for jury duty, I’d estimate that about 20 percent of every panel had to be disqualified because they couldn’t speak or write English.
Many of the streets of Laredo are named after Spanish, Mexican, or French historical figures, such as Hidalgo, Zaragoza, and Iturbide. Signs in stores are both in English and Spanish. Store greeters say, “Buenos Dias” or “Good morning” to customers based on whether they look Mexican or Anglo.
None of this bothered anyone in Laredo. No one ever cared what language people spoke. People adjusted, including the small percentage of Anglos in the town. My father, an Anglo who was born and raised in San Antonio, was never able to speak Spanish, and yet developed a successful law practice in town. My mother, a Mexican-American who had been born and raised in Laredo, was bilingual and was always nice enough to communicate in English with my father.
While Texas had been under six different flags, Laredo had been under seven. It had served as the capital of the Republic of the Rio Grande, until Mexican president Santa Anna suppressed that particular revolt. While San Antonio, which lies 150 miles to the north, represents what is probably a perfect balance of Anglo and Mexican culture, Laredo always had a predominately Mexican culture albeit one with an American orientation. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that today Laredoans watch more Spanish television programs than ones in English.
Who cares? It certainly doesn’t bother anyone in Laredo. Sure, there are the standard political fights that go on everywhere, but I grew up in a city in which there was virtually perfect harmony between Hispanics and Anglos.
For many decades, Laredo has had one of the country’s few big annual celebrations in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The center of the celebration is a big parade in downtown Laredo, with school bands, giant floats featuring the city’s debutants, and the like. The parade is led by a young woman riding a horse who is chosen to depict Princess Pocahontas. The Washington Birthday festivities also include a now-famous Jalapeno Festival. Here’s a good article from Salon.com about how Laredo’s George Washington Birthday celebration represents a confluence of Mexican and American cultures.
When I was a kid, on the morning of the parade dignitaries from Mexico and the United States would meet in a formal ceremony at the center of the international bridge connecting Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The American officials would extend their arms in friendship to the Mexican officials — the traditional “abrazo.”
At that point, you’ll never guess what would happen. The officials would step aside, and the border would be completely open. That’s right — no more customs, no more immigration, no more checkpoints. A completely open border … for a day.
The residents of Nuevo Laredo would flood into Laredo, lining the streets to watch the parade and partake in the festivities. Everyone got along and had a very festive time. Here is a link to the “History of the Bridge Ceremony,” which even mentions my grandfather, Matias de Llano, who was one of the longtime organizers of Laredo’s George Washington Birthday celebration.
Describing the open border between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo on day of the parade, the history states: “When the formalities at the bridge were over, the politicians were given graphic evidence that they were still servants of the people. The normal procedure was to open the Bridge for the paso libre — suspension of document checks — just as the speech making was terminating, and the rush of humanity was a sight to behold. John Keck remembered that one year when the crowd was let through, ‘it looked like Moses had parted the Red Sea to let the people through.’ The honor guests had to step lively to get out of the way.”
Did the Rio Grande disappear? Did Mexico lose its sovereignty? Did the city of Laredo, the state of Texas, or the U.S. government lose their sovereignties? Of course not. The “paso libre” or “free pass” simply meant that Mexican citizens were free to cross the border into the United States. When they did so, they were subject to local, state, and federal law.
When I was growing up, Americans were always free to cross into Nuevo Laredo. There was a checkpoint on Mexican side of the bridge but as long as people weren’t traveling into the interior of Mexico, they could freely visit Nuevo Laredo. It was a nice way for tourists to get a taste of old Mexico, until the war on drugs later made it too unsafe to do so.
Open borders simply mean that people are free to cross borders. The borders don’t disappear and neither do the governments on both sides of the border. Open borders free people to harmonize their interests with others and expand their opportunities to pursue happiness. They are entirely consistent with the Golden Rule, religious dictates regarding man’s relationship to man, and principles of economic prosperity. It’s the only way to go.