The first ride

beach
On the Gulf Coast beach at Biloxi, Mississippi.

MY WIFE’S INITIAL visit to the United States was very surprising to her. “How clean,” she remarked as we walked through downtown San Antonio on our first night, having just driven up from Laredo. I think she meant “how orderly” because Mexico is clean, but sometimes it’s not too orderly, part of its romantic, chaotic charm.

It’s not that she was some provincial bumpkin who’d never been anywhere. She spent six months in the mid-1990s in Spain doing postgraduate studies in civil engineering in Madrid. She took advantage of that opportunity to travel all over Europe in her spare time.

But she had never been above the Rio Bravo until we drove up there in 2004 a year after our wedding. Before the trip, she was fond of saying that she had little interest in visiting. Hadn’t lost anything up there, she repeated with a smirk. There was a strain of anti-Americanism in her family.

All that changed immediately when she saw Texas … and Louisiana … and Mississippi … and Alabama … and Georgia. We drove in our little Chevy Pop, which is something like a Geo Metro. No AC, no stereo, no power steering or power brakes or power windows, no power anything. It was the first car I purchased in Mexico.

We spent a couple of nights in San Antonio, strolling the Riverwalk. There was a side trip to Bandera where we ate barbecue on the main drag. It was followed down the street by root beer floats. There’s no root beer in Mexico.

We drove on to Houston, my old home town, for a few more nights. We visited with a few of my previous coworkers who were still wage-slaving on the Houston Chronicle. Then on to New Orleans for rides in the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue and beignets at Café du Monde abutting the river in the French Quarter.

We hired a carriage, horse and driver for a romantic ride. Though she has seen Paris, New Orleans made a big impression on her. We walked the sidewalks of the Garden District. We ate oyster po’ boys.

The stretch from New Orleans to Atlanta is a long, mostly boring haul. We spread it over two days, spending the night in a Holiday Inn somewhere in the sticks of Central Alabama. The best thing about that night was a fried-catfish plate at a nearby restaurant. Alabama knows how to fry catfish.

She’d never had fried catfish. She’d never had oyster po’ boys. She’d never had a beignet. She’d never had a root beer float. She was happy. And her opinion of the United States changed forever. She was in love with the food, the shopping (Target in particular) and even the people, especially Southerners.

Southern people are genuinely friendly, unlike the famous (feigned) friendliness of Mexicans who grin and hug you to death if they know you and cast you a stone-faced glare if they do not.

A Mexican’s face is a mask, and so is his smile. — Octavio Paz.

We made it to Atlanta where we stayed about a week, visiting my mother, doing more shopping, more eating, and then we headed south, mostly repeating the route north but with briefer layovers.

The trip had begun the first week in March, so the car’s lack of air-conditioning was not a problem. But we almost got nailed on the return drive in mid-March, just one day, the leg between Houston and the border at Laredo. We sweated a bit. Ironically, on entering Mexico, things cooled off. There are mountains.

My wife returned a changed woman. Before she loved only one Gringo. Now she loves them all. She wants to rent a home and stay in the United States for months at a time. She wants to eat po’ boys and barbecue and beignets and catfish every day. She wants to roam the aisles of Target with a debit card and a smile.

Other trips followed, but it’s been six years now since we’ve been above the Rio Bravo, and she’s unhappy about that. Maybe we’ll return some distant day, but only the Goddess knows when … or if.

We haven’t lost anything up there.

My people

Rural

THE HOLIDAY season turns a fellow’s mind to his family, his people.

For most of my life, I had people, and now I don’t. Mostly, they have died. I now have lots of Mexican people, but I don’t feel close to them. The cultural divide is vast. We do not connect.

Except my wife, of course.

My people were rural Georgia crackers. I will name them for you. There were my parents, of course, whom I called Dee and Charlie, never Mom and Dad. I don’t know why. Charlie had one sibling, Marthalyn, whom we sometimes called Marty. Dee was an only child. There weren’t many people in that generation.

I have one sister, Diane. She is a hot-tempered feminist fanatic, and I had to cease communication with her a couple of years ago to maintain my sanity. The situation severely saddens me. I also have one daughter, Celeste, who lives with her husband, Mitch, in Athens, Georgia. Her mother and I parted company when Celeste was 5, which often bodes badly for future relationships. That too grieves me.

Moving back up the people chain, there were two sets of grandparents, obviously. I called Dee’s parents Mama Powell and Papa Powell. They were great people. Papa Powell died when I was 12. Mama Powell died when I was 22. I have a photo of them hanging in the Hacienda living room, sitting in their yard on a bent-cane swing.

The Powells lived on a 500-acre farm in southwest Georgia, about a four-hour drive from Jacksonville, Florida, where I spent most of my youth. Before moving to Jacksonville at age 7, we lived with those grandparents for six years. My father raised chickens while trying to make a name for himself as a writer.

Turned out he was better at raising chickens.

The other grandparents, my father’s folks, lived north of Atlanta, in a small town called Marietta. We visited them less often because of the greater distance. There were other unspoken reasons. Being an only child, my mother was inordinately attached to her parents. And my father didn’t much care for his folks.

My father’s parents we called Mama D and Papa D. They were devoutly religious. Papa D was a Baptist deacon, and Mama D was a Methodist. Yes, they headed off to separate churches on Sunday mornings.

I sometimes would spend summer vacations with Mama D and Papa D. They would send me to Vacation Bible School, and I recall every morning at breakfast the kitchen radio would be playing gospel music. White gospel music with banjos, not the far more enthusiastic black variety.

However, both Mama D and Papa D were hard-core liberals. They voted for McGovern in 1972.

Those were my main people, mostly dead now. There were peripheral people too. Papa D’s sister, Aunt Ned, an almost life-long spinster. She may have been a lesbian because lesbianism runs rampant in my family, but back in those days, nobody much admitted it. But Aunt Ned did something unusual. In her 60s, she got married … to Mama D’s brother, Clarence. I think it was more for companionship than anything.

Unfortunately for Aunt Ned, Clarence died about two years later.

The four grandparents and Aunt Ned likely never set foot outside of Georgia except for the occasional visit to our home in Jacksonville, not far over the Georgia-Florida line. Clarence, however, served in World War I, and I remember a photo of him in his doughboy uniform. Aunt Ned worked for years in a millinery store in Marietta, and I now have an antique clock of hers on the wall at the Hacienda.

Those were my people, 99 percent dead now. And since neither my daughter nor my sister had children, there are no grandchildren, no nephews, no nieces, and never will be. I regret that a lot.

I would love to have people.

Getting Mexicanized

Typewriter
Typing citizenship application on my 1923 Royal in 2005.

WHEN I FLEW 30,000 feet over the Rio Bravo from Atlanta to Guadalajara on an icy (in Atlanta) night on January 20, 2000, I had a few plans, but becoming a Mexican was not one of them.

My plan consisted of three parts:

1. Learn Spanish.

2. Get married.

3. Build a house.

I had completed all three in three years. Well, the Spanish was dicey in 2003, but that’s all I spoke because my child bride’s English was — and continues to be — marginal.

One thing not on my sketchy list of plans was becoming a Mexican citizen. Hadn’t even entered my aging mind. It was only after I had been here a spell that I began to see the advantages.

The pluses* were that I do not have to renew my visa every year. I can now vote against Latino leftists. I can open a bank account without, one hopes, Barry breathing down my neck to support his socialistic schemes. I can tell Mexicans that I am a paisano. It makes me look good. I possess two passports. Basically, it’s just fun.

For anyone planning to spend the rest of his life in Mexico, becoming a citizen is — as the old phrase goes — a no-brainer. And, amazingly, it was very easy, a piece of chili cake.

From what I can make out, there was a window of opportunity, possibly unintentional on Mexico’s part, from about 1999 to 2005 in which one might become a citizen without doing much of anything aside from asking.

No language test. No history test. No civics test. Nada. I typed out an application form (see photo), provided a few mugshots, paid about a hundred bucks, and sat back. It was like renewing the yearly visa.

Eleven months later, I had my sombrero, black mustache and bottle of tequila. It’s nice to be part of a nation on its way up instead of on its way down — into the abyss. I shall mention no names.

It was a great idea. Note to Mexico: Thanks for letting me in.

* * * *

* At that time. In recent years, the visa situation has been totally revamped.

(Here is an earlier version of the event in question.)