But the reason she thought we shouldn’t go across was the very reason I had come home to the border, to write about how going across to Matamoros had changed from my childhood in the 60s and 70s, my partying days in the 80s and early 90s, to today when it’s difficult to find anyone in my hometown of Brownsville willing to risk crossing over. There are still those brave souls, like my passenger, who make the trip for work or to visit family, to save money on a dentist appointment, on a prescription, maybe even for lunch, so long as they stay on the main drags and clear out before dark.
She crossed back and forth out of necessity, to eke out a living at a job that paid better than one she could find in Matamoros. When I crossed it was to see something I couldn’t find in Brownsville, maybe it was the restaurants and bars, but maybe also because when you grow up here, on the border, at least part of your life and memories exist on that other side. You remember your dad taking you across for your first haircut, buying a case of Joyas and hearing the soda bottles clinking all the way home inside the trunk of the Oldsmobile, attending a wedding in Brownsville and then crossing over for the reception in Matamoros, eating at places like Los Norteños with the cabrito aflame in the front window, and your last night in town at Los Portales with its rustic interior and enormous glass case with the embroidered saddle and sheathed sword, your grilled fajitas and costillas sizzling on the hibachi set atop a rickety orange side table.
She wasn’t the first to warn me.
“Depending on which way the wind is blowing you can hear the balazos,” Dr. Juliet García had told me of the rapid-fire sound of the gun battles taking place across the border. Until 2015, she was president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, now renamed the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which stands close enough to the river that police once found a stray bullet that had been fired in Matamoros and lodged itself into the exterior of a campus building. Which is another way of saying that what happens on the Matamoros side of the river, good or bad, tends to wash ashore on the Brownsville side.
Part of what’s always made Brownsville an attractive destination is its proximity to Matamoros and South Padre Island, only 30 minutes away. But the sound of the balazos has scared some tourists away, especially Winter Texans, those retirees from the Midwest who drive their motor homes south to spend part of the year in Brownsville and other cities north of here, all close enough to the bridges connecting them to Matamoros and Nuevo Progresso and Reynosa, where the drug war is even more intense.
Now a few of the restaurants that tourists and locals might have crossed over for can be found in Brownsville. Some, like Mi Pueblito and Bigo’s, still have their original locations across the bridge, but Mariscos De La Rosa, a seafood restaurant, left for good after 22 years and reopened in Brownsville in 2010.