PRESIDIO, TX - At the bottom of the United States, sandwiched between two proud nations, shoved up against a vivifying river which coils through a desolate desert, sleepy Presidio, Texas, tilts its hat over its eyes and whistles blissfully as the world roils around. At least it did.
Nestled into a rarely visited corner of Southwest Texas and hard against the Mexican border, Presidio is unfailingly welcoming. A mixture of Southern hospitality and Western sensibility imbues the town with an unusually pleasant atmosphere. The air is charged around this little town, there’s a sense of safety and isolation as if an electric blanket were draped around its shoulders. Presidio is normal and extraordinary, quaint and quirky, lazy and energetic. Presidio is unmistakably American.
The people here enjoy the type of isolation which the West has mythologized. The lonesome cowboy, the scoundrel, the independent widow, these tropes gain strength in Presidio where you can look and see the snakes slithering off a path and witness the tumbling tumbleweed..
Presidio sits atop an ancient crossroads. The convergence of two rivers, El Rio Grande and El Rio Conchos, forms a delta in the middle of the desert. The area has been populated for at least 3,500 years because of its fertile soil and the oasis formed by the intersection of two aquatic highways. people coming down from the North and up from the South have parlayed and settled here trading goods, ideas, and cultures.
The geography has consistently thrust the region into situations which have demanded cultural acceptance, encouraged general curiosity, and rewarded social unity. So when 22 people were murdered in August 2019 next door in El Paso, shockwaves rippled throughout the region and the people of Presidio stopped whistling and started listening. Suddenly a threat that had long stood in the shadows stepped forward into the light of the brutal West Texas sun and announced its hatred for the whole world to see. A man rode into town with hopes of terrorizing victims and inspiring followers and that’s exactly what happened.
I arrived in Presidio on August 16 2019. The midday sun beat down on the pavement and the dust. Empty cars littered the main drag and were the only signs of a population. As I drove into town the residents of Presidio convened inside their air-conditioned retreats. I parked my car alongside the locals’ vehicles and went into the first store I saw.
Presidio and its Mexican counterpart, Ojinaga, across the river, comprise one of six official ports of entry between Mexico and the United States. Commerce between the two is and has always been central to the commercial and industrial survival of each. Presidio’s more established residents remember a time when workers would wade across the river every morning from Ojinaga to work in the fields on the outskirts of town and return at night. Those times have passed. As population has grown and public anxiety over immigration has risen the politics have shifted. As the government has increased security the legal flow of people and commerce has plummeted. Farm hands have been replaced with coyotes and mules.
Americans regularly cross into Ojinaga to purchase goods like medicine and healthcare at vastly lower prices. The towns have established an equilibrium that depends on an unfailing equanimity honored by generation after generation. This type of arrangement is common along the border. Every community has its counterpart on the other side. Eachpair grows and prospers together, or will fail together. The massacre in El Paso and the documented rising tide of xenophobia and violence in the United States endangers this delicate balance and threatens the country.
The thrift store I walked into first had three fans pointed at the entrance. I met Apoloni Gonzales at the register. Gonzales is 56 years old with grey streaks in her shoulder length hair. She has a quick and easy smile, is unanimously polite, two of the fans on the counter point out toward the customer drawing them out of the harsh sun and into the shop. She runs the secondhand store during the day while her husband rests at home before his graveyard shift as an agent with the Border Patrol. Gonzales is easy going and immediately welcomed me to the town. I asked her who I should talk to during my visit and she told me Mario Nieto who runs the general store a few blocks down and a person she named only as Luis who operates the hardware store right across the street.
Luis was at lunch when I went in and spoke with his sister, Gloria, who after waking from her nap, kindly suggested I come back in twenty minutes. I decided to trek down the street to try my luck at the general store. Mario Nieto, 65 was on the phone when I entered the cavernous building. There is a shop in the back with a workbench and tools tacked to the walls. Nieto’s office is visible along the rear wall and on the desk are papers strewn about with a methodical messiness. The shelves are filled with tools, tapes, glues, kitchen appliances, knives, and clothes. The hardwood floors creak and dust settles on top of the wares. A mounted deer adorns an ornamented structural pillar facing the entrance.
Nieto’s grandfather established the store and left it to his father, who passed it down to him. He admitted that times had gotten tough. People just don’t do their shopping in person anymore, instead opting for the convenience of the online marketplace. He pointed to a pile of boxes in the corner. It was an order he received from a customer south of the border, the type of business which now supplies the bulk of his revenue and is barely keeping him afloat. Inside the boxes were electronic parts which Nieto could replace much more easily than his customer. Nieto had purchased the parts on Amazon to fill the order from his buyer on the Mexican side where Amazon doesn’t have the same kind of infrastructure, even just a couple miles away. Nieto had turned to the very thing that had pushed his livelihood to the brink of disaster just to keep his head above water.
After visiting with Nieto I returned to the hardware store to see if Luis had returned from lunch. Gloria said Luis was in the back and that I could go and talk to him there. She pointed toward the back of the large store and I thanked her. As I turned a corner I could see a table set up at the end of the aisle. A man sat with his back to me and another sat facing him, mostly obscured from my line of sight. Occasionally he would peek out and look at me as I made the long walk to their table. I approached and noticed a badge on the breast of one of the men and suspicion was in their eyes. A little surprised, I explained my purpose and their hardness melted into amusement.
Luis Aymendariz, 75, the owner of the store, and Jose Luiz Cabezuela, 65, the local police chief said that not more than a week before I arrived in their peaceful and happily ignored community a group of strangers had visited. Three or four men had driven up to the local clothing store and walked into the establishment flaunting MAGA hats and asked pointedly “Where do the Mexicans gather?” insinuating a violent act of the sort that had just been carried out in El Paso. The report of this incident had sent the town into a panic and a search ensued. The local law and the regular residents joined in search of the men, they looked high and low for a black truck carrying North Carolina license plates, but as quickly as they came, these men melted back into the desert.
Aymendariz, informed by his sister of a curious stranger, had called Cabezuela for back up. The store owner was scared. He told me that as I approached him he’d been checking my waistband for a firearm. The people of Presidio felt under siege. Even so, soon he was chuckling. “Next time,” he called as I climbed into my car and blasted the air conditioning “you better wear boots.” I was welcome here, his manner said. After all, Presidio still was America. Strangers welcome.