National Geographic : 1996 Feb
IT WAS EARLY EVENING in a gritty Rio Grande border town when we stopped at the house of the local curandero, or spiritual healer. Over the front door faded yellow paint flaked offa concrete figure of Mother Goose. On the radio in the kitchen, Ricky Nelson sang, "Hello, Mary Lou, good-bye heart." The curandero was a short, slight old man in loose-fitting sneakers. His right eyelid was scarred almost shut as if with a hot poker. Tinsel hung from the rafters, and one corner of the room was dark as a bank of shrubbery, with artificial flowers and im ages of the Blessed Virgin and a host of saints. The curandero asked us if we had any par ticular problems we wished him to address, mental disorders perhaps, or marital difficul ties. Something lurid seemed called for. I told him that my computer was giving me carpal tunnel syndrome, and he nodded, like a priest in the confessional doomed to hear only the more insipid sins. I had come with a local cou ple, and the curandero asked all three of us to stand for the ritual cleansing. Swiping a small bronze crucifix back and forth, he muttered a rapid incantation seeking divine protection for us against armed assaults on the highway, ani mals that might attack us, witches, sorcerers, wars, storms. "Comprehensive coverage," one of my companions remarked, and on our behalf the curandero invoked the spiritual aid of 11,000 sainted virgins. He clasped our heads by front and back and, with a flourish of the wrists, drew out all our maladies and evil spirits. Then he clapped his own hands together to chase them away, puffed once at the small of our backs, and called on the wind to carry off our burdens. Comprehensive coverage against unknown danger. The cleansing power of a strong wind. An unburdened heart. By all accounts these are good things to have for surviving on the Rio Grande border. It is in many ways a trou bled region, shaped by forces well beyond local RICHARD CONNIFF wrote "Ireland on Fast For ward" for the September 1994 GEOGRAPHIC. Pho tographer BRUCE DALE retired from the staff last year after 30 years. JOEL SARTORE often chronicles American life for the magazine. control, most recently when the Mexican peso devaluation jolted economies on both sides. Drug traffickers pass through with tons of South American cocaine and marijuana, bringing violence and corruption. Illegal immigrants scramble across endlessly to grab a piece of the American dream laid out before them on television. Blue-chip companies set up shop just south of the border for the magical combination of Third World labor costs and overnight delivery to U. S. markets. Anything anybody doesn't want-toxic wastes, up to a hundred million gallons of raw sewage a day, corpses from drug deals gone bad-tends to end up in the river itself and become part of the next town's drinking water. Yet away from the cities, the river winds through a landscape of stillness and beauty. Clouds spread out in loose, motionless rows, their underbellies pink with the reflected des ert. Creosote bush and deep-rooted mesquite grow in sparse clumps with, here and there, a stalk of creamy yucca flowering voluptuously. In far, empty places, I forgot the ugliness of the cities and plunged into the river up to my chin to drift beneath the smooth limestone bluffs and watch the kestrels soaring overhead. The Rio Grande drops down from the mountains of Colorado and turns eastward at El Paso, Texas, and, at least in theory, it divides two countries as it flows for the next 1,250 miles through pucker-dry landscape down to the Gulf of Mexico. But like any wa tering hole in a desert, the chalky green waters of the Rio Grande do not separate so much as they unite. The river sustains a string of des perately troubled twin cities: El Paso-Ciudad Juarez in the cowboy West, then, after a long stretch of backcountry around Big Bend Na tional Park, the truck-stop sprawl of Laredo Nuevo Laredo, and finally the exuberant farm-and-factory culture of "the valley"- from McAllen-Reynosa down to Brownsville Matamoros near the Gulf of Mexico. Flying over El Paso one Sunday morning, my pilot, a shrewd, affable West Texas lawyer named Malcolm McGregor, pointed down at a country club estate of plush green lawns, red tile roofs, and crystalline swimming pools. We passed over a mansion backing up onto the Rio A river of traffic backs up at a border crossingas motorists drive from Mexico into El Pasoon a Saturday night. Upwards of 40,000 vehicles pass through the city's ports of entry each day as citizens of one country travel to the other to work, shop, or visit family and friends.