When Democracy Doesn’t: Hidalgo County, New Mexico
By Sean McCoyMarch 13, 2017
I. The Child
IMAGINE THE CHILD with bucket in hand. He weaves between creosote, footsteps cracking the loose earth. Like his father, he sports a tooled leather belt, a holster for his penknife, off-brand Stetson, denim, boots. He heads for a patch of prickly pear, hoping to find the ripened fruit that can bring him some money. The New Mexico sky is clear save for scattered wisps of jet trails.
At last the child reaches his mark. He moves from one pad of cactus to the next, plucking the bright maroon eggs until his bucket brims and he heads for home. He did the math long ago and knows he needs $1,700 to buy 100 Bibles. He wants them by December 1 to give to other children in time for Christmas. When they are baptized, he thinks they should receive Bibles written for them, Bibles they would actually read, rather than adult-version Gideons.
Walking home, the child sees Lordsburg crouching on the southern horizon — the county seat of Hidalgo, New Mexico. Hidalgo occupies the southwesternmost corner of the state, a region called the “Bootheel,” which was absorbed by the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. In this heavily Democratic and Latino county, named for a hero of the Mexican War of Independence, Donald Trump won 49 percent of ballots, good for a decisive seven-point lead over Hillary Clinton. It is a county that voted twice for Barack Obama.
Hidalgo is a place haunted by ghosts — those of capitalism and manifest destiny, cowboys, Indians, and internees, drug victims and migrants lost to the desert. But these aren’t the Bootheel’s only spirits; here survives a frontier fragment of agrarian democracy — fragment being the operative word, because Hidalgo, despite racial goodwill and a culture predisposed to self-government, helped elect a divisive and race-baiting candidate who disregards our democratic norms.
II. “It’s Gonna Be a Ghost Town Here”
I am sitting with the child’s parents, Katee and Eric McSpadden, as we watch the child harvest the cactus. They supported Donald Trump for three reasons — abortion, the Second Amendment, and Supreme Court nominations — reasons their son, now arriving home with a bucket full of prickly pear, can only begin to understand.
When he walks in the door, he will set the bucket aside. He may be asked to plumb or weld or ride out to mend fences, go hunting with his father, help neighbors tend their cattle. Later, he will go to his mother and learn to can the fruit. She may remind him of his heritage as a sixth-generation rancher, whose ancestors lived in Mexico and Arizona before Arizona became Arizona. Some were Mexicans, some Irishmen. The boy has heard their names and stories before. Turning back to the fruit, she will tell the boy that this is his service project, that he no longer needs her help. The child will get to work. He will can prickly pear and boil jelly and, when finished, sell the products of his labor: jams to school teachers in Lordsburg, jellies to his neighbors, the Shannons, syrup and recipe cards to friends, clerks, local businesses.
“He ended up raising $2,300, on his own, as an eight-year-old,” Katee tells me. “I now have six cases of Bibles in the back of my truck that I just picked up from the post office. Seeing him do that from start to finish — not only did he grow as a child learning how the real world works, but he learned that when you do something and have a plan, that you finish it.”
From a distance, Lordsburg first appears as a diminutive skyline of signposts — each adorned with a different badge of roadside capital: Valero, Econo Lodge, Hampton Inn, McDonald’s, Chevron. They sprout from the parched earth around the interstate, clamoring for attention, too aware you may drive on before realizing you were ever here.
The town was founded in 1880 as a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad and enjoyed prosperity in the ranching, mining, and rail industries. It later earned a living by selling food, lodging, and gasoline to highway travelers on their way to somewhere else. By 1964, it offered 20 cafes, 21 motels, and 31 service stations — the best hub of its kind between Texas and Arizona.
But that’s where the growth stopped. The town turned scruffier with age. Today’s approximate count yields just a dozen motels; four fast-food chains; three independent restaurants; two dollar stores; two fireworks outlets; a handful of auto shops and gas stations; the Smith Ford, Western Bank, Farmers Insurance, Saucedo’s Supermarket, and Los Arcos Liquor Mart. That’s about it for commerce.
Options for local churches rival motels in number: St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Scripture Baptist Church, Assembly of God Church, First United Methodist Church, Church of Christ, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the mysterious Pyramid Tabernacle are scattered about the town. The high school’s Class of 2017 boasts 34 members. Ranchers and farmers (chilies, cotton, hay) continue to toil throughout the region.
Socorro Villanueva, 81, has lived in Lordsburg all her life. Today she’s at her desk in the county museum, bent over a book, accompanied by photographs of rail pioneers in baggy overalls. The museum seems to have been a large freight warehouse in its former life. Rows of shelves crowd the tall central room, displaying a prolific collection of Western bric-a-brac. I’m drawn to an exhibit of 28 varieties of barbed wire (Saw Tooth, Merrill’s Twist, Brinkerhoff), a “Mennonite wagon donated by Buster and Sundi McDonald,” and a fat slab of copper anode — the final output of the now-shuttered smelter at nearby Playas. The anode is 720 pounds, enough for 141,996 pennies by 1980s standards, worth $2,649.60 in current dollars.
Socorro adjusts the glasses on her well-tanned face. When she was a girl, tourists came through town all the time. They flocked to the bars and shops and dance halls that lined the road beside the tracks — Main Street before it was renamed Motel Drive — injecting the town with currency and vitality.
“Today, it’s pretty much just three restaurants: Kranberry’s, Ramona’s, and El Charro,” she says. She looks forward to the arrival of a drug store in a couple months, but worries that too many teachers come from out of town, too many students struggle with poor grades, and too many residents depart each day for work. “And the kids now, they graduate, and they just leave. Very few stay here anymore,” she tells me. “Probably soon it’s gonna be a ghost town here, too.”
III. “Hidalgo County is Family”
The new Main Street connects I-10 to the tracks — a 10-block, north-south stretch of blacktop without a stoplight. At the southern end, near the highway and across from Saucedo’s, sits Richard Chaires’s Farmers Insurance. He’s a lifelong member of Lordsburg and preparing to conclude an eight-year, two-term stint as Hidalgo County Commissioner — one of two Democrats, and the only man, on the three-person board.
Richard is boxy, neckless, and amiable, fond of his Farmers Insurance button-downs, and possesses a verbal tic that entails the interspersions of sir and ma’am at 10-word intervals. The tic’s effect is softened by his voice — half Texas twang, half Mexican lilt. In keeping with local vernacular, he pronounces the county as High-dalgo, infusing the word with a modest boast.
When he walked to the polls last November, he had yet to decide on his vote. He skipped the presidential section and filled out the remainder of his ballot, only then returning to the final choice. “I wasn’t voting for the person I voted for, I was voting against the other one,” he says. He won’t reveal his ultimate decision, but says his lesser-of-two-evils dilemma was shared by many of his constituents.
Richard, despite my probing, is not surprised Hidalgo went for Trump. He draws my attention to the loss of jobs, the spread of drugs; over a quarter of county residents live in poverty. He says people wanted a change — to rebuke the powers that prospered while Hidalgo suffered — which explains why Gary Johnson performed so well here. Third parties received only two percent of the vote in 2012, and less than one percent in 2008. But in 2016, third-party candidates, led by Johnson, won nearly 10 percent of Hidalgo’s votes.
This makes sense to Richard. Trump was also a rebuttal to the major parties, his own included. Dissatisfied Republicans could still choose a Republican and fulfill their wish for change. Dissatisfied Democrats, however, needed to go beyond their party to find an outsider candidate — and Johnson would have to do.
Besides, he says, residents rarely vote down party lines; George W. Bush won Hidalgo in 2000 and 2004. People are even less likely to show party loyalty on the local level. “It doesn’t make a difference if you’re Republican or Democrat for the majority of the people,” he says. “They’re going to vote the person here. It’s a small community so everybody knows everybody — the majority of people vote for the individual, and they’re not voting for the party.” I would hear this refrain again and again during my interviews. People vote the person, split tickets, cross lines. Also, everybody knows everybody.
Richard loves that his community is small. When he goes to the store, church services, funerals, or Friday Night Football, he sees “the same people, over and over.” He meets them, knows them, socializes with them, can’t avoid them — day after day and year after year, enough that he can say, without hyperbole, “I know 99 percent of them, probably.” It’s “because of the small town atmosphere” that Richard believes people have different opportunities when it comes to government.
“In a small community, you get more access to elected officials,” he says. Were it up to him, everyone would serve, at some point, as a county officer. Everyone can, he says. Anyone can represent their fellow citizens, can work for change — if there’s money for it.
Size is also why he raised his kids here and “wouldn’t change it for the world.” Half the time, Richard never locks his office door. He doesn’t lock his house door either. His children grew up playing outdoors, unsupervised, free of worry.
Lordsburg is not like the city of Las Cruces, 120 miles away — the home of New Mexico State University. As a young man, Richard spent time in the city to earn his degree. One day, stranded on campus after his car battery failed, he was forced to walk two miles home through thick desert rains. He plodded along, drenched, staring down at his reflection in the wet sidewalk. As he listened to cars whiz by, he realized something: “If I was in Lordsburg, I’d’ve had about 10 people offering me a ride.”
He pauses to let this observation linger. “And up there, of course, nobody knows you.”
A woman enters the office and Richard halts our interview to greet her.
“Did you — ”
“No, I’ll get it for you tomorrow.”
“Okay, I better not die!”
“If you do, I’ll go to your funeral!”
She walks out the door and Richard smiles. “To me,” he says, “Lordsburg and Hidalgo County is family.” The communities of Animas, Rodeo, and Virden are the cousins, while Lordsburg is the immediate circle. “Family is: you get along, you fight, you might get mad at each other, but at the end of the day when you need one another, you’re there for each other. No matter what.”
For example, because of the county’s primitive health facilities, people must travel to Deming or Silver City for medical help — sometimes even as far as Las Cruces, El Paso, or Tucson. When someone faces an emergency, Richard tells me, everyone will come together and hold fundraisers. People collaborate and contribute to cover the patient’s expenses. “If you need each other,” he says, “you’re there.” It is a romantic view of life held by small-town people — so why did they fall for a New York showman who knows little of community or small towns?
IV. “Enactment of Connections”
Hidalgo County embodies the sorts of relationships that theorists and critics have long argued are essential for democratic flourishing: a town-as-family mentality; neighbors helping neighbors; communal fundraising during crises; high church attendance; a willingness to talk to strangers, to gossip, to wave (I saw more hands rise above the steering wheel in three days in Hidalgo than in three months in Los Angeles); respect for the land, plants, animals; a village-raises-the-child attitude; participation in youth groups (FFA, 4-H, Scouts); physical spaces for entertainment and association (Mav’s games, Ramona’s, churches, Elks, Bible groups, county fairs, farmers’ markets, taverns, PW’s, numerous civic centers); access to local politicians; a legitimate chance to be a local politician; a focus on production rather than consumption; humility (in the face of nature, of God); a willingness for hard work; generational and cultural pride; living to be part of something greater than yourself — something that came before you and will outlast you — belonging.
Hidalgo County recalls Montesquieu’s words on democratic proportion:
In a large republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses are of less extent, and of course are less protected.
And Thomas Jefferson’s view that “farming, education, and democratic liberty were indissolubly linked,” that “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”
And Tocqueville’s observation: “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”
The relationships in Hidalgo defy the glum conclusions of Robert Putnam’s landmark Bowling Alone — which charts the withering of “informal social networks reinforced by generalized reciprocity.” In local ranchers, we see shades of Wendell Berry: “There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art, for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination, and the sense of structure, as on knowledge.” And:
Good work is not just the maintenance of connections — as one is now said to work “for a living” or “to support a family” — but the enactment of connections. It is living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of an exterior brace or prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love.
In order for democracy to be effective, these writers argue, people must be educated, productive, and independent; they must know each other, love each other, build and inhabit public spaces, care for the earth that sustains them.
But that isn’t always enough. Hidalgo also shows signs of civic neglect: low political participation, over-preoccupation with private affairs, inattention to the happenings of government, and, most glaringly, a vote for a man who threatens the majority population of Latinos.
V. La Virgen
Richard Chaires’s family is almost invisible on the streets of Lordsburg during the day. Border Patrol pickups drive past tumbleweed and sagging roofs, empty lots piled high with fried tire. Many houses evoke the portable-by-flatbed variety. Weeds and gravel choke porches and swing sets. One homeowner has woven their fence with antlers, bordered the driveway with skulls.
Yet near Christmas, Lordsburg brightens with life. Blow-up Santas dance hand-in-hand with snowmen, and the lights — red, yellow, green, blue, pink, purple — are everywhere. Rows of weary homes shimmer with the same aggressive cheer as those in any ritzy suburb. A massive town tree presides over an equally well-lit nativity scene. I notice a banner for the high school football team: Home of the 2016 Class 2A State Champions Mavericks.
I join the festivities at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in honor of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Guitar music floats from a long community room beside the hall of worship, where participants rest in folding chairs, surrounded by tables weighed down with food. Costumed performers sing and dance at the room’s far end.
I stand outside with Celso and Karla Goitia. They laugh nervously when I ask if they voted. They wanted to vote Clinton, they say, but didn’t — couldn’t.
Celso and Karla arrived in the United States at ages four and seven. Celso now works construction and barely remembers Mexico. There aren’t a lot of jobs here, he explains, but you can find enough opportunities if you’re willing to work hard. His reaction to Trump’s victory? “Not good.” He drops these simple words and falls silent, then looks away to a group of playing children.
Karla has kids of her own and expresses worry that Trump’s presidency — specifically his promises to deport undocumented immigrants — will affect Lordsburg’s residents. “A lot of people here are scared,” she tells me.
Celso and Karla are protected under DACA, but they’re aware that situation may change. “We kind of just got to wait,” says Celso. Though he wants to stay in the U.S., he also wishes to visit his homeland. Documented members of their family make the trip frequently, visiting old friends and relatives, but he and Karla always stay behind.
“I like it here, it’s a really nice place for my kids,” Karla tells me, offering reasons similar to Richard’s. She’d prefer it remain that way.
VI. “We Like Each Other Here”
Fair warning: The following scene is boring. But that’s what makes it so essential. It advances a crucial premise: a belief in the great power of small things, how the mundane rituals of life — a shared pot of coffee, gossip, talking about the weather, a wave — are fundamental to the maintenance of civic culture.
Over time, small things strengthen relationships and promote mutual understanding, if not mutual concern. In other words, they nurture little-d democrats. But they alone are not sufficient: their presence won’t ensure a strong democracy, but their absence is enough to break one.
Witness Ramona’s, the small cafe on Motel Drive: seven square tables clustered on linoleum, mismatched salt and peppershakers, walls that mirror the Mexican flag. Two couples dine at the nearest tables — one pair sipping coffee and snacking on warm tortillas as the bill languishes between them. A FedEx worker occupies a table in the far corner, slouched over his phone, chewing and scrolling. At a table near him, a man sits with his elderly mother.
As I order, a woman — I assume Ramona — arrives with a box of donuts. She throws wide the door and parades across to the kitchen, announcing the sweets and urging co-workers and customers to take one. The cook and waitress relieve her of a chocolate-frosted and a glazed. Then a man enters. He pauses beside the coffee-sippers and puts a hand on the fellow’s shoulder. The son and mother wave from across the room: “Hi, Tommy!”
“Tommy!” yells the cook, alerted, “What kind of chorizo you want today?” Tommy goes to the counter, leans in, and chats with the kitchen crew. He sits down, receives his food, douses his plate with salsa, takes a bite, adds more salsa. He speaks with the mother and son about ranchers across the border in Arizona. “They got some real big outfits over there,” he says. And what about that one guy, asks the son — does he still have his license to sell Chevys? No longer, says Tommy, but the man is selling GMs now, partnered with a buddy to get it done.
I look out the window at the boxcars rolling by — new installations on a traveling freight exhibit: flames of graffiti, bubbled curses, tumescent faces, the scrawl of illegible verse. These are today’s passengers on the Southern Pacific Railroad, first constructed with the aid of James Gadsden and intended, among many things, to strengthen the South and spread slavery to the western states.
Ramona now emerges from the kitchen with a donut and mug of coffee. She plops down at Tommy’s table and recounts her weekend, how she was out late in Las Cruces the other evening, how next day she made chips and salsa for a party. Afterward, her bones ached. She wanted to sit in her rocking chair all evening.
Tommy nods and explains how the weather can do that — whenever there’s a big change — doesn’t matter if it’s from hot to cold or cold to hot. This winter warm spell, he says, is sure enough to make one’s bones hurt. He laughs and rubs his hands, points down at his mug, shrugs. He overdid it on caffeine this morning, he says. Should have ordered orange juice, but wasn’t thinking. Now he’s wired.
I will return twice more to Ramona’s. Tomorrow, as I wait to be seated, the waitress will approach me and grin. She will gesture to the crowded room, then to the chair across from a stranger. “We like each other here,” she will say, and motion me to sit down. The stranger, a woman named Shannon, is driving from Denver to Tucson to take care of her father. A friend told her to stop here, so she has. We’ll chat about her trip and mine, sharing our square of linoleum and thinking nothing of it, while the regulars mingle around us: the FedEx man (not on his phone this time), the mother and son, the couple sipping coffee while their bill goes stale.
VII. “You Rely on Your Neighbors”
For Eric and Katee McSpadden, concerned as they were about guns and abortion, voting Trump was, says the former, “really the only option we had.”
Other Hidalgo voters say they chose Trump because they viewed Clinton as a corrupt member of the establishment, because too many politicians are corrupt members of the establishment, because Trump was an outsider bent on eliminating establishment corruption. Or because, alternatively, Trump shoots from the hip, is the lesser of two evils, will lock down the border, stop the drugs, enforce the law, bring back jobs. They voted Trump because, as so many tell me, they are tired of politicians. Because they want change. Because Trump won’t ignore — deplore — them any longer. Most everybody winnowed their reasons to a few points, and ignored the rest.
These explanations become more vexing in light of Hidalgo’s relatively strong civic culture: Why would a democratic place elect such an undemocratic candidate? Conversations with Katee and Eric, along with other Hidalgo residents, offer insights — glimpses of a place whose regional identity and insecure stature congealed into a vote for Donald Trump.
The McSpaddens moved to Lordsburg just four years ago, but they have always dwelled in rural areas. Eric previously worked as a highway patrolman, Katee as an agricultural education teacher. Her great-great-grandfather immigrated to the Southwestern United States from Ireland, bringing little aside from his knowledge of ranching, farming, and training horses.
“He used those skills to develop the wealth that my family has,” says Katee, “and when I think of wealth, I don’t think of monetary wealth. I think of the stuff that we’re instilling in our kids — the skills, the land that we have, the memories and the values we have — and it’s just really important, I think, to leave your kids and your family with the skills to better their lives.”
Eric agrees; for him, ranching isn’t about money — it’s about family. Turning a profit is difficult on a small outfit like theirs, especially in the inhospitable climes of Bootheel, New Mexico. That’s partly why Eric manages the Smith Ford dealership in Lordsburg, even though he and Katee would prefer to ranch full time.
“When you go out and put in an honest day’s work,” he says, “and you’re working to preserve your way of life for the next generation, and the generations after that — there’s a lot to be said for that. And it’s not about the dollar you make, it’s more about the reward that you get from handing it down, and just the sense of getting something done and completing it on your own.”
Both McSpaddens express this vision of wealth: skills, memories, hard work, land, independence. In addition to their eight-year-old, they have twin girl toddlers and a four-year-old boy. The twins, at the moment, wander Eric’s office at the Ford dealership, fiddling with photos on the windowsill, attempting to climb on his lap.
The ranch provides an opportunity for the kids to understand their inheritance. By laboring alongside their parents, by cultivating land, plants, and animals, they learn to assume responsibility, to see projects through from start to finish.
“If you don’t feed your animal it’s gonna die,” says Katee, by way of simple explanation. She and Eric both emphasize ranching as a way for their kids to build character. “If you teach a kid, or a parent, or anyone, how to garden or how to have backyard chickens,” Katee argues, “if you teach them how to grow their own food from start to finish — they will develop those values and start seeing things that are truly important.”
Consider, says Eric, the eight-year-old: “He doesn’t just throw something down on the ground and walk away from it, because somebody’s got to pick it up.” When you live on your parents’ land, he explains, and that land becomes your land, and will someday become that of your descendants, you learn what it means to care for place. A sense of the past and the future incentivizes respect in the present.
Caring for the land is hard work. A rancher is a veterinarian, a plumber, a welder, a carpenter, a mechanic, Eric tells me. You need to know how to drive equipment, how to ride a horse. “And if you don’t know how to do [something], your neighbor probably does.” Neighbors are crucial sources for Hidalgo’s ranchers, many of whom — Eric and Katee among them — don’t hire employees.
“It’s your neighbors that help you get the big times of years done, whether it’s shipping or branding or stuff like that,” Eric says. “If you need help, everybody’s always there to lend a hand, whether it’s me helping my neighbor or my neighbor helping me. And, I mean, a lot of times it’s at the drop of a hat.”
Such neighborliness recalls Richard’s descriptions of community fundraisers during health crises. In short, the ranchers and residents of Hidalgo appear to view cooperation as the most sustainable economic model. And most all of them are resigned to working second jobs. Like Katee and Eric, many ranchers (including Darr Shannon and Bill Cavaliere) work one job in order to support another. They work to ranch — to do what they love. In that, ranchers are not unlike artists and writers — though these belong to a different tribe.
Katee and Eric live by values built through ranching and religion, which they see declining in the rest of the country. “We don’t teach people about the Constitution anymore,” Eric tells me. “I don’t own guns to go hunting, although we do that.” Rather, guns are “important because it’s a way to preserve your way of life, what you believe in.”
He shares similar feelings about today’s looser restrictions on abortion: “When you have conversations about why it’s so important not to have an abortion, everything else kind of falls into place: you protect life, you don’t go take it away.”
“There’s no respect for the land,” says Katee, “there’s no respect for the elderly Vietnam vet. There’s no respect for anybody. It’s a generational thing, and I believe it’s how you’re raised. You can’t entitle your children to things because then they feel like you owe them something.”
Abortion, the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court — these campaign issues are symptomatic of the deeper values many of Hidalgo’s residents feel we, as a larger society, are on the verge of losing.
VIII. “Where Does the Sky End?”
I’m searching for the McSpaddens’ neighbor, Darr Shannon, rancher and Hidalgo County Commissioner. More specifically, I’m searching for her large white pickup. “You can’t miss it,” she said, “just down the road.”
The town is tiny, the directions simple, yet there are so many white pickups and I have been just down many roads, with no luck. Then I realize my mistake: I’ve limited myself to paved streets. Now I see the road — what I assume is the road — and, just down, resting at the far end, a white pickup.
Darr’s office is dim, more so than outside, and growing darker. The light blub burned out and she’s yet to replace it, opting to work until her eyes command her to halt. She wears jeans, a black fleece zipped to the throat, blonde curls trimmed short about her crown. Like the McSpaddens, she works a second job to supplement her ranch — the bulk fuel plant where we’re meeting.
Ranching is hard, she says. “I mean it’s very hard, financially.” Her family goes back 126 years in Lordsburg. Today she runs the “same exact line” of Hereford cattle that belonged to her ancestors — a red-white English breed that, though desirable, has lately gone out of fashion. But she has no plans to change. “We’re very, very proud that we have kept up that family legacy,” she tells me.
Darr bites off these words with a vehemence that characterizes much of our conversation. She describes herself as “very high strung,” a “neurotic overachiever,” and complains multiple times of being “raked over the coals” by local Democrats. This last point is unsurprising, as I can’t imagine her reigning in her convictions: “I thought from the very beginning, regardless of what anyone said, including John-ass-McCain and all those other imbeciles — excuse me for being rude — that Donald Trump was going to be outstanding.”
Yes, she admits, “I may be so wrong that I’ll hate myself in a year or four. But I knew that we needed somebody from outside of this political mess. I am, really, sick of Republicans. I’d like to create a whole new party, to be honest.”
Her enthusiasm for Trump is unabashed and total. She loves living here and supports her fellow county members “wholeheartedly,” but right now, she says, “I am so excited that we have a new president who will change something. I feel like Hulk. I want to rip my clothes off and growl. I want to say welcome to the world of 2017. I cannot wait to see what it brings us. I am absolutely elated. I love his picks. I love everything about him.”
Darr grew up on her family’s ranch without electricity or running water, the daughter of very strict parents from whom she ran away at age 19. After stints in DC and New Orleans, she returned home to inherit the Hereford legacy. She describes the transition: “Here you go, here’s the cows, there’s no money, you figure it out, you make it work.”
Making it work required a slew of odd jobs — “soda jerk, sold clothes, worked in motels, desk clerk, you name it” — to support both the ranch and her young daughter. It’s a life that, for Darr, has bred an evident toughness and willingness to disagree: “I have literally knocked men back. I mean, I’ll say get the hell away from me. Maybe if more women would do that, men would leave them alone. I’m serious. I don’t put up with shit from anybody. I’m horrible. You have no idea.”
But Darr doesn’t limit herself to brawling with touchy men. “I fight for agriculture, I fight for ranchers and farmers and the rural way of life,” she says. “We are real. Rural people in communities like we have got in this county are real people.”
Rural people are real, according to her, because they “know what it’s like to have to work hard. We know where water comes from when it comes out of the faucet. We know how electricity is generated and we are so appreciative that we have these things.” City people, in her eyes, have lost touch with nature, and, therefore, with reality.
“What’s amazing to me is I could go to Los Angeles” — she smiles; I’ve told her where I’m from — “and I would fit right in and live there. But if they were to come here, they would be mortified, they would be beyond disgusted. I’m going to say 95 percent of them — they would not be able to fit in. We would be able to fit in with them because we are open-minded. They are closed-minded.”
She extends her criticisms to fellow New Mexicans as well; many US Border Patrol agents work in the county but live out of town — as far away as Las Cruces and El Paso. “Their wives wouldn’t be caught dead here,” she spits. They don’t want to live in Lordsburg because “they [wouldn’t] have a Walmart or restaurants or those exotic things, because they’ve become small-minded.”
Darr pauses to tell me she doesn’t mean this as disrespectful; they’re not stupid, she says, “but they have been trained to think that all that’s out there is city life. And, you know, I believe that what we all need to be happy is very, very small […] I’m not a fashion queen. I don’t go out and buy expensive clothes. If I need to go to something and dress up, I can, a little bit, but as far as” — her voice jumps an octave — “every week I’ve got to buy these new clothes and have all these shoes that cost $150 a piece and these $300 purses” — her voice returns to normal — “you don’t have to have those to be beautiful or to be smart or to be happy. You just don’t.”
City people, Darr suggests, have not only lost touch with nature, but have developed habits of consumption that corrode their understanding of happiness and self-worth.
She’s been running her fingers through her hair, gesturing excitedly, but now she stops to contemplate my question. It’s hard to describe the rural way of life, she says. “In my opinion, you don’t ever own the land. The land belongs to the earth and we take care of the land.” Her understanding here seems similar to Katee’s and Eric’s. “We don’t abuse [the land],” Darr continues, “and we take care of it and we love it because we see what it can give back. Even though it’s a desert — well, in this county it’s a desert — it offers so much in return.”
She also believes that Lordsburg is a special place to rear one’s kids. “[B]y raising your children in more or less wide-open spaces, they have knowledge that kids who are raised with cement and asphalt will never have the enjoyment of learning.” She pronounces see-ment and ass-phalt with mimetic hardness. “We see way beyond just a row of buildings or a skyline of skyscrapers — and, I hate to be corny, like sunrises and sunsets, you know, that’s so corny — but we have black nights with bright stars, and when you live in a big city you don’t have any of that, and it arouses your curiosity of: Where does it end? Where does the sky end? How far does it go?”
She falls silent, eyes vacant, vitriol sapped by some latent memory. “It teaches you common sense, ’cause kids here, they’ll play in the desert. They learn about snakes, lizards, mice, horny toads, rabbits, quail, off-the-wall wildlife, and it’s not like oh and look at that” — cutesy voice again — “but it’s just an everyday experience and so you appreciate what God has given us. You just appreciate what I’ll say nature has given us. I think we have an appreciation for what nature has given us more than a lot of people could.”
Darr looks at me. “As far as what I would like the urban people to know: I don’t want them coming here and messing us up. I suppose they probably wouldn’t anyway.”
IX. “The Most Humiliating Thing I Ever Did”
The Mavericks shuffle in and take their seats. They are small in number, varied in size, bedecked in basketball shoes and budding facial hair. Today the main item on the County Commission agenda is the celebration of their football championship. Go Mavs.
Richard, Darr, and Marianne Stewart — Hidalgo’s commissioners — recline behind a lacquered table at the front of the room. The meeting commences with the Pledge of Allegiance and soon has players lining up to receive certificates. When we adjourn for cake, I approach Head Coach Louie Baisa for his presidential thoughts.
“Most people just wanted it to be over with,” he tells me. The election was in the middle of his team’s playoff run, and therefore his focus was elsewhere. But he’s surprised to learn Hidalgo flipped for Trump. Many people I speak with, in fact, are unaware of the flip until I mention it. Voting results appeared in the Hidalgo County Herald after the election — though one week late, because of delayed returns, at which point they landed in the back pages. People just have to live with what happens, says Louie, and that’s that.
The meeting resumes with a motion to allow for the addition of a new sergeant to the county police force (passed), and continues with a line of questioning regarding law enforcement use of paper, ink, and copy machine. The man being questioned — bald, trim beard, slacks — somehow turns the discussion to a recent bout of lightning strikes at the local detention center, then uses the opportunity to broach the idea of a new van to transport inmates (tabled).
When everyone departs, I’m left with Meira and Stephen Gault — commission-meeting regulars. The aging couple ranches south of Animas near the Mexican border.
“Today was not a very good time to hear about how broke [the county is],” Meira tells me. “But you heard this guy about the detention center — well, they’re hoping that we will be making money from the detention center. It’s so pathetic, we don’t have industry […] I don’t even know how it functions.”
She speaks with a crisp and throaty accent. Curls envelop her face in a wreath of gray, but her eyes, sunk deep in their sockets, outshine the purple of her shirt. Meira initially came to the United States from Israel to attend a PhD program at UC Santa Cruz. While there, she began ranching on the side with Stephen, who is originally from Chicago. “[W]e really liked it, we kind of thought that this is the real life,” she says. They liked it so much that she dropped out of school. She and Stephen have been running cattle in the Bootheel for 25 years — the most isolated Jews in the lower 48 states, Stephen jokes.
Stephen spends most of our conversation in silence, interjecting to remind Meira of a word or to add a final thought on a topic. He wears washed jeans and a Leatherman at the hip. One of his hands lacks part of a finger, the stunted digit all worn down and callused. “The Boss,” as Stephen calls his wife, is well known throughout the Bootheel; later, when I speak to Judy Keeler, I’m told Meira can put together an Uzi blindfolded — picked it up during her time in the Israeli army.
She bends forward in her seat to share her and Stephen’s decision to leave the city for the country. “We knew that we were not going to get wealthy, or rich, or whatever,” she says. They chose to ranch because they enjoyed the labor, the land, the relationships. “Ranching” says Meira, “is the most humiliating thing I ever did in my life. It taught me that I don’t know nothing — I mean, I’m dependent on nature and I just basically have to respect it or it will gobble me up.”
Grappling with the daily challenges of nature is part of what makes ranching so fulfilling. “It’s an art, almost, to run a good, conscientious cattle operation,” she says. “And when you see, oh, it worked, everything as a whole — not the money, cause that’s not always working good — but that I survived another year, in spite of the drought, in spite of my well going dry, or the cow market [going] down — when all these things come together, and we manage, you just thank God.” An art, as Wendell Berry says.
Neither Meira nor Stephen will reveal whom they voted for, but they nonetheless prove keen observers of their fellow residents, offering helpful insights into the first-order reasons behind Trump’s appeal. “I just love this community,” says Meira, but her smile fades as she continues. “I like the people, and I don’t care who they voted for, and I don’t want people calling them deplorable. And, I mean, this irks me. When somebody — I don’t care who — that lives in the city, looks at the people who live here, with me, whom I know, and calls them deplorable, it makes me mad. It really makes me mad. Because these are thinking people, just like everybody else. And they’re honest people. They’re hard-working people. I just don’t like it. And so, I think, when you call people deplorable, you don’t get votes. That’s what I think.” She raises a fist and chops through these words, shoulders hunched, face tight. There’s a mist in her eyes.
Trump’s election, in her opinion, “represents a big discontent in the periphery.” This discontent is due to a combination of factors — drugs, economics, resentment, she says — but ultimately, “people feel, in the periphery, that the people in Washington, DC, or wherever, do not represent their values.” This is partly why she thinks “the Electoral College is a very good thing,” and that “it would be a mistake to do away with it, because it would not give a voice to the periphery.”
Now Stephen steps into our conversation. “If you challenge the Electoral College,” he says, “you may as well challenge the Senate, because every state only has two senators. And looking at the founding fathers, you could see that subliminal mistrust of pure democracy. They were regionalists, too, and so the regionalism, to the dismay, maybe, of cosmopolitan people, is still alive.”
Democracies, James Madison cautioned in Federalist 10, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Jefferson, for his part, went so far as to propose “the subdivision of our counties into wards” in his home state of Virginia: “each Ward would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the state would thus become an acting member of the common government.” Distrust of pure democracy; faith in regionalism.
Unlike many Hidalgo residents, Meira and Stephen have extensive experience living in both center and periphery. “For people like me,” says Meira, referring to her Israeli upbringing, “the United States was New York and Los Angeles.” She once thought that all Americans are “just basically rotten,” that they are “wealthy and well-to-do and they are blah blah blah.”
Living on the periphery has changed her views considerably. People here think differently, she says. They have different needs and make their living in different ways, “but it doesn’t make them people that don’t have brains or cannot think or cannot challenge you, even intellectually. I mean, they are not intellectuals because that is not what we call them, but they’re stimulating.”
Meira says she prefers these people to the intellectuals of her school days. “I think the people here know more about respecting each other than people in the universities […] because the intellectuals, they are such die-hard believers, they get so vicious with their arguments.” She criticizes academics who equate being right with being morally superior. It all becomes too personal, too judgmental, she says.
So she and Stephen live out here, nestled at the bottom of New Mexico’s Bootheel — a place of poverty, drought, cartel activity (drug busts frequent the Herald’s pages), but also of a free exchange of labor, county fairs and farmers’ markets, people lingering at meals, enjoying long conversations, gossiping gleefully, sharing small things.
“[I]t’s very friendly in this way,” says Meira. “It’s not like when he was living in Chicago” — she points to Stephen — “living in a high-rise, and everybody has an apartment and they don’t even say hello.”
But Meira is also keen to let me know that “it’s not all hunky-dory.” There are rivalries, she says, and again mentions the economy, but, “as a whole, it’s a friendly community.”
X. “It’s Not Gonna Make Any Difference”
Citizens of Hidalgo County see themselves as virtuous holdouts in the rural Southwest, neglected and misunderstood by the nation’s urban centers. This divide often seems irreparable.
Eric, for example, does his best to be involved with local politics; he attends meetings and serves on the Soil and Water Conservation District. “I think local politics are the most important to be involved in,” he says. But when it comes to dealing with state and national government, he sees the limit at voting and petitioning.
According to Richard, when state and federal officials visit Hidalgo, “most people don’t go.” They’re too fed up to bother, he says. “For the most part, we all feel that we get ignored, ’cause there’s not enough of a population base to [influence elections]. So basically, it’s just who cares about them. We feel left out, like step children.” Richard describes a withdrawal from the public realm, a fissure between rulers and ruled.
“I can’t tell you how many letters we’ve written [our senators] from the county,” Darr tells me. “They don’t ever even write you back. They don’t ever even acknowledge you. I mean, they’re just very inattentive.”
A few years ago, Richard explains, the government closed the old Border Patrol station in Lordsburg and built a new one nearby. Soon after, he received a visit from the senator. Richard asked if the county could have the big canopy from the old Border Patrol station — “’cause they’re going to sell it,” he says, “and it’s not going to make any difference to that building for all their vehicles.” He wanted to transfer the canopy to the veteran’s park south of town. The senator, as Richard remembers, says, “no problem, that sounds simple. He sends somebody to look at it, and we never heard from him again.” He wouldn’t name the politician for fear of creating more friction.
Richard tells me these stories are common: “They’ll promise you, but again, they could care less about us. There’s not enough people to vote. If they didn’t get one vote from Hidalgo County — I mean, obviously they would care — but it wouldn’t make any difference to them. So they don’t look at it.”
He offers another example: the state sends their local DMV worker up to Silver City. “We need her here,” he says, “but Santa Fe figures Silver City is more important than us so they close this office to send her up there.”
But the biggest issues for the county, according to Richard and Meira, usually involve roads — the majority are unpaved, traverse long stretches of desert, serve few inhabitants, deteriorate easily, and prove costly to maintain. Sometimes conflict emerges over access between ranchers and hunters. The Border Patrol is also a source of contention. The Lordsburg station is responsible for over 80 miles of international border and over 4,000 square miles throughout the region. Their number of personnel has increased significantly since 9/11, to where they’re now budgeted more than 250 agents. That means a lot of wheels on the roads.
The state funds maintenance efforts for some (and parts of some) of the county’s roads, but relinquishes responsibility in remote areas — which are extensive. “It takes a lot of our county tax dollars to maintain the roads,” says Richard, “but the federal government won’t help us. They basically said, ‘you get federal money through the state, so [we] can’t help.’”
The government, Richard argues, increased the number of Border Patrol agents in Hidalgo — thus exacerbating wear on the roads — without contributing enough for increased upkeep costs. “To maintain it,” he says, “we have to do it as a county, but we can’t afford to, we just can’t afford to. So basically, a lot of it’s run-down, and needs maintenance […] and the federal government basically just blows us off.”
One can see the narrative of neglect gathering steam with each perceived slight. This is a good time to mention evidence supporting the other side, which suggests Hidalgo does benefit from government support, especially when it comes to issues related to the border. A quick Google search yields plenty of results showing receipt of state and federal funds, visits by officials, meetings between residents and their representatives, congressional proposals to secure more resources. Pro forma, perhaps, but one can find tangible progress as well — like the new Border Patrol forward operating base.
Nonetheless, Meira thinks the Trump campaign’s attention to the border attracted voters. “In this county,” she says, “if they voted for Trump, I think it is because of his promises about immigration. And I know some people are even hoping that somehow, miraculously, some money will come up for this road issue, because [Trump] understands the problem, supposedly.”
In other words, residents don’t necessarily agree with Trump’s dictums surrounding the US–Mexican border (many, in fact, totally disagree), but they hope, by virtue of attention, to receive financial and infrastructure assistance.
Another point of conflict between locals and government officials emerges over ranchers’ use of public lands. A high percentage of acreage in Hidalgo belongs to the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and State. Some ranchers negotiate permits with all three, navigating a checkerboard of domain restrictions. “The government does own the land, and the rancher uses it,” Stephen tells me, “but because the rancher puts all of his effort into it, he feels a sense of ownership, responsibility. And there’s a lot of mistrust between [ranchers and officials].”
Meira serves on a local Public Land Advisory Committee, acting as a mediator between the federal government and skeptical ranchers. Many ranchers lease public lands and thus are forced to consult with agencies. But even so, Meira says too many ranchers don’t take their civic duties seriously. Agencies offer ranchers opportunities to voice complaints — sometimes in the form of comment cards. Some ranchers provide feedback, but many others are apathetic. Perhaps one person — like Judy Keeler — will write a good comment, and the rest just copy it down and send along.
“I tell you what” — Meira looks at me emphatically — “I really try to live here actively, not just doing my own business.” Ranchers only get political, she says, on the rare occasion that something threatens everybody. “Politically, the people [here] are not that active, but socially — very, very close to each other. We know each other. We are very few.”
She reminds me again of their neighborliness: “We help each other do the work, because, like we said, sometimes we can’t even pay for help.”
Stephen agrees — socially close, politically distant.
“Everybody knows what a rancher has to do,” he says, “there are just rules dictated by nature […] but politically, when it comes to petitioning an agency for this or for that, or complaints, in my opinion they are their own people.” He says that ranchers here can take the ethic of self-reliance too far. He explains their attitude as, “Okay, we’ve got this marginal place here, nobody wants to be here, it’s the middle of nowhere, I’m here, I’m ready to do it, leave me alone.”
Too often, residents of Hidalgo express the feeling that higher authorities neglect their regional experience. Meira argues that people on the ground have important local knowledge, which scientists and officials lack. Ranchers may yet become allies with those wishing to preserve the environment.
Her critique here is ultimately twofold: she wants her fellow citizens to participate in politics, and she wants her government to respect the knowledge of those citizens. She wants a conversation. Without a conversation, one might arrive at Richard’s loaded conclusion about the outcome of the election: “Truthfully, like somebody around here said, whether Trump won or Hillary, it’s not going to make any difference. And it’s not.”
Indeed, after struggling to overcome poverty through four terms of two presidents from each party, Trump might not look so bad. He talks about the border, promises jobs, promises change, takes a preferable stance on conservative wedge issues, doesn’t speak like an intellectual, and attacks the political parties that contributed to your narrative of neglect. “He was a new face and had a good slogan,” Meira tells me.
The first-order reasons behind Trump’s rise are, not coincidentally, the same as those that prevent democratic cultures from achieving their potential. Successful self-government has many requirements: first, some measure of wealth — not riches, but enough money to secure one’s material well-being and allow time and resources for politics; second, a healthy narrative about the relationship between rulers and ruled; third, actual healthy relationships between rulers and ruled (in true democracies, n.b., these distinctions evaporate); fourth, a good education — a liberal education — which includes an honest understanding of current events.
Hidalgo County is deficient in many of these respects: it lacks money; its narrative of government is poor; relationships with higher powers are fraught; and only 14 percent of residents above the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree. In today’s political and media environment, with information distorted and segregated and partisanship running high, these shortcomings can be exploited. They have been exploited.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this picture is the evidence of political apathy: Richard saying townspeople no longer attend meetings with officials, that the election was “not gonna make any difference”; Meira and Stephen talking about ranchers’ low levels of engagement. That some members of Hidalgo have begun to turn away from the public realm reminds us once more of Tocqueville — specifically, of his warnings about individualism, that corrosive force which “disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.”
This type of behavior can be mitigated by the presence of small things, strong bonds — neighborliness, shared traditions, religion, and public space. Which is why, in Hidalgo, democratic potential remains relatively high, if unfulfilled. Which is why people do participate in public ways: Eric on the Soil and Water Conservation District, Meira on the Public Land Advisory Committee, Richard and Darr on the County Commission. But one senses these men and women are outliers.
Individualism can also be mitigated, according to Tocqueville, by the presence of associations and newspapers; of the latter, he wrote: “they maintain civilization.” He continued, however, saying, “that the number of newspapers must diminish or increase among a democratic people in proportion as its administration is more or less centralized.” It’s worth noting that the Lordsburg Liberal, the oldest weekly in New Mexico, which preceded statehood by a quarter century, went out of business in 2007. Most of today’s online and televisual replacements — in addition to their aforementioned ills — lack the regional focus of their print predecessors.
Today, one might argue, American democracy flourishes in ways heretofore unseen: voting rights are less prohibitive; primaries and direct elections give constituents more authority over their representatives; technology, media, and a culture of greater inclusivity mean fewer barriers to entry. And yet voting rights are still contested, money holds sway over candidates, income inequality has worsened, mass incarceration persists, and the elite prosper. And yes, every four years, by virtue of geography and the Electoral College, rural places like Hidalgo exercise disproportionate influence in presidential elections.
There is a paradox here: democratic opportunity has grown, while civic engagement and actual participation is on the decline. Earlier I asked why a democratic place like Hidalgo would elect a candidate as undemocratic as Trump. Perhaps Hannah Arendt deserves the final words on this front:
Representative government itself is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.
XI. “I’m Frightened for Folks Here”
The Peloncillos and Animas Mountains frame my windshield as I ascend through pale grass and foothills studded with volcanic rock, past Cotton City, past pecans and chilies and hunched figures tending fields, run-down trailers, cattle grazing in the distance, and another hand raised in greeting above another wheel. I’m driving south toward the tiny town of Animas for a date with Judy Keeler, the GOP county chairwoman. I plan to learn about her life on the border and about the question of immigration in Hidalgo County.
PW’s, as far as I can tell, is the only restaurant in town — your classic pizza-wings joint with a wide front porch where kids play and parents gather. Judy slouches in the booth across the table, weatherworn, arms crossed. Bill Cavaliere sits beside me plucking at his burger and fries. His presence is serendipitous; Judy bumped into him and explained our business, so he decided to join. He sports the rancher’s uniform of boots and plaid, dirt-infused denim belted with a stamped shield: “4” — denoting the Four Bar cattle brand. His hat rests on the shelf behind us. To supplement the ranch, Bill rents a trio of cottages across the Arizona border, a popular destination for birders. He used to be Hidalgo County Sheriff.
Judy, in keeping with family tradition, moved to Animas to ranch in 1988. She and her husband run an outfit in Hachita as well. When I ask about her role with the GOP, she laughs. The only reason she serves as chair is that her predecessor died and she’s been unable to pass the duties to someone else. The party is “inactive” when it comes to organizing, she says.
Judy and Bill laud their way of life: a beautiful landscape, loving friends and family, benefits from rearing children in a community where everybody knows everybody, where kids labor alongside parents, where neighbors help neighbors. “That’s what I see as the most valuable thing here,” says Judy. “It doesn’t matter what politics you are […] if you need help, that neighbor is there to help you.”
Ranching takes an entire household, she says. Children “have to do their part. They get up, they milk the cow, they feed the horses, they have chores to do. It’s like family, you know, [but] in an urban area you get lost in all the numbers, and if someone sees you doing something they don’t even know who you are. If you do something in a rural area, mom and dad’s going to find out.”
Bill says there’s something special about being your own boss, about waking up each morning, going over to help your neighbor, sharing a cup of coffee, working with your hands, getting hurt — he shows me a scabbed thumb. It’s so cool, he says, to see the new calves born each season. And it’s a shame, he says, that everybody’s aging. Bill told his kids, to ease their minds, that he knows they’ll end up selling the ranch. “I know it’s going to happen,” he says. It’s just the way it goes. Judy is more concerned; her family heritage is on the line.
Neither of them supported Trump in the primaries, but both voted for him in the general election. His status as a political outsider appealed to them, as did his position on social values. They are hopeful Trump will help solve the problems on the US–Mexican border. Drug runners — armed with more than contraband — cross Hidalgo en route to the marketplace, as do migrants seeking a better life. This traffic brings the occasional theft or break-in on ranchers’ properties. Many complain of litter and cut fences. Less frequently, interactions between locals and smugglers have resulted in murder. The deaths loom large for members of the Bootheel. Residents continue to face these difficulties, even as apprehensions of Mexican migrants at the US border have fallen to their lowest levels in the past 50 years.
But neither Bill nor Judy thinks Trump has the perfect plan for bringing safety to their backyard. “I think the border needs to be secured,” Judy tells me. “I told everybody before the election, we can’t build a wall high enough to stop them from coming across. I do think there’s a way to secure the border, and that’s to get down on the border, for Border Patrol agents to get down there and protect it.”
Bill agrees. Both are critical of how the Border Patrol deploys its agents. One issue, says Judy, is that some stretches of the border require landowner permission before the Border Patrol can have access. Another problem, says Bill, is a three-tier strategy, which positions a small number of agents on the border, often sending out a cohort of agents only as a response measure. Border Patrol presence increases farther north from the border — an inverse pyramid.
“That’s our problem with the politics out in Washington,” says Judy. “They don’t live down here where we do, they don’t experience what we experience. So they have no understanding.”
But experience within Hidalgo differs as well, and therein lies another first-order reason for Trump’s victory. Support from Hispanic and Latino voters pushed Trump over the threshold, but white support walked him to the door. None of my interactions suggested prejudice on behalf of residents, but Trump didn’t need prejudice; he could rely on segregation, on history. Hidalgo comprises six voting precincts. Three of these are in Lordsburg, a town with over 75 percent Hispanic and Latino residents, which fell to Hillary. The other three, in the towns of Virden, Rodeo, and Animas, went to Trump; in each, the percentage of Hispanic and Latino residents is below 25 percent. This is not to say that members of Hidalgo are not generous or loving across racial lines, but rather, simply, that those who don’t live together, even in places as small as these, may not fully know each other and be sensitive to each other’s interests.
I spoke with another woman while in Lordsburg — Elizabeth, age 40 — as she waited for El Charro take-out. She is a long-time resident, a nursing assistant wearing a PINK hoodie and her hair in a bun. “I personally thought that Clinton should have won,” she tells me. “The way [Trump] talked about immigrants — trying to stop people from coming over, was wrong.”
In the aftermath of the election, she says, “people are wondering if they’re going to be sent back to some place they don’t even know, a place that’s so new, that’s kind of like a foreign place to them.” Celso — who crossed the border as a child — shared those feelings.
Many undocumented immigrants arrive in the United States at a young age and have little idea of what they might have to return to. Elizabeth asks me to consider the cases of undocumented parents who bear children in the United States. What would it mean for a family if the parents had to return, but the kids could stay? Would parents bring their children back to Mexico in order to keep everyone together? Would they choose separation, in the hope that their offspring will enjoy a better life in the States? Some people would return to places without electricity, Elizabeth says — places where you have to go outside to use the bathroom. “People are asking, where do we go? And it’s scary to them. I’m frightened for folks here.”
Besides, she adds, “I don’t see white people out there picking the onions and the chilies.” Richard echoes this observation; historically, Hidalgo has depended on a seasonal labor exchange with its neighbors south of the border. “The majority of those people who come in from Mexico take jobs that the Americans don’t want,” Richard says. He calls my attention to the community of Cotton City, once home to a large rose-growing operation, which “basically bussed in day workers from Agua Prieta and Douglas — and it was a thriving business, it shipped roses all over the country.” But the owner came under scrutiny due to his hiring practices.
“He tried to run it with local people,” Richard tells me. “And now it no longer exists.” In his view, immigrants “take jobs that nobody else wants, or that nobody will take.” Yet, when I ask him about Trump’s promises to build a wall and increase deportations, he says, “I think he’s full of beans. I honestly think he doesn’t even believe it.”
I put the question another way when speaking with Katee and Eric. I tell them that I’ve spoken to undocumented immigrants in their community. They’re worried about their future, about the integrity of their homes and families under the Trump administration.
Eric is also suspect of Trump’s pledge on deportations. “There’s no way he’s going to be able to,” he says. “It’s not even what you want to do. It’s not what we want to do.” Eric wants to “lock that border down” and halt drug smuggling, but he also hopes to create a better process for accepting immigrants. “I don’t think it should be hard to immigrate to the United States,” he says.
Katee concurs, but adds her own perspective. As a child, growing up near the Mexico-Arizona border, she would ride alone, “without a gun,” to check on fences and help with chores. Now, when she returns home, “my dad just doesn’t let me go out anymore because of the people that have been coming across. And I’m not saying all of them are bad, ’cause they’re not. But the people that are backpacking through the mountains at night and want to be avoided by people — those are the bad guys.”
“Everyone wants to say that we’re a nation of immigrants,” Eric continues, “and we are, we truly are, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today without immigration, but we also need to protect ourselves with laws. So I’m not against immigration.” A path toward citizenship needs to be easier, he believes, “because people are going to go the path of least resistance.”
Judy and Bill also favor laws allowing for amnesty. “I think if people are working, if they have a job, they should have an opportunity to prove their citizenship,” says Judy. “Just like the amnesty program that we went through under Reagan.” But while both are in favor of easing restrictions on citizenship, they also want to enforce laws that prohibit employers from hiring undocumented workers. “It has to be two-pronged,” Judy tells me, and Bill agrees. For security purposes, Judy even thinks, “we should just go ahead and legalize marijuana and that would stop a lot of the traffic.”
I’ve asked all I’ve come to ask when Bill and Judy begin telling me stories that few Americans understand.
Maybe you’re hiking the upper reaches of the Chiricahuas, says Bill, and you round the bend and come face to face with a group of men, bodies bent beneath the weight of their packs. They greet you and ask if others are on the path you’ve plodded past. Go check, says one, and he offers you some mota in return.
Or maybe, says Bill, you’re exploring these same trails, or you’re down in the valley below, and you stumble upon a small shrine tucked at the gnarled base of a juniper. There’s a cross and rosary and dried flower petals blown by the wind, and in the center of it all, a photograph — worn, kissed, creased, cried and sweated over — of Toribio Romo, the patron saint of migrants.
Or you could be in your backyard, Bill continues, and you’ve been friendly or you haven’t to the last blistered set of feet to land on your porch. You’re heading out to fetch a struggling calf when you discover, pinned to the south-facing side of a tree, a mark to warn or welcome other passersby.
Yes, says Judy, she’s seen that, and maybe next day, or next year, you hear a knock and invite your visitors inside. You offer them food, leftovers, a jug of water. “Do you want me to call the Border Patrol?” you ask. “No,” they say, “gracias,” and go on.
Some months later, Judy continues, they arrive again. Perhaps you’ve suffered a recent break-in and you’re taxed and nervous, but how can you say no to this couple, so tired, so brave to risk this brutal passage. So you give them food, you give them water. “Do you want me to call the Border Patrol?” you ask. “Sí,” they say, “por favor, llámalos.” And so you call. They are weary, ragged like the bark of mesquite, and the Border Patrol comes and takes them home.
Bill nods. He says he needs to feed his horses, but then begins another story. They knocked while he was still at work. His wife greeted them, brought them inside, and began cooking. Better than she cooks for him, Bill jokes. He got home and told his wife, apologetically, that he had to call the Border Patrol. Let them eat, she said, they’re hungry. But it’s his job, Bill explained, so he called. When the agents showed up, they found the four seated around the picnic table out back, sharing the hot food. Naturally, they sat down as well, and all six — Bill and his wife, the two migrants, the two agents — ate and drank and talked. When the meal was over, the agents put the migrants on a bus back to Mexico.
Judy remembers that one. Does Bill remember when her daughter was home the time a coyote arrived trailing 19 Chinese migrants? They were lost in the mountains without food or water for three days. Her daughter was flustered and didn’t know what to do. Eventually, someone remembered the old javalina in the freezer — the one they killed a while back — and cooked it up, served a feast.
I don’t contribute any stories of my own, but were I to speak, I would add the events of July 1942, when Lordsburg hosted an internment camp for Japanese Americans. I would describe two men hobbling in the dark at the back of the group; prisoners were always delivered at night — hustled off the train and marched two miles to camp at the edge of town. The men may or may not have been trying to escape. They may or may not have been crippled or ill, may or may not have asked to relieve themselves and been denied. The sentry may or may not have called, “Halt! Halt!” History is blurry on these facts, but what happens next is indisputable. The sentry fires his shotgun. The men die. To prevent escape, the sentry says. From a distance, he says. No, say others — impossible, look at the corpses. The bullet holes are too close together.
After the Japanese came Italians and Germans. The county museum has an exhibit dedicated to the Lordsburg Internment and POW Camp. Very few locals, according Socorro, visit the museum.
Today, just east of town beside the interstate, stands a sign on wooden pillars: “Official Historic Scenic Marker: Camp Lordsburg.” Ocotillo shred light and shade across the sand. Semis amble onward. A train blows. The ground is littered with broken glass, a miniature bottle of Fireball, a rusted tin of Copenhagen, the plastic casing of Apple earbuds. Crushed creosote, redolent of the last monsoon, penetrates the heat.
XIII. Why Trump?
Judy and Bill, Katee and Eric, Darr, maybe Richard, maybe Stephen, maybe Meira — voted for Donald Trump, a man disdainful of the Constitution, who traffics in deceit, campaigns in slurs, carries a history, and a present, of sexism, cozies up to enemies, does little to dispel the tides of hate which swell in his wake. A man who threatens Hidalgo’s very members. What are we to make of this place — full of social and civic bounties, stumbling into the arms of a demagogue?
I think of things both large and small, of prickly pear jam and Bibles and Fox News, a shrine in the desert and a wall at the border, a busted thumb in someone’s belt loop. I think of the river of strangers on the interstate, which replaced the stagecoach route. I think of community fundraisers, neighbors on horseback, hands raised above the wheel, mornings at Ramona’s with the regulars, how the weather hurts your bones. I think of Socorro’s grandparents, who once lived in Shakespeare, now a ghost town, and her quiet prophecy that Lordsburg will become the same. I think of the all-weather railroad that Jefferson Davis hoped would extend slavery to these regions. I think of 1942 and the sound of a shotgun, and of Judy’s dying father, refusing medicine, receiving therapy each morning by watching deer come down to feed.
And I think, finally, of my departure from Animas. Cardboard mountains propped against the sunset. Bare earth where cows have overgrazed. Spines of yucca in the fields, hung with husks of withered blossoms that rattle in the wind. There, on the gravel shoulder, parked in a cloud of its own dust — a pickup, and at its flank, twisting in the breeze, the Confederate flag.
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