Borderlines: U.S. Mexico’s Border Rich Culture | Borderlines Explores Cultural Connections through Poetry and Drawings

Reefka Schneider’s compassionate drawings, including Mass for the Disappeared, above, accompany poems by her husband, Steven Schneider, in Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives.

They call it Río Bravo. We call it Rio Grande, the 1885-mile river that separates Mexico from the United States. It is a historic natural border, the site of fierce battles during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

Several major cities along the northern border of Mexico are tied closely by commerce and culture to border cities on the U.S. side. Tijuana and San Diego. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. Nuevo Laredo and Laredo. Families and friendships bridge both sides of the river.

Today, however, the natural border of the river is supplanted by a border wall. Commerce and cultural exchange are being destroyed by warring cartels, gun running, and drug smuggling. With the recent passage of the new anti-immigrant law in Arizona, the border has become the focal point of national debate. And the river is patrolled by increasing numbers of agents and helicopters in ways that it never has before.

When I moved in 2001 to McAllen, Texas, a short drive from the northern border city of Reynosa, Mexico, to teach English at the University of Texas-Pan American, the border was very different. The border wall had not yet been constructed. The activity of the Zeta and other drug gangs was quiescent compared to today.

You could cross with ease from the U.S. side to the Mexican side on one of the many pedestrian bridges built over the Rio Grande. In fact, my wife Reefka and I would often take our two boys to the small border town of Nuevo Progreso, about a 25-minute drive from our house. We would walk across the bridge from Progreso into Nuevo Progreso and shop for exquisite talavera pottery or colorful wood-carved alebrijes, and buy fresh garlic from street vendors.

We would listen to Mariachi music played in the streets and restaurants of Nuevo Progreso. And we were not alone. In the winter months you can see hundreds of tourists in Nuevo Progreso from places like Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, and, yes, Iowa. These “Winter Texans” flock to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas to escape the snow and ice of the Midwest winters.

On these excursions Reefka would often photograph and sketch the people that we met in the streets of Nuevo Progreso: the garlic man wearing a rugby t-shirt and orange baseball cap, the six-year-old street handbag vendor, selling them each day to help feed her family. We would see very young children playing the accordion on the curb so tourists would toss coins into a cup. Back in her studio, Reefka would draw in charcoal and conté  formal portraits of these people that we met.

Over the course of several years, I began to write poems about Reefka’s drawings. I was struck by the vibrancy of the border culture despite the economic hardships children and families face.

Together, our poems and her drawings created a marriage of art and poetry, figure and figure of speech, a space where two art forms embrace each other. This past spring a collection of 25 of Reefka’s drawings and 25 of my poems were published as a book: Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives, a look at the diversity and dignity of the people of the border, our frontera.

What does it mean to cross over a border? It means that you leave the familiarity of your own space to enter another culture, which opens the door to cross-cultural understanding. When that door is closed, no exchange of views and ideas can take place, no breaking of boundaries.

In the current climate of fear along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the headlines about drug-related murders dominate the news, it is very easy to lose sight of the real people who live and work there and aspire to raise their families, listen to music, and dance under the stars.

We invite you to come with us to explore this region, this people, this rich and varied culture in the borderlands where las Américas come together.

July Readings

Steven and Reefka Schneider will be reading from Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City on Wednesday, July 21, 2010, at 7 p.m., and at Revelations in Fairfield, on Saturday, July 31, at 8 p.m.

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