My family owns a ranchito in the beautiful Davis Mountains of far West Texas. It is my favorite spot on earth. A recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" series on CNN featured Texas' Big Bend region where the Davis Mountains are located. The residents he interviewed, much like myself, cherish both the rugged beauty of the land as well as its rich mixture of Anglo and Mexican cultural traditions. And they universally opposed the push to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border through the sparsely populated region.
In one interview, an eye-patch-wearing cowboy/saloon owner named Ty delivered an astonishing moment of eloquence on this point. "We can't survive without the river," he said, referring to the Rio Grande forming the border. "And we can't survive without the people on that side of the river. And they can't survive without us. And they're our friends, for God's sake. Loyalty is a big thing in Texas, and you ain't gonna build a fence between me and my loyal friends."
President Donald Trump, who has long touted a wall stretching the entire length of the border as a solution to illegal immigration, recently ordered about 5,200 active-duty troops to the border in response to reports that a large caravan of migrants was moving north from Central America. The deployment took place amid the implementation of a larger set of policy proposals centered on immigration. These include a "zero tolerance" policy by law enforcement toward undocumented immigrants and a decision to allow the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy to expire.
Those issues and the wall proposal have put the region at the front of my mind lately. I've been thinking about my annual trips there in August, when I take a few friends out to the ranchito so we can watch the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo held in nearby Alpine. In the amateur competitions at the event, working cowboys representing their home ranches perform tasks designed to replicate the reality of their chosen profession: calf branding, team penning, cattle doctoring, wild-cow milking and ranch bronc riding. The display of everyday skills showcases the athleticism of the wranglers. The ranch hands are very much the real deal — and their abilities are amazing. I competed in a few local youth rodeo events as a child, and I maintain that roping a calf from horseback is perhaps the single most difficult feat in all the world of sports. But my group of friends also goes as scholars interested in larger issues.
Rodeo seems to offer an interesting prism through which to view the types of border questions that Bourdain's episode raised. It serves simultaneously as the official state sport of Texas and as (in a stylized form called charreria) the national sport of Mexico. Rodeo events, moreover, range from the small and the local to commercialized versions that are truly gigantic.
Among the most successful of the latter are the 300 or so competitions put on every year by the Professional Bull Riders (PBR). Although the organization includes competitors from all over the world, its brand identity is very much centered in the United States. "At its core," its website says, "PBR has always been about bringing people together to participate in and enjoy a sport built upon traditional American values. Reflecting on these bedrock principles, PBR looks for ways to promote these values, celebrate real heroes, unite our nation, and inspire the next generation."
In 2008, the organization entered into a partnership with the U.S. Border Patrol, whose agents became "the official federal law enforcement officers of the Professional Bull Riders." Recruiting booths for the agency are now prominently found at PBR events. That tone seems markedly different from the ranch rodeo of which my friends and I are so fond.
The cowboys and vaqueros of the borderlands have a long and deep relationship, after all. My guess is that at least a few of the ranches that send competitors to the Big Bend event employ a hand or two from Mexico. It is also worth pondering as well that charreria are becoming mainstays in a number of rural communities in Texas. This is perhaps emblematic of the demographic transition into a state whose largest population group is projected to soon be Hispanic.
All three flavors of rodeo — the amateur competitions between rural ranch hands, the gatherings of vaqueros practicing the traditions of Mexico and the professionals who perform their sport in concrete arenas before thousands of spectators — reflect the perspectives that can be found in the mixed heritage of the borderlands.