THE NEW REPUBLIC, April 15, 1996
As you drive into El Paso, the first hint that you are entering a seriously conservative town is the sign announcing the exit for Porfirio Deaz street. Porfirio Deaz ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1911. His policies of forced industrialization–inspired by an elite cadre of foreign-educated savants known as Los Cientificos–led to disparities in wealth and in land tenure not to be seen again in Mexico until the 1990s. His fraudulent re-election in 1910 set off the Mexican Revolution. And you won’t find any streets named after him in Mexico.
Here in El Paso, Porfirio Diaz Street overlooks the Rio Grande and nearby Ciudad Juarez, El Paso’s much larger Mexican sister city. Porfiristas from Northern Mexico flocked to El Paso when the revolution broke out; as it dragged on, supporters of whichever faction happened to be losing at the moment crossed the border and settled here. Today more than 70 percent of El Paso’s 665,000 residents are of Mexican origin. It’s common to find families with relatives on both sides of the border. Many El Paso parents send their children to school in Ciudad Juarez to become fluent in Spanish; many Juarez parents send their kids to El Paso schools to be Americanized. The two cities form the largest megalopolis along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border– one vast city, really, divided by an international boundary.
Out of this bicultural stew comes former United States Border Patrol Chief Silvestre Reyes, 51, who wants to represent El Paso in the U.S. Congress. Reyes became a local household name when he managed to halt the daily flood of undocumented migrants into the city in the fall of 1993. If he wins the April 9 runoff to become the district’s Democratic candidate, chances are the national press will begin to take notice.
For decades the border at El Paso was nothing but an irrelevant line on a map. Old-timers say there were few restrictions on border crossings until the 1950s. Even into the 1990s anyone with a sense of adventure and $2 to spare could hop on a raft under the downtown Santa Fe bridge in Ciudad Juarez and be ferried to the northern bank of the river. Then all you had to do was climb through one of the many holes in the chain-link fence and dart into a crowd on a busy downtown street when the Border Patrol agents weren’t looking.
Instead of stopping the migrants at the riverbank, the Border Patrol preferred to chase them down once they were inside the city. Unfortunately, this meant that agents often arrested native El Pasoans of Mexican descent whom they mistook for undocumented migrants. In one notorious case a student at Bowie High School was roughed up by Border Patrol agents for refusing to show any proof of residency. The student, faculty and staff of Bowie filed a lawsuit for civil rights violations against the Border Patrol in 1992–and got a favorable settlement.
When Reyes arrived to head the El Paso sector of the Border Patrol in the summer of 1993 he took over an agency with a local reputation rivaling that of roaches and lawyers, overseeing a crossing point for undocumented migrants second in volume only to San Diego. In a little more than two months he dramatically changed this dismal scenario. Instead of waiting for the migrants to run into El Paso, he lined the border with agents around the clock, discouraging anyone from even attempting to cross.
The new tactics were an overnight success. The daily flood of migrants dwindled to a trickle, then virtually stopped. The beatings of local residents ended. Mexican beggars and window-washers vanished from the street corners, and the Juarez rafters went out of business. The crackdown actually hurt downtown merchants, many of whose customers came from rural parts of Mexico and who, because they lacked a fixed job or a verifiable address, couldn’t get a legal crossing card. And a University of Texas study showed that migrants traveling beyond El Paso simply skirted the blockade by traveling several miles west into the desert or east along the Rio Grande. But none of that mattered. Reyes’s popularity in El Paso soared because migrants were no longer dashing through people’s backyards or getting hit as they tried to bolt across the interstate highway. El Pasoans honked their horns as a sign of appreciation whenever they saw Border Patrol agents in their ubiquitous lime-green Suburbans. Poll after poll showed Reyes scoring higher ratings than any area elected official.
But Reyes is more than just an efficient bureaucrat. His amazing popularity has a great deal to do with the uneasy relationship the city’s Mexican- Americans maintain with Mexico. Outsiders often see all Mexican-Americans as one undifferentiated ethnic group within the larger Hispanic population. Yet there are important distinctions between those who grew up in the U.S., those who recently immigrated and the undocumented migrant–even when they all come from the same family. And don’t mix up your categories: the average Mexican- American resident here considers him or herself a Hispanic from Texas. Call them Latinos and you’ll be slapped; call them Chicanos and you might get a broken nose. Pablo Vila, a sociologist at the University of Texas at El Paso and one of the few who has studied this sensitive phenomenon, says Mexican- Americans become more cohesive the farther away they are from Mexico. Along the border they can still easily see the misery that they or their parents fled–Mexican border towns are notoriously poverty-ridden and chaotic–so they try to distance themselves. This is an ideal political environment for someone like Reyes, the man who drew a firm line between Mexican illegal aliens and Mexican-Americans.
In many ways, the mild-mannered Reyes is a Hispanic version of Colin Powell. Like Powell, Reyes comes from a humble background and served in Vietnam. Like Powell, he climbed the institutional ranks–in his case, the Border Patrol–by enthusiastically following rules without questioning policies. Both Reyes and Powell were trailblazers in the early days of affirmative action, struggling against entrenched hostility toward up-and-coming non- whites.
Although Reyes campaigned for the March 12 primary as a pro-life, law-and- order Democrat, his real popularity lies not in what he advocates but in what he personifies: the aspirations and insecurities of thousands of border residents of Mexican descent. He’s the local Hispanic farm boy who made good, the man who got mainstream society to accept him as an American citizen first and a hyphenated American second.
Reyes’s background is typical of many border residents. Born on a farm in the town of Canutillo, Texas, just outside El Paso, he is the descendant of a paymaster in Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army. Young Silvestre spoke only Spanish until he went to grade school. As a child one of his chores at his father’s farm was to blow a truck horn whenever Border Patrol agents showed up, signaling the undocumented workers to scatter. As a teen he spent summers working as a migrant laborer in California and the lower Rio Grande valley, sweating side by side with undocumented migrants. (Reyes said he always carried his birth certificate for identification, and on the rare occasion that he was stopped by Border Patrol agents was treated with respect.) He joined the Border Patrol after his Vietnam stint and spent virtually all of his career patrolling the border with Mexico.
Any qualms about being a Mexican-American who’s made a career of collaring undocumented Mexican migrants? That’s what Reyes calls the “nationality question,” and he abhors it. “I find it at best rude, and at worst very questionable,” he said. “Just because I’m Hispanic doesn’t mean that a special standard should apply to me in terms of my loyalty to this country. The law applies to everyone.” While his answer is technically correct, Reyes acts as if he lives in a cultural vacuum. His bicultural background should enable him to offer broad, sensitive solutions to the problems created by undocumented migration. Instead, it’s only helped him become a more efficient cop.
Reyes’s Villista grandfather must be rolling in his grave, shocked that Silvestre has made a career of keeping out refugees from the failed policies of the new Cientificos. Now that Reyes has support from the descendants of the Porfiristas in his bid for Congress, the old man’s bones might just rise and head south to start a new revolution.
Carlos Hamann is a freelance reporter based in El Paso.