Narco Violence Stirs Bittersweet Memories for Father’s Day Return to Laredo

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Father’s Day, typically a time for family reunions, connotes sadness and separation for many San Antonians with ties to Mexico.  Between 50,000 and 60,000 Mexicans have been killed or disappeared in drug violence in recent years.  As more families flee the border and its violence, many moving here, stories like the one below by Laredoan-turned- San Antonian Martin Acevedo, Principal with Side by Side Consulting,  will become all too common.  Happy Father’s Day to all our Dads out there. — Monika Maeckle

Martine AcevedoBy Martin Acevedo

I am going home for Father’s Day.  I’ve lived in San Antonio for 11 years, but Laredo is where I grew up and where my parents live.

I never visit enough for my mom, a message she relays through my two daughters now.

It’s true, I haven’t been back since Christmas, which is a long time in a big border family.  My wife’s mother died of cancer this spring, so we’ve been excused from other family commitments the last few months.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the place where I grew up.  With my mother-in-law’s horrible passing and my parents’ steady rhythm of ailments and doctors’ appointments, I’ve been getting nostalgic.  Nostalgic with a sense of urgency—that things are slipping away.

But it’s the punctuation of violent death just across the river that has been blasting my mind to the homeland.  It’s the the Rio Grande, I tell myself, not the Rio Styx.  But then my eyes are gored with the details.  It’s hard to ignore.

It’s easier to reminisce.  Drunken day trips to the mercado, splayed cabritos in the windows, paper maché eggplants for sale in the fancier tourist traps.  Growing up, my friends and I played tourist as much as the next gringo, it was a formative part of our late adolescence.  But bodies hanging from a bridge?  Half of them were women.  The images, as intended, were haunting, ghastly.  Maimed ghosts with no names.

It’s impossible to talk about the Border without talking about the violence.  If you’re from there, you tend to let out an apologetic sigh.  A bloody, cast-off toast to the lost party town, the shuttered businesses, the relatives who live “across” and move quickly before sun sets.

Welcome home? Violence foils family reunions on the border. Photo via Minnpost.com

For some, Mexico’s latest hope is a political one.  The PRI’s candidate, a 40-something with telenovela good looks, promises to change Mexico’s war tactics against the cartels.  The story goes like this: Mexicans are weary from the the violence and think maybe things were better when the PRI was in power. Sure, they were corrupt, but by cooperating or turning a blind eye to the narcos, the public violence was kept to a minimum.  For the last five years, the Mexican governments’s direct assault on the capos of the major carteles has lifted rock after rock of narcos-in-waiting.  I read somewhere that Mexico’s war on drugs has been good for the U.S., but bad for Mexicans.  So close to the DEA,  so far from God.

Where are we–50,000 dead?  60,000?  How many men and women haven’t been found yet?  How many orphans have been left behind?

I can’t sleep.  Thinking about Nuevo Laredo, I feel weak, foreign, helpless.

But we are actors in this tragedy, the demand in the supply chain.  The Center for Disease Control recently reported that more U.S. teens smoke pot than cigarettes.  Either for medical or recreational use, most of us know somebody who smokes weed.  Are we responsible for killing our brothers and sisters across the river?

Are they our brothers and sisters?  Should we sympathize for machine-gun wielding, drug-fueled bandidos killing each other off?  They chose the easy way to quick riches, the way of the gun.  Let the dead bury the dead, let’s thank God for our great republic.  But I just can’t shake the lingering taste of Strange Fruit.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Abel Meeropool, a young Jewish teacher from the Bronx, wrote this poem in the 1930’s to protest the lynching of black men in the South. A well-known picture of two young men hanging from a tree inspired the poem.  It was Billy Holiday, however, that elevated Strange Fruit to a spare melody of emotional fracture, twisted and sensory.

Holiday closed her shows with Strange Fruit.  The waiters in the club would stop serving.  The lights went down and a single spotlight shone on Halliday. As the song began, she would stand with her eyes closed, as if awaiting prayer.

I am watching her sing, anew.  In an old bar, in Nuevo Laredo.

An old friend of mine who lives in Laredo, recently posted: “Today’s one of those days I’d feel like sitting in the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo, eating panchos and a sipping a Victoria, making fun of the drunk tourists. Instead, I think it’ll be chilaquiles at Tono’s and sober Laredoans…”  Her wistful memory conjured our old haunt–the larger-than-life wood bar, the old guy playing the piano, people checking each other out along the horizontal mirrors on the wall.  Life never tasted so good.

But now, I just feel like throwing up.

Tear the roof off of the damn Cadillac bar.  Bring the apocalypse, show us 60,000 bodies swinging from the bridge.  Stop the wait service, shine the damn light.  Hell, turn on the house lights, rip open the sky!

Martin's father Gustavo and his granddaughter.

Martin's father Gustavo and his granddaughter.

I’m going home for Father’s Day.  With my wife and two daughters.  To see their grandparents. To see my mom and dad.  To the river’s edge.

We will eat a grilled assortment of meats.  The nearest vegetable will be the salsa on the table.  Sides will include tortillas, maybe onions baked in foil.  We won’t talk about what’s happening across the river.  The cousins will play, my siblings and I will land a few digs, and at some point, the last drink will be poured.

My tia, my aunt, from across the river, the one who used to say that the reports of the violence were once overblown, will have long retreated to her home before the sunset.   She will whisk by the shuttered businesses.  She will shut several locks behind her.

The sky is as open and as dark as the night can see.  The hottest week of the year, so far, gives our naked eyes a deep field of stars and worlds beyond us.   The same sky that bridges our sister city.

It is Father’s Day for a few hours.  I am home for a little while, but I will be leaving again, soon.

Martin Acevedo left a six-year stint at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) six months ago. Acevedo currently serves as a Principal with Side by Side Consulting, a firm specializing in helping nonprofits with communications and fundraising. Connect with him on Facebook.





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