The Rio Grande is a 1,900-mile-long river that has been a lifeline for communities that depend on its waters for sustenance and transportation in a predominantly arid or semi-arid environment. The source of the river is in the San Juan Mountains of south-central Colorado. It flows east and then south through New Mexico and eventually opens into the Gulf of Mexico at the southernmost tip of Texas. Below the sister cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, the Rio Grande has formed the international boundary between the United States and Mexico since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo relocated the border in 1848. The river’s importance as a life-sustaining resource is reflected in its many names: Río del Norte, Río Bravo del Norte, or Río Bravo in Mexico; P’osoge (“Big River”) by the Pueblo Tewa; and Tó Ba’áadi (“Female River,” because its course is southerly) by the Navajo. In 1582 the Spanish explorer Antonio de Espejo followed the course of the Río Conchos to its confluence with a great river, which Espejo named Río del Norte (River of the North). The name Río Grande was first given by the explorer Juan de Oñate, who arrived on its banks near present-day El Paso in 1598. This work focuses on the Rio Grande as border and borderland. Like the river itself, the border moves physically, historically, politically, and socially, and the meanings of the border, and of the river that denotes it, have also shifted. This life-giving border river has a long history of conflict and is today, in many locations, a militarized zone with multiple layers of surveillance by local, state, and federal authorities. Portrayals of crime, violence, and state control are popular in the media, but they often do not include the lived experience of many border residents. The English novelist Emma Smith wrote, “The river is used to divide but it is not an impenetrable division. Life is like the river, sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.”
The Rio Grande in Music, Arts, and Photography
The music of the Rio Grande that runs between Texas and Tamaulipas was born out of the storytelling traditions of the region. One of the most popular musical forms developed in the area is the corrido, or folk song. Paredes 1976 explains that these songs, particularly those with epic themes, took their name from the word corer, which means “to run” or “to flow,” because corridos tell a story quickly and without embellishments. In fact, Paredes wrote a book (Paredes 1958) about “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez,” probably the best-known corrido of the entire turn of the 20th century period. It developed out of actual events in an area half in Mexico and half in the United States known as the Lower Rio Grande Border or Rio Grande Valley. Although this song celebrates an event that occurred a century ago, it is still popular among Spanish-speaking people throughout the American Southwest and northern Mexico. The song-inspiring event took place on 12 June 1901 in Karnes County, Texas, at the W.A. Thulmeyer Ranch, and it became legend. This specific version of the Gregorio Cortez corrido was performed by Ramon Ayala (who is a native of this region) in norteño style. Ayala first tells us of the murder of the sheriff and the mystery surrounding it. Once it is found that the farmworker Gregorio Cortez is the culprit, famous bold words are spoken by Cortez. The story then goes on to tell of the epic pursuit, which grew Cortez’s legend among Mexicans and Anglo-Texans. It finally ends in the capture of Cortez by the authorities. The story is told in the lyrics, which can be reviewed in English and Spanish online.
Fox, Claire F. The Fence and the River: Culture and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
An extensively illustrated study that explores Mexican novels and films about border crossing, images of the fence and the river in Chicano/a art and documentary video, border-crossing performance art, and the futuristic border of speculative fiction.
Garza-Falcón, Leticia M. Gente Decente: A Borderlands Response to the Rhetoric of Dominance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
The author explores how prominent writers of Mexican descent, such as Américo Paredes, have used literature to respond to the dominative history of the United States, which offers retrospective justification for expansionist policies in the Southwest and South Texas. Garza-Falcón shows how these counternarratives capture a body of knowledge and experience excluded from “official” histories, whose “facts” often emerged more from literary techniques than from objective analysis of historical data.
Gilpin, Laura. The Rio Grande: River of Destiny. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949.
A beautiful photographic chronicle of the river that captures it physical beauty while revealing economic and cultural life, human geographies, and history.
González, Daniel. “Border Kids: Crossing the River of Hope, Despair.” azcentral, 14 July 2014.
Part four of a six-part news series on living on the border that focuses on youth in the area.
Heisey, Adriel. The Rio Grande: An Eagle’s View. Edited by Barbara McIntyre. Essays by John Horning, Steve McDowell, and Tom Udall. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.
Designated an American Heritage River in 1997, the Rio Grande is the third longest river in the United States. Heisey’s photographs follow the 1,900-mile waterway and capture the unmistakable signature of water that the Rio Grande represents in the arid southwestern landscape. The book combines hydrology and artistry to tell the powerful and dramatic history of a river.
Paredes, Américo. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958.
Tells the story of Gregorio Cortez Lira, a ranch hand of Mexican descent, who in 1901 killed a sheriff after a misunderstanding over the sale of a horse. Gregorio fled immediately, realizing that in practice there was one law for Anglo-Texans, another for Texas-Mexicans. The chase, capture, and imprisonment of Cortez are high drama that was translated in a ballad or corrido called “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez.”
Paredes, Américo. A Texas Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
Paredes provides a portrayal of the borderlands through the arts, and specifically examines the corrido as a cultural art form. See pages 25–26, 53–55.
Savage, Melissa. Río: A Photographic Journey down the Old Rio Grande. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016.
Historical photographs capture the river valley’s diverse cultures—Puebloan, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo—through transformations of trade, industry, and cultivation. Photographs assembled by theme.
Taylor, Alan. “On the Border.” The Atlantic, 6 May 2013.
A news story with images of the US-Mexico border.
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