Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Wooden sidewalks

This post at Pandagon about current anti-Mexican racism in Alpine, Texas reminded me of a story my Daddy told me about his youth in Alpine.

Alpine is deep in SouthWest Texas, South of I10 and North of the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande. It's pretty desolate country. It's ranching country. Sul Ross State University is located in Alpine and is well known for it's Rodeo Team.

In 1935 Alpine was a town of wooden sidewalks and dirt streets. My daddy was 8 years old and lived in town. My granddaddy was a cook in the local cafe.

It didn't rain often in Alpine, but when it did rain those dirt streets turned into mud pits. On those rare wet days my daddy and his friends were in the habit of going downtown after school to just stand on a street corner and watch the horse drawn wagons get stuck in the mud. It didn't take much to provide entertainment in Alpine.

One muddy afternoon a rancher and a cowboy were walking along the narrow wooden sidewalk across the street. Not walking together, walking in opposite directions, towards each other. That got the kids attention because of what they expected to happen when the rancher and the cowboy met on the sidewalk.

There's a huge class distinction between ranchers and cowboys. Ranchers are land owners, in the ranch country of West Texas they are huge land owners. It takes a lot of land to grow enough grass for a cow when it doesn't rain. I guess Land Barons. The elite. The powerful. Cowboys were just day labor. Unskilled. Powerless.

The custom was that when two people meet on the sidewalk one would step into the dusty street to allow the other to pass. Which one would step into the street was determined by status. A child would step into the street to allow an adult to pass. A man would step into the street to allow a woman to pass. A cowboy would step into the street to allow a rancher to pass. And in this case the cowboy was Mexican, and the custom was to for a Mexican to step into the street to allow an Anglo to pass. So the cowboy had was missing two status points -- he was both a cowboy and a Mexican. Class and race. And the mud was really deep that day. So the kids were deep in anticipation of the prospect of watching a cowboy get stuck in the mud.

But when the cowboy and the rancher met they both stopped, nobody stepped into the mud. I guess you could call it a Mexican standoff. The rancher had a pistol stuck down the front of his pants. Not in a holster like in the movies, just stuck in his waistband. He pulled it out and shot the cowboy. Just shot him. Broad daylight. Downtown sidewalk. Just shot him. There had been no yelling, no shoving, just standing and staring. Then bang.

The Mexican cowboy fell to the sidewalk and the rancher stepped over him and continued on his way.

The boys were a little stunned. They stood on that corner and stared at the body of the Mexican cowboy laying on the sidewalk until dusk, when they all had to go home for supper. Other's walked down the sidewalk while they watched, just stepping over the body, not paying it any mind at all.

The next morning my daddy and his friends rushed through breakfast and left early for school so they could go back downtown before school and gawk some more. By then the body had been removed. Sometime in the dead of night somebody had dragged the body of the dead cowboy away.

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