by Larry Floersch
The highest point in Brownsville, Texas, is the landfill. I know this because Gina, an employee of the City of Brownsville, took me there for a tour. The landfill is so popular they even have a spacious visitors center, complete with videos and explanatory brochures. Gina is a supervisor for the crews that tend to the landfill and also the green spaces in Brownsville, which at this time of the year, and after extended drought, are hard to locate.
Gina is very enthusiastic about the landfill. One reason is the extensive compost processing facility they have built there. Gina told me with pride that they could process an elephant and in one week there would be nothing left — not even bones. A bit of hyperbole I thought, but when questioned, she assured me that THEY HAD IN FACT processed an elephant in one week. The carcass had come from the Brownsville Zoo.
The other reason Gina loves the landfill is the view. The mound that covers Brownsville’s trash is now at about one hundred feet and, like landfills everywhere, is a popular place for birds — in this case seagulls, vultures and caracaras. And because it attracts the rare Tamaulipas crow, it is a place that birdwatchers cherish. Once you scare away the birds from the top of the landfill, you have a commanding view of — you guessed it — BIRDWATCHERS, who must dodge the huge trash-compacting bulldozers in their efforts to put a checkmark next to “Tamaulipas crow” in their list of bird sightings and to avoid becoming extinct themselves. Beyond the birdwatchers you can see the city of Brownsville, South Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico, the massive oil rigs in dry dock in Port Isabel, and, across the Rio Grande — Mexico.
One of the candidates in our recent national election made an issue of, and I quote, “hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants literally pouring … pouring over the border” from Mexico. I thought what better place to witness this phenomenon than from the top of the landfill. I had images in my mind of large masses of people in sombreros and huaraches moving north like army ants. To my dismay, I could not detect any masses of illegal immigrants from top of the landfill.
Gina was also kind enough to take me to another favorite birdwatching spot, the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, which is on the banks of the Rio Grande. You literally pass through “The Wall” (yes, they already have one here, although it has numerous gaps in it) and enter a no-man’s land crisscrossed by Border Patrol roads to get to the sanctuary. I excitedly took one hiking trail to an overlook on the banks of the Rio Grande itself, hoping to spot masses of illegal immigrants. I saw a lot of great-tailed grackles, green jays, mosquitoes and mesquite trees, but no illegal immigrants.
The Rio is not so Grande at this point in its course. It is pea green and about as wide as the North Branch of the Winooski. You can easily huck a rock across it into Mexico.
The fact is, I don’t think I saw any illegal immigrants while in Brownsville. I was told they exist, but unless they were in all those Range Rovers and Mercedes with license plates from the Mexican states of Tamaulipas or Campeche in the parking lots of the H.E.B. supermarket and the Walmart, I couldn’t point to one. And if the people in those cars were illegal immigrants, they blended in quite well.
Brownsville is not Montpelier. For one thing, Brownsville has a number of very wide boulevards, up to six or eight lanes in some places. And it has an abundance of parking spaces. I know you won’t believe this, but you can even find parking spaces in DOWNTOWN Brownsville.
To discourage people from other states — such as Vermont — from coming here just to drive around and park willy-nilly, Brownsville has two deterrents. One is Texas drivers, all of whom took their training from NASCAR. The average speed on those wide boulevards seems to be about 60, with lots of unsignaled lane changing and tailgating. The drivers here also tend to “herd” like Texas longhorns at stoplights, lane markers being mere suggestions.
The second deterrent is the stoplights themselves. Apparently Brownsville established a policy of making the stop light cycles extremely long. One day I was at a red light and noticed in the car next to me a girl who looked to be about four. When the light turned green again, I looked back and the toddler was celebrating her Quinceañera.
Brownsville has representatives of every restaurant chain in the country, including — and I was shocked by this — a Taco Bell. Now I know what you’re thinking, “But Lare, Brownsville is on the Mexican border. It should have a Taco Bell.” Well, maybe it should have a fast-food restaurant that serves Mexican-INSPIRED food, but unlike the Taco Bell that once existed and died on the Barre-Montpelier Road, the Taco Bell in Brownsville is surrounded by about 26,000 other taquerias, and those are just the ones on the same block. Although I have not yet completed a thorough analysis, many of those taquerias have food that is vastly superior and more authentic. You can even get tamales! And probably the turistas!
Many businesses in Brownsville draw upon the western heritage of Texas and choose their names accordingly. There is a dental clinic down the street from my hotel named “Rodeo Dental.” I can only imagine the care provided at a place with that name: you are thrown into a dentist’s chair and two rodeo clowns emerge from their barrels and immediately begin drilling on you without novocaine. The goal is to stay in the chair for eight seconds.
This being Texas, a business enterprise exists that I don’t think I have seen anywhere else. Brownsville has “academies” devoted to CHEERLEADING. One even claimed to offer “elite” cheerleader training. No doubt these academies are feeder schools to Kilgore College and the Dallas Cowboys.
One final treat provided by my guide Gina actually surpassed the trip to the landfill. That was a snow cone, which down here is called a “raspa.” Now, snow cones are not unusual, but in Brownsville you won’t find the same flavors as at the Champlain Valley Fair. Gina’s was topped with a chile powder concoction. Mine was tamarindo and chamoyada. So even though I did not see any masses of illegal immigrants, the trip to Brownsville was worth it.