Shadows Along the River Bank (in 3 parts)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

I grew up among the tangled weeds and wildflowers that once defined the landscape of our lives in a valley stretching out from the banks of the Rio Grande. It was a time of hardship and adversity. A time when brown-skinned men and women were a commodity to be used and abused.


By Al Garcia

I grew up among the tangled weeds and wildflowers that once defined the landscape of our lives in a valley stretching out from the banks of the Rio Grande.  It was a time of hardship and adversity.  A time when brown-skinned men and women were a commodity to be used and abused.  We were tolerated but not dignified as equals or peers.  We were expendable and disposable.  This was the world that I entered into on the day I took my first breath.  A valley of despair and hopelessness.  A valley beyond the flowing Rio Grande. 

Time defines all things.  And it is time that has taken me through the seasons of my life to where I am today.  It is time that helped define the outline and the shading of what made me the man I am.  Time is powerful and potent.  Yet the one thing time cannot control, erase or obliterate are the lingering memories and shadows of our past. 

So many voices silenced.  So many untold and unheard stories of now forgotten lives.  They are shadows that linger on the river bank betrayed by time and trampled by the darkness that escapes the human heart.  To imagine that I am a part of what once had been – a part of someone’s dreams and hopes and promises that never came to be.  I sense the shadows of my past as I hear their desperate cries echoing in the dark of night.  Yet I never knew their names or saw their eyes or felt their pain.  They speak to me in familiar voices.  They caress my soul and touch my heart with the love and warmth that once they were.  They are the shadows that were left behind to light the path that darkness once overtook.

I remember so many things that once seemed unimportant.  I recall so many voices and faces and places.  I can still feel a moment in time that no longer exists, and I can see a smile and hear a laughter that is no longer there.  Time has given me so much but taken so much more than I ever wanted to give back.  My memories beckon me to embrace each moment that I shared with those now gone and those I never knew.  My memories beseech me to bring back the shadows that once lurked in the recesses of my mind, once forgotten and discarded.  My memories seek the light that will expose the lingering shadows of the hate that once stroke the flames of racism and bigotry along the Rio Grande.  Like time that never stops, so too the shadows of our past endure the silence and abandon of our neglect and indifference.  It was the nature of our way to keep hidden the betrayal and the deceit.  It was the silent sound of deference that shackled and manacled the dreams and hopes that once flourished along the river bank of the Rio Grande by brown-skinned dreamers and romantics.  And it was greed, treachery and duplicity that conquered the innocence of our past.  And now only the echoes of their cries and the remnants of their souls haunt the hollowed fields of deserted and decaying stones bearing such names as Garcia, Rodriguez, Villarreal, Guzman, Cavazos, and countless other names, each one representing an unfulfilled dream and an unanswered prayer.

This was the world I entered on a cool November day in the year one thousand nine hundred and forty-eight.  A world founded and settled by dreamers and romantics seeking simply to toil and harvest the fertile delta north of the flowing Rio Grande.  Now, however, it was a world where the color and the origin of your ancestry determined the dignity and nobility of life.  A world conceived with promise but overtaken by gluttony and selfishness.  This was the valley of despair and hopelessness that awaited me on that cool November day.  This was the world my parents had inherited and a world that would challenge me and change me.  A world filled with faceless and nameless shadows yearning to be set free from the racism and bigoty that had destroyed their dreams and hopes. 


And so, my life began in the valley by the Rio Grande.  There was love and caring and tenderness that surrounded me.  There were stars in the sky that twinkled in the night.  There was light in the day that nourished the harvest in the fields.  And there was water that flowed and flowers that bloomed.  But beneath the beauty and the calm of each emerging day, there lurked the evil that destroys and devastates.  Like my parents, I was born in the land of the free and of the brave.  Yet it didn’t come to pass.  We were born too soon.  We were born too brown.  We were told we did not belong where we were born.  We were made to feel like outcasts in our own land.  This was the America of my generation.  This was our America in the 1940s.  This was life along the Rio Grande for people born of color – the color brown.  Cold.  Odious.  Unwelcoming.

And yet, there was love and tenderness that surrounded and shrouded me during my childhood and beyond.  The ugliness of the reality of the valley beyond the confines of my world were kept from me.  Despite the hate-filled rhetoric and acts of violence that permeated the green lush expanse of fields and prairies, meadows and pastures along the Rio Grande, I was taught to be kind, to be honest, to be caring and to be courteous.  I never knew at that early age how cruel a man could be against another fellow human being.  I never thought of hating or despising someone for how they looked or talked or prayed or where they came from.  I was taught to respect my elders, whether brown or white or black.  It was simple.  It was right.  And I continued to grow, to observe and to learn. 

I never realized that I was different.  I never thought myself to be less than what I was meant to be.  And my parents made sure I saw myself as just one more child of God like all God’s creatures great and small.  And as the seasons came and went, so too my eyes began to see the changing of my world.  My innocence was shattered when I learned at the age of six that I was in fact a child of a different God.  I learned about color and how white was better than brown or black or yellow.  I learned too young like those before me had, that I was born to be hurt, born to be brown in a white man’s world.  And so my journey began again.  This time with eyes wide open, I looked and I saw the world for what it was – a place with beasts and monsters that smiled at me.  A place where nothing was what it seemed to be.  A place filled with the shadows of forgotten souls whose only fault was to have been born too soon and too brown along the river bank of the Rio Grande.

I was taught from childhood that God so loved the world.  I was told that Jesus loves me, yes I know.  And I was lectured to turn the other cheek and persevere.  And as a child and then young man, I went about my daily life living by the Word and by the strict upbringing of my parents.  But I could not ignore the contrasts that surrounded me and those like me, although my parents tried their best to shield me from the cruelty and vulgarity.  This was the late 1940s, the 1950s, and even up through the 1960s, and even my parents could not protect me from the hate and intimidation that men can inflict upon another.  For Mexican-Americans like myself, the lesson of racism, bigotry and hate was simply a ritual rite of passage.  In olden times my ancestors prepared their young men and women to enter the world with traditional rites of passage that celebrated their culture, their heritage and their families.  Along the Rio Grande however, entry into the brave new world by young Mexican-American boys and girls meant learning the hard lessons of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination first hand.  It was jolting to the young and innocent minds of these first and second generation Americans.  Where once there had been so much promise and potential, there now loomed the shadows of disillusionment, cynicism and mistrust.  We were young, naïve and trusting and we wanted to believe in the American dream.  After all we were American.


Children are resilient and perceptive.  I was no exception.  Although young in age and lacking all sense of judgment, wisdom or prudence, I, like most children, could intuit such things as joy, love, trust, distress, sorrow and even understand the look of dislike, disdain or right-out hate.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist even back then to know when to laugh, when to cry, and when to keep silent and blend into the background or into nothingness. 

Yet even with the discrimination, racism and bigotry that surrounded us, life went on for many Mexican-American families and children living and working along the Rio Grande.  Our parents worked long and hard simply to provide an existence, while the children went about being children – playing, learning, growing.  Life was full.  Life was hard.  There was plenty of laughter and joy, and there were also moments of shared despair when the cupboards went bare and the children’s stomachs didn’t understand the reason why.  These times were few but nonetheless times when even the children felt helplessness and distress at watching their parents struggle with the reality of being at the mercy of mostly white landowners.  Back then when I was a child, the valley was littered with poor and indebted tenant farmers and sharecroppers – almost exclusively Mexican-Americans.  My Mom and Dad were among those who sought out the promises of farm life in a place called Rio Farms, north of Edinburg, only to experience the pain and exhaustion of tending the cotton, corn and sugarcane fields under the rays of the scorching sun in the summer time, or trying to salvage a harvest from cold freezing ice in the winter.  And as a child, I remember those days and the look of defeat and fatigue on the faces of my parents.  And through all of this, the children remained resilient, spirited and strong.  It was as if our parents knew before we did, that it was the children that held the key to a future that made the suffering bearable and even acceptable. 

It was the unfulfilled dreams of the ghosts and shadows of defeated and forsaken family and friends that many times stroked the passion and persistence of those that followed in their footsteps.  The challenges and the barriers, the hateful words and disdainful looks, the violence and even the outright killings only strengthened the spirit and determination of those that lived through and endured the outrages that Texans and Americans inflicted upon their neighbors and compatriots simply because of the color of their skin and the origin of their familial roots – roots that crossed the Rio Grande and roots that touched the heart and soul of an empire that once flourished and ruled a continent.  And it was that flicker and spark of that long-forgotten trace of greatness that must have found its way into the children of the valley.  It was that sparkle and that glint that my parents saw in the eyes and hearts of their children, and why they endured and persevered despite the hardships and the sorrow. 

The shadows along the river bank still haunt the hearts and minds of those of us that seek to understand the reason why -- why men can hate, destroy and kill and walk away and shed no tears for what they have done.  The child in me has died, but the joy, the wonder and even the hurt remains, just like the feel of my parent’s embrace that kept me safe and sound.

I was once a child of the valley.  Now I see the shadows along the river bank, and I hear the voice of time in the sound of the wind as it ruffles the branches of the trees and as it tousles the brush that covers the river bank.  And hidden beneath the beauty and the serenity of the rich and lush landscape of the valley, the hate, the bigotry, the racism lie quiet and deceiving, waiting for the blossoming of the weeds that once ran wild and free through the fields and pastures, meadows and grasslands and through the hearts and souls of those that cannot see beyond their man-made walls that separate and divide.

The shadows of our past will never disappear or fade, for it is their spirit that has given us purpose, resolve and strength to bring down the barriers and erase the hateful looks and tear down the signs that once kept us out of restaurants, hotels and stores simply because we were brown. 

Our parents’ hardships were endured for one purpose – to ensure their children and the children of the valley opportunities and prospects denied to them.  They succeeded.  My parents have joined the shadows that shield and shade my life.  It is up to us now, the once children of the valley, to ensure that we pass along our heritage, our legacy and our new and evolving bicultural valley to the next generation.  But we must also teach them how to keep the land and river bank free of the weeds that seek to invade and destroy the harmony and the beauty of the valley along the Rio Grande.

Submitted: May 23, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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