Literature from the Borderlands

by readingintheborderlands

The borderlands are an often forgotten region, but there are some books that represent our area of the world. I’m aware of a fair number of children’s/young adult books set in the Rio Grande Valley or written by Valley authors, but I’m less familiar with books for adults. Years ago I read an excellent collection of letters from Helen Chapman, one of the founding citizens of Brownsville (The News from Brownsville: Helen Chapman’s Letters from the Texas Military Frontier, 1848-1852 edited by Caleb Coker). Then last week I ran across another nonfiction book, this time a history of Roma, Texas.

Bordertown: The Odyssey of an American Place with text by Benjamin Heber Johnson and photographs by Jeffrey Gusky is a story of the shared border between Mexico and the United States. Johnson shows how the history of Roma, Texas, a tiny border town that doesn’t even appear on many maps, reflects the history of the United States. Each chapter describes the life of one Roma resident, ranging from the earliest settlers to modern inhabitants. The text is accompanied by many photographs of Roma and surrounding areas.

I haven’t read the entire book yet, so I can’t give a full review, but from what I’ve read so far I would recommend this to anyone interested in the borderlands. The writing is interesting and the personal stories compelling. My only quibble–and this may change once I’ve read the entire book–is the photographs. They are lovely, but there is an overabundance of ruins, decayed statuary, and lonely architecture. In the entire book I only saw three photographs of people. You get the impression that Roma is a ghost town.

I lived in Roma for four years and I remember it as a vibrant place. Yes, it’s small. Yes, it’s poor. And yes, it is isolated. But it’s full of life–passionate, loyal, proud, hardworking family-oriented life. And really, that life is what the entire book is all about. I would have liked to see some of that represented in the photographs as well as the text, especially in the later chapters that discuss more recent history.

That aside, I hope some of you check out the book. This is such a fascinating region of the world!


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