Border Town

New book depicts true life and history on the Mexican border

Gusky's haunting photographs depict bends in the Rio Grande and clusters of cactus, 19th-century grave markers with engravings in Spanish, overgrown abandoned buildings and architectural flourishes with roots in Aztec Mexico, such as the round flower designs in the moldings of some of the town's brick structures.

Johnson's text illuminates a cast of characters that includes Jose Maria Garcia Saens, one of the town's Mexican founders whose "expansive, self-confident" qualities and ability to bring civilization to one of the continent's severest, most remote places he likens to Anglo pioneers, and Charles Stillman, a businessman from a New England mercantile family who spurred commerce by initiating agricultural trade and land speculation and going into the shipping business with Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King of the vast Kenedy and King ranches. Stillman's profits later grew into what is now Citigroup. Johnson writes about Hispanic residents who aligned against one another on opposite sides of the Civil War, a German mason who settled in Roma and built many of the area's distinctive structures, and Jovita Gonzalez, who was born in Roma in 1904 and defied the racial and gender constraints of her era by becoming a university-educated scholar and writer who chronicled Southwestern folklore.

Luis Alberto Urrea, whose 2004 best seller The Devil's Highway, a nonfiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, wrote the introduction to Bordertown. He sums up the book as a meditation on the time-worn, complex and often stereotyped rivulets of history and culture that combine to make the border's unique communities and influence the country at large.

Jeffrey Gusky's photos capture the history of Roma, Texas, in Bordertown.
Jeffrey Gusky
Jeffrey Gusky's photos capture the history of Roma, Texas, in Bordertown.

"So many depictions of places like Roma, Texas, focus on decadence and debauchery," he writes. "You see the Southwestern borderlands like a tourist passing through hell. This has always seemed unfortunate to me. After all, as the subtitle of this remarkable book points out, they are American places. Haunted by our shared history, alive with the same light as our hometowns."

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