“We haven’t had anybody kidnapped here yet, but it could come. We haven’t had anybody killed here, but that could come.”
— Sheriff Arvin West of Hudspeth County, Texas
A major highlight on our transcontinental bicycle journey last fall was an overnight stop in Fort Hancock, a tiny town in far West Texas just across the Rio Grande from Mexico.
So I was saddened to hear on Friday morning a story on National Public Radio about worries that Mexico’s drug violence will spill over into Fort Hancock. “You farmers, I’m telling you right now, arm yourselves,” the story quoted the sheriff of Hudspeth County as saying.
I and another rider were on cooking duty on Oct. 10, when we rolled into Fort Hancock after a a ride of more than 55 miles from El Paso, skirting the Mexican border along the way.
After reconnoitering the local food purveyors — a small grocery and a gas station convenience store along Interstate 10 skirting the northern edge of the dusty, wind-swept town — we found that the pickings were too slim to provide a decent meal for 14 hungry cyclists.
We were welcomed to the festival by a vibrant, dark-haired woman who turned out to be Sister Silvia, a nun of the Adorers of the Precious Blood and a chief organizer of the festival.
Seeming to know everyone in town, she introduced us around and then took to the microphone to make an announcement in Spanish about a group of special visitors who were bicycling from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. The parishoniers, almost all of them Hispanic, cheered us on. We suddenly became the toast of the festival.
Sister Silvia loves to dance and managed to get all of us onto the dance floor, including me, who dances only after sufficient alcoholic lubrication or at the behest of an insistent nun. (See Oct. 11 blog post, “Dancing with a nun.”)
Before the festival, the local folks allowed us to use the showers at Fort Hancock High School. And that night, we pitched our tents on the grounds of the Fort Hancock Community Church.
We never met members of that church. But they knew we were coming and had left open the church hall for our use. They had also stocked the fridge with soft drinks, bottled water, lunch meat, cheese and other sandwich makings. Laid out on a table in the hall, for our consumption, were pastries and fresh fruit.
A lucky set of circumstances put us in Fort Hancock that Saturday. We were scheduled to have a layover/rest day in El Paso on Saturday. But we decided to push on into Texas because we might need an extra day down the road because of bad weather, sickness or some other unforeseen problem.
According to U.S. Census figures, Fort Hancock has a population of just over 1,700, more than 90 percent Hispanic. All along that part of the border, the destinies of Mexico and the United States — and the people who live on both sides of the Rio Grande — are intertwined.
The lights of the Mexican towns of Francisco Sarabia and Rinconada de Gallegos, just across the Rio Grande from Fort Hancock, could be seen from Santa Teresa’s festival grounds.
The Rio Grande at Fort Hancock is sometimes just a trickle. “You can literally walk across the river — and some times of the year not even get wet,” says veteran Border Patrol agent Joe Romero, quoted in the NPR story. People cross the border every day to work and to visit family.
The NPR story about Fort Hancock, which focused on the Hudspeth County sheriff urging locals to arm themselves, was posted on Facebook. It was somewhat jarring to read some of the Facebook comments that followed the story, suggesting that Fort Hancock residents were a bunch of trigger-happy rednecks.
We spent only one night there. But we all left believing that that the folks in Fort Hancock were among the most hospitable we met throughout our cross-country trip, willing to open their doors and hearts to a disheveled crew of passing strangers and show them a good time.