Small dust remolinos (whirlwind) were ordinary sights during the hottest months of the year. That is one of the lingering memories of Albercones, the last of a handful of ranchos (rural communities) where my mother worked as a teacher and where I lived before moving to Texas.
Albercones is an ejido (political subdivision) within the province of Dr. Arroyo, in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. It is less than 10 miles from the pueblo (small town) of Dr. Arroyo. At its most northern point, a sliver of Nuevo Leon borders Texas’ Webb County. Still, Albercones is located near the state’s southern rim and is as close to Mexico City as it is to the US-Mexico crossing at Laredo.
Albercones is a hot semi-arid rural place because of its proximity to the Chihuahuan desert. The largest North American desert extends from New Mexico to San Luis Potosi in the heart of Mexico. Its eastern perimeter touches the southwestern edge of the region where my parents were born and raised. Thorny bushes, mesquite trees, cactus flower, agave, and Yucca (Joshua tree) are common to the area and integral to the survival of the rural population in the province of Dr. Arroyo, including Albercones. Long before I was born, according to my oldest sibling, my father scoured the mountainous terrain looking for agave. He would pull the ixtle (fiber) from the agave leaves and amass bundles to make rope, horse bridles, brushes and mats to sell to merchants, as a livelihood.
According to official government records, today, Albercones is inhabited by about 250 people, the majority live in poverty. The educational level of the adult population is fifth grade. When I left, I had completed the second grade; the highest grade my father attained in his formal education.
Albercones lies on a plateau off the southwest side of the Sierra Madre Oriental. In the United States, the mountain range is known as the Rockies and like Denver, Colorado the elevation in this rural region is a little over a mile above sea level.
As a boy, I did not place much importance to how surroundings impact daily life. But travelling by bus from Dr. Arroyo to Monterrey, the city where I was born, on the narrow curved highways carved on the side of the mountain and through deep valleys, on Highway 61 towards Galeana and then east on Highway 58 to Nuevo Leon’s orange belt, my mother’s anxiousness made me keenly aware of the dangers of the elevation. Her fears were underlined by the eerie silence of fellow passengers as the bus zigzagged through the roads across the mountainous range. Chatter in the cabin meant the bus had cleared the treacherous topography and was on the east side of the Sierra Madre headed to Linares. There, the bus made its mid-point stop. Relieved passengers sighed stretched their legs, ate, bought oranges and emptied their bladder.
Travelling from Albercones to Monterrey, in his 1950s station wagon, my father would avoid the worst of the inhospitable terrain, taking a different route than the buses. Instead of going directly north towards the mountains, he would loop around them driving west to Matehuala-his birthplace. He then drove north, on Highway 57, parallel to the mountains, towards Saltillo and approached Monterrey from the west, on Highway 40. Monterrey was a required stop on the way back to Texas because three of my siblings lived there with my maternal grandmother.
Whether going south or north, east or west, over the mountains or around them, the distress accentuated by the barren and desolate land was always present. It is the reason my family migrated north: My father went to work as a Bracero in the cotton fields “en el otro lado” (the other side). My maternal grandmother’s family left Dr. Arroyo and relocated in Monterrey.
Seeking the resources to keep the family alive and access to an education beyond elementary school for the children is the reason my immediate family was separated and lived in three different places simultaneously in the first decade of my life. Aside from my three oldest siblings living in Monterrey, two others lived in Texas with my father and the rest, including me, lived in the ranchos of Dr. Arroyo with my mother.
Albercones’ stark environment is why I have few childhood memories of permanence and an enduring foreboding despair.