CLIFF WILKIE | MEMOIR | In a little cafe just the other side of the border

It all happened in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on March 30, 1969.

La Raza Unida Chicano Rights March, Del Rio, Texas, March 30, 1969. Photo by Cliff Wilkie.

By Cliff Wilkie | The Rag Blog | April 30, 2023

It was just like in the Marty Robbins song, “in a little cafe just the other side of the border.”  We were drunk.  Three college kids in our early twenties, from the University of Texas at Austin, sitting in a ratty bar in Ciudad Acuna on the Mexican side of the border across from Del Rio, Texas.  Despite all appearances, we actually were there for a cause.  We were young, passionately idealistic, and there for the cause of “La Raza Unida!”  The next day there was to be a huge civil rights march to protest the beatings of several Chicanos by the Texas Rangers and the unjust firings of several Vista volunteers.  Along with many others, we had come a long ways to be a part of it.  We were fired up… as well as drunk.

My two friends, Antonio and Mario, were Chicanos.  U.S. citizens, born and raised in Texas, children whose parents were born and raised in Mexico.  Their parents had somehow made it across the border  to grab a piece of the American Dream.  They had surely raised their sons to believe they could somehow be whatever they dreamed, limited only by the scope of their dreams and their willingness to work hard to make them come true.  I was the only gringo in the bunch.  We three had become good friends through our common idealism and sharing rent and expenses in an old Victorian house on a street lined with stately pecan trees near the University.

We studied different things, but we all shared a common passion for justice. 

We studied different things, but we all shared a common passion for justice for descendants of Latin Americans who found themselves living under the somewhat rent and tattered aegis of America’s claim of Freedom for All, especially the so-called tired and hungry masses of the immigrants who had crossed the border into the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their families.  But it was 1969, and many of us in this country now clearly realized that the dream was pretty much a sham.  Maybe not completely, in fact we were pretty sure we could fix things, make it live up to its promise, but we knew there was a lot to do, and that, at least for now, the shelter of Freedom was a torn and tattered umbrella that leaked an awful lot of cold rain onto those below, especially those who hadn’t been blessed to have been born a gringo.  

I fancied myself a photographer.  Actually, I more than fancied myself a photographer.  I was strongly committed to photojournalism.  I envisioned myself as a gringo who would be able to show the world the plight of Mexican-Americans in my country, expose the lies, show all the other white folks what it was really like to be Chicano.  I spoke Spanish very well by then, and I had known many Mexicans as well as Chicanos.  My heart was with them.  I felt I could do something, and I was headed that way. 

My college major was geology, but my passion for the past few years, had been the Spanish language and the culture of the countries that went along with it.  I had majored in geology, but I wasn’t going to be a geologist.  Like many of us in those days, I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I was following my heart’s  passion.  And it involved taking black-and-white pictures that showed the world in a way I felt powerfully about.  I pretty much carried my Canon rangefinder everywhere I went.  It was my most prized possession and provided a door that opened to my heart.

‘Los Rinche’s had long been detested by the millions of Mexicans and Chicanos.  

So all three of us had driven down together from Austin to join in what became one of the largest Chicano civil rights marches of the times (3,000 marchers ultimately showed up).  We had come to the Texas border town of Del Rio to shake our fists at the abuses, the tyranny of the Texas Rangers, called, in border Spanish, Los Rinches.  Los Rinches had long been detested by the millions of Mexicans and Chicanos along the Texas border and throughout the state.  

The Texas Rangers have a long and venerable tradition — if you are a gringo.  (In grade school a friend of mine and I had formed a fifth grade Texas Rangers club.)  Of course Texas was classic Wild West, and the Rangers had long upheld law and order in a lawless land.  They were revered as stalwart, brave, big and tall, sharpshooters with courage and meanness enough to wither the heart of the worst of the worst outlaws of the land. 

Of course, another point of view is that they were mean, viscious bastards with a fully sanctioned license to beat the crap out of and maybe even kill anyone who crossed the path of what they saw as the right way to live.  In other words, how the white settlers from back east wanted things to be.  There weren’t too many blacks in Texas, but there were plenty of Mexican greasers.   As long as these brown-skinned bean eaters toed the line, they were left alone.  Otherwise, they were pretty much on the top of the shit list of the Rangers.  Of course the savage Injuns were on the list as well. 

So, the Rinches pretty much ran roughshod over those people we now called disadvantaged or dispossessed.  They stomped the shit out of them with wild and sometimes gleeful abandon.  They had been doing it for a good 100 years and those people under their boot heel were sick of it.  And again, it was 1969.  Dispossessed people all over the country were rising up, rattling the chains that had bound them for so long, raising their voices, marching in the street and saying enough, enough, enough:   “Viva La Raza.”  It was exhilarating.  My friends and I knew the time had come, and we wanted in on the action.  So down to Del Rio we went, along with several thousand others, from across the State and then some.

We all mingled back and forth getting high on the buzz.

There were many groups, and we all came together the day before the march.  Lot’s of wonderful energy, lots of buzz, lots of promise of a new dawn a breakin’.  Indeed, there was a fierce wind blowing and we were all swept up into its power.  I forget what group we were formally with.  It didn’t really matter.  We all mingled back and forth getting high on the buzz from young people all with the same goals.  Abajo con los Rinches.”  Down indeed.  We were on the high ground and we were going to win!  Anyway, the day passed and night came on.  With not much to do until the big march on the next day my friends and I left our car on the Texas side of the border and took a bus over into Mexico to check out the town of Ciudad Acuna.

We had dinner somewhere, and like most our age, proceeded to go from bar to bar along the dusty dim streets drinking more and more beer as the night grew older.  I recall spending an hour or two drinking with a rugged and grizzled ranchero from way up in the mountains of Chihuahua.  We had a grand time with him, swapping stories that got grander as the night grew older.  I distinctly remember him telling us a story that he swore to be true.  He said that if you took a raw egg and tried to toss it through an open doorway, it would not pass through.  It simply was impossible to toss a raw egg through an open door.  I have always felt this to be one of the most clever drunken barroom stories I have ever heard.  

A little while later, stumbling about on the wooden sidewalks, we almost got arrested.  Local police grabbed at us with intent to haul us off to the local calaboose.  We slipped away from them and raced down the darkened street, finally racing breathless into another dingy bar.  Looking at each other laughing, we felt it to be time for more beer.  So we sat down and drank some more.  By then it was way past midnight.  Finally we called it quits and headed about looking for a bus or taxi to take us back across the border and to the march.  After walking about a block I slapped my side where I normally held my camera and realized it was gone.  I had left it back in the bar.  So, in a panic, we raced back to retrieve it.

There we were again, three college kids drunk in a bar.   

When we got back and sat down, things didn’t look too good.  There we were again, three college kids drunk in a bar.  Unlike Marty Robbins who, in the song, was faced by a beautiful brown-skinned, raven-haired beauty from across the room who was giving him looks “that made his mouth water,” we were faced, from across the barroom table by a stolid and surly bar owner whose narrowed eyes and baleful stare told us that he didn’t like us at all. 

My two friends may have had the requisite brown skin and pencil mustaches, but they clearly weren’t Mexican, and I was clearly a “gringo,” a young pinche gringo, and all three of us were rich (relatively) college kids out for beer and probably a visit to the “red-light” district.  That may have been the main business in the town, and this bar owner made his living from it, but, like most Mexicans, he hated the way it worked.  It paid his bills, but it was all drunkeness, sex, immorality, and drunk gringos.  Every day it wore him down a little more.  He had to cater to gringos and college kids that had more money than he did, and who had no real interest in who he was or what Mexico really was.  

We explained that we had left a camera in his bar and came back for it.  Quietly and calmly he looked at us, looked around at his employees, the patrons in the bar, and shook his head.  “No, none of them had seen an expensive camera left lying around in his bar.”  

My Spanish was quite good by that time, but I was not an orator.  My friend Mario was.  He began to talk.  First he explained that we weren’t like most of the young people who slid across the border for a good time.  The town’s “main business” wasn’t what we were there for.  We were on a mission, a mission that the bar owner could relate to.  He explained about the Los Rinches and their relentless abuse of Mexicans living in Texas.  He extolled our idealism.  The march was to begin tomorrow, and we had come from several hundred miles away, all excited, and were ready to jump into it. 

He spoke with pride of the history of Mexico.

He was quite amazing.  (Later he told me that he had decided that he wasn’t going to leave until we had the camera back.)  He went on and on.  He spoke with pride of the history of Mexico, how the gringos had stolen Texas and the entire Southwest from them.  He praised Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Alvaro Obregon.  He piled vitriolic calumny onto the head of U.S. general Blackjack Pershing.  He even slipped in unctuous words for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  He explained his childhood dilemma.  How he had been confused, half-Mexican, half-white guy.  He wasn’t sure what he was, but he knew that his roots were powerfully embedded deep into the tierra Mexicana.  

After about an hour of oratory, the bar owner motioned with his head to the bartender, who came from behind the bar with my camera and carefully placed it in the middle of the large barroom table.  It sat there mute and gleaming resplendently in the smoky haze from the single overhead light.  So near yet still so far away.  We all knew better than to reach for it. 

My friend leaned forward again.   He opened his mouth, and words again began to flow.  And they were beautiful again, they were magnificent words, words that could make you weep.  And, mind you, he had no prepared script, no notes, no powerpoint display on the wall.  He spoke from the heart and the words flowed like honey-sweetened water.  And the bar owner listened.  His heart began to open.  He listened some more.  At about five in the morning he finally reached for the camera and pushed it across the table to me.  It was mine again.  The room grew quiet.  The tension slipped quietly back into the smoky shadows of the room.  My friend sat back in his chair.  There was nothing more to say.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his car keys.

Of course we thanked him.  He thanked us for coming and wished us well.  We then asked if he knew how we could get back across the border.  It was way too late for any buses or taxis.  Without a word, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his car keys.  He owned a car.  An old ragged car, but a car nonetheless, and one that ran.  He didn’t have much money.  Far less than we did, but he wasn’t destitute like many in the town.  After all, he did own a ratty bar. 

So he gave us his car keys and told us to get back across the border in it and leave it at a place he designated.  I’m sure it was quite a precious car to him, yet he gave it to three earnest young men he had never seen before, so we could go back and march in a parade about getting some way overdue justice for those in the world who didn’t have much.  It was quite a gesture. 

 As we stood up to leave, he motioned us to sit down again.  He reached into his wallet and pulled out three one peso notes.  One peso bills aren’t very common.  Usually pesos are found simply as coins.  He knew the value was about a dime each, but he wanted us to have a memento of our evening together, our evening of fine oratory, our evening of finding common ground between humans who loved and respected each other.  He took out a ball-point pen and signed his name on each of the three bills:  Hervy Lira, March 30, 1969.  Then gave one to each of us.  Hervy Lira, not a very common name in Mexico.  Somewhere in his background there had been some European ancestry that was not from Spain.

I have carried the bill in my wallet for about 60 years.  It is there as I write this.  People are like that in Mexico.  It’s all from the heart.  When hearts touch, what needs to happen, happens.  It was beautiful.  I’ll never forget it.

Without a wink of sleep, in Hervy Lira’s precious car, we crossed eastward over the International bridge with the sun rising in our faces.  A few hours later, the march began.  And we marched!  We marched for Justice, for goodness, and again and again we stridently proclaimed, “Abajo con los Rinches!”  “Viva la Raza!“Viva la Causa”La Raza Unida!”  I scuttled back and forth along the long line fervently taking pictures.  I got a few suspicious looks as a gringo taking pictures in a Chicano march.  But, all and all, it was pretty grand.  When it was over, we drove several hours through the blackness of the night, all the way back to Austin.   We stopped in a dimly lit cafe in San Antonio for some tamales, then on to Austin — still with no sleep.  We were young then. There was a strong wind blowing and it filled us with powerful magic.  

[Cliff Wilkie grew up in the 1950s in the stultifying environs of a segregated and heavily Christianized Houston, Texas. Majored in geology at the University of Texas at Austin but got pulled away by the far more alluring zeitgeist of the “sixties.” He met his soulmate in a beach town in San Diego. They moved way back into the woods in West Virginia for 11 years. Had three beautiful girls. Later lived in Washington, DC, then Saudi Arabia for 11 years. Ohio for a while and now retired in Albuquerque for almost 20 years. Dogs and cats, grandkids, and a small garden in a quiet part of town. He authored a pretty good book about it all, Let’s Change the Story.]

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20 Responses to CLIFF WILKIE | MEMOIR | In a little cafe just the other side of the border

  1. Allen Young says:

    I was deeply moved by this remembrance of a political adventure with a happy ending. It’s one of the most positive and most moving narratives about the Sixties that I’ve read. It had both funny and scary moments! It would make a great basis for a movie script, as the images are so vivid. Thanks for writing and posting.

  2. M.J. Wilkie says:

    This is the kind of comment I like to read about history. It’s much more enlightening than what you read in the history books.

  3. Michael says:

    Very moving indeed! Many would have been so afraid, unaware, or attached to the camera as to have ignored the opportunity for the profound connection which arose from connecting across the cultural and economic tension to your mutual humanity. Well written!

  4. Kate Horsley says:

    This is a great piece of writing on several levels: rich details in a captivating story of deeply felt human connection for all the right (or left) reasons. I’m impressed with what you did and what and how you wrote about what you did.

  5. Martha Lewis says:

    One of most impressive stories I’ve read about the events of the times.
    Feeling each person’s feelings made it most memorable and personal.

  6. Heather says:

    There is a delicacy to the storytelling related to this particular Chicano March as a gringo. The author does a good job of balancing on that tightrope and I appreciate we clearly we have no white savior here. In fact the photo wouldn’t exist if his eloquent Chicano friend hadn’t saved him. I do wonder what became of this incredible friend.

  7. Paul Spencer says:

    Great story. Thanks.

  8. Joshua Orr says:

    That’s a great story Cliff. I really love how you describe your orator friend. I wonder what he is up to those days. I hope to hear more of such things!

  9. Janet says:

    What a story! It gives the reader much to ponder. Thank you for sharing your experience and teaching me a thing or two about history and about people. I love how you have kept the peso bill in your wallet all these years.

  10. Phillip Sigmund says:

    Spent many of a memory there in the sixties on trips from Austin. Mostly good- still pleasant memories. Your stories are an accurate depiction of the time. Terrible jail there!

  11. Peter Sheal says:

    I enjoyed reading this Cliff – very clearly evokes a particular place and an idealistic phase in your life.

  12. Cliff Wilkie says:

    Addendum: Firstly, thanks for all the comments. And secondly, I would like to explain the special significance to me of the photo I took that headlines the article. Hervey Lira, the bar owner, finally gave me back my camera so that I might use it to take photographs that expressed something of the notions that came out in the almost five hours of oratory. In other words, we could have marched without my camera. He only returned it to me in hopes that I would use it as part of my voice of expression. Indeed, I took many photos during the march; however, the one at the beginning of this article pretty much encapsulates all the others. Yet, none of my photos, or words, have been published until now. So, this article finally brings the “night of fine oratory” to full circle. The summary picture I took is finally out there after gathering dust since 1969. So, thank you Hervey Lira, and thank you Thorne Dreyer for printing the photo along with the words.

  13. Randy Rutkowski says:

    Howdy! Love the memoir of your college days and the discerption of the border towns back in the 60s and 70s. Beautifully written from the perspective of the observer yet participant in the march against the Rangers and their treatment of anyone they did not see as fit to be where they were.
    Thank you!
    I noticed you spent 11 years in West Virginia and am wondering where that was? I am a native of PA and WVa my roots are there.

    • Cliff Wilkie says:

      Thanks so much for your comments.

      With wife & family, we lived way up the holler in Braxton, County, in the middle of the State.

      • Randy Rutkowski says:

        Cliff, a beautiful area! We spent parts of our lives on Hill Top, just outside of Oak Hill and Fayetteville W.Va. Thank you.

  14. I love this story. It’s an amazing slice of history, of youth and idealism,. hope and connection in the face of oppression – and you told it so well. Keep writing.

  15. Dear Cliff,

    Thanks for sharing this with me. (I do remember Mollie fondly). I too am a child of the 60s. This little piece of history brought a smile. So true! Drunk on beer and excitement at the change we fervently believed was coming if only we kept up our work, our organizing, our passion. Looking at our world today, I wonder.

    And as a photographer on the streets of Chicago in the 60s, I recognized your passion in the photo here. Thank you again.

  16. Cliff Wilkie says:

    Can’t thank you enough for your comments!

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