Border town's story has more twists than Rio Grande
Web Posted: 06/20/2004 01:20 AM CDT
RIO RICO, Mexico — In an area where two cultures overlap, where one's
nationality can turn on the twists of the Rio Grande — and of history —
this tiny spot on the map is a reminder amid today's immigration concerns
of how arbitrary borders can be.
Like other border towns, Rio Rico had a boom-and-bust economy.
Prohibition created it and filled it with American tourists. Full of
saloons and excess, it was a place where men settled disputes with
pistols, where gaudy women lured them into bordellos and where "eastern
capitalists" — supposedly with ties to Al Capone — built a dog track.
But at this particular spot, the big river's murky switchbacks concealed
a bit of geographic irony. For decades, Rio Rico actually was in the
United States — the only U.S. community south of the Rio Grande.
Nobody knew this until 1967, when a researcher found old maps showing
how a river bend was illegally straightened long before the town was
built, stranding more than 400 acres of U.S. land on the Mexican side.
That discovery resulted in a second boom, even more transitory and
opportunistic than the first, as thousands claimed to be born here in an
attempt to get U.S. citizenship.
But the raucous splendor that made Rio Rico a resort had faded years
earlier, and today it's a lonely place.
To hear Domingo Serrano Mejia tell it, this is a town perpetually
At 77, the retired builder spends his days slowly assembling chairs with
arthritis-stricken hands. He works out of a green kiosk that once was
Rio Rico's post office, but closed about 20 years ago "because no one
writes us anymore."
Squeezed against the Rio Grande by a new highway, the town has no
commerce and few jobs. It's losing families. A rundown church, a tidy
schoolhouse and no more than 80 homes remain.
In all the 25 years he has lived here, the town has been in sleepy
decline. But Serrano knows it wasn't always like this.
The whole mess could have been avoided for $200.
The American Rio Grande Land & Irrigation Co. created the confusion in
1906 and could have fixed it, said Laurier McDonald, an Edinburg lawyer.
In the 1970s, McDonald fought for and won U.S. citizenship for 250 Rio
Ricans and their family members — at the cost of millions of dollars to
At the turn of the 20th century, the Rio Grande's crooked course dipped
into Mexico south of Mercedes, forming a zucchini-shaped 419-acre area
known as the Horcón Tract.
The company owned land and an irrigation pump plant that drew water from
the river. Fearing a flood might cause the river to change course and
leave its pump high and dry, the company dug its own cutoff channel at a
more convenient spot.
The Horcón Tract was isolated across the river, and the company wrote it
Although there wasn't a town there yet, "there were probably a few
farmers in the area," said David Mycue, curator of archives and
collections at the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg.
The cutoff didn't go unnoticed, and the International Boundary
Commission filed a complaint against the company for violating an 1884
agreement with Mexico that only natural changes in the Rio Grande could
cede land from one nation to the other.
The firm was slapped with more than $10,000 in fines and ordered to pay
for concrete boundary markers to be placed along the river's old course
around the Horcón Tract, identifying it as American soil.
"All they had to do was appropriate $200 to put up markers and there
never would have been a Rio Rico case," McDonald said.
The company never did, and eventually the Horcón Tract was forgotten.
The first boom
It was the perfect spot for a bridge.
The river channel was narrow, the banks on both sides seemed sturdy and
the place was halfway between Brownsville and Hidalgo.
And it surely was the perfect time. A.Y. Baker of Edinburg and Joe Pate
of Hidalgo knew there was money to be made providing access to Mexico
during Prohibition. The pair already owned bridges in Hidalgo and Roma.
They chose the town of Thayer for their venture. They had never heard of
the Horcón Tract, which was on the other side.
According to Rio Grande Valley historians Marjorie Johnson and Fran
Isbell, the two-lane, 300-foot suspension bridge was completed in 1929.
A Mexican town already was being developed there. It was called Nueva
Mercedes, but it soon took the name of the dog track built there, the
Rio Rico Kennel Club.
Johnson and Isbell compiled an impressive archive of newspaper clippings
and interviews documenting a noisy boom town of cantinas, mariachi
bands, souvenir shops, prostitution and gambling.
According to Glenn Housely, another local historian, more than 8,000
people saw the opening of the new bridge.
A newspaper article described how "eight of the best dogs at the track
will carry the names of eight Valley cities — Mercedes, Harlingen,
McAllen, Edinburg, Mission, San Benito, Weslaco and Brownsville,"
paraded by eight young ladies from those cities.
Housely was raised by his grandfather, who took him to Rio Rico during
its peak, when he was 8 years old.
"Wherever he went, wherever he put his foot down, I put my foot in his
footprint," Housely said. "If he went into a saloon, I went into a
saloon. If he went to the card house, I went to the card house."
Rio Rico had the dusty streets and metal-roofed clapboard houses of many
a border town, he said, but the atmosphere was distinctive.
"It was just a party time going on all the time. You didn't see
families," said Housely, who recalls peering over a short wooden fence
to watch cockfights.
He remembers watching two men come out of a casino into the street,
"When they didn't hit each other, neither one fired a second time. They
just went away," he said.
Part of the town's violent reputation is written in stone at its
carefully preserved cemetery.
"Modesto Guajardo," one man's tombstone reads. "1900-1937."
"He was murdered in a gunfight in old Rio Rico," said Soledad Perales,
72, who arrived here at age 5 with her family from Linares.
Other men who met equally brutal deaths rest nearby.
But tales that can't be documented — even on tombstones — have fueled a
Al Capone's ghosts
A hint of what was driving investment here came in the Mercedes News'
top story of Nov. 22, 1929.
"Rio Rico will be a real pleasure resort of the highest type," it began,
quoting Tom Cooper, general manager of a Chicago syndicate that had
"purchased" the Mexican town.
"We are going to spare no expense in making Rio Rico a playground of
which the Valley may well be proud," Cooper told the paper.
Local tradition has it that one Chicagoan in particular, the gangster Al
Capone, was behind the syndicate and enjoyed the playground during its
There's no shortage of specifics — how a now-deceased Weslaco barber
received large tips from Capone to reward his silence, how the syndicate
smuggled narcotics in the blankets covering greyhounds after races, how
gangsters hired locals to carry illicit freight and serve as getaway
drivers for heists.
When Ray Limas purchased a two-story stucco house on Business 83 in
Weslaco for his medical supply business, he didn't know it had long been
rumored to be Capone's Valley hideout.
"It looked like a fortress, not like a house," he said.
Limas can point out the curious architectural touches: the large
fireplace that faces the road ("You can't shoot through it"), the
chest-high windows on the second floor ("to rest a machine gun"), the
sinks that were in every room ("lots of guests") and the basement
("Valley homes don't have basements").
Many dismiss the Capone connection, but even the most skeptical are
startled to descend the basement steps and see a 1,000-gallon cistern.
In this region, water is stored above ground, Limas said, surmising the
tank was "maybe used to make moonshine."
Capone and his cronies were regular visitors to the Valley in the late
1920s, Johnson and Isbell wrote. But despite the circumstantial evidence
and riveting tales, there's no proof he ever did.
"It's likely that a gangster lived here during the Prohibition," Mycue
said. "I think it would be highly unlikely (Capone) could be down here
because it's so isolated. Why would he come down here to have fun when
he was the kingpin up there?"
Some say the joke was on whoever was promoting Rio Rico and reaping the
profits — because part of the legend is that the town was on American
soil the whole time.
But much of Rio Rico was on Mexican territory at first, with its
southern edge reaching into the Horcón Tract.
The town's fortunes started to decline with Prohibition's repeal in
1933, then plummeted in 1941 when the river flooded and the banks washed
"When the Rio Grande rose and the bridge was swept away, they took us
out in boats," said Perales, who was 11 then and lived a block from the
Mexican Customs booth that was destroyed.
A ferry served as a link for a while afterward, as did a pontoon bridge,
but by the mid-1940s, the bridge owners had decided to rebuild the span
5 miles downstream at Progreso.
Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, though never as wild as Rio Rico, has a modest
but healthy tourist economy to this day.
After the flood, Mexican officials rebuilt Rio Rico slightly to the
south and away from the flood-prone river's banks, unknowingly pushing
most of it onto the Horcón Tract. And there, without tourists, it was
When Homero Cantú called from the correlón — the
immigrant detention center — Laurier McDonald knew it would be a long
In 1971, Cantú had wandered into his office to ask about opportunities
to live in the United States. At the mention that he was from Rio Rico,
McDonald's mind flashed back to an article he had read a few years
The immigration lawyer stunned Cantú.
"Well, you're an American citizen," McDonald had told him, and had typed
him up a letter that stated as much.
Now Cantú was on the phone, detained by the U.S. Border Patrol.
"Did you show them the letter?" McDonald asked.
"Yes," Cantú replied.
"They tore it up."
So began the legal battle of the so-called "forgotten Americans."
In 1967, Arizona State University geographer James Hill rediscovered the
story of the Horcón Tract, much to the surprise of both the U.S. and
Even more surprised were the townsfolk, who learned they actually lived
in Rio Rico, Texas — the only American town completely under the
jurisdiction of Mexico.
The State Department began procedures to formally cede the land to
Mexico. In the meantime, Cantú had a window of opportunity.
"The issue was relatively simple," McDonald said. "I contended this
person was an American citizen, a Texas resident, by the fact that he
was born on Texas soil. The fact that it was south of the Rio Grande
meant nothing as far as I was concerned."
An immigration judge in 1972 denied the claim, swayed by the U.S.
government's argument that he never was under U.S. jurisdiction and
therefore not a citizen — he never voted in elections, never paid its
taxes, served in its military or registered for the draft.
Eight years later, after a series of appeals, a panel of five
immigration judges reversed the decision, 3-2. If Cantú was born on U.S.
soil, he was a U.S. citizen.
The impact was huge, McDonald said. Tens of thousands of immigrants,
some from as far away as India, entered the United States claiming to
have been born in Rio Rico.
One Mexican official was known to sell fake birth certificates, which
weren't very realistic because they listed "Rio Rico, Texas" as a
Only those who could prove birth on the Horcón Tract had a chance, and
since the town had shifted locations, it was a complicated, painstaking
effort. Sometimes the line between the United States and Mexico ran
along city streets. Sometimes it cut through city blocks, sometimes
In all, McDonald estimates he helped 250 Rio Ricans, plus their
families, become Americans — about 1,000 new citizens total.
Virtually all of them left Rio Rico.
The wild days of Prohibition and the exodus of the 1970s are just
stories now. Most of Rio Rico's current residents came from across
Mexico and, as in other border towns, some simply are waiting for an
opportunity to cross to the other side.
The most noticeable recent change is a toll highway, completed in 1996,
that hugs the village.
Looking up from his furniture making, Serrano says he has heard rumors
that Rio Rico may be the location for a future international bridge,
capable of breathing life back into the town. He hopes that's true.
But officials say the village would be lucky to get a paved road.
"Where did you say Rio Rico is?" Matamoros Public Works Director
Francisco Contreras Hernandez asked when questioned about the rumors.
The town falls under that city's municipal authority, although it's
After consulting a map, he said there was a project to improve a road
from there to Nuevo Progreso, as long as Nuevo Progreso agrees to cover
part of the cost.
Something of Rio Rico's old spirit remains.
Perales, who's lived here since 1936 and never had the desire to leave,
has seen others go, but with passion and conviction exclaims, "Rio Rico
will be here forever!
"Time will not destroy this place."