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Border town's story has more twists than Rio Grande

Web Posted: 06/20/2004 01:20 AM CDT

Mariano Castillo
Rio Grande Valley Bureau

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 forgotten.

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.

Forgotten once

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 U.S. taxpayers.

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 off.

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, pistols drawn.

"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 myth.

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 headiest days.

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 out.

"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 forgotten.

Accidental citizens

When Homero Cantú called from the correlón — the immigrant detention center — Laurier McDonald knew it would be a long fight.

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 before.

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.

"What happened?"

"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 Mexican governments.

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 birthplace.

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 through houses.

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.

Forgotten again?

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 miles away.

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."


mcastillo@express-news.net





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