Riding the Line

  • A bookie runs back and forth from the United States toMexico, taking bets before the race

    Suchat Pederson

Ruben Rivera leans his elbow on the side of a pickup truck. His wife and brother-in-law stand in the truck bed to get a better view of the race. Rivera's horse, Misterio - "Mystery" he explains, rather unnecessarily - is running in the third race. "But on the other side."

We are officially in Mexico but only a few dozen yards from the U.S.-Mexico border. The border fence has been removed and replaced with plastic pipe along the 500-meter racecourse for the Cinco de Mayo International Border Horse Race. In each of the day's six match races, one horse will race in Agua Prieta, Sonora and the other will run on the U.S. side, on turf that belongs to the city of Douglas, Ariz. This may be the only race in the world that takes place in two countries simultaneously.

I ask Rivera why he's watching from Mexico, since his horse is competing on the U.S. side of the border. Rivera explains that while he lives in Altar, in the state of Sonora, Misterio is stabled on the outskirts of Tucson. Each Friday, Rivera crosses the border and drives two hours north to watch Misterio race.

Today, he tells me, he's staying in Mexico because his brother-in-law - the one who's standing in the pickup's bed - doesn't have a passport and he wants to keep him company.

Confused yet? Welcome to life on the U.S.-Mexico border. About 10,000 people have shown up for this year's Cinco de Mayo race. Like the horses, many of these people live their lives in two countries. The countries, the United States and Mexico, have only become more intertwined over time, yet are still separated by far more than a fence. What is surprising are the places they share common ground, like a hot, dusty racetrack or in the numbers scrawled on the pages of a bookie's cartera.

"We consider ourselves one community," says Ray Borane, the mayor of Douglas, who helped revive the race last year for the city's centennial. "It emphasizes the relationship we have with the sister city. We take the fence down and have a good time."

This year's Cinco de Mayo horse race represents border life as much as do the more than 160,000 illegal immigrants apprehended in the vicinity of Douglas last year, or the drug running that has become the linchpin of the region's economy. The race is actually a recreation of a famous race that took place in 1958 between the champion racehorses of Agua Prieta and Douglas. Relampago, whose name means lightning, was owned by Rafael Romero, the proprietor of the Copacabana nightclub in Agua Prieta. The previous year, Relampago had beaten a horse named El Moro to become the champion of Sonora. Chiltepin, named after the wild ancestor of the domesticated chile pepper, was owned by the Pinero family of the tiny town of Pirtleville, outside Douglas, and was a champion on the U.S. side.

"The challenge was made to my father by the Pinero family," recalls Rafael Romero's son, also named Rafael, who was attending this year's race. Such a challenge could not be refused. But regulations designed to control hoof and mouth disease made it difficult to bring horses across the international line. So the owners agreed to run a race on the international line itself.

Relampago won, cementing his place in racing history. When Relampago died years later, his head was cut off, stuffed and mounted by a taxidermist.

A corrido, or popular song, about Relampago and El Moro, inspired a popular Mexican film. Corridos, narrative songs about real events, were most common in northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States before World War II. They are still written, though their protagonists are likely to be drug outlaws, narcotrafficantes. At this year's Cinco de Mayo celebration, El Moro de Cumpas booms over loudspeakers.

Carlos de la Torre, a Douglas official, estimates the crowd on the U.S. side at 4,000. Between 5,000 and 7,000 people have shown up on the Mexican side of la linea, de la Torre says. Among the attendees are Border Patrol agents, U.S. Customs agents, Douglas police officers, and, on the Mexican side, well-armed federales. People who attended the race last year say the number of law enforcement officials - both in and out of uniform - increased exponentially this year as a result of the terrorism attack on the World Trade Center.

The increased police presence on the border has made itself felt on ordinary days, as well. Marijuana confiscations by U.S. Customs are up 64 percent. Tougher policing by the Border Patrol is credited with a drop in illegal immigration of 38 percent. But with Mexico's economy mirroring the downturn of the U.S. economy, many expect the number of migrants to well up again over the next year. There will be more Border Patrol agents, too, thanks to yet another increase in funding for border security.

With all these uniforms, it's not surprising that the only drug in evidence at the race is Tecate beer, manufactured in a border town to the west. Federal agents spend the day watching the races and occasionally warning off Mexican bookies plying their trade a bit too energetically on the U.S. side of the border. Gambling on horse races is legal in Mexico, where the tradition of horseracing and horsemanship is alive and well. Across the border, on the U.S. side, the culture of money is alive and well. It's not necessary to declare cash under $10,000 when crossing the border. So half-time exercises consist not only of a vaquero riding around on his remarkably trained dancing horse, but also of men and women rushing back and forth across the track from the U.S. to Mexico brandishing wads of cash and scribbling bets into spiral notebooks.

The high point of the day is not a race but a runaway. Before the fourth match, the Mexican entry, El Herrante, which means the Horseshoer, suddenly appears on the track. A shout rises from the crowd, then several. El Herrante is roaring down the field. He doesn't have a rider. He doesn't have a saddle. He is running full out on the track and when he reaches the posts that mark the finish line, he doesn't stop. The big chestnut horse just keeps running until he disappears into the folds of blue mountains.

Later, everyone will ask: "Did he cross the border?"

El Herrante's bid for freedom blew him out, and he lost the fourth race.

As the hot, dusty day wears on, the audience on the U.S. side of the border thins. The crowd on the Mexican side gets rowdier, the litter on the ground more dense. Vaqueros arrive on horseback, and women laugh loudly while musicians play handcrafted guitars and run gloved hands over the black buttons of their accordions.

Mounted vaqueros stand their horses in a semi-circle near a line of parked cars and trucks. Women dance in front of them, and soon men from the crowd join in, forming an impromptu dance floor.

From astride their horses, the vaqueros impassively watch the dancing couples. When one is asked why he was sitting on horseback instead of dancing with the women, he answers simply: "La Tradicion."

Susan Zakin is an author, essayist, and columnist. She writes from Tucson, Arizona.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Susan Zakin

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