April 3, 2013 | Crystal City, Texas
RAIN. BLESSED RAIN. It fell last night, by the bucketload. It started right after I got back from parking my car under a carport at the nearby sheriff’s office. My nephew is a deputy and he called to suggest I drive my car there because hail was expected. It did hail, for about five minutes, but it was only small pellets that didn’t appear to cause too much damage.
That was the third evening we’d been expecting rain, the third evening we’d watched the TV weather segments and the third day we’d been glued to the weather satellite apps on our smart phones. Sunday night, we got about 15 minutes of a nice heavy rain. It was only a manga (sleeve) of the main storm clouds that went north and south of us. Still, 15 minutes of rain is 15 minutes of rain, and nobody complained. On Monday night, we went to bed certain that the line of rain clouds west of us would come straight our way, yet somehow they found a way to avoid us. All we got was an opportunity to view the distant clouds glowing with lightening.
Last night, we were more cautious in our expectations. Yet there it was, a line of heavy thunderstorms stretching from north of Del Rio to southwest of Eagle Pass, and there was no doubt that it was heading southeast, with the southernmost portion aiming at us. And it did come, and so we stood for a while out on the porch, watching in fear as the hail came, then allowing fear to give way to silent thanks when the hail went away. Then it was gone, the rain, slipping away as quickly as it came in, but much quieter, and all across this town of 8,000 or so, people were falling asleep grateful.
RAIN IS A topic in this town, as it is in most towns in this state, and much of the country’s midsection. More accurately, it’s the lack of rain — the severe drought — that is Topic No. 1 around here. When I’m away from here and I call one of my sisters to chat, inevitably the question comes from my end, “Y no les a llovido?” The answer is usually no. I know that it will be no, but I still ask. It’s part of the ritual of a call home, coming after “y como estan todos?” I would ask my mother those questions when she was alive and now I ask my sisters. With my San Antonio brother I don’t have to ask. He’s a weather freak so he volunteers the rain/draught situation without my having to inquire.
Living in Houston makes it a bit awkward for me, given that even in the driest of summers, Houston gets at least a bit of rain most weeks. It may be my imagination but I sense a bit of resentment or bitterness when my siblings ask about rain and I have to tell them the truth that yes, we’ve had some.
Rural communities like this are much more aware of weather conditions, particularly precipitation, because they have so much more at stake, given that their economies are so closely tied to agriculture. A lack of rain – or too much rain – or an extra-harsh winter with one or two killer freezes can make a town’s year a successful one or a disastrous one. It can determine whether families will be able to buy food and other necessary things or will be forced to rely on the kindness of strangers. When I was growing up there was no such thing as welfare payments, and food stamps had not yet been revived after they were discontinued following World War II. There was, however, if conditions were bad enough, something called commodity foods: lard, peanut butter, canned meat, flour and other surplus government food in plain packages that we could get for a while.
I REMEMBER A couple of years when the weather had been so cold that the spinach crop, which is normally harvested from late November to early January, all froze, meaning that the cannery where my mother worked was shuttered for the season, leaving us to rely on commodity food and credit extended by Tío Juan, who ran a small grocery store, López Fruit Stand, in town. One winter was particularly harsh and my mother made it clear to my two youngest sisters and me, the only ones remaining at home, that we had to join her out in the fields during the two weeks of Christmas vacation. I forget exactly what we were doing, but it was in the spinach fields (some of the younger spinach crop had survived). The entire two weeks were bitterly, bitterly cold, and it would seem even colder because we rode out to the fields on the back of a truck owned by the contractor, a neighbor named Pedro Ávila (my mother, because of her age and sex, got to ride in the cab with Pedro. As much as we huddled close to each other, the piercing cold wind made the trips out and back home painful. And once we got to the field, it was still too cold; the frost on the spinach leaves had not yet thawed, and that made them too brittle to handle, so we were forced to wait until it warmed up. Pedro or somebody would light a fire, which would provide some warmth, but it was never enough. There were days when the temperature never rose high enough to allow us to work, so we’d pile back on the truck to make the frozen trek back home. Dora, Carmen and I always were grateful for those days – and for the end of our vacations – but that gratitude came with more than a bit of guilt because we knew that each day we didn’t work meant there’d be that much less money for groceries or to pay the utility bills or other household expenses, which meant one more day of “preocupación” for a mother whose life was already filled with worries.
(Those days out in the fields on weekends and during school breaks were part of the reason I resolved early on in my life that I would finish school and go on to college. I harbored no grand ambitions of being a writer or a doctor or an artist, but I knew one thing: I was not going to be a farmworker the rest of my life.)
I think Carmen, Dora and I were the only young people on that work crew during those two weeks. All the other people were middle-aged or older. There was this one particular really old man — I forgot what his name was – who reminded me a lot of my grandfather Alejandro: tall and erect, dark-skinned with white hair and a white moustache. And mostly silent. One big difference was that he had a huge old-man nose, so large that as he stood in the truck the wind would cause it to move — to swing and sway, like a fleshy banner. As cold as we were, we always managed to be amused by that monstrous nose’s wind-induced movements. I don’t know if he ever realized he provided so much entertainment.
Another regular was Fermín, also a neighbor. A quiet man who looked and walked like a Mexican Alfred Hitchcock, Fermín hardly ever said anything, and when he did, he did so without cracking a smile or showing any other emotional expression. One time, in the middle of a conversation during which somebody mentioned the Virgin of Guadalupe, he matter-of-factly interjected, “La Virgen de Guadalupe es mi tía,” without a hint of irony, as if he were merely claiming kinship with a neighbor.
BUT THIS POST started out to be about rain and not about Mexican Hitchcocks or noses that swayed with the wind. Rain, yes, that life-sustaining force of nature. Crystal City is lucky in that it sits atop a great aquifer that runs from Mexico up through Oklahoma and maybe even further north. Even in the worst of droughts, the wells around here do not run dry, as do the ones on the Edwards Aquifer, to our north. Water has always been central to the life of the communities in this area. The town itself was named after the “crystal-clear” water that gushed from the first white settlers’ wells. The next town is called Carrizo Springs. Another nearby town is called Big Wells. They are in what is called The Winter Garden of Texas, because of the crops that thrive during the winter months – spinach, green beans, bell peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and others, all of which require irrigation.
Over the last few years, oil and natural gas have replaced crops as the main industry as the Eagle Ford shale play has become ground zero for hydraulic fracturing, which uses an enormous amount of water. Although some efforts have been made to use recycled or saline water for shale energy development, fresh water will continue to be used, and what that will mean for these towns and the region is anyone’s guess, but it is unlikely to be good.
Droughts are lasting longer and they are becoming more severe, and the rivers and creek beds are remaining dry for longer periods of time, even if the wells continue to produce the precious water. How long that will be the case is unclear, but the shale oil and gas activity cannot possibly help.
ANOTHER MEMORY: one year when I was a kid, we had a particularly severe drought. It was what everyone talked about. The priest held special masses and rosaries and processions to pray for rain but the clouds remain unmoved. One day my cousin Rosario decided that she had to do something, so she gathered all the neighborhood kids (most of whom were related) and organized an anti-drought posse, with processions and prayer services, bon fires and rain dances. One day we all even climbed up onto the roof of her grandmother’s house (closer to God), where she placed a picture of a saint or the Virgin under an eave, and we all knelt and prayed solemnly for rain.
I don’t remember if Rosario’s efforts proved successful, but she – and we – felt that we had to do something, and we believed we were doing our part, as small and insignificant as that part was.
That’s what rain – and no rain — does to people. The lack of it drains the life out of communities, literally and figuratively. It forces people to do strange things in the hope of coaxing that rain out of the sky. On a larger scale, it causes nations to wage war against neighboring states. Rain – el agua, la lluvia — pours that life back into a community, and it restores sanity. For a while, at least.