McAllen, Mosquitoes, a Minyan, and Migratory Birds


I moved from Michigan to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in 2002.  From the start it was clear that my time there would be limited.  I stood out.  Pushing 30 without a husband or children, I was an absolute freak there.  I was the wrong kind of Latina, a Jew, and the holder of a master’s degree.  All of this rendered me un-dateable and well out of my element.  Throughout my 3½ years there, I advanced professionally much more than I anticipated, all the while growing ever more impatient with the Rio Grande Valley.  By the time I packed my cats into my Saturn and struck out for Brooklyn in 2005, I was ready to turn back on the Valley forever.

There are many reasons not to like the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  The first real bookstore didn’t open until 18 months after I moved there, and I had a dial-up internet connection that precluded me from ordering online.  This means I would volunteer to go to meetings in Austin (5 hours north) just so I could go to the Book People.  I discovered that my academic Spanish was considered elitist, so I had to re-learn the language of the RGV.  All of my colleagues had families and children, so nobody would hang out after work.  Even if they did hang out, there was only one coffee house there (until my third year, when Starbucks made it to the Valley).  A vampire cult tried to lure me into its clutches using the same tactics as evangelical Christian cults.  I discovered that one can smell cauliflower growing from miles away, and that it smells unpleasantly of cauliflower… only more so.  Farmers burned sugarcane field-by-field, leaving ashes in the air that became cement on my windshield every time it rained.  Most of the prominent Jewish families treat the synagogue as another country club, and did not want to let the unwashed masses (like me) in.  They were positively hostile to Mexican families reconnecting with the faith 400 years after their families suffered in the Inquisition.  The Olive Garden was considered the pinnacle of fine dining, and there was no Lebanese or Thai.  For that matter, there was precious little dining other than fast food, Tex-Mex, and Chinese buffets.  The only people my age who weren’t married with children spent their time in smoky bars, and my teetotaling soul didn’t like that sort of environment.  I spent my days trying to get grants by demonstrating the plague of dengue fever in the area, and then I’d freak out and bathe in deet every time I heard a buzzing mosquito.  My life inhabited a lonely trapezoid between my McAllen apartment, the movie theater, the synagogue, and work.

In retrospect, there were positive elements that buoyed me through the isolation.  The chief benefit was my work.  I wrote grants, presented at conferences, learned to build databases, figured out how strategic communication worked, built a coalition of previously-warring organizations, and did all sorts of things (including being chased by roaming dogs while out with lay health workers) that I could never do elsewhere.  I balanced work with my rapprochement to Judaism.  While the congregation’s leadership were full-on buttheads, they seldom went to shul.  That means I attended services and Torah study and discussion groups with the Rabbi and a brilliant group of people who I still count as my good friends.


When young professionals came through the Rio Grande Valley for their volunteer year or altruistic research endeavor, I got to know them and they made my life much more interesting.  One of them introduced me to the birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Suddenly, I saw the Green Jays with their iridescent bandanas and recognized the Kiskidee who greeted me in the morning with the Kaddish.  Really.  It would call from the branch, saying, “Yit.  Yit.  Yit gadal.”  I sometimes stopped next to the canal on the way to work to regard the Roseate Spoonbills and quieted my BBC World Service internet stream at dusk when I heard the Chachalacas come out and flounder in the bushes.  They never remembered how bad they were at flying, so they’d climb on the bushes and hurl themselves off to great comedic effect.  It never got old.

My work mates were also divine people.  With hearts of gold and a kindness foreign to my suburban upbringing, they taught me lessons about acceptance that I wouldn’t have learned elsewhere.  And then there were the overnight busses to Mexico City.  In just 10 hours, I could wake up in Querétaro, Morelia, or maybe even Puebla.  I would build up my comp time, add it to my vacations, and I could ramble around Mexico by myself for weeks at a time, delighting in the history and culture I felt lacking at home.

New York City was home the nanosecond I arrived.  It took me no time at all to acclimate to the trains, the walking, the schlepping of small amounts of groceries, and the frenetic pace of life.  Still, there’s a small part of me that remembers the Rio Grande Valley fondly.  I would never move back there, but I will always hold a bit of it in my heart.


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