Other than Uncle Sam, there’s no more identifiable symbol of America than the cowboy. Novelists and screenwriters have mined cowboy lore for more than a century, portraying wranglers as independent, don’t-fence-me-in types.
That romantic image is engrained in American culture. Every Hollywood generation revives what the trade publication Variety calls the “oater,” the horse and cowboy shoot-’em-up. Even anti-American propaganda employs the image, often portraying Americans as reckless, trigger-happy buckaroos.
The cowboy is as American as ... Mexico.
The job description, style, and even the word cowboy are rooted in Mexican culture. There were few American cowboys before settlers pushing south and west made contact with vaqueros (from “vaca” or cow) in the region Mexicans called “el Norte.”
So far removed were vaqueros from the seat of Spanish colonial power in Mexico City that they attracted independent, don’t-fence-me-in types. The British artist James Walker’s painting “Roping Wild Horses” shows mustachioed vaqueros in 19th-century California wearing wide-brimmed hats and dapper vests while twirling lassoes.
The Spanish vacquero became the English buckaroo, The sombrero became the Stetson. Chilies, barbacoa, and hundreds of other foods that put a smile on millions of faces every day emerged from the northern Mexican frontier, enlivening the dreary diet of coffee, cornbread, and bacon that was the staple of the southern American frontier.
Anglo and Hispanic cultures have profoundly influenced each other far beyond their 2,000-mile-long border. On both sides, a great cultural fusion has been taking place. From conjunto music to business deals, tourism to sports enthusiasms, the fusion is mostly happy and productive. Sometimes it is not.
Drug trafficking and the violence that accompanies it are a growing menace. Illegal entry from Mexico into the US periodically becomes an explosive issue, especially at times of economic hardship such as now. (See Bill Glauber’s report on ground zero in the immigration wars: Arizona.)
Managing the border is of vital importance to both the US and Mexico. The two economies are mutually dependent. The US needs Mexican labor. Mexicans need US jobs. The US needs Mexican energy and agriculture. Mexico needs US investment and factories. The two cultures have had a long and productive marriage, with occasional calls for divorce. The relationship’s advantage and disadvantage is that porous border, the busiest in the world with 250 million crossings a year.
I was recently contacted by a third-generation Texan who told me about his grandparents. As teenagers, they swam the Rio Grande to enter the state in the 1920s. At the time, he said, “their culture considered it disgraceful to accept charity from strangers or governments.” They were motivated by the very best impulse Americans have always had — self-reliance -- just as thousands of Mexican migrants are.
Over the years, the family became established in a south Texas ranching community and intermarried with native Texans. Now, because of growing concerns over safety in the border region, members of the family support tougher immigration laws.
“We should welcome immigrants,” the grandson of illegal immigrants told me, “but let’s do it through the legal channels already in place.”
Opinion polls indicate that is the growing consensus north of the border. Tightening immigration will be difficult to pull off without being unfair. Earlier arrivals beat out later ones. But the descendents of independent, don’t-fence-me-in types are saying they want better fences.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.