An elegy for a cousin along the Rio Grande
I didn’t plan to write about my cousin.
I wanted to write about the history, culture, people, and places I saw while driving the entire Texas-Mexico border, as close to the Rio Grande as I could get. I’d been wanting to take that drive for the last few years, right around the time I felt my life starting to change. I figured if I could somehow understand these places that are culturally similar to where I’m from in El Paso, I’d understand myself better. Like I’d taste some food, hear an instrument, or read about a folk hero—all shaped by the Rio Grande—and discover something that’d help me make sense of the shifts in my own life. How I’d gone from working construction for a decade to making my living as a writer.
I drove a rented Jeep Compass and started at the International Boundary Monument No. 1 in El Paso, a 167-year-old, 12-foot-tall obelisk near the invisible lines separating Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico. It’s the first of 276 obelisks between the western edge of Texas and the Pacific Ocean. Located on isolated areas atop mountains, as well as in the middle of cities, these monuments help mark the United States-Mexico border. To the east, since the Rio Grande naturally serves as the dividing line between the two countries, no such monuments are necessary.
I left on a Wednesday in early October, hours before the sunrise painted the desert a light orange. Toward the beginning of the trip, on US 90 in Marfa, I stopped to look at murals depicting Giant, the 1956 movie about a Texas cattle rancher. Country music powered by solar panels emanated from nearby speakers disguised as rocks. On US 67 around Shafter, on the Cuesta del Burro range of the Chinati Mountains, I stared at a formation shaped like Abraham Lincoln’s face staring at the heavens. Near the end of the trip, in downtown Mission, I stopped at the mural dedicated to Tom Landry, the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach who was born and raised there. And on Boca Chica Beach, at the end of my trip, I saw the rockets Elon Musk moved to Texas to shoot off.
It took five days to traverse almost 2,000 miles. The round trip from El Paso past Brownsville and back, from desert to water to desert, took almost 40 hours. I kept changing highways to stay close to the border. Throughout it all, because it’s what I sometimes do during long stretches of silence, I thought about my cousin. About how, in the late 1990s and early 2000s we’d often drive back home to El Paso from Phoenix, Arizona, a six-hour trip that felt like nothing compared to this one. Since we always left after a day of working construction, we’d sit in the dark for part of the drive. My Chevy S-10 pickup’s dashboard lights shining a faint glow on our faces.
Sometimes we’d sit in silence. Other times, we’d talk about what we wanted to do with our lives.
A week before Thanksgiving 2020, my cousin died at 49 years old. A few days before then, he was admitted to the hospital for COVID-19. “You guys were once close,” my wife said after my mother called to tell me of his hospitalization in El Paso. “You should call him.” My mother said the same.
My cousin was once like my older brother. Together, in June 1998, we left El Paso for Phoenix, where we lived and worked together for a few years. I was 17. He was 26. I had just graduated from high school and knew nothing. I had nothing. The first weeks living on our own, we slept on the floor, next to each other, sharing a comforter.
We never had a falling out. No big fight, no tragic reason for seeing less of each other. After more than a decade of living together in Phoenix, we moved apart from one other, and we both got married. I became a father. That’s enough to alter life.
We went from spending every day together working for the same construction company to only seeing each other on a handful of holidays each year. On those rare days, we’d talk and laugh about things from long ago, like how on Friday afternoons—since we didn’t know how to manage our money—we’d give a payday loan shop a percentage to cash our checks. Then, sometimes with salt rings on our shirts down to our chests from sweating on the job, we ate like kings at restaurants where patrons wondered what we were doing there. On Sunday nights, we braced ourselves for another week of eating like paupers. Unless we found copper on a construction site. Whatever money the recycling center gave us for it helped us make it to Friday.
We enjoyed reminiscing. My cousin was then working at an El Paso psychiatric center—where he’d tried to get me a job—and always asked what I was doing whenever we saw each other. Just working, I’d tell him, without offering specifics. I felt embarrassed, or maybe even afraid, to tell him I was trying to write for a living. Writing was something I started doing while we lived together. Back then, while scribbling thoughts on a pocket notepad during the middle of the workday, I never imagined I’d get paid to do this.
There’s something peaceful about driving during the hours before the sun rises over Texas.
During those holiday talks, I’d always think, I should call him more often. For a variety of reasons—none of which seem good enough now—I never did.
I took my wife and mother’s advice and called him at the hospital. It went straight to voicemail. “Humberto, es Tohuí. Nada mas quería ver como seguías,” I said. Just wanted to see how you were. He always called me Tohuí—after a panda born in 1981 at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City—and because he did, everyone else called me that. And because everyone called me that, while living in Phoenix, I got the nickname tattooed on my inner left forearm.
I called the next day. Straight to voicemail again. Because I’d just say the same thing, I didn’t leave a message. I figured he’d be fine. That just like every other family member of mine who contracted COVID-19, except for an uncle, he’d recover. I was certain I’d see him again. And the next time I’d see him, we’d talk and laugh about things from long ago.
There’s something peaceful about driving during the hours before the sun rises over Texas. Whether it’s in the desert, about an hour east of El Paso before you reach the Border Patrol checkpoint; or outside Del Rio on the way to Quemado, where the nights are as dark as any I’ve seen. Drive Texas roads long enough, and they’ll alter your perception of time. Hearing someone from another part of the country complain that four hours is a long drive, I think, that’s only the amount of time it takes to go from El Paso to Presidio.
Growing up in El Paso, Presidio was the only other part of Texas I knew. For a few weeks in 2004, a couple of years after moving back from Phoenix, I lived in Presidio in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with eight other men. All of us were there to work on highway construction for an El Paso-based company.
The job was to replace old road signs with shiny new ones during the blazing hot summer months. With a 60-pound jackhammer that vibrated so intensely it left your hands and forearms aching, we’d break the old signs from the ground. A few feet from there, we’d dig a 30-inch hole, mix cement, then place a new sign that noted the speed limit or warned of upcoming curves. Sometimes, while working so dangerously close to moving cars that I could feel a gust of wind whenever they sped by, I wondered about the places people were driving to or from. Other times, I’d get startled by the sounds of asphalt tearing through tires as drivers tried to brake hard. I despised that job. Still, at times, I miss those days, and I’m not sure why.
I’ll see workers on the side of the road, doing the same job, and feel both relief and guilt. Relieved I’m no longer doing that. Guilty because it sometimes feels like a fluke that my goals and dreams have begun to come true. I swear it was just yesterday that my cousin and I were trying to find our ways out of working construction. Trying to figure out how to pay rent and eat something during the week besides the cheapest brand of ramen noodles. Trying to stay hopeful that one day we’d look back at these days with humor.
I can feel my life changing. Privileged enough to make my living writing and use it as a form of therapy, and finally have enough time to drive the Texas-Mexico border. Enough time to think and remember. I remember when my cousin got a job that wasn’t in construction, with a company that paid well and offered benefits—we thought he’d made it.
We’d celebrated that night by eating at a restaurant in Phoenix that was too expensive for what we made.
I’ve taken the Rio Grande for granted: Texas’ birthmark had always been there, and I just didn’t notice. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that just because the El Paso section of the river often amounted to scattered puddles on a concrete border, it wasn’t the same everywhere else. That it becomes majestically picturesque around Big Bend where it slices through limestone canyons. That by the time you get to the Rio Grande Valley, the river curls and turns in what seems like every direction. Maybe because I crossed it so often—either in a car or by foot, to get to school or to visit family—I never understood the river had once inspired grand plans for navigation back when Richard King of King Ranch used it to transport goods via his steamboat. And that on the other side of Texas, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico, water flowed and inspired poems.
“All my pain and all my trouble / In your bosom let me hide,” folklorist Américo Paredes wrote in his poem The Rio Grande from his collection, Between Two Worlds. “Drain my soul of all its sorrow / As you drain the countryside.” One of Texas’ great writers, Paredes was 45 when he decided to publish his book of poetry even though he’d been writing it for 30 years. Perhaps he felt embarrassed, or maybe even afraid, to let people see the way his part of Texas inspired him. He was from Brownsville, not far from where my journey ended.
“No contestó,” I told my mother. He didn’t answer. “Le dejé un mensaje.” I left a message.
A week before Thanksgiving, my mother told me my cousin had been intubated. Despite the setback, we told each other that didn’t mean he wouldn’t recover. He’ll be all right, we said. A few hours later, my cousin died alone, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
My mother cried when she told me. Because she’d always been the calming voice, it felt surreal. A few months before, when my 56-year-old uncle died—also of COVID-19 according to his doctors in Juárez, also surrounded by unfamiliar faces—her untroubled tone said at least he was no longer suffering from battling his own demons. Her voice was serene then. But this time it was different.
Even when she wasn’t crying, she sounded somber. The way all our voices did. The way my aunt sounded when I called to tell her I was sorry. The way my cousins—his three brothers—all sounded when I called to tell them the same. The way I assume I sounded as I tried, but couldn’t say, how sorry I was we’d all grown apart. So far apart that, at the end, I had to make a few calls to get each of their numbers.
We buried my cousin in El Paso on the Thursday after Thanksgiving. As doves fly, his wake was about a mile from the Rio Grande. The same river we grew up crossing countless times from El Paso to Juárez and back. The same river I planned to write about but instead drove along while I thought about him.
I suppose that’s one of those curves not even a highway sign can warn you about. I never imagined I wouldn’t see him again. Just like, when I was 17 and knew nothing, I never realized relationships don’t have to be destroyed for them to fall apart. That it takes effort to keep families and traditions alive.
When my drive began, I’d imagined arriving at Boca Chica Beach and walking barefoot into the water. My cousin and I had once planned to visit San Diego and do the same. But when I got to Boca Chica Beach, all the construction, the semitrucks clogging the two-lane road, felt unnatural. The metallic rockets built by Musk’s SpaceX had ravaged the beach’s beauty. Even the name for the place, Starbase, seemed unreal. Not wanting the journey’s end to feel anticlimactic, I drove in the opposite direction to South Padre Island. There, I took my shoes off and walked into the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, where the Rio Grande disappears.
Humberto Rosales was among the 53 names listed in the obituaries of the El Paso Times on Dec. 1, 2020. That was my cousin. He was 49 years old. He had a loud, goofy laugh. We used to talk and laugh about things from long ago.