Water remembers everything it travels over and through.
If you have been in water, part of you remains there still.
It is a memoir of an indissoluble relationship with the world.
But where is water now? Where is the world?1
Some say all of this launched about 4.5 billion years ago when Earth coalesced from particles, minerals and liquids2 radiating from a big event 9.3 billion years prior. Others say somewhere between thirty-five and twenty-eight million years ago a rift began forming in Earth’s stretching lithosphere opening conditions for water to gather. Yet, not until eight to six hundred-thousand years ago did the watershed form a connection to open ocean at what we now call the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence of human activity along the rio has been noted as early as five thousand years ago, while certainly peoples have lived along and across the rio for perhaps two or three times as long. Rio Bravo/Rio Grande is part of a deep time cycle preceding and facilitating biomes of plant and animal/human evolution.
In 2016, artist Zoe Leonard began an epic photographic work focusing on Rio Bravo/Rio Grande as it serves as a border between Mexico and the United States from Ciudad Juarez/El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. Approaching the project as “multifaceted leitmotif” Leonard articulates how “the shifting nature of a river—which floods periodically, changes course, and carves new channels—is as odds with the political task it is asked to perform.” The ambition to examine present complexities, existing in plain sight, permeates an effort that stems from the duration of its making, the density of pictures made (thousands), distances traversed, and situations encountered. A prologue, exhibited in the Carnegie International, 57th Edition, 20183 revealed that the “turbulent forces at work in Leonard’s photographs, however, are far more opaque, complex, and interbedded than anything we can see. Colored dun by earth and sediment, the Rio Grande sculpts a shifting terrain.”4 The culmination, approximately five-hundred photographs operating together as an art work, will be exhibited as Al Rio/To The River in 2021 at MUDAM: The Contemporary Art Museum of Luxembourg, before traveling to the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and on to venues in Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere. A two-volume publication will accompany the exhibition—edited by Tim Johnson, poet, writer, editor and project collaborator—to include the photographs and an assemblage of essays, conversations and material to activate the wide range of histories and relationships immersed within the rio.
Geology in Big Bend.
Within the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock is a transdisciplinary field program called Land Arts of the American West dedicated to expanding awareness of the intersection of human construction and the evolving nature of our planet. Using Land art, or Earth art, generatively as gestures emerging from ground and extending through complex social and ecological processes, the program examines gestures small and grand directing attention towards potsherds, trash, tracks, settlements, artworks, and military-industrial installations. Land Arts creates opportunities to work in relation to the complex forces that shape the American West by situating this work within a continuous tradition of land-based operations that is thousands of years old. As a semester long field program that usually camps for over fifty days while traveling nearly 9,700 kilometers (6,000 miles) over land throughout the American West, Land Arts hinges on the primacy of first-person experience and the realization that human/land relationships are rarely singular.
In the Spring of 2020, after the Land Arts admission of ten wonderfully diverse and qualified participants, we began asking: How does a field program adapt to a pandemic? Science fiction scenarios came to mind of bio-hazard-suited researchers, roaming the desert, examining the residue of humanity’s engagement with the natural world. Yet it was eminently clear such approaches would not adequately protect participants from covid-19 uncertainty, nor would they shield the vulnerable communities and lands—disadvantaged by systemic economic injustice and limited health infrastructure—that we routinely encounter. Rather than magnify the mounting risks of travel in this time, Land Arts 2020 needed to adapt. The opportunity for adaptation arrived through an invitation from Zoe Leonard and Tim Johnson to construct a meander map describing the ever-changing trajectories of the rio they were examining.
For a robust and expansive starting point for information about Native Peoples and Lands, see https://native-land.ca.
While vigorous debate and research continue, it is commonly understood that ancestral peoples inhabited the Americas as early as fifteen-thousand years ago. Evidence in the Lower Pecos region mark that activity between four and five-thousand years ago. Also along the Rio Meander Map upriver are the ancestral lands of the Tampachoa (Mansos), Tigua, Pescado, Sumas, Yoli (Concho), La Juntas, Chisos, Jumanos, Eastern Pueblos, and the Chiricahua Apache, Mescalero Apache, and Lipan Apache Nde Nations. Downriver the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, Alazapas, Rayados (Borrados), Somi Se’k (Sto’k Gna) (Carrizo/Comecrudo), and Tamaulipeco. The Numunuu (Comanche Nation) also crossed the rio at several points during their activities south into Mexico in the 1800s.5
Land Arts 2020 ADAPTATION conducted a transdisciplinary deep research, non-traveling, studio and seminar to construct the Rio Meander Map of the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande, as it marks the international border from Ciudad Juarez/El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, revealing the undulating and shifting course of the river over time. Inspired by meander maps produced by Harold Fisk and team in the 1930s and 1940s of The Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi,6 this map required extensive binational and multilingual research into the history of river geometry and mapping as a manifestation of dynamic ecosystems modified over time by wide ranges of human and nonhuman construction. To complete the rio meander map, participants and affiliated guests divided across primary working groups of RESEARCHERS, with subgroups for Spanish and English languages, and MAPPERS with subgroups for GeoSpatial Synthesis and Graphic Production. The groups facilitated independent research actions and collective production that was aggregated and managed through digital communication and file sharing. Weekly activity was logged through production posting and feedback cycles supported by common discussion sections. Guest sessions with project advisors also expanded the range of dialog and production.
Charles Bowden, Killing the Hidden Waters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 7.
Water is energy, and in arid lands it rearranges humans and human ways and human appetites around its flow. Groundwater is a nonrenewable source of such energy. These facts are the core of the impact when groundwater is developed in such places. Humans build their societies around consumption of fossil water long buried in the earth, and these societies, being based on a temporary resource, face the problem of being temporary themselves.7
The Rio Meander Map is a living map of a living river; a dynamic portrait of persistently shifting geographic, social, and political conditions.
The earliest childhood memories that I still hold with me are of water. The first was in the backyard of my childhood home. I had a fascination with it and would turn the faucet on just to watch it wiggle its way down the slope of the yard between the fruit trees and past the outhouse. Eventually, the neighbor downhill would complain and my grandmother would come out chasing after me. On this day however, she wasn’t angry. She had told me over the past year I’d be seeing my parents again soon and my day had finally come. At the time, my parents had already left for Texas. They were both migrant farmers and had been coming back and forth to Mexico since they were 14. They followed certain crops. Sometimes that took them to orange orchards in Florida, tobacco in the Carolinas and once my dad said he got a job planting pines along highway 10 through Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. They left my brother, my two sisters and I in the care of my grandmother while they figured things out here in the states. The intention was never to stay but we were poor and eventually had no choice. That day, she walked me around the neighborhood to say goodbye to my family. I bragged about coming to America and asked them what they wanted once I made it to the north and was swimming in dollars. The adults asked for guitars, a Harley Davidson, a new pick-up and the children asked for toys. I’d be leaving the next day.8
Ciudad Juarez / El Paso
2,028–1,897 kilómetros (1,260–1,179 miles) from and
1,160–1,076 metros (3,807–3,531 feet) above the Gulf of México
Average Rainfall: 24.7cm (9.71in)
Average Temperatures: 34.6C (94.2F) high, 18.1C (64.6F) mean, 1.1C (34F) low
Rio meander detail at Tornilla-Guadalupe International Bridge, Southeast of Ciudad Juarez/El Paso.
Currently, as the rio enters Ciudad Juarez/El Paso cutting between Las Sierras de los Mansos (Franklin Mountains) and Cerro Bola—the mountain pass that El Paso del Norte was named for in 1659—nearly all of its waters are diverted. First at the American Diversion Dam and then at a bend a few miles on at the International Diversion Dam. The water, allocated by 1906 treaty, flows from the former into the American Canal and from the later into Acequia Madre where it feeds an elaborate mirrored yet unequal network of canals, ditches and drains that support the agricultural valley running for nearly 140 kilometers (90 miles). To combat irregular flows, silting and flooding, caused by upriver dams, another treaty in 1933 laid the legal framework for a massive rectification project—straightening, shortening, and channelizing the rio throughout the length of this valley. Since 1938 the rio channel has remained mostly an infrequent hydrological ghost within a nearly six-hundred-foot-wide floodway containing parallel levees and the international border running down the center. Within the urban heart of the twinned cities the central channel is lined with concrete. For the majority of its distance, it is a colossal homogenized earthwork. Walking or traveling across any of the international bridges reveal the barren void reinforcing incomplete or defective notions about the dryness of the region. While it certainly is arid, annually receiving less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation, more resonate soundings come from the expansive system of channels that enable an irrigated green patchwork to run from the populated zone below Loma Blanca/San Elizario down to Fort Quitman and Banderas. The portrait of the rio here is complex, interwoven and co-evolved within an irrigated belt crafted by geology, hydrography, agriculture.
Soon after word spread publicly of the Land Arts 2020 ADAPTATION, interest participating or connecting to the project quickly materialized. The opportunity struck a chord with people across a wide disciplinary and geographic swath, radiating throughout Texas, from Lubbock to the border, then eastward through New York to Seville, Warsaw and Stockholm, westward through Utah and California to Hanno, Japan, and southward to Peru and Chile, spanning an eighteen-hour time zone differential. In total nearly fifty people were involved. Contributing participants consisted of twenty-three enrolled undergraduate and graduate students and independent scholars, which were supported by a core group of primary production voices, contributing advisors, and distant witness observers. The commitment and diversity of the group was humbling and vital for the construction of a collective portrait of this living and dynamic line.
When we enter the landscape to learn something, we are obligated, I think, to pay attention rather than constantly to pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language.9
Rio Meander Map tells time. Embedded within layered folds and jump cuts of deposition and erosion, time is marked within gestures piling up and scraping away. Such a map considers more than immediate surface conditions and seeks to reveal interbedded geologic structures—the grain of Earth—the rio traverses or carves through. Time signatures extend from gunshot10 immediacy to Precambrian11 rock matrices. From persistent present to perhaps half Earth’s age. The concentration of temporal diversity is greater in higher elevations near El Paso del Norte evidenced in a geologic record that spans from present through the Cenozoic, Mesozoic, Paleozoic to Precambrian Eras. Moving downriver to La Juntas de los Rios the record dissipates at the Devonian period just over four-hundred-million years ago. At Maderas del Carmen in Big Bend the limit is within the Early Cretaceous period one-hundred-forty-five-million years ago. La Presa Amistad marking the edge of canyon country holds steady with that zone, while La Presa Falcon marks a drop in elevation and topography dating only to the Eocene epoch of fifty-six-million years ago. The delta through Matamoros/Brownsville to Boca Chica are made up of sediments from the Holocene epoch, twelve-thousand-years ago to the present Anthropocene where rock records are interwoven with human impact.
The question of the Anthropocene, the aggregation of the geologic record with persistent human activity, is more than scientific tussle.12 For architects it is a stark indicator our work is never autonomous. It is always situated. Within streams of material, economic, and social flows. Into expansive networks of resource feeds and waste streams. Examinations of the trajectory of these flows—towards justice13 perhaps—must be intertwined in all of our work.
Nearly half of the territory within the Rio Meander Map exists within the Chihuahuan Desert containing xeric shrublands with lifeforms adapted to extreme conditions of topographic and atmospheric differentials. After La Presa Amistad the land breaks into the arid interior plains of Tamaulipan mezquital with xerophytic shrub, mesquite and oak forests before giving way to the subtropical grass and shrublands of Tamaulipas pastizal.
Central to the production of the Rio Meander Map was developing a structure that leveraged and required a synthetic non-harmonious voice. While the collective effort was deeply inclusive, it did not seek unity or equal representation. The challenges of operating remotely during a global pandemic adapted the pedagogy of equal weight. We began by anticipating there would be times when group members were not able to carry an equal load. Rather than seeing that as problem to overcome with pre-pandemic remediation, here group energy and collective voice rallied to activate the inherent differentials present. Instead of a generalizing approach we sought to open heterogenous manifestations of time, narrative, and geography. This was built into the composition of the group. In to the conditions of our work. And, into the multitudes of voice radiating from the project, the territory, and it’s people.14
Rio meander detail at La Junta de los Rio near Ojinaga/Presidio.
After more than a century of Spanish colonial incursion, control, and violent15 subjugation of indigenous Pueblo people in what remains known as New Mexico, profound risk of culture loss and survival led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The traditionally autonomous Pueblo communities were united into simultaneous action by Po’pay of Ohkay Owingeh to drive Spanish forces and settlers from Santa Fe south along the rio to Paso del Norte. This line of force is widely held as the only successful uprising against a colonizing power in North America and celebrated as vital to the preservation of Native culture, traditions and lands. It is a line of force and time that continues to resonate, three-hundred-forty years later.16
La Junta de los Rios
1,603–1,530 kilómetros (996–951 miles) from and
820–774 metros (2,690–2,538 feet) above the Gulf of México
Average Rainfall: 24.5cm (9.66in)
Average Temperatures: 38.1C (100.5F) high, 21.8C (71.2F) mean, 2.4C (36.3F) low
From Banderas the rio extends southeast by south picking its way through remote and rough canyons between the Quitman Mountains and Sierra San Martin del Borracho. Fed by drainages such as Arroyo Agua las Vacas and Goat Canyon, Arroyo Paredon and Hog Canyon. Past farms, ejidos, ranchos and communities with place names Guerra, Bramlett, Pilares, Baeza and San Antonio de Bravo. Through crossings—mostly informal—called Bob Love, Paso el Cubano, Lower Los Fresnos, Comedor, San Antonio, Ruidosa, Sparks, La Pressa, and Vado. Through this section, present conditions often pull all waters from its channel, leaving it a massive dry arroyo holding the memory of past water frozen in time. Yet agricultural presence, or its traces, begin to fill the valley between Adobes and El Ramireño with most of it occurring on the rios right bank, or western side. These fields however are not fed by Rio Bravo/Rio Grande. Instead, irrigation water flows ten miles upstream from the Rio Conchos in the Canal Principal Margen Izquierda set into the top edge of the floodplain. The fertile plain expands widely at La Juntas de los Rios, the confluence of Rio Conchos and Rio Bravo/Rio Grande. For some this is the rebirth of the primary river as often the majority of downstream flow emerges from the Conchos watershed. Overlaying the tangled knots of historic meanders within this section is an earthen rectification effort completed in the 1970s straightening and providing containment volume for flood level flows to course between the linked towns of Ojinaga, Chihuahua and Presidio, Texas. The dynamic rio course turns loose again after Fort Leaton and continues through Ejido Monte Marqueño, Palomas, and Redford before cutting into more remote canyon country. The richness of this valley confluence and its history attest to the deep presence of indigenous pueblo cultures thriving here long before first contact17 with Europeans.
High resolution digital elevation model of confluence of Rio Conchos and Rio Bravo/Rio Grande near Ojinaga/Presidio.
My second memory is of the river. My dad sent my grandfather money to buy us a bus ticket to Nuevo Laredo. My older brother tagged along. Once in Nuevo Laredo my grandfather handed me off to a group of men who I had never met before and he returned back to my hometown with my brother. It all happened really fast. Before I knew we were at the riverbank. The river was muddy and violent. The men begin to remove their clothes and placed them in trash bags. I was used to seeing my older brother naked when we’d bath together as children but never an adult. This was a first. I was in shock. Once their clothes were in trash bags, they tied a knot at the end and flung them across the river to the other side. I didn’t have any luggage or a trash bag; just the clothes I wore that day. The tallest man picked me up and sat me on his shoulders and we crossed. I don’t know if he stumbled or if he stepped on a soft spot of the riverbed that he submerged lower into the river and dipped my backside into the water. I felt the cold chill crawl up my spine and through the rest of my body as I touched the water. Later, as a kid growing up in Oak Cliff, I would always remember this chill when other children teased me about being a “wet back”. It was a matter of fact; it was all that got wet; nothing to get upset about. Once on the other side, the men opened their bags of clothing and began to dress in their dry clothes before we continued on. Once in the city, they left me in a cheap motel and locked the door behind them. They told me not to open the door for anyone before they left. I cried until I fell asleep. When I woke up my father was there. We checked out and hitchhiked to Dallas to reunite with my mother.18
Is it possible to create a map that avoids, or acknowledges, the imperial, colonial, and military imperatives they emerge from?19 How might its story develop? What timelines are held? Are cultivated?
Independent Mexico inherited in 1821 a badly fragmented frontier in its far north, and the fledgling nation failed to put it back together. New Mexico continued its drift toward Comanchería, distancing itself from the rest of Mexico, while Texas, in a doomed attempt at self-preservation, opened its borders to U.S. immigration. The founding of the Republic of Texas posed a grave threat to Comanches, but ironically, it also spurred one of the most dramatic extensions of their regime. While struggling to secure their border with the Long Star Republic through war and diplomacy, romances shifted their market-driven raiding operations south of the Rio Grande, turning much of northern Mexico into a vast hinterland of extractive raiding. That subjugated hinterland was what the United States Army invaded and conquered in 1846–48.20
Rio meander detail at Maderas del Carmen/Big Bend.
Early on in the process of building the rio meander map, questions and methods of telling time proved central. In addition to synthesizing information geo-spatially, aggregating research in time was a persistent objective. What appeared as chronological timeline, one beginning with the ages of rock, minerals and Earth itself, traversed broad evolutions and legal treaty minutiae. It persisted as provocation of narrative voice and design language, as singular primary focus points or multi-scalar, multi-dimensional indexical reference.
Maderas del Carmen / Big Bend
1,336–1,313 kilómetros (830–816 miles) from and
581–565 meters (1,905–1,855 feet) above the Gulf of México
Average Rainfall: 32.4cm (12.77in)
Average Temperatures: 38.4C (101.1F) high, 21.2C (70.1F) mean, .33C (32.6F) low
Within the Big Bend the rio’s course generally cuts its way through tight topographic canyons that rise and curl alongside, and across, its trajectory. Moments when boundaries and slope ease, braiding reoccurs before gathering. This particularly rugged and harsh territory, being remote from both south and north, has remained relatively isolated for centuries. Perhaps it was the deft equestrian power of the Comanche that made them the only peoples who defined this region as a throughway for larger continental ambitions. Traditional modern ranching and farming in the area has always been stretched thin, further opening the possibility for conservation, yet it was not until 1944 that the U.S. established Big Bend National Park and 1994 that Mexico created Parque Nacional Cañon de Santa Elena and Natural Protegida Maderas del Carmen. Here the rio is marked by a ribbon of riparian vegetation holding to the bottom of drainages such as Tornillo Creek, Arroyo Temporal and Arroyo Avispas. Archaeological traces also dot this segment evidencing zones of distribution and layers of occupation interweaving biologic/human and geologic time scales.
QGIS rio tracing of USGS East Brownsville Quadrangle, 1930.
it’s a name you can never change
in a way it’s just as American as yours
you probably don’t even know about
the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
you know, come to think of it
the border crossed me, I didn’t cross it
if you really want to think about it
you’re the wetback
coming across the Atlantic21
Spoken language within border culture is as interwoven as rio meanderings. Predominately Spanish, yet not singular, switching freely as necessary. Responding to frictions and alliances. Behind each Spanish or English name lies indigenous understandings for places, features and forces that have been overtaken, displaced, or unseen.22 Given the poly-lingual nature of the subject and the group of researchers the emerging language of the map is voiced in a similarly fused amalgam.
To create the work, the collective producers also needed to craft the processes necessary to bring all the voices, content, and material together. Constantly testing and refining research and development methods as the rio meander map came into view.
This space is intentionally blank to acknowledge the missing, disappeared, lost to time, weather, violence; what is yet to be known, and/or remembered.
Rio as international boundary spawned a legacy of surveying and diplomatic challenges requiring extensive agreements and adjustments over time.
QGIS rio tracing of USGS Seminole Canyon Quadrangle, 1970.
Creating the Rio Meander Map required its makers to identify and create geospatial continuities where fractures and disconnection existed before. While the binational International Boundary and Water Commission was created by treaty to adjudicate management issues through subsequent treaties and agreements, their records tend towards resolution of specific inconsistencies to border configurations. They seek to simplify, codify and fortify a single line. Records of their actions, in earthworks and legal documents, demonstrate their quest for efficiency. Our charge, to create a living portrait of a living river, sought to understand the complex interwoven conditions of hydrology, geology, culture, and language evolving with time. The effort to reveal matrices of dynamic character was also limited by our time within an academic semester and our remote mode of operating. Through all we sought to complicate rather than essentialize. To describe the myriad manifestations of rio meander in time as sets of dynamic, transitory and evolving conditions. Not a fixed line, or symbol, or mathematical puzzle to be solved. Within the lines of this rio, and this land, are interbedded histories knitting and stitching together border culture, border land, border water.23
Making these efforts possible began with geospatially digitizing the rio in over two-hundred historic maps dating from the 1800s to present. This occurred within QGIS, a free and open-source geographic information system that also allowed for the aggregation and synthesis of an abundance of other public source data from a wide spectrum of archives, organizations, and agencies. This was our primary agent of geospatial synthesis.24
La Presa Amistad
1,038–909 kilómetros (645–565 miles) from and
342–252 metros (1,123–826 feet) above the Gulf of México
Average Rainfall: 47.8cm (18.81in)
Average Temperatures: 35.9C (96.7F) high, 21.2C (70.2F) mean, 5.3C (41.6F) low
Rio meander detail at La Presa Amistad.
Prior to exiting the deep canyons of Big Bend, the rio enters La Presa Amistad, or Amistad Reservoir. Long before the water body is visible or legible, a slight shift in current and growing horizontality in the surface can be registered. Instead of continuing downward flow, the water’s surface levels charting a line independent of the ancient trajectory of land below. The datum is controlled at the nearly ten-kilometer (six mile) embankment dam bridging the states of Coahuila and Texas just below the confluence with the Devils River and over forty-eight kilometers (thirty miles) downriver. Built and commissioned between 1963 and 1969 for the “control of floods and conservation and regulation of waters.”25
Archeological resources within the area were known long before the impounding of waters in the reservoir. Excavations of the Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon began in 1932.26 With approval for the dam the Amistad Archeological Salvage Program evolved between 1958 and 1969 in an attempt to witness and record sites to be impacted. Subsequent research has revealed sites within the Lower Pecos region to have profound continental importance containing records of human activity dating from four to five-thousand years before the common era.27 While powerful examples remain above the crest of the dam at 351 meters (1,152 feet) above sea level hundreds were lost under the water body. Controlled release generates hydroelectric power for each country, from parallel independent plants, before flowing past Arroyo El Buey and McKees Creek, under Acuña/Del Rio International Bridge, and further downriver.
What matters is how the gridded Euclidean space of the US military created a new kind of global and installed the new rationality as an intrinsic feature of geographic space. Unlike latitude and longitude, this is a rationality that puts the needs of everyday users above any overarching interest in the earth itself. It is a rationality of calculability, regional consciousness, and a retreat from the cleanly delimited space of the territorial state.28
The advancement of map making is intertwined with the history of military empires, global commodity trade, colonialism, and human exploitation. The map as evidence of power, narratively and operationally, extends from the first cartographic gestures through the evolution of the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system to the World Geodetic System (WGS). Currently U.S. Defense Department created WGS 1984 EPSG:4326 enables everything from mobile Global Positioning Systems to remote military map firing and drone navigation. It is a coordinate projection system of uniform squares and parallel grids distorting Earth geometry to facilitate rapid mathematical position calculations. Earlier projections were based on equal subdivisions of longitudinal lines at the equator converging at the poles. North-south lines in these systems are not parallel and reflect planetary curvature. Hence, the coordinate reference system projection for the Rio Meander Map is set to Mexico ITRF2008 EPSG:6372 to evidence the dynamic and relational shifting of cartographic north.
Magnetic declination at map details revealing multiple norths at 7°51’E, 6°47’E, 6°7’E, 5°16’E, 4°17’E, and 3°26’E, changing by 0°7’W per year.
Amplifying the multiple geographic datasets that were folded into this dynamic and living portrait, it was also vital for the map to include multiple points of view, temporalities, and subjectivities in graphic and narrative form.
My last memory is of rain. By this time, we were all reunited. My parents brought us on by one from youngest to oldest. After they brought me, they saved up for a year to bring my brother and did the same for my sisters until we were all together. I don’t know how long after I arrived but in this memory my sister was carrying me. We were standing in the balcony of a two-story apartment building where my parents found a place they could afford. We lived above a trap house, a one stop shop for hookers and crack. It was the early 90s. I’m sure I must have experience rain before, even back in Mexico, but this felt like a first. I was in awe. To me, at the time, it was inexplicable sorcery.29
La Presa Falcón
538–428 kilómetros (334–266 miles) from and
94–49 meters (307–160 feet) above the Gulf of México
Average Rainfall: 52.3cm (20.6in)
Average Temperatures: 37.8C (100.1F) high, 23.8C (74.8F) mean, 9.1C (48.4F) low
Rio meander detail at La Presa Falcon.
From Del Rio and Acuña30 the rio trends heavily south by slightly east as it passes through Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, dropping only 158 meters (519 feet) in elevation in just over 300 kilometers (under 200 miles) before starting to level out again at San Ygnacio, 60 kilometers (37 miles) upriver from La Presa Falcón. The distances of travel and impoundment compressing and expanding. Falcon Dam was authorized by International Boundary and Water Commission treaty in 1944 and was constructed between 1950 and 1954. Flood control was a central justification, and cause for subsequent relocations, displacements, and submersions.31 As it was completed Hurricane Alice struck creating major upriver flooding that was stopped by the new reservoir sparing downstream disaster and “proving” its necessity.32 That event became vital to the planning and authorization for La Presa Amistad the following decade. Where Amistad marks the dissipation of canyon topography and a north-eastward turn of Balcones Fault, Falcón is the last vertical threshold of the rio before the coastal plain. Meander impoundment here is for agricultural consistency and yet another attempt of human control over hydrologic systems. Falcón also lands just east of the 100th Meridian, the so-called dry line John Wesley Powell used to mark the limit of aridity defining the American West.33 It is climatological threshold registered in the ability of vegetation to shift the territorial color palette from yellow-brown towards green.
Hate speech is pervasive, indeed, constitutive of colonial situations, but the implantation of colonial rule and the subordination of colonial subjects cannot be reduced to a modality of hate speech. “Love speech” is as central to colonization as spurting offensive yet injurious stereotypes. The challenge is to understand love speech as a powerful mode of subjection and effective violence. The most evident example is the declaration of love “We bring you the gift of Christ’s blood,” which is bound by the implicit obligation to accept the offering. This interpellation constitutes a form of love speech in which threat on the Indians’ life and freedom (even when not explicit) always remains a possibility within the historical horizon if the summoning is not heeded.34
Rio Meander Cloud detail.
Production of the Rio Meander Map gravitated around central questions of color palettes and the legibility to reveal transformations over time. While this began with the geometry and synthesis of rio channel boundaries, it grew to include larger contexts. With access to low-and high-resolution digital elevation model (DEM) datasets, a central question became how to utilize and activate landform information within the map. When first loaded DEM files appear as deep space weather impressions, vague and nebulous. Yet, as display settings and details are tuned the weight and geometric specificity these raster files contain is astounding. In addition to topographic geometry the data layers have the opportunity to be color coded by elevation to more strikingly reveal topographic definition. This prompted an extended period of exploration and testing to draw out questions such as, should the map color palette approach verisimilitude to respond to the shifting terrestrial hues of reds and yellows in the west through browns and grays into green and ultimately blue of the sea? While there was didactic potential for such distributions, inverse propositions also opened. Rather than seek to match or emulate the visible spectrum of “true-color,” how might presentations in “false” or “pseudo color” enable intensified focus, legibility, and character? Moving through a wide range of options, the group homed in on a palette of dark to metallic copper that allows a spectrum of blue meander to pop. The opportunity became one of reducing variables to heighten legibility.
Throughout the semester, weekly reading responses were posted asynchronously to a message board promoting reflection and exchange. This activity also had the benefit of becoming testament to the evolution of our collective understandings. In the final phases of development, a question reappeared about the necessity of not revealing too much, of holding something back, of what is impossible to know. In ubiquitous map technologies common in our contemporary connected world, clouds rarely appear in satellite imagery. This is not because there are lucky satellite pilots avoiding weather events. Great labor, and algorithmic processing, conspire to subtract these aqueous vapor features from desired, and constructed, views. What clouds will this map contain? Instead of simulating or caricaturing weather, we were able to access pre-processed image data revealing not only clouds across our study area, but typological distinctions between those in the arid western and coastal eastern extents of the project. Shortly thereafter, the reflective reading responses operating as journal entries were cast into the clouds to provide a temporal index of dialogue around the themes and questions intertwined within the making of the map.35
Time isn’t holding us; time isn’t after us36
Matamoros / Brownsville
171–27 kilómetros (106–17 miles) from and
15–2 meters (48–8 feet) above the Gulf of México
Average Rainfall: 69.7cm (27.44in)
Average Temperatures: 34.1C (93.4F) high, 23.6C (74.5F) mean, 11.6C (52.9F) low
After Falcón, the rio turns eastward in its quest to reach the Gulf of Mexico. Snaking through Ciudad Miguel Alemán and Roma, through wide fertile plains. Past ancient banco, or oxbow, formations. Many holding vestigial connections to water tables from below, and patterns of ancient topographic drainage. These discontiguous meanders also define limits of settlements, infrastructure and cultivated fields. The land-water balance shifting as the rio passes Reynosa and Hidalgo, Progresso and Nuevo Progresso, Ejido La Brigada and the Resaca De La Palma World Birding Center and between Matamoros and Brownsville. The former appearing to hold slightly more purchase on higher ground. The later riddled with canals, ditches and drains that clearly service agricultural lands and attempt dewatering stability.
From Southmost the rio path winds through increasing estuaries, water-land-scapes that appear as bas relief carved over millennia. Terra firma gives way to open ocean were connectivity to the planetary water cycle becomes undeniable.
Maybe we are just creating a chain of love for each to conclude their own truth from our creation because the truth and beauty in the project cannot love us back.
Rio meander detail at Matamoros/Brownsville.
The Rio Meander Map remains in development as it moves from studio to post-production and final coordination for printing in the Al Rio/To the River publication in 2021. In addition to that audience and exposure, the map will live beyond its making to two other ways. In the near-term during Spring 2021 it will be the subject of the 2020 Land Arts ADAPTATION Exhibition at the Museum of Texas Tech University. The annual Land Arts exhibition is designed to bring student work to larger audiences and to require synthesis moving from fieldwork to public legibility. Given the pandemic this may well become an online exhibition, which will further facilitate the map’s afterlife. Over the long term Rio Meander Map will live on at the new Border Consortium being established by POST (Project for Operative Spatial Technologies) at the Texas Tech College of Architecture in El Paso. Given that most of the sources within the map come from public assets, the intention is to package and assemble the material in an online format to further its development and make the synthesized GIS data available to others for use in projects and opportunities we cannot begin to anticipate. Continuing persistent evolution of the Rio Meander Map.
Behind some borders you can hear the earth moving.37
QGIS rio tracing of USGS Barreda Quadrangle, 1930.