A Thousand Little Maps

This was beautiful and powerful when I first read it almost 13 years ago, and it is even more so today.

A Thousand Little Maps by Gordon Atkinson

Summers are hot in South Texas. Unthinkably hot. Impossibly hot. Your skin starts to sting the minute you step outside. In the hottest part of the day, everything stops. Insects crawl underground. Animals run and hide. Mosquitoes go wherever it is they go when they’re not making us miserable. The sun throbs and shimmers. It is so bright that your pupils squeeze shut and all the colors of the earth fade into olives, browns and burnt khakis. Cicadas hang upside down in the trees and emit a continuous buzzing noise that sounds too artificial to come from a living creature. It sounds like a broken smoke alarm that won’t shut off no matter how many times you punch it with a broom handle. It’s almost as if the heat has a sound of its own.

South Texas heat deserves an exotic label. The Spanish word caliente works well, I think. If you blow your exhaustion into the penultimate syllable and say it with some attitude, you get a sense of what it’s like here in August.


When the sun finally sets and the temperature drops to the low 90s, creatures pour out of their burrows to take care of the business of living. Humans spill out of homes onto porches. Dogs crawl out from under houses and burst out of doggie doors. Birds take to the air and insects come forth. South Texas is alive from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., then again from 6 p.m. and on into the night.

As you head south out of San Antonio, you begin to enter the brush country. It’s something of a cross between a desert and a briar patch. Cacti abound, and almost every plant has thorns or spines of some kind. Everything is armored and protected. As far as I’m concerned, some of the cacti are even on the offensive.

It is this brutal and scorched countryside that thousands of Mexicans brave each year as they cross the border looking for a share of the legendary wealth of los Estados Unidos. They travel mostly at night. During the day they lie panting under thin and twisted mesquite or huisache trees, both of which have terrifying thorns that look like something out of the Old Testament.

With little or no education, many of them do not realize how far it is from the border to civilization. They cross in remote areas, sometimes without guidance and always without adequate water. Some manage to find isolated ranch houses. Terrified of the border patrol, they watch these houses closely before sneaking over to the faucet to slurp water like madmen until their bellies and milk jugs are full. Then they crawl back to the brush to wait for nightfall.

No one can estimate the numbers of Mexicans who have died under the sun in the thousands of square miles of open country in South Texas. They die every day….

Read the rest here.

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