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Outlander's Voice

Last April, I attended a panel discussion commemorating the Rio Grande: The Storied River exhibit at Texas State University-San Marcos’ Albert B. Alkek Library. The panel was made up of a veritable who’s who of writers who have written about the sometimes flowing, sometimes dry natural border between the U.S. and Mexico and included Jan Reid, Cecilia Balli, Dogoberto Gib, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Dick J. Reavis.

We, the attendees, were fanned out in rows of plastic chairs surrounding the raised platform where the panel sat, and we all hung on the words as each member on the dais spike briefly about a personal relationship with the river. Late in the proceeding, as questions were fielded by the panel, one f the members asked if Don Henry Ford were in the audience, since he, having written a book on drug smuggling between Texas and Mexico, could likely answer the question about border politics more adroitly. And for the first time that evening, the voice didn’t come from above us, but came from us instead. This Don Henry Ford, far to the left of stage ( I was far to the right), spoke up. His was a voice from the periphery.

Before the proceedings, I’d seen him in the bathroom. He had a paper sack with him (that I now think held copies of his book) and I remember thinking, who is this guy decked all in denim, complete with cowboy hat and belt buckle? He didn’t fit the tweed and tie image of many of the men at this kind of function.

Having now read Ford’s book, the “voice from the periphery” image I got at the panel discussion was not limited to that event. Hid book, Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-smuggling, Texas Cowboy, is just as much an outsider’s view. And that’s the main thing that makes it special.

This autobiographical account of his experience as a witness in “the front line of this War on Drugs we fight” exists about halfway between glorification and apology without ever teetering too close to either extreme. That’s what makes this a different kind of book; it’s not the amends of a twelve-stepper or the boast of a man who got away with it. As for Ford states in the “Beginning” chapter, he had to “tell the story that was” and not the story he’d “have liked it to have been.”

Telling the “story that was” does include some sweaty-palm searches, a walk-away, jailbreak, a biker-owned stripper, and the rest of the illicit, vicarious excitement found in any crime confessional, but it also includes the day-to-day, seemingly mundane details that fill the out each scene the way a good life story should. While we get the details right about life, along the border, even down to the food he ate. In his description of fajitas, he explains that, if the skirt steak from which fajitas come were “cooked the way a white man cooks a piece of meat, the resulting product is so tough it can scarcely be eaten. Mexicans got around this by marinating fajitas in acidic sauces that contain lime juice and/or vinegar and a splash of oil.” For Ford, it’s not just the how they are cooked but why they’re cooked that way that matters.

Though the writing is plaintive as he tells of the friends he lost in the scuffles between law and outlaw, the straightforward style is never plain r patronizing. His descriptions of the people of a particular ejido (a government owned, but communally governed piece of land) and the economic forces that make smuggling a certainty may make many readers reevaluate staunch positions on the drug issue.

Ford does spend some time detailing his encounters with notorious narcotraficantes like Pablo Acosta, but these aren’t the strongest portions of the book and luckily for the reader, his primary focus stays on the “little” person involved in the drug trade. After all, who doesn’t know that the drug kingpins use violence as a tool to stay on top?

All in all, I’m glad I know his story, since if I didn’t get it for Ford, from the voice on the edge, I-we- on the inside wouldn’t get it all, and this story “about a world gone mad” is one we need to know.

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