Machetes and Dinosaurs - by Joe Premont

The first building we passed after Grandfather slowly pulled the Chevy away from the border immigration building in San Pedro had the word “CURIOS” painted across a front window. We were finally in Mexico. The trip from Premont to Roma, on the U.S. side, was always interesting. Grandfather had plenty of information to share all along the route. He would tell me of people he knew, places he’d been, things he’d done. He would talk and I would listen. Listen and look out the window, thinking not so much of what was out there, but of what was ahead, on the other side of the river, in Mexico.

Vamonos Guelito,” I would say as I climbed into the Chevy. After leaving Premont we traveled on Highway 281 south to Rachel, Tx. This first leg of the trip was rather boring. I felt too close to home to get excited yet. The conversation usually centered around how fast traffic on the major highway was. “Ese loco va como en setenta,” grandfather would say. I wondered how he would know since he never drove over the fifty-miles-per-hour mark. The vegetation was starting to change from mostly mesquite and cactus to oak, and there were usually plenty of deer to spot. “Son venados o venadas?”, grandfather would ask.

The road from Rachel to Rio Grande City made up the second leg of our journey. Here we drove through ranch country where cattle still roamed open range and the only things that kept them from crossing into neighboring ranches were these pipe cattle guards that stretched across the highway. Shortly after turning off Highway 281 and heading west,
grandfather would ask me to take out a box of matches. I would be instructed to take out a match every time we drove over a cattle guard. This was a fairly easy job, as the truck tires made a loud, ripping sound as they rolled over each series of pipes. I kept taking matches out, adding them to a growing pile after which I was asked to count them. When the pile reached sixteen, my grandfather would say, “Ya vamos a llegar a Rio Grande.” I could see the water tower over the next hill.

Either coffee and pan dulce at the Texas Cafe, or a coke and a fill-up at the Texaco service station between Rio Grande and Roma gave me the chance to interact with the people I was now seeing. The third and final leg before reaching the border was a good introduction of what was to come. The people here started to act more like how I thought Mexicans should. “Aqui vive el sobrino de tu Tio Inez,” Grandfather would point out some
obscure relative’s hometown. I was already thinking of Mexico.

The actual crossing of the Rio Grande on the old suspension bridge was always exciting and, depending on the water level, sometimes spectacular. Looking down at the river through the open grates while the tires sang a special bridge song, I envied the people I saw. I looked at lucky, often naked children that swam in the river and imagined myself splashing in the same lush waters. When the river was high I would see whole trees, trees bigger than any in my home town, being swept by the currents and I would imagine where they came from and where they were going. High water always brought the same comment from Grandfather, “Trae mucha agua el rio.” Up there, high and dry on the bridge, I wasn’t in Mexico yet.

While Grandfather took care of the paperwork, I sat in the pick-up. Anxious and excited, I waited. Then he would appear. The officer behind him would check our baggage and place the sticker on the windshield. Grandfather would thank him and place some money, a couple of dollars I guess, in the officer’s hand. According to him, these people didn’t make much money and a couple of dollars made things go a lot easier. And then we were off. Now we were in Mexico. The first thing I saw was the store with “CURIOS” written across the window.

To help me learn to read, my Mom had always encouraged me to read road signs and storefront announcements. As I read the word “CURIOS” my mind registered the word “curioso”, a Spanish word more familiar to me. I wondered why anyone would consider that the ropes, machetes, lanterns and pans in the window were funny. You see, to an eight-year-old bilingual but predominantly English speaking kid from Texas, the Spanish word “curioso” translated as “funny”; I had never heard it used to mean “inquisitive”. I certainly didn’t realize that it was shortened from "curiosities”. My grandfather never stopped at this store.

He had a routine that we followed when we came to Mexico. We would get haircuts, find a restaurant that served machacado con huevo for a good breakfast (this necessary because we usually left the house very early in the morning), buy a few things to take to my aunt and uncle and head out for Rancho Rincon de Cadena, my grandmother’s birthplace. The store remained a mystery and my curiosity grew.

As I got a little older, and a lot more self-confident, I would get out of the truck while Grandfather was getting our tourist permits. I discovered that I could even cross the street and wait in front of the curio store and see when Grandfather came out. Standing in front of the window, I could see there was much more than ropes and machetes inside the store. The stuff in that window boggled the mind. There were arrowheads, old swords, crystals, petrified wood and dinosaur bones just sitting there along with knives, ropes, tools, candies, marbles, tops, chalupa card games, molcajetes and galvanized buckets. I stood on the sidewalk and looked through the window as I watched for Grandfather to come out. I needed a plan to explore the store.

On our way back to Texas, Grandfather would again stop in San Pedro, this time to buy things to take back to Premont.”Guelito, can you park over there in front of the store?”, I asked my grandfather. Having no reason not to, he obliged. I volunteered to watch the pick-up so nobody would steal our stuff. Just as I planned, I could watch the Chevy from inside the store.

From then on, the curio store became a regular stop for me. It was a wonderful place for a child. The pungent smell of leather greeted me as I walked in the door. The powdery dinosaur bones stirred my vivid imagination. The glossy skin of the pumpkin candies waited to be broken open to reveal the moist, sweet pulp inside. I bought a few things at the store, but I carried away much more than what I paid for. I still carry the
memories of machetes in beautiful leather scabbards and of dinosaurs waiting to be unearthed.

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