“If you reach Mexico, you’ve gone too far.”

Those were the words printed on the driving directions given to me by Teach for America – Rio Grande Valley, as they greeted me with the slogan “Keep It Rio” and sent me off to interview for my first teaching job.  Interesting, was all I could think to myself.  And I set off on the drive to the school where I would begin my teaching career.

Route 83 in the Rio Grande Valley is a long stretch of highway, dotted with scraggly palm trees.  It rolls from the border crossing in Brownsville, past the dilapidated historic buildings and wide agricultural fields of Cameron County, to the strip malls, restaurants and big box stores of McAllen, then continues into the sparse ranch land and sleepy towns of Starr County.  As you drive west, sometimes you’ll pass a horse grazing lazily in the grassy median, or see chickens pecking frantically in a front yard decorated with chipped and peeling painted statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. 

This tiny rural community, one of the poorest in the country, is where I taught for my first two years in the classroom. It’s where I learned important lessons of teaching the hard way–by trial and error–and developed a love of the craft of teaching.  It’s where I forged friendships that are still dear to me today and committed myself fully to the cause of educational equity.

Mission, Texas is a real transition point in the drive along Highway 83 as you head west from the urban commercial sprawl of McAllen to the historical ranch land of Roma, where time seems to have stood still for half a century.  With empty fields in the west and beginnings of modern development in the east, Mission is almost sandwiched by the future vs. past dichotomy that defines much of the south Texas landscape. 

We had our first apartment in a quiet neighborhood in Mission.  Living in that apartment, we adopted a cat, planned our wedding, and continued to get our feet wet in our early careers as educators.  Though we were sad to leave it when moving day came, a couple years later I drove by our old neighborhood and found myself thinking that life has only gotten better.

Citrus orchards, RV parks, bird habitats, onion fields…Weslaco, Texas somehow became synonymous in my mind with a little slice of paradise.  The towering live oak in our big backyard was home to kiskadees and chachalacas, green jays and grackles.  Our dog chased lizards in the grass and at night, we’d marvel at the see-through skin of geckos climbing our glass slider on the back porch.  The jungle in our front yard–free-ranging plants that looked somehow prehistoric, went largely untamed until we prepared the house for sale.

Weslaco will always have a special place in my heart.  It was our home for just over five years, where we bought our first house–the perfect “starter home.”  We learned there about home improvement projects and DIY tiling.  We hosted countless dinners with friends and filled that house with laughter.  We brought our newborn baby home there.  It was truly bittersweet to leave the house in Weslaco–and the Rio Grande Valley, and Texas–after nine years of making a life for ourselves.  And even though our next chapter has brought new levels of joy to our lives, I know I’ll always feel nostalgia for the time we spent there.

The Rio Grande Valley is a land that defies all attempts to describe and categorize it.  It isn’t just one thing, but many.  And it will always have a piece of my heart.