Roma, Texas - America's Most Mexican Town

by Brian Cofer January. 02, 2014 8681 views

Roma looked so authentically like a Mexican village to director Elia Kazan that he filmed his 1952 movie Viva Zapata with Marlon Brando here. I don't think I've ever been anywhere in the U.S. that looks more like Mexico and less like the U.S. The city actually has 9,700 people, but commerical activity is to the north and east, leaving the old downtown untouched. There are no stores and little activity beyond city offices here. That's fine with me. The area is designated a National Historic District, but few tourists ever venture here, and I also like it that way.

Founded in 1765, Roma truly was a Spanish, then Mexican village, until after the Mexican-American War. At that point, point taxes imposed by the Mexican government made goods more expensive south of the river than north. Now lying in the U.S., Roma became an important port of entry for Ameriacn goods, often smuggled into Mexico. It's hard to believe, looking at the Rio Grande, but steamboat traffic made it all the way upstream here from Brownsville. A bustling, somewhat cosmopolitan town, began to develop.

By the turn of the 20th century, large-scale irrigation schemes in the lower Rio Grande Valley dropped the river level down by several feet, making navigation now impossible. Roma lapsed into a deep slumber for much of the 20th century.

If you're noticing a resemblance to New Orleans architecture, that's no accident. New Orleans's signature style, was developed during Spanish rule, and what you see there is actually Spanish architecture, not French. You'll see the same kind of thing in cities like Tampico and Havana. Also connecting Roma with New Orleans is the wrought iron balcony railings seen on many buildings here were actually imported from the Crescent City.

Here one finds one of the city's once-important stores looking out over the international bridge and the Mexican city of Ciudad Miguel Aleman.

Ironically, Roma's prime architect and brickmaker was a German named Heinrich Portscheller, who immigrated here by way of Veracruz to serve in an all-German outfit in Emperor Maximilian's army, which occupied Mexico in the 1860s. After Mexico liberated itself from European rule, Portscheller made his way here and made his name by constructing buildings throughout northern Mexico and South Texas.

What is it about doors that make them so photogenic? I know the coffee table book on doors has already been done, but I could just photograph old doors and nothing else.

I swear, at times, only the Texas historical plaques reminded me I was still in the U.S.

Roma's location on a high bluff over the river gave the city a privileged location, certainly protection from flooding and attack. It also serves as a good lookout point for the Border Patrol.

And here is a view across the river of Miguel Aleman, previously known as San Pedro de Roma. During my walk through Roma, everything was so quiet and tranquil, other than some peacocks screeching from some unknown place. But standing here looking out across the river, one could hear a cacophony hanging over Roma's Mexican twin. Car alarms, sirens, voices through loudspeakers. I swear I thought I heard a gunshot at one point. That's the biggest difference I find between Mexican and American towns on either side of the Rio Grande. Chaos rules the streets on the Mexican side, often in an exciting, fun way. Crossing back to the north, one finds the streets more staid and orderly, but also perhaps a little boring.
I didn't cross into Mexico on this trip. The state of Tamaulipas which lies across the river from this part of Texas is perhaps Mexico's most dangerous state and has been since violence escalated in Mexico in 2006. Miguel Aleman itself became a city of refuge for residents of nearby Ciudad Mier, which was attacked by Zetas in 2011. The violence pretty quickly spilled over into Miguel Aleman.
Just before I left on this trip, I checked online to see what the security situation is in Tamaulipas, just to gauge whether it was safe for me to go across. Things have been a little safer in the past year or two, but as recently as early November, the city of Matamoros, across the river from Brownsville, found itself under siege as two factions of the Gulf Cartel engaged in a firefight that raged throughout the city and left 13 dead.
The whole situation makes me sad for Mexico and also sorry that I can't explore a place so rich in culture. Hopefully someday things will change, and other parts of Mexico are perfectly safe for tourists, but for now, all I plan to do is look across the river and long for a better day.

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Stormfish 4 years, 6 months ago

wow, great collection of pictures - again! and thought provoking, to say the least. in fact, i like this blending of cultures, even though both are not mine, at the borders. i'm not sure if it makes the mexicans more american or the americans more mexican... but it sure shows how utterly artificial and stubbornly useless borders really are.

4 years, 6 months ago Edited
Patsy Abbey 4 years, 6 months ago

Very interesting and the buildings are awesome.

4 years, 6 months ago Edited
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