Texas 23rd District
The Mexican-American tradition in the part of South Texas radiating from San Antonio is anchored in two culturally conservative institutions, the Catholic Church and the United States military. Both are a major presence in San Antonio, just 150 miles north of the border, which for many years had the largest Mexican-American population of any American city and where Spanish has long been widely spoken. The church in San Antonio was led for years by liberal bishops; they also ran St. Mary’s University, which educated many Hispanic politicians and leaders, including two longtime House Democratic committee chairmen, former Reps. Henry B. Gonzalez and Kika de la Garza, as well as Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who graduated from St. Mary’s law school. Just as visible a presence in San Antonio are the Army and Air Force, with huge Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base, and the Randolph Air Force Base, all in or near the city limits. In 2006, at the site of the former Brooks Air Force Base, Toyota opened a $1.2 billion plant to manufacture Tundra pickup trucks. About 55% of the nearly 2,000 workers are Hispanic. Mexican-Americans have long volunteered for military service in numbers higher than members of most other ethnic groups, and for many years Mexican-Americans in San Antonio worked in civilian jobs for the military service. San Antonio’s Mexican-American community also has produced many politicians who are liberal on economic issues and civil rights but also are pro-military and at home with traditional religious and cultural values.
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Although farmland has disappeared around San Antonio, some small towns remain, such as Castroville, where you can see 19th-century Alsatian architecture and where citizen groups have been fighting big development projects. Fifty or so miles west of San Antonio, the hills flatten out and become the parched uplands of West Texas. This is a borderland, just north of Mexico, where people are concentrated in tiny hamlets amid the empty ranchlands. Most residents are Latino. Once Indians were the threat on this frontier. Now the challenge is assimilation, and the threat is lack of water. The aquifers of West Texas are being drained, and state law still allows landowners to pump out as much water as they want. The Rio Grande, dried out by a dam in New Mexico, gets most of its water from the Rio Conchos in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Mexico owes the United States hundreds of thousands of acre-feet under a 1944 treaty.
Big cities have sprung up on the border. But in the hundreds of miles between El Paso and Juarez, Chihuahua, which between them have about 2 million people, and Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, which between them have about 900,000, there are only a few border crossings and much wilderness. The mountains of Big Bend National Park rise above the Rio Grande, where in the clean air you can find dozens of species of birds and can see for 180 miles. Eccentrics have built an art colony in Marfa and stage a chili cook-off in Terlingua. Texas’s frontier in many ways is thriving. Huge wind farms have flowered along the interstate in Crockett County. Unlike in California and Arizona, trade is actively conducted here, and local communities often have a binational “good neighbor” policy. But all this activity makes people thirsty. Private companies are buying ranchland so that they can pump water out to Texas’s growing cities, and there is even some talk of building a pipeline from Hoover Dam in Nevada.
The 23rd Congressional District of Texas is geographically the largest in the state, larger than almost any state east of the Mississippi River. It stretches from the west side of San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso, from Eagle Pass and Maverick County to the New Mexico border. About two-thirds of its population is in Bexar County. The August 2006 court-ordered redistricting added a large portion of the south side of Bexar County, which includes many Latinos. The district’s Latino population is 65%. Many of the border counties are Democratic. With the changes, the district voted 57% for Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 compared to the 65% he would have received if the old boundaries had held up. In 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama won the district 51%-48%, though GOP nominee John McCain won the Bexar County portion by about 300 votes.