As one drives along Old Highway 83 crossing town after town, we are accompanied by parallel steel beams and intermittent boxcars covered in graffiti. Onlookers are treated to local, national and possibly international artwork due to our specific location along the U.S./Mexico border.

As an enthusiast of the graffiti aesthetic and of the process and act involved in throwing a tag or a piece, it is pleasing to get caught at a railroad stop and make the best of the situation by admiring great art. While the initial purpose of this article was to document and share the latest train graffiti in the Rio Grande Valley by posting photo updates from different cities, exploring the history behind how the pieces got to the region became more interesting to me. This of course meant some book learning and research about the birth of the art form in the East Coast and its proliferation through trains and popular culture.

 

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One especially intriguing factor was that I noticed was the connectivity that railroads facilitated through a web of infrastructure that brought fringe artists together. It is difficult to ponder the idea of graffiti without trains and to think if the art form and movement would have picked up steam the way it did if trains or subways were not in the equation.

It might sound obnoxious, but graffiti genuinely made me appreciate and think of the importance of trains probably since my childhood. Honestly, how many of y’all can say you’ve recently thought deeply about railroad transportation and its impact on the different aspects of society, especially in the Valley? My newfound appreciation planted the idea of exploring the history of the railroads in the Rio Grande Valley while sharing awesome tags and pieces that roll on through these remarkable rails. I hope to discuss historical train related RGV factoids and eventually (when we get to it) conduct interviews with artists who shaped the RGV Graffiti scene and have been using the rail carts throughout the Valley as their canvas for years and/or continue to add to the contemporary movement.

Sugar Cane being hauled by train in Donna | Source: Gerhardt and Lincoln, Images of America: Donna, Texas

Let’s start with a brief overview of the development of the railroads in the Valley. The establishment of the RGV as a region it turns out, was largely enhanced and shaped by the development of the railroad system and the subsequent creation of cities along the line. The Rio Grande Railroad Company, chartered in 1870, first connected Brownsville to Point Isabel and facilitated the thriving economy of the port at Brazos Santiago, the first Spanish settlement on South Padre Island now known as Boca Chica Beach.

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It wasn’t until several years later that towns like Raymondville, Lyford, Sebastian, Harlingen, San Benito, and Olmito were formed as the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railroad was completed in 1904. The rail connected Brownsville to Corpus Christi and to the rest of North America. The founding of the Brownie combined with the key role that transportation had in the profitability of the burgeoning agriculture complex was pivotal in convincing land development companies to donate right of way land for the expansion of a branch extension to Hidalgo County.

Map 1| Harding and Lee, Rails to the Rio (1904)

After acquiring land from the inheritors of the Llano Grande Spanish Land Grant, the American Land and Irrigation Company led the way for many stations in the central Valley that became towns like La Feria, Santa Rosa, Mercedes, and Weslaco. Towns were named by property owners or by the land companies. Weslaco for example literally derived its name from the W.E. Stuart Land Company (W.E.S La. Co.). The rail and land companies also helped growing settlements like McAllen in financing and building the train depot in exchange for town lots. Unincorporated lines such as the San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley Railway that connected San Juan and Edinburg were purchased in 1912 and extensions between Hargill and Ed Couch and Fayesville in Edinburg were completed in 1928.

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In 1956, the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company merged the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railroad and the Missouri Pacific Lines into one company. (See map 1.) Other spider web connections were added throughout the years too but since then the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railroad sold or abandoned their rails in the Valley. For example, the Border Pacific Railroad now includes the line connecting Mission to Sam Fordyce and the Rio Valley Switching Company operates the extension from Mission to Harlingen.

This brief history lesson clearly shows the impact that railroads had in shaping the RGV. This, however, is a very basic description and does not dive deep or touch on the counter-narratives that were taking place at the time and are very much valid. Many scholars note that along with the extreme benefits the railroad brought for certain individuals, particularly wealthy white men from the North, the development of the rail paved the way for the mass exploitation and continued oppression of indigenous peoples, Tejanos, immigrants and citizens of Mexican or Latino heritage along the border.

In future articles, we will talk about specific examples of resistance against the railroads in the RGV and the reasoning behind these positions of defiance all while sharing modern examples of defiance via fresh graffiti tags that are now also part of this railroad’s identity too.

Stay tuned and if you happen to know who’s tags are featured feel free to mention so we can credit.
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