September 12, 2023
Nestled between Texas and Mexico, the city of Laredo was a quaint border town, nurturing cultural ties across the river, attracting occasional tourists, and populated with people living there for generations. In Listening to Laredo, Mehnaaz Momen traces Laredo’s history and evolution through the voices of its people. She examines the changing economic and cultural infrastructure of the city, its interdependence with its sister city across the national boundary, and, above all, the resilience of the community as it adapts to and even challenges the national narrative on the border.
Why did you embark on this work?
I moved to Laredo from Cleveland in 2002 because I got a job at Texas A&M International University. I always loved the historic feel of the city and its rich heritage. However, I could not make sense of its urban growth patterns. All the theories I had learnt in my Urban Studies program felt inadequate for the then second-fastest growing city with its core of Spanish plazas, which remained underutilized, and the growing warehouses that surrounded the city. There were no delineable suburbs and yet there was a striking north/south divide. I wanted to study the city through the lenses of urban theory, so I wrote a few articles on Laredo. But it was much later in 2017 that I started working on a book-length manuscript. I was inspired by academic curiosity about the city at first, but after living here for two decades, it feels like an intellectual responsibility to understand the city and share my frame of analysis with a broader audience.
Your approach is very hands-on. You conducted interviews with 75 residents of Laredo. Why did you choose an ethnographic approach for your research?
My original plan was to contrast urban theory with material from the interviews of local residents. Almost as soon as I started the interviews, I knew that the local narratives about the border deserved exclusive attention. The local and national implications of a border region are not only different but often in conflict. When Laredo emerged as the largest inland port of the nation, global trade eclipsed all other frames of viewing the border. In the literary and cultural spheres, as well as in academia, the border has seldom been defined by the people who live in that space. It was fascinating how the different aspects of their stories were connected organically, which allowed me to weave a comprehensive story of Laredo. This is one of the main contributions of my work, namely to bring out the voices from the border to define the problems and possibilities of border cities.
Laredo is not only the locus of your research, it is also your home. What do you want the world to know about Laredo and border communities like it?
Laredo was the place where I got a job and reluctantly settled in. It took me a number of years to look at Laredo without preconceived notions even though I was living there. The cultural stereotype of the border is ingrained in all of us. I want my readers to see Laredo from the eyes of the people who live there by choice. We always hear about the dangers of the border, but the border is fragile, the border is beautiful, and the border is evolving. The border is full of possibilities, especially because it is always a little wild. For the people who live on the border, it was historically an abstract notion that had legal and political restrictions but did not obstruct cultural and economic exchanges. It is global trade and the politics surrounding the border wall that have turned the border into a concrete obstruction that has significantly curtailed economic and social flows between the two sides of the river. This hasn’t made the border safer; rather, it is stripping away the unique features of border areas.
Even though you’ve been a resident of Laredo for more than two decades, you’re careful to point out in the book that you are still an outsider. Why was this important?
With the exception of my home city, Dhaka, where I grew up and lived for twenty-five years, Laredo is the only other city where I have lived so long, especially as an adult. I was an outsider in Laredo in all senses of the term. As an outsider, perhaps I was able to perceive a lot more anomalies of the city than a local person. The city is 95% Hispanic but has a stable history of intermarriages and has always made room for outsiders. Actually, in Laredo vocabulary, the outside/insider divide is neither national nor ethnic, but rather who is part of the community. In that sense, my relationship with the city changed because of this book. Laredo became a home for me through this process.
I was very conscious that I was writing the stories of a number of people with whom I don’t have a shared memory or shared history. I was bringing my academic and other life experiences to connect their stories to a framework of analysis, but my voice is not the nucleus. It is important to note that although I am an observer and a participant, this story belongs to the people of Laredo.
What is your next project?
I am working on a couple of articles using the materials from the interviews, information that I could not incorporate in the book because of the word limit. I am also working on a project with Webb County which will collect primary information about county services. Hopefully by next year I can expand my research to other border cities and explore their growth patterns. I want to start an alternate conversation about the border which acknowledges the prospects of the border and border people beyond the myopic view of disorder and trade calculations.
Mehnaaz Momen is an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M International University. Her research interests include citizenship, immigration policy, urban theory, public space, political satire, and marginality. She is the author of The Paradox of Citizenship in American Politics: Ideals and Reality and Political Satire, Postmodern Reality, and the Trump Presidency: Who Are We Laughing At?
Author photo by Laila Nahar