In the military, there’s the dream duty locations – Hawaii, Europe, Florida, and so on, depending on what your taste is. And, there are the locations that most try to avoid – and Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas is one of those.
It’s been said many times by military folks here, Laughlin is the Air Force’s best force-shaping tool. In layman’s terms, “force-shaping” is synonymous with “trim the fat” or “to weed out”. In other words, the statement is really suggesting that the Air Force powers-that-be, in an effort to discharge the folks it doesn’t want anymore, simply would threaten to relocate them to Del Rio in hopes that they would leave the Air Force voluntarily. True or not, I’ve seen many families chose to leave the Air Force instead of relocate to Del Rio.
Who did you piss off? That was what one coworker (who had never been to Del Rio personally) asked when he heard that’s where I was headed before my family arrived over three years ago, implying that perhaps I drew the short stick in the bureaucratic game of duty location assignments – and that the Air Force was simply trying to weed me out. While Laughlin AFB doesn’t have the most glamorous mission of undergraduate flight training while other military bases actively train for warfighting, the surrounding community of Del Rio is what would make or break the deal for me. Assignment accepted.
After three years in Del Rio, the Air Force certainly did weed me and my family out, voluntarily. Not to avoid Del Rio, but instead rather to embrace the town further. We were ready to leave the military, but not Del Rio.
Most military people looked at me sideways when they heard the news of my family staying put in Del Rio after I exited the military. While the vast majority of the exiting force counts the days til they see this part of Texas in the rear-view mirror en-route to larger cities, higher-paying jobs, and cooler weather, they can’t seem to understand why we would stay.
If you’ve ever relocated a few times in your life, you know as well as I do that the people make or break the location, not the other way around. Of all the places I’ve lived, Del Rio – by a long shot – is home to the friendliest people. Texas, by-and-large, is home to nice people, especially in the more rural areas.
Growing up on the West Coast, people aren’t friendly. It’s not uncommon to simply feel like you are just in their way - an inconvenience - and sucked into the rat-race of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’. In Del Rio, no one cares if you drive a $70K SUV (although you might not fit in…) or an old clunker that is one lug nut from not passing inspection this year. You can own a $300K home, or rent a $600 apartment, and your kids can attend the same school. And, vastly different from the beaches of Southern California, you can strike up a conversation with a total stranger – anywhere – they’ll tell you they’re life story, simply for the sake of having a neighborly conversation. Folks are genuine, here.
In Del Rio, I’ve had total strangers at the downtown creek-side park invite me to their barbecues. No hidden agenda, just hospitality. When my daughter was born, every lady in H-E-B (local grocery store) found their way to the aisle I was on to meet her. On her first birthday party, our house was so full we had to move most of it outside with the sprinklers on (it was hot). Her second one we held at the church, a smashing hit. Not because she is all-that (she thinks she is, like all two-year-olds), but because Del Rio is a family where a sense of community is important. If you embrace it, it will embrace you.
Dirty, dusty border town? Sure, it is somewhat of a desert climate – hot and relatively dry – but the area does have its green season most years with plenty of rainfall. It also gets a mild winter from time to time – but rarely snow.
Unlike many desert locations, however, the area also has numerous rivers, Lake Amistad, and Hill Country all within an hour’s drive. Sunrises and sunsets are beautiful, and wide-open spaces are plentiful and filled with wildlife. It’s common to see deer in your front yard in town, and just out of town you can find aoudad (big-horn sheep), numerous types of deer, birds, hogs, varmints, and mountain lions.
Lake Amistad is one of the clearest lakes in Texas and straddles the international border with unlimited gorgeous desert scenery and great fishing and boating. The Devils River is also a paradise with ultra-pure waters. The Pecos River and Rio Grande both make big cuts into the desert plateau and are frequented by kayakers. Many locals float down portions of the Rio, as well as other local Hill Country rivers like the Nueces, Sabinal, and Frio Rivers.
Del Rio is one of the safest cities in Texas. With a crime rate of about half of the national-average according to City-Data.com, Del Rio is an extremely secure town. For a population of about 35,000 residents, law enforcement departments include Del Rio Police Department, San Felipe-Del Rio School District Police Department, Val Verde County Sheriff’s Department, Val Verde County Constable, U.S. Border Patrol and Customs, Texas Highway Patrol, Texas Game Warden, U.S. Park Rangers, FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshalls. There might be a few I missed, but the point is that criminal activity is highly discouraged due to the shear number of law enforcement officials scattered throughout the town.
I never worry about my wife and daughter out and about anytime during the day or night – crime is so rare, especially violent crime. Even Acuña – Del Rio’s sister-city across the border – is frequented by Del Rioans daily with few problems.
The Cost of Living
Cheap! While the housing rental market is rather inflated due to Laughlin AFB, the rest of the town remains very affordable. Even if you want to buy a house, it’s rather inexpensive, although property taxes and utilities are slightly high in Texas compared to some other states. However, like much of West Texas, you don’t need a high-paying job to live comfortably.
While high-paying jobs outside of federal employment are hard to find, the cost of living allows modest salaries to meet the needs of most families. Some say that it’s only inexpensive because they’re nothing to spend your money on – but that’s far from the truth. My wife and daughter stay busy every day in the community enjoying free – or very inexpensive – entertainment and activities.
While Del Rio doesn’t have a wide variety of shopping choices, prices are low. Movie tickets are between $4-6 a pop. The Whitehead Museum, Del Rio Community Garden, Civic Center, Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, The Dr. Alfredo Gutierrez Amphitheater, the Lake Amistad Recreation Area routinely hold free events. The Paul Poag Theatre also holds regular musicals and other shows at reasonable prices.
Too many people never see Del Rio – they give up the opportunity before they even arrive. Others do relocate with the military or federal service, reluctantly, but come close-minded and ignorant. They stay holed up on on base at Laughlin AFB or in their house in the north part of the city and Del Rio doesn’t even get a fair shot. If my wife and I came to Del Rio with the preconceived notion that we would hate it (like many do), then I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. But, like the story of a Game Warden’s wife I once met here in Del Rio – she came here kicking and screaming, and left here in tears.
I’ve found that the culture in Del Rio is accepting of newcomers. Not newcomers that want to make Del Rio a big city, but newcomers that want to contribute to the community – those who take pride in their new city and its culture. Many Del Rioans want to see the city grow through new ideas and opportunities. They welcome – with open arms – families that want to help make a positive impact on the community. Because of this, there are an unlimited number of opportunities for community involvement that will help you and your family in transforming this duty location in a home.
We gave it a shot, embraced it, and in turn it embraced us.
Who is this guy? Like just about everyone else that does a double-take the first time they see Chito, I didn’t know what exactly to think. My first impression, however, was nothing further from the truth.
Jose Angel “Chito” Martiarena – a Del Rio native often seen pushing a train of children’s wagons with flashy balloons and road cones attached to a lawnmower down Veteran’s Boulevard, continues to inspire me.
Before you read any further, you have to watch this 9-minute video from the Texas Country Reporter.
He inspires us to give our time, effort, talents, and passions to our community, simply because it’s our home. He inspires us to embody and encourage hard work and sense of duty over laziness and irresponsibility. “Entitlement” doesn’t exist in Chito’s vocabulary, even though he has that right more than most of us. Chito exemplifies how priorities should be arranged in life – family, community…and lastly – himself. He is the epitome of a dedicated, hard worker – not because it results in personal gain, but because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s not about glory, wealth, or even long-lasting health for Chito – it’s about using the gifts God gave him at their max potential solely for the purpose of making a difference here in Del Rio. Chito has taught me more about life than any life-skills coach could ever teach me, and yet he hasn’t spoken a distinguishable word to me.
If you’re interested in supporting Chito, he’s not hard to find. Look for the trail of wagons attached to an old lawnmower with a bunch of balloons and road cones. Tell him you appreciate him, thank him, pat him on the back, and spend a moment or two talking to him (and he’ll understand you). Chito gives it all for Del Rio, the least Del Rio can do for him is offer their gratitude (and a bottle of water, perhaps).
It’s June in South-Central Texas, and local watermelon farmers in Quemado, a small town between Del Rio and Eagle Pass along Highway 277 and the Rio Grande, are harvesting sweet, savory melons by the ton.
It’s always about this time of year that local vendors park their pick-up trucks loaded with melons along the busy roadways of Del Rio. If you’re like me, you drive past them every day and wonder who they are and how they make a living selling giant fruit on the side of the road.
Well, curiosity finally reeled me in when I was thinking of my next article to write about the unique and awesome culture of Del Rio. I decided to interview a couple of these local vendors to get a better idea of what exactly I’ve been missing on my way home from work every day this week.
I didn’t really need to send any formal invitation for an interview – I just happened to pull off Highway 90 near the Del Rio Middle School and end up at Dionisio’s watermelon truck. Dionisio has lived in Del Rio since 1957, originally growing up outside of Acuña. He sells his watermelons for anywhere between $3 and $5, depending on the size, and has been selling them for about seven years.
Dionisio fills his truck, equipped with a camper-top, full of melons for $390 from a farm in Quemado. When I asked him how much money he made from his sales, he replied, “Not much…but it [gives me] something to do”. Although not a man of many words, Dionisio explained that weekdays are not as good for business as weekends are. “If they stop [to purchase a melon], they stop. Otherwise they keep going,” he remarked as we watched rush hour resume on the highway, closing in on 5:00 PM.
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Learning how to prepare the food you’ve raised should also be free, she said. “It’s something that used to be passed down from generation to generation,” she commented as she reflected on receiving a notebook of gardening tips and tricks from her grandfather who farmed through parts of Texas in the years past – a notebook that she’s used personally, with a team of volunteers, to transform a vacant lot near San Felipe Creek into a beautiful arrangement of vegetable plants, new saplings, and flowers.
“We have a Farmer’s Market on the first Saturday of every month,” said Maria. “We need more vendors and local farmers, it’s a free gathering place.”
The Del Rio Community Garden is part of the Del Rio Parks Foundation – a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to enriching the quality of life for the community through the development of outdoor park and recreational spaces in the City of Del Rio. If you are interested in becoming involved with this organization, visit their website at http://delrioparksfoundation.com/ and follow their various Facebook pages at Del Rio Parks Foundation, Del Rio Community Garden, and Del Rio Community Garden Volunteers. Article written by Dan Schreiber.