By Constancio Martinez, Jr.
Special to the PRESS
This past Thursday, January 23, Rudy H. Garcia and Pat McGrath Avery launched their new book Shrimp Tales: Port Isabel and Brownsville Shrimping History. The book launch was held at the Port Isabel Cultural Event Center in front of a large group of attendees.
The group was much larger than anticipated: there was a slight delay as extra seats were being brought out to accommodate the great turnout of locals and Winter Texans.
Besides Garcia and Avery, the following special guests who contributed to the book were in attendance: Noe Lopez, Albert Alegria, Eddie Garcia, Beto Garcia, Carlos Medina, Virginia Guillot, Nancy Sanders, Charles Bernell, Red and Linda Sagnes, Billy and Vita Holland, Sandalio Alaniz, Isabel Alaniz and Uraldo Alaniz.
The idea for the book came about two years ago when, after hearing some of Garcia’s poetry readings about shrimping, Avery suggested they collaborate on a book about the shrimping history of the area. He agreed, with both working on the book for the past two years. After a while, what struck out for Avery was how much of an effect the shrimping industry had on the small town.
“This is a story of Port Isabel and its amazing town, a community that came together,” Avery said. “It’s kind of a rag to riches story, because there was very little in this town and it became the shrimping capital of the world.”
“In the boom days, in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, I can say there was zero unemployment in Port Isabel,” Garcia recalled. “Everybody worked, everybody had a job. When shrimp boats came in, the managers of the shrimp house would drive around town and honk letting people know. Many mothers with kids in tow made their way to the shrimp house, found a spot on the table and started to head shrimp. I think they would get paid five to six cents a pound for the heads of the shrimp.”
Even at that rate all the families involved still made money, Garcia said.
“We interviewed men, but in writing this story and interviewing them we found out how important the women were in the shrimping industry,” Avery said. “They held Port Isabel together, they held families together and they supported the men while the men were out.”
Before the area transitioned into more of a tourist economy, a lot of men went shrimping to support their families. Often times, they started off young and went on boats with their fathers and or uncles.
Garcia was asked by an audience member if a young man wanted to be a shrimper if it was a “trial by fire” job?
“Yes ma’am!” Garcia exclaimed. “Anyone who wants to be a shrimper, they will get a job shrimping. Now shrimping is not for everyone. Often times, after the second or third day they tell the Captain, ‘Captain this is not for me’. Not just anyone can be a shrimper, one out of ten stay.”
Whether they liked the shrimper’s life or not, all the shrimpers agree it is a hard occupation to be in.
In the earlier days, shrimpers went out on ice boats, and would stay out at sea for 10-14 days at a time. Nowadays, modern shrimp boats with freezers are now at sea from 30-60 days at a time. They come in for about a week and they go back out. Rinse and repeat.
In the past, when the shrimping season was closed in Texas, the shrimpers would make their way down south to Mexico to shrimp in Mexican waters, until a treaty in 1976 ended that option. Now, when the Texas coast is closed to shrimping, the local fleets make their way to Louisiana and Florida to shrimp.
The Laguna Madre area has had an exodus of shrimping boat owners and shrimpers for quite a while now, due to many factors: shrimping and fishing regulations, higher fuels costs, insurance costs, competition from imported shrimp and farm-raised shrimp. But for those that remain, the struggle continues for all the people involved in the shrimping industry. It’s their way of life.
“We only touched a tip of the iceberg,” Avery said. “There are so many stories in there, so much history here. It is absolutely fascinating and real. We are very thankful to all those who agreed to be interviewed.”
If you missed your chance to pick up a copy of the book, you can purchase the book at Paragraphs bookstore on South Padre Island or online at Amazon.com.