By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
Spring Break is an American rite of passage for many. It’s a carefree time that represents some of the uninhibited last hurrahs before a young adult has to take on the mantle of responsibility that comes with growing up. On the beaches of South Padre Island, however, partying during Spring Break isn’t the only coming-of-age story being written.
Within a section of sandy beach smaller than a football field exist two realities. In one, affluent coeds with money to burn enjoy the bone-thumping beats of music blaring from a sound stage while the sweet and pungent smells of sunscreen, beer and marijuana float through the air. Bedecked in bikinis and swimming trunks, the revelers play drinking games, dance, laugh and take numerous selfies. They are oblivious to everything except the immediate.
Weaving among the crowd, however, are those who exist in the second reality. They are armed with black plastic trash bags and clothed in fluorescent colors as bright as those of the partiers around them. But rather than swimsuits, they wear t-shirts and shorts.
A glint of metal half buried in the packed sand catches the eye of one young girl. She rushes over to pick it up, bobbing between people who don’t see her. It’s a partially crushed beer can, which she plucks deftly from the ground before dropping it into a trash bag being held by a woman nearby.
The girl is 12-year-old Alejandra Caballero and the woman is her mother, Guadalupe Alvarado. The pair are not alone, however. Elsewhere in the crowd are Alejandra’s two older sisters, her younger brother, and her father, Monserrath.
The entire family has traveled to the Island from Brownsville in order to collect aluminum cans from the beach. “It’s to help us economically, the entire family,” Alvarado said in Spanish. “And from this, we pay for the quinceañeras.”
It took some coaxing to get Alvarado to speak, at first, as she smiled with shy humility and deferred the conversation to her daughter.
The family comes every day during Texas Week, and also throughout the summer. It’s something they’ve done for the past six years, Alvarado explained. The family often combs the beach from 2 p.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. and can make approximately $150 a day. “We do eat, though!” Alvarado joked about the long workday.
“From our house to South Padre, it’s like an hour and a half,” said eldest daughter, Edith Garcia a few minutes after her mom and younger sister caught up with her.
Just 21 years old, and a student at Texas Southmost College, Edith chooses to spend her Spring Break with her family, versus with her contemporaries on the Island. Hers was the first quinceañera paid for with the proceeds from collecting cans. Next came that of her now-16-year-old sister, and now the family is working on saving for Alejandra’s quince, too.
“It was really gratifying,” Edith said of being able to pay for her 15th birthday celebration by collecting cans with her family. “I love to do this. It’s not the only thing we do. We also sell jewelry in the restaurants. We’re familiar with people like this and doing stuff like this. … We have a lot of small businesses,” she said.
“It’s really fun, actually,” she added.
Standing at the fringe of the crowd, the conversation was staccato as several times Spring Breakers asked Edith if she was collecting cans before dropping empties into her bag. “Usually, they thank me a lot and they say ‘God bless you’ a lot,” she said. “They’re actually really nice, even if they’re drunk,” she added with a laugh.
Edith said people often ask her and her family if they’ve found lost items, such as keys or cellphones. “Even the police officer yesterday, he lost his keys,” she said. “But we couldn’t find them.”
A moment later, her younger brother ran up to say their dad had stopped to take a short break. Edith, Alejandra and their mom gathered up a few more cans at the edge of the crowd before disappearing into it on their way to rejoin the elder Caballero.
During Spring Break the sands of South Padre Island present one space with two realities.
On the one hand, thousands flock here to experience a rite of passage that focuses on the individual and the gratification of the self. On the other, a family works together to prepare for the coming-of-age celebration of a girl’s ascension into womanhood — a tradition that is often religiously motivated and incredibly family-centric.
On a single stretch of beach, the two worlds intersect.
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