NUEVO PROGRESO, Mexico - The first time Roselyn Stensrud visited a "dentista" on the main drag in this tiny, border tourist town, he yanked a permanent crown out of her mouth without telling her and before she could yell stop.
"I had my mouth open and didn't know what he was doing," said Stensrud, 71, a thin, silver-haired bus driver from Arkansas who retired to South Texas a year ago. "He glued it back in, but it didn't hold."
Determined to get it fixed, she tried a different dental clinic a few steps away. Still unhappy with the work, she went to yet another across the street.
Stensrud, like thousands of American retirees in Texas, travels south of the border several times a year to try her luck in this six-block area crammed with about 100 dentists offering cut-rate care.
It's the quick service and bargain basement prices, not necessarily the quality of the work, that bring them to Nuevo Progreso - a town of cheap dentists and their flashy advertisements, mixed in with street vendors, beggars, restaurants, pharmacies, beauty salons and liquor shops.
Walk-ins are always welcome, evaluations are free and window advertisements scream: "We speak English! We have the office! We have the newest tec-nology on sterilization."
Price lists are plastered across front doors or handed out in colorful fliers: cleaning, $10; extraction, $15; root canal, $110; dentures, $120.
For many without dental insurance, it's worth the gamble.
They know they can get the work redone two or three times if necessary, and it will still be cheaper than going to a dentist in the United States.
Stensrud got seven teeth pulled, a root canal, a set of partial dentures and two sets of full dentures for $900. North of the border, that would run her a minimum of $5,000.
"I've never been afraid of the dentists here," Stensrud said as she waited for a second denture adjustment on her new teeth. "The same thing that happened to me here could happen in the States. You can't judge them all by just a few."
An estimated 800,000 people cross the almost 2,000-mile-long United States-Mexico border with ease every day for shopping, school, work, play or services such as dental care. Some say there is so much movement between the two countries that the border is virtually disappearing.
That offers consumers more options, but less assurance of quality and less recourse if something goes wrong.
"When you go over there, you should be aware you're on your own," said Jeffrey Hill, executive director of Texas' State Board of Dental Examiners. "I wouldn't do it because you don't have any way to find out about their qualifications and licenses. Here, at least you can find out if they're licensed."
Mexico's National Commission on Medical Arbitration asserts that it has received no complaints against dentists along the Mexican border within the past five years, according to its office of investigations.
People like Stensrud and many others who don't speak Spanish say they wouldn't know how to make a complaint if they had one.
The Mexican dentists survive almost exclusively on business from "winter Texans," a group of about 124,000 U.S. retirees, most of whom park their mobile homes in South Texas a few months a year. Despite dumping an estimated $329 million into the Rio Grande Valley each year, they have a reputation for being frugal spenders. The majority are from the Midwest.
In Nuevo Progreso, they simply call them "los winter" and appreciate them so much that the city holds a "Tourist Day" each March 21, complete with a parade, free food and music.
When "los winter" are not in town from May to September, dentists rely on business from retirees from the Rio Grande Valley and from younger families who cross the border for care.
To the dismay of South Texas dentists, the clients continue to pay a quarter and walk across a short bridge from Progreso, Texas, directly onto Avenida Juarez, the Mexican town's tourist strip.
They need not show so much as a passport or driver's license to cross the international bridge. People flow back and forth all day and night, while Mexican children stand below, begging Americans to drop their change.
Nuevo Progreso is one of several northern Mexico cities along the Rio Grande that are filled with dentists' and eye doctors' offices, cancer treatment centers and other such amenities that have become tourist attractions.
It was in 1997 that paralegal Mary Perez crossed the border to go to an orthodontist in Nuevo Progreso for braces based on the recommendation of a co-worker. Three years and $1,500 later, she realized her lips and gums had been swollen almost the whole time, and her mouth was in constant, nagging pain.
"I looked like I had boxer lips," said Perez, 30.
Last year, she went to a dentist in McAllen, Texas, who said her teeth were so loose they were in danger of falling out and she had severe bone loss. He took the braces off, and she started a process of gum surgery and antibiotics to kill the infections.