A Long Line in the Sand: Journeying Along the US-Mexico Border

A Long Line in the Sand: Journeying Along the US-Mexico Border

Travelling for 12 weeks and 2,000 miles along the
US-Mexico border unveils a diverse vision of America, in which the
kindness of strangers overrides barriers of language and

This article appears in Volume 20: The Homelands

A minivan with Nova Scotia number plates and “Winter Texan”
bumper stickers pulled up beside us, unloading passengers and beach
chairs. Beyond them was just burgeoning brown surf, blue sky and
shapeless clouds, all slightly different colours of Texan haze.
Boca Chica Beach is where the United States ends and
begins, or where the Atlantic Ocean ends and the
American continent begins, depending on which way you’re
travelling. Here the Rio Grande River – the international boundary
between the two countries – meets the gulf. “Watch out for the bad
hombres,” a surfcaster joked as we passed him on our way down the
empty beach to the river mouth. Getting closer we were greeted by
the faint reverberations of banda music and the smell of grilling
fish. “Gringo! Gringo!” a pair of teenagers on the Mexican side
cried out across the water. That’s fair, I acknowledged, reapplying
my SPF 85. At our journey’s beginning it was still winter
and we hadn’t been prepared for South Texas to be so tropical. The
palm trees, citrus elds, taco stands and RV parks felt surreal. As
one border patrol agent eloquently described the Rio Grande Valley:
“It’s like Florida threw up a little on Texas.”

For my partner, Elliot, and I this delta was the beginning of a
three- month-long journey. From here we were setting out to explore
the entire 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, from Brownsville in Texas
to San Diego, California, at a time when President Trump’s plan to
build a wall along the southern border loomed large in political
discourse. Beyond talk of a wall, we wanted to understand the
larger, less coherent story of our borderlands. Few US citizens,
including us at that time, knew much about the communities that
live along the frontier – their cultural reality, their compass of
life. As with so many other matters American, the media’s
illustration of “the border” seemed to lurch between the
sensational and the vague. We wanted a vision of the borderlands
that was real, detailed and tangible. We wanted to know if the
nation’s heart and founding principles could be found at its
periphery. We had to go there ourselves.

Over the course of several weeks we made our way towards El
Paso, spending time in Brownsville, Roma, Laredo, Eagle Pass and
Del Rio – all once-elegant 19th-century trading towns at the
northern frontier of the Spanish empire – that still reflect a
slightly fossilised and neglected colonial charm. Central plazas
and high-walled gated compounds now stand empty and crumbling,
their wrought-iron balconies warped and brittle. In these small
towns we found tight-knit Hispanic communities where the
translations between “American,” “Mexican” and “Mexican-American”
culture – architecturally, economically and linguistically – were
extremely fluid. The border, we found, is more porous than commonly
imagined – thousands of people live a bi-national existence,
crossing over the Rio daily for work, for school or for lunch.
“You’re a minority here,” I was repeatedly told by locals eager to
address the culture shock that visitors from other parts of the
country sometimes experience. According to the 2010 census, the
demographic profile of the Rio Grande Valley is 91 per cent
Hispanic and Latino. As such, it is not uncommon to find yourself
at a distinct disadvantage in everyday exchanges at shops,
restaurants and petrol stations if you don’t speak Spanish. The
Texan scholar and poet Gloria E. Anzaldúa famously claimed “Chicano
Texas Spanish” as her first language, listing the other frontera
(border) languages and dialects that she speaks as Standard
English, Spanglish, Pachuco and Tex-Mex.

As we got deeper into far-west Texas the complexion of the land
changed. Towns got further apart, stands of mesquite and salt cedar
gave way to yucca, pine and creosote. After hundreds of miles of
unmitigated at we were suddenly confronted with topography – craggy
canyons, spires and giant rocks. From inside Big Bend National Park
we crossed the border to visit the tiny hamlet of Boquillas del
Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico. To get there from the US you can either
wade through the chest- deep Rio Grande or pay $5 for a round-trip
ride in a rowing boat. Across the sparkling turquoise river donkeys
lazed in the meagre shade of scrubby cedars and thatched awnings,
waiting to take us a quarter-mile uphill to a dusty one-road town
at the base of towering sierras. We were courted by Estabán, an
elderly gentleman sporting a toothy smile and a baseball cap with
“No Wall” written in blue felt-tip pen. He handed us a binder with
tattered printouts of tourist attractions that he could escort us
to – an old mine, or a natural hot springs. We politely declined
and he left, still smiling.

When the US abruptly shut its borders in 2002, Boquillas was
effectively stranded on the other side. Located more than a
five-hour drive away from the closest grocery store in Mexico and
unable to access vital supplies across the river in the US, the
village dwindled to only 14 struggling families. The population and
tourist trade has picked up since the port of entry reopened in
2013, but in general the old US habit of crossing the border to
shop and carouse is still on pause. Like most Mexican border towns,
the historic bars and restaurants sit empty, waiting for tourists
to return. Bottles of mezcal and painted ceramics stand unsold in
souvenir shops, gathering dust. Yet somehow, amidst limestone
canyons and the bleached beauty of the Chihuahuan desert, the
community survives by pooling resources such as petrol, vehicles,
food and livestock.

Being so geographically distant from Mexico
and Washington
, border towns have their own strong sense of community and
self-reliance, as well as a distance from the dominant cultures of
either country. We found strong expressions of this in the old
mining and waterstop towns such as Terlingua, Texas and Bisbee in
Arizona. The latter, for example – once the biggest copper-mining
town in the world – is now a small liberal enclave tucked into the
Mule Mountains where artists and hippies have been cultivating a
tight, free-spirited community since mining operations ceased in
the 1975. Today Bisbee’s extraordinarily well-preserved early
20th-century downtown still looks very much like it did back when
General “Black Jack” Pershing hunted the Mexican revolutionary
Pancho Villa here in the early 1900s, back when it was the largest
city between St Louis and San
. “This is a very diverse town,” a local artist told
us over beers at St Elmo bar (est. 1902). “We have gay people,
straight people, artists, alcoholics, Mexicans, bikers, cartels,
hippies and very wealthy people. The golden rule is not to tell
anyone else how to think.”

We started to identify a particular “type” who tended to seek
out these peripheral places. Die-hard hippies and ageing
new-ageists who began searching for a more authentic, forgiving
America after the Vietnam War – or the later mall-ification of the
nation – found something in these remote and often desolate
outposts. They encountered communities underwritten by the
confluence of several different codes of morality – the
family-oriented warmth of Hispanic culture, the inter-reliance and
kinship of desert-dwellers as well as the resilience and
isolation-prone nature of cowboys, farmers and ranchers. Underneath
it all was a rm belief in diversity and tolerance. We met people
who had left New
, LA,
Vietnam, Mexico and Iowa to live out their dreams in this bubble of
small-town, cosmopolitan Americana. The promise of the United
States here seemed to be very much alive and well.

By then, more than two months into the trip, we were used to
sleeping in the open by the border, pushing all the stories we knew
of what can happen there to the back of our rational minds. We
slept deeply under the darkest skies, out of mobile phone range and
often beyond the reach of the border patrols. We witnessed flares
launched from the ranges above us – a communication system used by
smugglers – and saw the footprints and the discarded water bottles
of crossers. We gave a 15-year-old boy food and water when we were
the first people to encounter him in the US after his difficult
solo journey from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He was looking for the
border patrol agents. In recent years the majority of people
crossing the border illegally are asylum seekers and political
refugees whose intent is not to evade detection, but to present
themselves to authorities when they reach US soil. Typically these
are people fleeing some of the most violent countries in the world
outside a war zone – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Finally, nearing the Pacific, the light and the colours began to
change. On the other side of the Otay Mountains the cool oceanic
air touched everything. After months in the desert and heat, it
felt like we could bathe in the negative ions that suddenly filled
the atmosphere. By the time we reached Border Field State Park in
California the last slanting light was glittering on the horizon.
Here the border fence plunges into the Pacific Ocean a few miles
south of the gritty municipality of Imperial Beach. A town of
surfers, immigrants and the children and grandchildren of
immigrants, IB (as the locals call it) is a world apart from the
ritzier San Diego suburbs such as La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe.
Like Boca Chica Beach back in Texas, the only indication of life
was an indistinct murmur of voices and music through the fence in
Tijuana. The wall dividing the two countries here is covered with a
thick, dense steel mesh that is difficult to see through. Those who
come to International Friendship Park, where for generations people
from both nations have gathered to visit with loved ones “across
the line”, can barely touch the tips of their fingers through the
openings in the wire – but they still come every weekend. They
visit family and friends, they talk, they pray, go home in the
evening and continue their lives, deeply shaped by the border.

Vicente Rendon had brought his two children down from LA to see
their grandmother that day. For them it would be the first time
that they would meet their Mexican abuela. For Vicente it was the
first time that he had seen his mother in 22 years – ever since he
left their small village in Michoacán when he was a young man.
Without a work permit or papers all these years he never felt safe
to come to the park, where border patrol keeps a wary eye on all
those who get close to the fence. “I still have the smell of her
after all these years,” he told us holding back tears. “She was
young. Her hands now…back then they weren’t so wrinkly.”

Leaving the border after hugging it for 12 weeks, we were still
confused and humbled by the terrain and the complex social
landscape of the borderlands. The intricacies of a land shaped by
forces of acculturation, community, diversity and surveillance had
unfolded town by town, detail by detail. We found a vision of
America that swung between pessimistic and patriotic, cynical and
idealistic, gracious and reclusive. In many ways a crucible, the
contemporary political climate offered us a stark context for
confronting cultural difference within the United States. We met
some of the kindest people, and some of the most hostile. There
were the landowners who liked to say hello with their gun – “how
would you like to get shot today?” was how one short, fierce
Arizona rancher had greeted us – but they were the minority.
Countless families opened their homes and their hearts to us. We
were repeatedly assured, and it was constantly proved to us, that
the borderlands are a place where you can rely on the kindness of