You Can Never Leave the Border Behind

hen I think of la frontera—the El Paso–Juárez borderlands—the first thing that comes to mind is the oppressive heat and dust, and our attempts to defy them. When I was growing up, those suffocating summers during which months pass without a single raindrop made me fantasize about winter and fall and even worry that they’d never arrive again. I feared we’d live the rest of our days waiting for the faint smell of wet dirt.

Since few things grow without water, the default landscape on this stretch of the border is patches of dirt separating islands of weeds or poured slabs of concrete bounded by small fields of river rock with the occasional outcropping of yucca. Where one might expect idyllic white picket fences, there are only rough rock walls. A lush, green yard is a privilege in the blow-dryer weather. To grow and maintain one requires a sizable investment in a monthly water bill—and if there are water restrictions, a willingness to break the law as well.

Even more extravagant than the occasional lush lawn are the fountains. On many blocks you can spot a few houses displaying them as the front yard’s centerpiece. When new, the fountains are run by their proud owners as they were meant to be run. The sound of water pouring into basins is almost loud enough to drown out the hum of the motorized pump, working hard in the desert to make it seem as if the water will never stop flowing.

Making something appear natural where it’s not meant to be requires discipline. Faking it, month in and month out, must be exhausting for a fountain’s owner. And so, eventually, the water does stop flowing. When it does, the sun and the dust storms start eating away at the fountain’s paint—and then, in time, the material beneath the paint too. The once beautiful fountain, a testament to a homeowner’s moderate affluence, turns into a crumbling monument to the abiding harshness of desert life.

My parents were born in this place, on the south side of the El Paso–Juárez borderland. My mother, Norma, finished the Mexican equivalent of high school, and my father, Roberto, ended his formal education in fifth grade. For a while, he sold lemons on street corners. My mother was seventeen when she married him. He was four years older, lived a block away from her, and, because my maternal grandparents disapproved of him—with his long hair and penchant for getting into street fights—she essentially had to run away to live with him, his mother, and his six siblings.

In 1980 my father’s search for employment eventually took him to Chicago. He found a job working for the census and a place to live, with a cousin who had also moved there from Juárez. A month after he arrived, he sent for my mother. Undocumented and three months pregnant, she crossed at the international bridge without incident. “Things were different back then,” she tells me in Spanish. “All I did was say ‘American,’ and I crossed.” She boarded an airplane to Chicago.

My parents quickly learned that it’s difficult to live far from family. You miss the holidays, birthdays, and even simple visits to homes filled with cousins, aunts, and uncles. That distance is magnified when you live in a place with different customs, a different culture, and a different language, doubly so when there’s a baby in the house. And so, a little more than a year after my mother crossed over the border, the three of us returned to Juárez. We lived in a small apartment atop a tortillería and carnicería. My father worked as a mechanic in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio; every day he’d cross the border to get to his job, and every evening he’d cross back. I could always tell when he arrived home by the loud, screeching sound of our wrought-iron gate sliding open and the roar of his motorcycle growing louder as it crept closer and then shut down.

We had great times during those years. Both sides of the family lived within a couple blocks of each other in a neighborhood where seemingly everyone knew each other, and because Juárez had yet to become dangerous, we lived a comfortable life. It was home. But as my immediate family grew, that apartment didn’t get any bigger. When it became clear that our situation wasn’t going to improve, my father did what so many working-class men before him have done: he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

For the next eight years we lived in places like Colorado and Germany, places vastly different from la frontera. Arriving at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, our first stop, we first noticed how green and cool it was. We felt like outsiders in just about every way. But those feelings were alleviated when we heard others speaking Spanish. Even if it was spoken in a different accent than our Spanish—many of our fellow military families were from Puerto Rico or other parts of Mexico—it reminded us of home. Those were people we missed when it was time to say goodbye.

In the mid-nineties, with the military downsizing, my father got out of the Army just in time for me to enter high school. We returned to the desert, but this time to El Paso. Our first few years back on the border, my father worked as a janitor at an indoor swap meet. My mother worked at a Tonka toy factory; the company had moved its facilities from Minnesota years earlier in part to save money on labor costs.

Both of them constantly stressed the importance of getting an education. One evening when my mother and I were driving from Juárez back to El Paso, the mood turned serious when I asked her what she would think of me dropping out of high school. “You’d be ruining your life,” she sternly answered. I never mentioned it again.

Most Mexican working-class families speak of education with reverence, as if it’s a magical force that will enable its possessor to break free from the physical and emotional toll of low-paid manual labor. The work my parents did was honest work and important work; civilization couldn’t keep going without people with the strength and skills to lift and hammer and fit things together. But it’s hard work that can break your body and offers little in the way of financial reward. Most people who do that sort of work hope that their children will do something less punishing, something that will secure other opportunities for future generations. To my parents, getting an education meant that their sacrifices would count for something. And I, one of the first of my family born on the northern side of the Rio Grande, was expected to turn education from a dream into something real.

Perhaps the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had took place after I graduated from high school, when I told my family that I was leaving town—not to attend college but to work construction. Though my mother held strong long enough to not do so in front of me, that night, through the thin wall that separated our bedrooms, I heard her crying. When I told my grandmother of my plan, she seemed confused and gave me $60. I took that money, a basketball, two pairs of dress pants my father gave me—“for when you go to interviews”—and left la frontera.

I’ve often thought about that decision. Why did I, seventeen at the time, do something so self-destructive? Though I certainly didn’t think of it in those terms then, I do remember feeling afraid that I’d get to college and—unlike my high school classmates, who seemingly had it all figured out—fail miserably. I figured that, like most of the men in my family, I’d eventually end up in construction anyway, so why not cut out the few years of academic floundering and get to work instead?

Before I walked out the door, my mother, with her right hand, made a cross over my forehead and repeated a phrase she must have told me thousands of times each morning before I left for school: “Abusadillo desde chiquillo” (“Stay vigilant despite being young”), advice rooted in the belief that street smarts were as valuable, and at times more valuable, than the knowledge gained from books. It was an odd sentiment to express to someone who had just let his family down by forsaking college. But perhaps it was such ambiguities—the belief that education is important but machismo may be even more valuable—that had ultimately undermined my confidence.

Searching for work, I spent the next three years in various parts of Arizona—Phoenix, Tucson, little towns named Thatcher and Camp Verde—before returning to El Paso, where I kept doing the same sort of labor. I worked at almost everything construction-related—electrical installation, highway guardrail repair, laying pavers. In between my steady gigs, I worked as a day laborer, which meant that I had to sign up for work so early that the traffic lights were still blinking red. That time of the morning, when nothing but infomercials played on the television in the labor office’s waiting room, I’d sit there, in clothes that were stained no matter how many times I cleaned them, hearing once again about a magical knife that cut cans, leather, and tomatoes, and I’d wonder about the choices I had made.

And all the time, I read. Books offered me a retreat from the work’s physical demands—a few moments when I could slow down, give my body a rest, and enter another world. Because my grandparents would often tell me stories about Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, I read Frank McLynn’s Villa and Zapata. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and learned that mistakes can often be fixed, a lesson I needed all too desperately to learn. Victor Villaseñor’s memoir Burro Genius was especially revelatory. He came from a family not that different from mine, and yet he became a writer. I realized that if Villaseñor could do it, then it was possible that I—an ESL kid who once struggled to enunciate the differences between “three” and “tree” or, even more embarrassingly, “booger” and “burger”—could be something other than a construction worker. These daydreams were particularly vivid during the hottest parts of the summer, days so hot that I envied the people who worked for minimum wage at Walmart. “At least they have air-conditioning,” I’d think.

That was my life. It wasn’t a life I particularly liked, and I struggled to ignore the voice in my head telling me that I’d wasted all the advantages that my parents had worked so hard to give me.

Then, one day, while I was laying a concrete slab with fellow workers, my mother drove past. I only knew about it because later that day, in front of my siblings, she told me she’d seen me and felt lástima—pity—that I’d squandered opportunities that few in my family had been offered. She noted that I spoke English and was a high school graduate—both rarities in my family then—and yet I worked construction, which required neither. Then, in a measured tone that made hearing the words much more painful, she told my younger brother and sister to use me as an example of what not to be.

Realizing you’ve broken your mother’s heart isn’t an easy thing to experience, especially when she says so in front of two people who should  look up to you. It was all I could do to breathe, swallow, blink, and stop myself from crying. Even today, when I think of that conversation, I have to take a moment, catch my breath, and steady myself.

Still, change doesn’t come easily. A routine, even one you dislike, feels safer than the unknown. It was years before I finally summoned the courage to make a change.

On my first day of class at El Paso Community College, I arrived early so I could sit close to the door—in case I wanted to flee. I was 28, and I worried that I was too old, that it had been too long since I’d last sat in a classroom, that I no longer knew how to be a student.

But I fought those urges and stayed. And with the help of a few professors, I thrived. Years of working outdoors had given me a perspective that others lacked. Compared to laboring under the brutal southwestern sun, reading a book and writing about it felt easy. It didn’t hurt that a woman I’d recently met, who a few years later became my wife, was a high school teacher and encouraged my enthusiasm.

After a year, I transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso. It was there that a professor suggested that I apply to a PhD program. I’d never considered such a thing. Frankly, I didn’t even know what a PhD program was. Still, with his encouragement, after graduation I applied for and received a fellowship to Southern Methodist University’s doctoral history program. It was time to leave la frontera once more.

My first month at SMU, I once again had to fight the urge to run away. “I shouldn’t be here,” I thought, as I looked at the Mercedes and Maseratis in the student parking lot in this upscale Dallas neighborhood. I often walked past the university’s service workers and felt I had more in common with them than with my fellow students. When I heard them speak Spanish, I thought of home and was tempted to say something—something more than “¿Qué onda?”—to let them, or myself, know I was one of them. But I worried they’d see me as no different than the students I felt so alienated from. So I said nothing.

But I knew that that sort of self-pity was pointless. I couldn’t help but hear my father’s voice: “Ponte a trabajar, cabrón.” (Loose translation: “Get to work, dumbass.”)

During those first few weeks at SMU, I struggled. I imagined the absurdity of returning home a failure and facing loved ones who not even a month before, during a going-away party, had told me how proud they were of what I’d accomplished. I came to understand the loneliness my parents must have felt when they first settled in the U.S., a country where they didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the ways of the people who sat above them on the social ladder, and had only the faintest idea of how to help their children climb that ladder.

In October of my first year at SMU, my parents came to visit me. They were struck by how green everything was, but what caught their eye—and mine, when I first arrived—were the fountains. SMU has four large fountains that are grand with water that gushes so loudly that if you close your eyes, you can imagine yourself beside a raging river.

My parents stood and stared at one of the fountains, seemingly entranced by the spectacle of this aquatic wonder. But, perhaps because I had spent so much of my life building things and fixing things, I couldn’t help but wonder how many thousands of dollars and man-hours are expended every year on the fountains’ upkeep. Contemplating those gorgeous cascades, I saw something else too: the distance between the aridity of the desert and the excesses of a lush university campus, the gap between where I came from and where I am now and the uneasiness that comes with the transition from one to the other.

As much as they pushed me to create a life for myself that was different than the one they lived, my parents don’t really understand what I do at SMU. “I read, and I write about what I read,” I explain in Spanish, with a sense of embarrassment and even guilt. “I’m trying to be a doctor but not a real one.” This seems to satisfy them.

Looking at that water soar up into the air and cascade to the ground, they surely understood that their son had found his way to a place very different from our desert home. A home I miss and still fight the urge to run back to.

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