It was a family tradition when I was growing up that almost every summer we would pack the car and drive from San Francisco where we lived, to Yosemite National Park, then Lake Tahoe, then Reno. The city of Lake Tahoe is bisected by the border between California and Nevada. The first time I saw the Cali/Nevada border, I was disappointed and confused over the lack of a big black line, as I had seen on the map. Instead, there was only a small sign on an otherwise normal looking street. As an adult, I can now see that one direction has casinos and the other only the cheesey tourist shops, but as a kid I would look down the road in one direction and then the other, and it would pretty much all look the same to me. If the little sign were not there pointing it out, I would not have known that there was a border at all. But since there was a sign, I would hop one step to the left and say I was in California, and hop one step to the right and say I was in Nevada. Looking back on it I see now that my child brain was trying to understand what a “border” actually meant. Yet try as hard as I might, I could not feel a real difference in the land.
Now I live about a block and a half away from Eastern Avenue, which also serves as the northeast border between the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland. In some subtle ways, you can tell that something has changed when you cross Eastern. The houses are slightly larger and more spread out in Chillum, Maryland, and there are streetlights on the Washington side of Eastern Ave, but not on the Maryland side. But in most respects, people cross the border multiple times a day without a second thought – to go to and from work, to buy groceries, to run errands – by foot, by car, by bike, by bus, by rail. The closest grocery store to my house is half a mile up Eastern Ave, on the Maryland side of the street. The nearest drug store is also on the Maryland side of Eastern, a few blocks in the opposite direction. When the need arises, I hop in my car and drive to Maryland to bring my cats to the vet, to shop at Target, to buy pet supplies, to meet friends in Takoma Park or Silver Spring… While I often underestimate the traffic when calculating how much time it will take to get to my destination, I have never had to estimate how long it will take to get through a checkpoint. What would my life be like if, because of a border, I was no longer allowed to go to the grocery store a half mile away from me and instead had to go to one miles away? Or if I had to factor in the time it would take to cross the security checkpoint both ways when running errands? No more spontaneous runs for ice cream, that’s for sure.
I imagine that people who talk about “sealing” the border between the U.S. and Mexico don’t really know what the border looks like. Maybe they imagine a big black line spanning four states like we see on the map – 2500 miles with nothing on either the U.S. or Mexican side for at least a half mile. A “no man’s land.” Maybe they think that on the northern side, everyone is “American,” i.e. – white, and on the Mexican side everyone is Mexican, i.e. – brown, forming two distinct populations. In reality, not only does human activity encroach all the way up to the border but there are towns, cities, Native American reservations, privately-owned ranches, and sometimes even individual buildings that straddle both sides. Between 30 to 40% of Arizona is Latin@/Hispanic. Spanish is spoken in border towns across the U.S. and always has been. Families living there for generations did not immigrate cross the border; rather the border crossed them. They were of that land before that land became of the United States.
Even after the Southwest changed nationalities, people traversed it nearly as freely as when it was all part of Mexico. A Latina friend tells me how her family has lived in the Los Angeles area for generations – some of them U.S. citizens and some Mexican. For a long time, citizenship status mattered so little that they did not bother to consolidate. She tells of how it used to be routine to spend weekends visiting family in Tijuana. They would cross the border going south on Friday evening and cross it again going north on Sunday evening. In this way, births, anniversaries, and funerals were observed together as a family. A Euro American friend who grew up in the border town of El Paso, TX, tells me how she used to cross freely back and forth, noting the obvious difference in wealth between the two sides. She tells of how her first boyfriend in high school was Mexican and they went to his home in Juarez (in Mexico but right next to El Paso) to meet his family. When I visited Nogales, a woman talked of growing up living in Nogales on the Mexican side and going to school each day in Nogales on the U.S. side. On the days when she forgot her pass, the border guard would wave her through anyway, telling her that she wasn’t going to get out of class that easily.
This was the reality of the border long after it became a border. People crossing back and forth with ease – to visit family and friends, to go to school, to buy groceries, to run errands. People mixing freely…until some in the U.S. decided that was a bad thing, built a wall and militarized the border. In reality, if it weren’t for the border guards with the automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. If it weren’t for the 15-foot wall made from recycled landing strips from the Vietnam and Gulf wars. If it weren’t for the obvious economic disparity caused by economic imperialism, you could hop on one foot on one side of the border and then on the other, and not feel a difference between what is called the U.S. and what is called Mexico.