I live and work en la frontera, on the border between the United States and Mexico. From my university campus, I see Ciudad Juárez, across the traffic of I-10 and passed the border fence that sits just this side of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. I can see the two-story green buildings that were once the officers’ quarters at the old Fort Bliss. The Sierra Madre Occidental rises in the distance. Thousands of homes fill the landscape, some painted yellow, green, pink, white. Others are unpainted cinder block.
In 2008 when the government began building the border fence, one man stood there day after day with a sign that said "NO WALL." The late Justo Rivera, a Vietnam vet and community activist, believed that the wall was inherently racist and unnecessary.
Living on the border, on the periphery of two nations, border people know that we can never separate ourselves from the community just across the highway, the fence, the river. Families move back and forth from generation to generation. Daily, thousands cross to work and to shop. Right now the lines at gas stations in south El Paso are long because of the "gasolinazo," the increase in gasoline prices in Mexico. Juárez drivers cross the international border to save $1 or $2 dollars per gallon. Because of NAFTA, trucks line up at the ports of entry to transport goods, so many that south side school children suffer the effects of heightened contamination from the truck emissions. The recent peso devaluation has had devastating effects on El Paso's economy because Mexican shoppers can no longer purchase what they could just a few months ago.
Sometimes we make fun of each other’s' language or customs. Mexican American kids tell immigrant students to "speak English." It is not uncommon for my students to aspire to work for the Border Patrol; it is one of the best jobs in El Paso. Sometimes I meet people who have never crossed the border to visit Ciudad Juárez. I don't have illusions that we are “better” or “more compassionate.”
But I do know that fronterizos have something to teach others.
On the border, the connections among us are clear. We can see them, feel them, experience them in the most visceral of ways. In these times of increasing fear, suspicion, and “America First,” may we remember that we are all connected.
In 2008, people from both sides of the border came together to support each other. Two communities, El Segundo Barrio in El Paso and Lomas de Poleo in Ciudad Juárez, expressed their support at the Mexican Consulate in El Paso and at the U.S. Consulate in Juárez. Facing tremendous danger, these fronterizos stood up to developers who planned to displace them. Today, we continue to stand together with barrios under siege.
Yo soy fronteriza/ I am of the border. I know that I am and always will exist on both sides of the dividing line. I have lived on the U.S. side for over sixty years and for an equal amount of time, mi cuatita/ my twin sister Elisa has laid buried in an unmarked grave in the municipal cemetery in Ciudad Juárez. Identical twins cleaved from the same egg, nourished in the same womb, and brought into the world together, we have mirrored each other our entire existence. Death/life. Juárez/El Paso. Newborn/ elder.
For most of my life, I expected my sister to find me. Every time there was a knock at my door, I thought it could be her. In my twenties and thirties, I daydreamed that one day I would find her while I walked down the streets of El Paso or Juárez. I knew that I would recognize her because I would see my own face reflected in hers. I knew since I could first understand words that she had died as a baby, but I couldn’t believe it. I was always searching for my other half.
Elisa and I were born in the mid fifties to a teen-aged mother, Lupe, in a small clinic in Ciudad Juárez. It was one-floor square building that epitomized the 1950s “modern” look. I remember it sat on a small street surrounded by Chinese Elm trees. It was painted white. Or that is what I remember from my childhood visits to Juárez.
Elisa and I were born prematurely at two pounds each. I don’t know if the idea of having two tiny babies who weren’t expected to live was too much for Lupe or if her suffering depleted her of her maternal connection to us. From the beginning, our future held so many possibilities that I often wonder what would I be now if my life had taken one of the different paths that opened when I was born.
Lupe could have kept us and had we survived, we would have been raised by a single mother who had survived a traumatic childhood of abuse. I learned as an adult that her father had been so abusive to her and her mother that she stopped using his last name in order to sever any connection to him. She couldn't even bear to have his name.
The doctor who delivered us asked Lupe to give one of us to him in payment for the C-section he performed on her. I always wondered if he wanted a daughter to raise as his own or if he wanted a criada, a child to raise as a servant, a custom going back to the colonial period in New Spain. Instead, Lupe asked her great aunt and uncle to adopt us. They said yes but only to one of us. My adoptive mother, who had experienced nine miscarriages and longed for children more than anything else, couldn’t bear the thought of taking someone’s children away. So she agreed to take one of us and leave the second with Lupe. She chose me, she said, because I had more life in my eyes. Elisa went to our grandmother in Juárez, Cruz.
My abuela Cruz lived in a small house on the periphery of Juárez. I remember driving there with my mama and daddy when I was five. Like a dream, I remember sitting in the back of my daddy's car driving along dirt roads smelling the creosote and watching the mountains in the distance. This is where Elisa spent her short life. Elisa died at about a month old from gastroenteritis, one of the major killers of poor children worldwide. In my forties, I found her death certificate in the civil records office in Ciudad Juárez and finally knew what had happened to her.
In El Paso, my great aunt and uncle became my mama and daddy. My mama barely slept for weeks, sitting next to my crib day and night making sure I lived through the night. At first, I was so tiny that they put me to sleep in a shoebox. My godmother made miniature shirts for me to wear. There weren’t any photos of me until I was six months old because they were so afraid I would die that they didn’t think to document my early months. By six months, I was a fat happy baby smiling into the camera, held in my daddy’s or mama’s arms. They beamed, holding their daughter who had lived.
That was my beginning.
There is a mural in El Paso on Father Rahm Street in El Segundo Barrio, one of the most historically significant Mexican American barrios in the United States. Named “Sister Cities/ Ciudades Hermanas,” it opened my heart as soon as I saw it. Created by Los Dos, talented artists Ramon and Christian Cardenas, the mural pays homage to El Paso and Juárez, The mural’s sisters, their braids entwined like the DNA that my sister and I share, reminds me of this beginning, of being fronterizas in life and death.
Sometimes in the evenings, I look southward across the now-dry river to see the lights of Juárez. I think of my sister, my other half, buried in the soil of the Chihuahuan desert, and I remember that I am of the border. And that to survive on the border I must be fierce.