I live in the space between an ancient desert and the largest binational metroplex in North America. When I stand on my porch looking west, I can see the Franklin Mountains with their gobernadora, ocotillo, and nopal. The mountains pushed up sixty million years ago when tectonic forces off the west coast of North America caused the earth to crumple into glorious sierras. To the south lie the southern barrios of El Paso, and across the river, my birthplace, Ciudad Juárez. Once known as El Paso del Rio del Norte, Juárez had its beginnings in a colonial-era mission, la Misión de Guadalupe de Los Indios Mansos del Paso del Norte, dedicated on December 8, 1658. With humble beginnings in 17th colonization, in the 20th and 21st centuries, the city grew to be the largest in Chihuahua as internal migration brought thousands to the border, further stimulated by the development of the maquiladora industry beginning in the 1960s. Here on the border, I live my life in between the old and the modern, grounded between two histories.
The Franklin Mountains, once known as la Sierra de los Mansos for the people who lived along the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, has some of the oldest rocks in the state of Texas at over a billion years old. My home is constructed of rock quarried there. Tiny fossilized sea creatures, evidence of an ancient ocean that preceded the mountains, are embedded in the walls of my house.
The mountains rise in the Chihuahuan Desert where my ancestors have lived for millenia and where each animal is a survivor and where each plant is medicine. Growing up in the 1960s, the creosote still grew on my street, harkening back to a time before houses were built when the land was still desert. When I moved back into my childhood home twenty years ago, I used to try to plant the wild desert plants in my yard but they never grew so I started to call out to the desert for her to send me the seeds. I prayed that they would take root in my yard. Slowly, they have been coming; the mesquite with its sharp thorns that has grown around my mailbox and a beautiful lluvia de oro that blooms in late summer by the front gate. The chiltepin with its tiny, hot chiles grows now.
Years ago I visited Paquimé, Chihuahua, 200 miles southwest of El Paso, the middle place between MesoAmerica and the Pueblos in New Mexico. A thousand years ago the people built structures in the shape of butterflies and walls in the shape of snakes. When I looked at the mountains, I knew them: the way they turned purple as the sun moved across the sky, the way each hill curved around the other. I knew the sandy soil and the smell of the air. I was home in the desert that straddles both countries.
Each morning I look west to the mountains and know that the history of the people who have walked this desert century after century is mine.
To the south are the old barrios: El Segundo, Duranguito, and across the river, Bella Vista. These are the places that have welcomed thousands of migrants moving south to north in search of a better life for their families. It was in El Segundo where my mother, Esther Chávez , and her family began their lives in the United States in a tenement, long gone, on S. Stanton Street. Escaping the violence of the Mexican Revolution and leaving behind all they loved, she and her siblings learned English and went to Aoy and Bowie, the beloved and historic barrio schools once known as the "Mexican schools." Like generations of people living in diaspora, she remembered her birthplace, Ciudad Chihuahua, as a place where she was loved and safe. Here in the United States, she would say, everything changed. Less than a decade after moving here, her mother died at age 40 from pneumonia. Her father, grieving, distanced himself from his children and her older sister Mercedes became their mother-figure.
When I walk the streets of El Segundo or Duranguito, I feel the histories in my bones. I hold them in my hands. I breathe them into my lungs. I know that a hundred years ago, my people crossed that river, walked that bridge into a new country, just as the people I see today. I remember the stories, the places, the feelings that have been handed down generation to generation among fronterizos.
It is a gift to live here on the border between the ancient and the modern in the space between the desert and the city.