Yesterday, I crossed into Nogales, Mexico, and saw a bit of Nogales, Arizona, too.
It’s a story that repeats itself every day of the year.
At Ed’s Border Lot, my car fits nicely between two others – the one on the left with an Arizona plate, the one on the right with a Sonoran plate. Both sport yellow parking-violation boots. The friendly young man takes the $5.00US from my hand and points me in the direction of the border crossing station, just a scant two blocks away. I wonder why the drivers of those cars didn’t claim their cars.
A breeze keeps the hot sun in check as I push my way through the turnstile on the U.S. side leading into the immigration area. Not one Mexican official stands guard as we, and many others, just walk across a cement floor. In an instant, the difference between one side of the border and the other becomes quite apparent. Uneven sidewalks demand that you look more at your feet than at the scenery. And the smell of sewer gas recalls an old trailer I once lived in.
Stepping out into the blinding sunshine, I spot a series of curio shops across the street and wait at the curb. Drivers stop instantly and let me, and several others, cross. Shopkeepers jump to their feet as I head in their direction. Most people like me who cross into Mexico at that spot spend their time in a dentist’s chair or trolling the farmacias, looking for cheap refills of their prescription drugs. Not me. I’m hunting for the perfect ceramic gecko for my patio.
Colorful store fronts and houses catch my eye, a kaleidoscope of color impossible to capture well with a camera.
Railroad tracks separate the main plaza from the hilly heights where houses cling to the rocks like geckos.
A foot bridge looms over the tracks, making for a wondrous spot to capture the lives unfolding below.
The hat vender, with his traditional wares, chooses to wear a ballcap instead.
Another man goes for the traditional look.
Nogales retains touches of a past that left the station a long time ago in the United States.
Everyone I see, it seems, speaks into a cell phone wedged in their hands. Yet poverty permeates the air. I watch an old man with a cane rummaging through plastic garbage bags. When the time comes to leave to return to the U.S., a thin, dirty man approaches me, clearly aware that I need something. Yes, directions to the border crossing station. Across the tracks he races, with me following as fast as I can. Suddenly, a loud voice yells out. The man stops. He looks up. A Mexican policeman shouts at him to go away. The man stammers that he’s just leading the way to the border crossing station. Before I can tip him for his help, he points frantically to my left, muttering “Alla, alla! There, there!” And off he runs.
The line for crossing the border surprises me. One line. A hundred people. With more moving to the back by the minute. All patiently standing under a metal awning that must feel like a broiler in summer sunshine. A man strums a guitar and serenades us with Spanish songs as we wait. The young man behind me says it’s always been this way, just one line. A minimum of an hour’s waiting. Standing. I moved forward about two feet every 20 minutes. Or so it seemed. My leg muscles twitch and cramp, a burning sensation running through my calves. A family surges to the front of the line, out of nowhere. A tout jumps back, pockets some money, and tries to leave. But an older woman, her white hair shimmering in the sunlight, accosts him, giving him a tongue lashing for doing that.
Off to the left of the line, I see a steep hill, a fence, and yards of razor wire. The wall.
At last I enter an area where I see the razor wire more clearly.
The wall is already there. Imagine having to look at that every day … .*
Three U.S. border agents seated at computers await us. I step up to the table and hand over my documentation. In the passport photo, I’m not wearing glasses. I pull off my sunglasses, but leave on my broad-brimmed hat. A female border agent appears at my right, smiling in approval at my actions. The male agent motions for me to face a camera. “Do you need me to take off my hat?,” I say as I peer into the tiny camera.
He asks me how long I’ve been in Mexico. When I say “Three hours,” he wants to know what I’ve been doing. Then he asks me when I’d last been in Mexico. I tell him my last visit was to Guanajuato in 2007. His final question is “Did you like it?”
“Yes, I did,” I reply.
He hands me my passport and I walk away, through another turnstile.
*You can see the wall on the Arizona side, too, in Nogales.
For more about the history of the U.S.-Mexico border:
Alvarez, C. J. “The United States-Mexico Border.” Good bibliography.
You might also want to learn more about Herbert Eugene Bolton, an historian who wrote extensively about the borderlands. Check out Herbert Eugene Bolton: Historian of the American Borderlands, by Albert L. Hurtado.
(All photos copyright C. Bertelsen)