Fieldwork and Everyday Life at the U.S.-Mexico Border

[Please welcome Aleshia Barajas to the RITM blog. This post marks the beginning of a series of posts by Aleshia as she reflects on life, living, and her own research experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border. Aleshia is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Yale University, and is currently conducting ethnographic research with people whose everyday lives are shaped by this border. ]


Headlines of President Trump’s call to build a “big, beautiful wall” in between the United States and Mexico have once again placed the U.S.-Mexico border at the center of a national debate on immigration and border security. Although the media has presented insightful stories on the potential impacts of a border-wall on humans and animal species living in the region, most of us fall short in recognizing the complexities of daily life at the U.S.-Mexico border. In this series, I will share insights regarding my on-going ethnographic field research on everyday life at our Southern border. Together, we will explore the quotidian act of entering the country through a port of entry and the transnational lives of the women, men, and children who commute on a regular basis to work, attend school, visit friends, or simply shop in the U.S. We will also investigate the impact of the border-fence on the surrounding ecosystems and how environmentalists are working to mediate these effects. Finally, we will learn about the work of human rights activists and artists who live in the border region.

Photo by Aleshia Barajas

Unknowingly, I began field work long before starting graduate school. Beginning in elementary school, I crossed the border every day to attend school in the United States. Along with my younger brother, I would wake up at an ungodly hour—4:00 A.M.—to get ready for school. Like zombies, we fumbled through the house trying to find our school uniform. As the sun rose, we arrived at the port-of-entry where we waited anywhere between thirty minutes and two hours in line to cross into the U.S. At the entry gate, the customs official would repeat yesterday’s questions: Where do you live? And what where you doing in Mexico? The funny part was that for years the same exact officer greeted us each morning, sarcastically anticipating the only answer we ever muttered: We live in Arizona and were visiting our grandma in Mexico. With a sour grunt he would invariably reply, Again? We all shared a rehearsed and tired smile that acknowledged the lies. Our hands were tied: we risked getting expelled from school if the district found out we lived in Mexico.

I distinctively remember one morning when a group of friends and I were running late to school. We were desperate so we did the unthinkable: we cut in front of dozens of agricultural workers waiting in line to cross and harvest American iceberg lettuce. Straight away a chorus of angry protests reached our ears. The crowd yelled, “Go back in line, we are all waiting to cross.” An older man, who must have been at least fifty years old, stepped to the side to face the crowd. Addressing his fellow workmates in Spanish, he firmly stated, “Let the students through. Do you want them to end up like us, working in the field? Let them get the education we didn’t get.” Embarrassed, we all turned our faces to the ground as we walked to the front gate. It is hard to forget moments like these. How could we mess up in school when agricultural laborers were cheering for us at the border?

Photo by Aleshia Barajas

If you have never crossed the U.S.-Mexico border a lot of what I’ve just described will feel, well, quite frankly, alien to the images and stories you have heard about the border. What about the Border Patrol, infrared cameras, and drug-sniffing dogs, you may wonder. Yes, they are there too, although in much more subtle ways than anticipated. In many respects, this series will be less about the spectacle of the border that is often times presented in the media and more about the nuanced, less reported aspects of border life. In my next post, I will explore the dynamics of crossing into the U.S. through a port of entry in more detail. In the meantime, if you have any general or specific questions about the border, please feel free to email me at: and I will do my best to address your questions in subsequent posts.

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