Love in Times of Borders

[Please welcome Aleshia Barajas to the RITM blog. This post marks the third in a series of posts by Aleshia as she reflects on life, living, and her own research experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border. To read her introductory post, please follow the link provided here. To read her second post, please follow the link here. 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. ]

I walked into her office nervously asking, “Estoy buscando a Leslie.” The person in front of me nodded instead of verbally answering my question, which I thought was a bit curious. Immediately, I remembered neither one of us had replied to the other’s email in Spanish. “She must feel more comfortable in English,” I thought, remembering Spanish-speaking friends who are constantly chastised for speaking Pocho[1] Spanish and therefore prefer to use English. I immediately switched languages. “Thank you so much for meeting with me,” I smiled. “Oh, no problem at all,” Leslie responded softly.

The conversation began with a quick description of Leslie’s job. “This is my fifth year working in a non-profit,” she shared passionately. Excitedly, Leslie illustrated her responsibilities which require working on the weekend once in a while. “If I have to work on a Saturday, I just cross the border walking,” Leslie stated, matter-of-fact. “And does your boss know you live in Mexico?” I asked, thinking of the many transborder commuters who fiercely hide the fact they live in Mexico from coworkers. “Oh yeah, I’ve actually been in line during a holiday and texted my boss to say that I’m going to be late because the line is huge. And she was like, ‘Just go home!’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t,’ because once you pass a certain part you can’t get out and like I can’t, I can’t go home.”

Looking into the US from Mexico. Photo by Aleshia Barajas

This sounded all too familiar. Although every port of entry is designed differently, there inevitably comes a point of no return. Many describe this point of no return as a feeling of being stuck. If you have to use the bathroom, forget it! You are stuck. If the car breaks down, too bad! You are stuck. If you are a car away from the border gate and the Customs Officer decides to close the gate, sorry for you! You are most definitely stuck.

And Leslie was stuck in more than one way. “It took me two years to find a job in Calexico,” she shared, “I have a Master’s Degree and I even considered working at McDonalds or Burger King. A lot depends on who you know and I didn’t know anybody.” At this point in our conversation I felt lost. “Is Leslie telling me she is not originally from Mexicali?” I wondered. What could possibly bring her to the desert, to temperature exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, to a city void of familial connections? I was about to find out why.

Every year U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) forcibly removes thousands of our neighbors, assigning them an impossible label: aliens. Just last year, ICE deported 240,255 men and women, a slight increase from 2015 yet a substantial decrease from previous years.[2] To the general public these numbers may represent statistics, quantifiable facts, and the inevitability of law enforcement. To family and friends, it represents a haunting and unspeakable pain that goes beyond loss and separation. Deportation is an act that disrupts the very fabric of our society in ways that go unrecognized by those of us who are not personally affected. After all, it is all too easy to ignore numbers. It is even easier to forget those detained carry powerful stories before and after becoming statistics. But to Leslie these were not just statistics, they represented real life.

Clasped hands of a couple. Photo by Daniel Sone

“My husband, Paul, was deported here fifteen years ago,” confided Leslie, counting the years with her left eyebrow. From her tone of voice, it was apparent Leslie had made peace with her husband’s deportation a long time ago. And yet… and yet… it was impossible to miss the slight tinge of pain in her words. In 2002, the year Paul was deported, the Immigration and Naturalization Service apprehended 1,062,279 men and women across the United States.[3] On the other side of the border, the Mexican government recorded that more than half a million deportees were released in border cities. [4]  That year, the Mexicali port of entry received the single largest number of deportees: 102,029 neighbors.[5] Paul was one of them.

The minute Leslie heard the news, she immediately drove to Mexicali all the way from Eastern Washington. With limited options, Leslie paid a coyote to help Paul jump over the fence. “But he is a big man covered in tattoos,” she soberly explained, “he was caught right away.” If Paul followed the most transited route, he may have jumped the fence thirty miles west of Mexicali in the most desolated parts of the desert. In this quiet area, Paul may have faced a series of rugged hills, deadly temperatures, and an alarming absence of water. Yet, he may have crossed somewhere else.

Border-fence in Mexicali. Photo by Aleshia Barajas

Following the second deportation, the couple moved to Paul’s hometown in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. The move was not easy and Leslie struggled to adapt to a new culture, a new language, a new lifestyle. Life was rough and after two years, Leslie returned to Washington state in order to fix Paul’s immigration status.

At last the time came for Paul’s immigration interview in Ciudad Juarez. Leslie recounts, “In Ciudad Juarez they took off his clothes and they took photos of all of his tattoos.” According to the State Department, Paul’s tattoos showed evidence of gang-related activities. “He was never part of a gang. That is a lie,” Leslie protested. Regrettably, Paul was barred from entry to the United States for life. No waiver would ever allow him to enter this country.

“When people ask why I moved to Mexico I tell them I moved here because Paul is my family. He is my family and I love him,” she said, her voice strong and steady. It’s a subtle statement that hardly needs an explanation.

The couple relocated to the border so that Leslie could work in the U.S. and significantly increase their household income. Leslie attempted enrolling her son in a Californian school but was ultimately unsuccessful. Thousands of U.S.-born children who live in Mexico are able to attend U.S. schools by borrowing a relative’s address, but Leslie’s family resides hundreds of miles away. In the end, they chose a Mexican school for him. She is now in the process of getting him Mexican nationality so that he has more options in case he wants to go to college in Mexico.

With the passing of time Leslie has adapted to the tranfronteriza lifestyle: leaving home three hours before work in order to have plenty of time for the line; shopping for toiletries on the U.S. side; earning U.S. dollars and spending pesos.

Monument marking the Initial Point of Boundary Between U.S. and Mexico as seen through the US-Mexico barrier. The barrier built a yard within the United States. Photo by RightCowLeftCoast

When I ask about her experience crossing the line, she sights, “It’s boring and you need to be prepared to kill a lot of time. As a White U.S. citizen, I probably have an easier time than others. I don’t get nervous when I approach the border gate. I answer all of the Customs Officer’s questions, even if they are not supposed to ask personal ones. And some of them know me by now.”

As our time together begins to wind down, Leslie paints an insightful imagine of what it is like to spend so much of her daily life at the border. “It can be a sad commentary on life sitting in the line because you also see the people standing up against the fence talking to their family on the other side or passing money because they can’t cross. I’ve seen jumpers jump over to the other side, and then seeing the Border Patrol racing out after them and then jumping back into Mexico.” This, she explains, on top of seeing mothers with infant children begging for money or amputated men asking for food. “It’s sad because they probably lost their leg jumping on or off the train trying to get to the U.S.,” she laments.  Leslie’s description of ports of entry summons an image of strange lands where hopes, dreams, anxieties, and nightmares all learn to live with and from each other.

Love is a powerful emotion. It is an emotion that rejects the boundaries of nation-states and their bureaucracies of belonging. Yet, love isn’t a quantifiable logic for assigning immigration status—not yet, at least. Leslie’s story is a powerful testament to the distressing process of deportation, life afterwards, and the way the border becomes a key site of connection. She lives a comfortable life in Mexico. Contrary to public expectations, she feels safer there.

Like Leslie, there are thousands of U.S. citizens of all ethnicities living in foreign countries that will allow them to grow old beside their loved ones. Their stories, like Leslie’s, speak to the intricacies of love in times of borders.

[1]Pocho is a derogatory term typically used by Mexicans to describe Chicana/o or Mexican American’s limited fluency in formal Spanish.

[2] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. FY 2016 ICE Immigration Removals.

[3] Department of Homeland Security. “Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2002.”

[4] Secretaria de Gobernacion. Series Historicas. “Eventos de repatriación de mexicanos desde Estados Unidos, según entidad federativa y punto de recepción, 1995-2016.”

[5] Ibid

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