[Please welcome Aleshia Barajas to the RITM blog. This post marks the fourth 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. Her third post is 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. ]
Never in a hundred years would I have imagined that one of the most controversial topics of this research endeavor would be…bathrooms! You may wonder: What do bathrooms have to do with our billion-dollar-terrorist-stopping international boundary? Well, Dear Reader, bathrooms are a critically important part of our everyday existence. Without them a plethora of rancid smells, liquids, and more would take over our cemented streets. Bathrooms abound in the world, but surprisingly, they are a scarce resource at the border.
You may remember from previous posts that crossing from Mexico into the United States entails the act of doing line, that is, standing in line for hours at a time. Now, doing line is all fun and games but after thirty minutes of waiting, well, nature may want to call you out of line. Furthermore, doing line requires careful strategizing and no aspect of border crossing requires more planning than the simple act of drinking water. Why? Because drinking water increases the possibility that you might need to urinate.
Let me explain. Although ports of entry are surrounded by a bevy of businesses, doing line is an isolating act. In the vehicular and pedestrian lanes, there is nowhere to pull to the side and run to the nearest 7 Eleven. Even more, bathrooms are beyond the check point in ports of entry. This means people must cross the border (which takes hours) before reaching the next available bathroom. That is, unless you are at the Calexico West port of entry, which has an outrageous number of bathrooms: zero, nada, zilch, this-is-a-federal-tax-payer-funded-institution-with-no-bathrooms-for-you-the-taxpayer. Eye roll. You get the point.
Pablo, who commuted from Mexico to the United States for more than fifteen years, shared his experience dealing with the lack of available bathrooms at entry ports. He says, “The hardest part of commuting was when my two little children started school in the U.S., so they would cross with me in the mornings. My little girl would need to pee, but there was nothing I could do and we still had at least an hour to go before crossing. I couldn’t park to take her, and I couldn’t leave my son alone in the car. We were trapped and she would cry, and I would suffer along with her. I had to teach her to always use the bathroom before leaving the house, but even then, this part of crossing was always really hard for her.” Like Pablo’s story, I have heard many. They come up in every interview. It’s mostly a funny point in our conversation where people will share the most outrageous lengths that they’ve gone to avoid urinating while doing line.
It was all laughs and giggles until I realized how profoundly important this point is. Crossing into Calexico, the first thing that greets you is the putrid smell of urine. It follows you four blocks north and west of the port of entry. There are no public bathrooms around. People will use the facilities at the Jack in the Box a block north of the entry gate. But even then, the bathrooms are not always open, or people may be pressured into consuming something before being granted the precious bathroom privilege.
After realizing this, I wonder how could a port of entry and a city that thrive on transborder traffic not cater to the needs of crossers, many of whom visit Calexico to go shopping or gas up their car? This prompted me to begin a bathroom survey for the four ports of entry.
My first stop was Calexico East, a newer port of entry located about ten miles east of downtown Calexico. Interestingly, this port of entry has metal, prison-style toilets. “Okay,” I thought, “why are literally the most uncomfortable toilets in the nation the first thing that welcomes you into the United States? After all, crossers invest hundreds of dollars to secure state-sanctioned crossing documents. Do they not deserve public park-level bathrooms? Is this a prison or is this a port of entry?”
With no time to waste, I moved on to the next port of entry in San Luis, Arizona. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people cross this port of entry on a daily basis. And their bathroom situation? This port has two working toilets but the latch does not work on one of the doors and neither does one of the sinks. “Are you telling me, that millions of tax-payer money goes into funding this institution, but they can’t afford decent bathrooms for their users?” I wondered. Although the bathroom situation is less than ideal, at least the sidewalks do not smell like urine.
Ready to conclude my research, I visited the Andrade, California port of entry. Have you ever heard of Andrade, California? Probably not. Why? Because it is barely a town. On the Mexican side of Andrade, however, lies a small town that Snow Birds–senior U.S. citizens who migrate to the warmer desert temperatures during the winter months–call Dentist Town. Algodones, or Dentist Town, is a bizarre place where every business in a five-block radius is either a dentist, optometrist, or some other kind of medical establishment. During the Snow Bird season, Algodones turns from sleepy to a bustling tourist-catering town. It is not strange to see one or two Snow Birds walking into their dental appointment sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Of all four ports of entry, Algodones is the smallest by far. It processes the least number of crossers. Their bathrooms, you may ask? You will not believe me, but there are four perfectly functioning bathrooms that would make any of the other ports green with envy. Located outside the main building, it is apparent these bathrooms were added as an afterthought. But they are there. And there are four of them. How the discrepancy in bathrooms between ports of entry came to be is still a mystery to me. Or do you also find it oddly strange that the port of entry that is most frequented by senior, mostly White, citizens is drowning in bathroom glory? I don’t know what to tell you.
Jumping around port of entry bathrooms allowed me to see two important ways in which entry ports are conceptualized. One is the view of the state, preoccupied with security. The other is the experience of the people who have to physically transverse these spaces. Obviously, whoever designed these ports of entry was not a frequent crosser and never fell into the trap of drinking a soda while waiting in line (huge mistake). More importantly, why is the state not vested in catering to the basic needs of crossers? And what would happen if we were to design these spaces with the experience of transfronterizo commuters in mind and not potential terrorists? Or perhaps, let’s just be decent and add a bathroom.