This Border Life: Crossing Stories from the Exceptional to the Ordinary

[Please welcome Aleshia Barajas to the RITM blog. This post marks the second 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.  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. ]

The majority of us think we know the U.S.-Mexico border, mainly through numbers and statistics. Quantifying such a complicated, amorphous entity gratifies us because it is reassuring to know the tangible parameters of our international divide. Don’t get me wrong, numbers are extremely important in understanding the social, cultural, historical, and family ties that shape the U.S.-Mexico border. Without an exact figure, we would not know that the border extends a total of 1,984 miles, including 18 miles of maritime boundaries in the Pacific Ocean and 12 miles in the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, numbers allow for the development of a pragmatic public policy agenda for the more than 14-million people that populate four U.S. states that sit adjacent to six Mexican States. Notably, without these numbers we would miss the urgency of studying the transnational traffic flow that surpassed 200-million crossings last year; however, numbers only tell us a small–but important–part of the story. Another overlooked part of the story I want to write about today is the embodied experience of crossing into the U.S. through a sanctioned port of entry.

Drivers waiting to cross to the United States at the Mexicali I/Calexico West port of entry

Although fifty entry ports exist, scattered across our Southern border, we rarely discuss their existence. To the untrained eye, it might seem like ports of entry do not offer much to report on besides the occasional drug seizure or smuggling attempt. Take Fox News’s recent headline, “Massive Meth Seizure Reported near the Mexico Border,” or an even more spectacular title, “Tiger Cub Discovered in Man’s Vehicle in Illegal Smuggling Attempt,” that appeared on NBC 7 San Diego. Both of these events inform everyday crossings on ports of entry, but for every breach reported in the news, thousands of everyday crossings happen that are too ordinary, too peaceful to make the news.

I frequently ask interlocutors how they would describe the border to, say, someone in New Haven. Surprisingly, few described the physical layout of ports of entry, yet they all characterize the border in terms of lived experience and attitude, recommending that all successful crossers share a key characteristic: patience. Given that wait times to cross the line range between 30 minutes to four hours, it is understandable that interviewees would describe the act of crossing the line as such. People spend long hours waiting to reach the customs officer to review their passport, which has given birth to a border consumer culture. Merchants sell anything from fresh coconuts to sunglasses or religious iconography. Others will offer services, such as cleaning a car’s windshield, singing love songs, or performing juggling acts. Often people who have been recently deported by the United States or who are in desperate economic situations will ask for money. “One doesn’t just go to the line,” Emanuel, who works at a local school, shared. “It’s funny because it’s sort of you go to the line, but you also go to eat breakfast there, you grab a burrito and a soda while waiting to cross.” Crossing the line is a cultural experience, albeit one also imbued with mixed feelings of resignation, frustration, and even pleasure.

One of my favorite Mexican novelists, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, wrote a telling and comical set of instructions for crossings into the United States. He writes:

[Crossing] requires owning an official document proving your nationality and intentions for crossing. Nothing is more annoying to the guardians [customs officers] than a person with unclear intentions. You must enter the neighboring country because you are going shopping (when there are sales in department stores), to wash dirty laundry (because the waters over there are cleaner), to visit Disneyland (“the happiest place in the world”), or carry out any chore that does not challenge the status quo.[1]

As is always the case, translation fails to carry over the dark humor expressed through the passage’s original language. Part of the author’s brilliance shines in his ability to capture the quotidian and even mundane reasons Mexican citizens have for entering the United States. Crossing to do the week’s laundry goes against everything we know of Mexicans, the border, and why people visit the United States. The first time I read Crosthwaite’s story, I laughed until my cheeks hurt. I grew up hearing stories of my dad’s weekend travels to San Diego, California to do laundry with his mom because “the water quality was better on the other side.” Even with my trans-border background it seems ludicrous that anyone would bother crossing international lines to do laundry; however, the many reasons people have for crossing through sanctioned ports of entry tend to skew into the borderline uneventful, no pun intended.

Merchants selling arts and crafts to people standing in line at the Mexicali I/Calexico West port of entry

This passage is also  striking in its intimate description of the “crossing encounter” between traveler and customs officer. Crosthwaite depicts these officers as “guardians” a term that has resonates with my interviewees. Even more, he accurately describes the subtle act–some might even call it an art–of interacting with custom officers: presenting definite and easily digestible reasons for crossings.

Gypsy, a graduate student who crosses the border regularly, offered a poignant observation regarding interactions with customs officers. “I’ve always said this: in the border you are guilty until proven innocent,” she noted. Splitting her time between a home in Mexico and another home in the United States, Gypsy illustrates how custom officials react to her trans-border lifestyle when they question her about where she lives, “I [used to answer] I live in both sides and they acted like they have never heard it before. Like, what is this? I don’t know what you are saying! Help me! Help me!” she added moving her body in sharp robotic movements. With a sight of resignation, she continued, “[Customs officers] are just not aware of the trans-border community or they don’t care to learn. So, I actually adapted my way of answering.” After a brief pause, Gypsy continued, “I know the questions they are going to ask. I know what they are going to hear, so I don’t give them anything that is going to [throw them off]. I don’t give them more than necessary because I don’t want to be sent to secondary inspection.” Gypsy’s experience is echoed by thousands whose daily lives span the national boundaries of either country.

Curiously, Gypsy’s move to articulate an easily digestible answer to custom officers is reminiscent of Crosthwaite’s instruction to present “guardians” with a clear intention for crossing. The moment of the “crossing encounter”—those nerve-racking minutes when crossers face an armed customs officer— is a culmination of many things: hours of waiting in line, low gas, high temperatures, escalating emotions, declining patience, anticipation, and so on. For the most part, people just want to cross. Although many would be happy to explain the complicated reasons for visiting the United States or for owning homes in both countries, most people are more interested in getting on with their day. This does not include the looming anxiety people experience due to the possibility of customs officers sending them to second inspection, thereby adding another 15 minutes to two hours to their trip. As a result, people come up with simple answers and half-truths.

Emanuel, a public-school employee, noted, “When they ask ‘Where are you going,’ everyone just replies, ‘Walmart,” he noted chuckling, “It’s the easiest and most straightforward answer.” Emanuel’s observation gets at the heart of crossing in multiple ways. First, many people who cross do shop at Walmart in the United States, even when a Walmart exists on the Mexican side. The reasons vary, but people will oftentimes cite better quality and prices. Although I have yet to compare international Walmart prices, the image of Walmart is vastly different in the US and Mexico. In the United States, people see Walmart as a shopping destination for working class families. In contrast, people see Walmart Mexico as strictly catering to the middle and upper classes. Second, answering that you are entering the United States to shop at Walmart is a basic crossing instruction. This answer expedites the inspection process because few follow-up questions are necessary. Walmart is a self-evident and legitimate reason for crossing into the US. How about that?

Although numbers help shape the contours of the US-Mexico border, the act of crossing is hardly quantifiable. It is an act that is drenched in emotions and tacit knowing that surpasses statistics. These ways of knowing and relating to the border highlight the importance of recognizing its often-unexplored and under-researched aspects. I often wonder: how would our current debate on border security change if these quotidian crossing stories were central to the conversation? Would everyday Americans be able to empathize with those whose homes, work, schools, and shopping destinations are bisected by an international border? Or are these stories ungraspable? Perhaps these stories are so simple that, contradictorily, they become complex solely by expanding knowledge and preconceptions about life as it moves through the border. If that contradiction surprises you, don’t worry. The stories of the drones, surveillance cameras, and drug trafficking are here too.

The act of crossing has many, many sides. Today I described a few, but in the process, I left out many more. By the end of these series, I will provide the reader with more fresh perspectives that just may open up their understandings of the border. In my next entry, I will share the fascinating story of two lovers separated by the border.

From the field,




[1] Crosthwaite, Luis Humberto. “Instrucciones Para Cruzar.” Letras Libres, November 30, 2005.

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