Across the border in winter, Juarez families burn trash to keep warm. Smoke rises liked dirty cotton candy spun heavenward in hot plumes. Driving around the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), you smell it before you see it. Ripe and burnt, it assaults. You wriggle your nose, hold your breath, circulate your car fan and press on the gas pedal to get away, pass the unpleasantness. From my El Paso home, five miles west, I can see the gray tunnels like circus tent stakes holding up a cherry pie sky, Mount Cristo Rey cloudy in the distance, the giant stone Jesus with arms flung open.
It’s warm now. The burning has ended for the season. The smoggy air has been pulled back to reveal summer laundry lines strung round ramshackle houses like protective webs. On a typical Saturday, families gather beneath these homespun streamers in plastic lawn chairs to eat tamales and roasted pork from tinfoil trays, listen to mariachis on the radio, and laugh with their children dancing round. It’s inviting and not much different from my own family; but by Sunday morning, the dusty white streets are quiet empty to the point of distress, intimately naked. The Monday news reports: gunfire, death, rape, victims, gangs, drugs, sorrow, mourning.
I came to El Paso in 2007 with my husband, an Army orthopedic surgeon stationed at Fort Bliss. We moved from the lush green hills and reedy waterways of Virginia to the sandy, blue heat of the desert. The first thing I noticed—the first thing everyone notices—was how close we are to Juarez. A stone’s throw. Literally. A pencil-thin, invisible line divides American soil from Mexican, and depending on which way the wind blows, it can vary a couple inches. On our tarred American highways, the license plate in front of me is just as likely to say Chihuahua as Texas. Surprising at first, I hardly notice anymore. It’s normal. El Paso and Juarez: the border sister cities, so they boast. However, the violence and poverty is a far cry from sisterly. The United States Federal Government has deemed Juarez so precarious it forbids all military personnel and their dependents from visiting. My husband showed me the email, direct from command. So all I know of Juarez is what I see from this side and what I hear from those who dare to cross.
I met my first Mexican students at UTEP where I taught English writing courses. Call them blessed, lucky or damned determined, they were often the most eager students in my classroom. In pursuit of academia, they commuted across the U.S.-Mexico border daily. Many of them were a part of UTEP’s Programa de Asistencia Estudiantil (PASE) helping Juarez students gain higher education.
In a free writing exercise one day, I asked my composition class to write about a childhood event that made them stronger. “Don’t worry about grammar or structure,” I told them. “Just write without stopping for fifteen minutes. Write whatever comes into your head, but you can’t stop your pencils.”
It was intended as a warm-up exercise to spur creativity before we laid into the day’s English meat & potatoes. Plus, it gave me time to do university business: take attendance, organize my lecture notes, arrange graded writing for return, etc. So as the students scribbled I went about these mundane chores, called time after fifteen minutes, teased them for groaning over cramped fingers, and continued on.
I read every word my students write. So three hours later, I took my stack of papers home, snuggled up in my air-conditioned den with a cup of iced tea and began to read. There was an entertaining account of a T-ball victory, a talent show success, a funny anecdote about a girl who conquered her fear of her grandmother’s poodle ‘Doodlebug’. Quick reads that brought a smile. Then, I came to one of my Mexican student’s papers and my breath caught.
His family of five crossed the border with illegal paperwork. His father instructed him, his mother and two younger brothers to wait while he met with U.S. friends who promised help. They hid in a windowless van for days, drinking bottled water and eating rancid burritos, the desert heat baking the beans to ash-gray. On the third night, he heard a knock on the passenger’s side door. A state trooper. They were quickly escorted back to Juarez, dropped on the opposite side of the American line minus one. This was the last time he saw his father who had been arrested and later sentenced to La Tuna Federal Prison. My student never learned the details, but that day, he became the head of his household. He stepped up to the responsibility of caring for his family, the responsibility of showing his two younger brothers the definition of a true man. He was thirteen at the time. He wrote that he awoke every morning to the Texas-sized flag flapping stars and stripes over an El Paso car dealership across the border and swore he’d get out of poverty. At twenty, he was a UTEP sophomore studying business with the unshakable faith that he would be something more—that he would rise above.
When I passed back the free writing exercise, he took his paper with quiet, downcast eyes, but I couldn’t move on, couldn’t wipe the story from my mind nor did I want to. “This free write,” I said, “is excellent. Strong. Very good.”
His face beamed. “Thank you.”
It’s been years now since he was in my classroom, but I still think of him and his story whenever I pass round the south side of Franklin Mountains. I gaze over the great divide where children play in the Rio Grande’s muddy banks, mothers hang laundry, bonfires plume from the sand, and I wonder how many others like him are out there looking back. I’m haunted and hopeful for them.