How I Learned To Tear Down The Border Wall

credit: Richard Masoner/Flickr/ Alex Zaragoza

I’m an American citizen, born screaming and velvety-haired from my Mexican mother’s body in a now non-existent hospital in Chula Vista, California, a suburb of San Diego whose name translates to “beautiful view” in Spanish. Those beautiful views were actually made up of the typical markers of Southern Californian suburbia — miles of stucco tract housing, taco shops, lifted trucks and garage kick backs where Bud Light in a can is the drink of choice. This was the backdrop of my early, mundane Mexican-American upbringing.

While they may have never said it explicitly, America was the ultimate symbol of progress and opportunity for my parents, even if it was coupled with deep pride for their own heritage and culture. Still, signs of their internalized racism were evident in many ways.

Sometimes it was obvious, like in the way my mom encouraged me to cover my face in Concha Nacar, a cream that bleached my skin, helping it keep its lightness. And sometimes it was subtle, like in the way they fully bought into the Southern California American dream, with its peach stucco two-story tract homes. I was only five when they bought their brand new American dream house. Home movies show me running excitedly through the hollow two-story that would soon be filled with late ’80s rattan furniture, the scent of my mom’s cooking and Rocio Durcal’s voice coming out of the stereo.

And sometimes it was subtle, like in the way they fully bought into the Southern California American dream, with its peach stucco two-story tract homes. I was only five when they bought their brand new American dream house. Home movies show me running excitedly through the hollow two-story that would soon be filled with late ’80s rattan furniture, the scent of my mom’s cooking and Rocio Durcal’s voice coming out of the stereo.

At 12, when my Mexican-born parents moved us to Tijuana, thirty years after they immigrated to America, it was no surprise that the house and apartments they built there mirrored that house — their American dream house. Kitchen island and marble countertops included. As my dad worked on the house, co-designing it with an architect, I recall him saying how he didn’t want it to look cheap, like Mexican houses. It had to look like something you’d see in America. The house was a symbol of their progress. It embodied Americanism and, for them, proved they made it.

The “beautiful view” of Chula Vista was replaced with a view overlooking the busiest international border in the Western Hemisphere.

CREDIT: Richard Masoner/Flickr

At 4:30 every morning, my alarm jolted me awake as the symphony of the border, with its blaring car horns and hollers from street vendors, bled through my bedroom window.

The dust on the screen smudged my face when I leaned against it to check the border line, which ran right below our house. I’d squint, looking at the rows of car lights that brightened the dark early morning, stretching a mile long up and over a small bridge that leads to the border checkpoint, indicating how long I’d have to wait to get to school.

CREDIT: A woman reaches for a family member through the U.S.-Mexico fence. Photo credit: Alex Zaragoza

It gave new meaning to the term “rude awakening.” Though I often spent weekends and school breaks with my cousin in Tijuana, the city hadn’t been home until then. I didn’t want to move. I knew I’d get made fun of for being “pocha” or not knowing the slang. When my parents considered having me schooled in Tijuana, I begged them to let me continue school in the U.S., worrying that I’d struggle in my classes and be a friendless weirdo. That meant these crack-of-dawn alarm clocks.

In our busted, burnt-orange Mercedes Benz, I applied my eyeliner and put in my contacts while eating spoonfuls of my mom’s sweet avenita. As we inched closer to the checkpoint, I’d silently practice my answers for Border Patrol: “U.S. citizen;” “nothing to declare.”

Over the years, I got used to the general questioning, but the border itself is harder to overcome. It became the physical metaphor for the split in my cultural identity.

The border is hectic and harsh. You sit there held hostage in your car hoping to move. Glaring fluorescent lights and billboards with semi-nude women advertising for plastic surgeons’ offices beam through your windshield. Elderly indigenous women tap on your window. Dust-covered children juggle toy balls. Vendors peddle soft blankets with the image of a strangely sensual panther on it, and you try not to look too much or else they’ll follow you incessantly until you give in. It’s all in hopes of getting some of your money so they can survive through life, just like the rest of us.

And then you pass them and make your way into America knowing they’ll likely never pass themselves. They may have already tried and failed. While you’re right next to each other, staring up at the same border crossing, only one of you will make it to the other side and benefit from the privileges that come with passing. That realization has weighed hard on me, and pushed me to make sure I do something good with the spaces I can access.

CREDIT: The border wall as it runs into the Pacific ocean. Photo credit: Romel Jacinto/Flickr

Most times we crossed through with no issues; other times we were stopped. When I was 15, an agent suspected there were drugs in our car and took me to a room for a private pat-down. Detecting my maxi pad, I was forced to pull down my underwear and prove I was having my period and not smuggling cocaine in my Always medium flow maxi. I could tell the agent, who was a woman, didn’t want to do it. She gave a weak smile and avoided making eye contact during and after the whole thing. She said please and thank you. Even so, I was still embarrassed and felt powerless; like I had no choice. A please and a thank you doesn’t excuse an invasion of my body, even if the threat of a 15-year-old-girl possibly carrying a small baggy of coke in a pad threatens national security. That would have made me the most useless drug mule ever. It’s no wonder I switched to tampons soon after the incident, and why 18 years later, I still think about it.

The border is a space with high stakes, so it’s impossible not to be affected. My mom’s depression and anxiety were exacerbated by the stress of these crossings. During full-on anxiety attacks, she’d scream out in exasperation and tear off her shirt, then just sit in the driver’s seat in her thick, lacy bra trying to calm herself down. I sat next to her trying to help while feeling embarrassed about who would see her and laugh.

During one crossing, we watched as an undocumented man’s body was lifted off the freeway after being hit by a car. Another time, someone was so angry at being cut off in the border line that they took a baseball bat to the offending car, a child in the back seat screaming in terror. Questioning from Border Patrol agents can get intensely scrutinous, often forcing us to justify our very existence.

And sometimes absolutely nothing happens. You just sit for hours, waiting to cross. That in itself will fuck with your mind and your bladder.

My parents endured these regular indignations and anxieties — the goal being that I’d have everything they wanted for me: to be able to “pass.” With passing comes the opportunities and choices they didn’t have.

In many ways, it worked: My lack of an accent, education and light skin granted me privilege, even when my upbringing, gender, and race did not. My mother may have been a housekeeper and my father may have picked fruit as a child, but I would have more choices because of their sacrifice and hard work. But it still created a sort of existential dilemma.

In school, I had to lie to my teachers about where I lived, using my grandmother’s address on all my documents. If administrators found out, I’d get kicked out of school, and probably the district. That need to lie also planted a seed of shame about where I come from. In a high school where Mexicans were the majority, I was considered whitewashed, even though my Spanish had become fluent and I lived in Tijuana. It was the same at the punk shows and bars I snuck into in Tijuana. It was hard to feel like I was enough.

In college, where I was among the nine percent of Mexican-American undergrads, a white boy offered me 25 cents to iron his shirts. Another told me I probably only got in because of Affirmative Action. I wouldn’t say I was from Tijuana, but rather that my parents lived there but I was born in San Diego. I said this to avoid their racist remarks, but I eventually learned that it didn’t make a difference in how they treated me. All it did was uphold their power over me.

Then my college boyfriend asked me why had my family “regressed” by returning to Mexico decades after immigrating. Why reverse this sure sign of progress; this trajectory that traced the American Dream?

I stammered a lame explanation while fuming at his implication—that going back to my roots meant failure on a grand socio-economic scale. I was offended and angry, not just at him but at myself.

It led me to realize how little I appreciated my upbringing because of the stigmas and anxiety associated with the border. That I had been working most of my life to excuse my very being. I realized that the wall of the border had been speaking to me all along, working to convince me and my family that we are second-class and undesirable. And that I was actually listening to it — that every time I may have expressed shame in where I came from, even subtly, I was reinforcing the belief that my people don’t belong here. I realized I had enough. In dismantling these notions, I would tear down the wall built within my identity.

I couldn’t be one or the other, nor did I want to be. I had to reconcile and embrace all the points of my identity to create the mix that is uniquely me. As I continue to cross the border regularly, I no longer practice the answers to justify my existence but rather to stand up to the wall. I’m a proud border girl; no fragments or versions.

Imposing and conceited, the wall runs through mountains, neighborhoods and even into the Pacific Ocean. But it would no longer run through me.

READ: This Art Project Is Traveling To Every U.S.-Mexico Border Crossing And Documenting The Experience Of Daily Commuters


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