“We were trying to change the vision and the conversation about border fears.”
Border Odyssey takes us on a drive toward understanding the U.S./Mexico divide: all 1,969 miles—from Boca Chica to Tijuana—pressing on with the useful fiction of a map.
“We needed to go to the place where countless innocent people had been kicked, cussed, spit on, arrested, detained, trafficked, and killed. It would become clear that the border, la frontera, was more multifaceted and profound than anything we could have invented about it from afar.”
Along the journey, five centuries of cultural history (indigenous, French, Spanish, Mexican, African American, colonist, and U.S.), wars, and legislation unfold. And through observation, conversation, and meditation, Border Odyssey scopes the stories of the people and towns on both sides.
“Stories are the opposite of walls: they demand release, retelling, showing, connecting, each image chipping away at boundaries. Walls are full stops. But stories are like commas, always making possible the next clause.”
Among the terrain traversed: walls and more walls, unexpected roadblocks and patrol officers; a golf course (you could drive a ball across the border); a Civil War battlefield (you could camp there); the southernmost plantation in the United States; a hand-drawn ferry, a road-runner tracked desert, and a breathtaking national park; barbed wire, bridges, and a trucking-trade thoroughfare; ghosts with guns; obscured, unmarked, and unpaved roads; a Catholic priest and his dogs, artwork, icons, and political cartoons; a sheriff and a chain-smoking mayor; a Tex-Mex eatery empty of customers and a B&B shuttering its doors; murder-laden newspaper headlines at breakfast; the kindness of the border-crossing underground; and too many elderly, impoverished, ex-U.S. farmworkers, braceros, lined up to have Thompson take their photograph.
Evidence of Things Not Seen
Ciudad Juarez, Sonora, Mexico
Nearly two hundred people, none of them younger than seventy-five, crowded around us. My wife Hope and I had accompanied our friend Poncho to visit these Braceros on a Sunday morning in Benito Juarez Park in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. When I asked if I might take some photos of them—regular candid shots is what I had in mind—they began moving toward us, surrounding us, getting so close that each individual face filled the frame. They formed a line with each one waiting his turn, each set of eyes asking that I not leave anyone out. They had me for the entire morning.
Years earlier they had been given visas and invited to work in the United States. Our country had asked them to come because we needed their strong arms. In 1942, officials began a federal program to import these laborers, calling them Braceros. They came as replacements for our soldiers and factory workers during the Second World War, and they remained as field hands after the war. The program lasted until 1964. During its twenty-two years some 4.6 million men signed contracts and traveled north of the border to work. After 1964, the United States no longer needed them and told them to go home. There was no letter of thanks, and government officials said they would send their retirement money later.
The Braceros had waited patiently, trusting they would be paid the benefits they had earned. But now they were old and no retirement checks had arrived. Half a century had passed. They were demonstrating in the park because they wanted the world to know they were still waiting. They seemed gratified that someone, anyone, would be willing to document their presence in this park.
As I looked through the camera lens at their lined faces, I imagined them all as young farmworkers. They had been faithful in giving some of their best years to work in our fields. Now too old to work, they had gathered in this park every Sunday for years. They had pledged to one another to continue until they were too old even to do that. The ones still able to continue stood together peacefully once a week a few miles from the U.S./Mexico border, calling attention to the injustice of it all.
The day we arrived in 2010, the old Braceros held signs and propped placards on a nearby fence, while one hoisted a Mexican flag. They stood strong, shoulder to shoulder, an unlikely group of protesters: old men in cowboy hats and caps with various logos. They stood silently; there were no chants. Alongside them were some family members: wives, widows, and a few supporters, including a faithful retired professor named Manuel Robles who helped them stay organized. Now I held each of them in my frame, and for the briefest of moments each gazed back, his face telling volumes.
Occasionally over the years a reporter from Mexico had happened by to write an article. During election season a politician or two had sometimes discovered them again. That day they stood in line waiting their turn to stare into my lens as if this alone could rescue them from the grasp of anonymity. Their faces were like road maps, with lines of experience from crisscrossing the border and working in the sun written on their skin. I focused and clicked away, asking Hope to write down their names alongside descriptions in my notebook. “White cowboy hat; red checked western shirt,” I said aloud as I snapped the shutter. “Black Marlboro cap, glasses, green striped shirt.” We would match the descriptions with the names and photos later.
I noticed that some held up laminated cards and photocopies of papers in their photos. They were copies of decades-old identification cards and work visas showing they had entered the United States legally. These pictures were of proud men in their twenties, all of them ambitious farm people dressed up and staring solemnly into the camera just before they left for the U.S. Were these the last portraits some of them had taken before now? Some had died, and their names were on a banner propped up temporarily at the Juárez statue. The remaining ones were like veterans of a forgotten war who knew their ranks were dwindling.
I had to tell them I possessed no official means to help them. I stepped onto a park bench and projected my voice above the crowd encircling me, speaking in Spanish and offering them as much respect as possible. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know that I’m not with the United States government.” But even as I said that, I realized that as a citizen, I did in fact have some accountability in this—as every American has. I knew I didn’t want to give them false hopes, though I didn’t want to shirk my responsibility either. I continued, “I teach at a university in the U.S. and my wife and I are here at the invitation of our friend, Professor Luis Alfonso Herrera Robles from the University of Juarez.” Poncho, as he is known to his friends, is a sociologist who for years has been going to the park, first with his parents to serve coffee and pan dulce, and later working with his mentor Professor Robles to record their stories on tape and to document their cause. Poncho believed my photographs could help and had told this to the Braceros. Poncho and I had talked before we arrived of collaborating on a photo and oral history project, one that we have since pursued and finished. But I knew in the Braceros’ presence that day that my work was a long way from getting their money for them.
“It’s so important that you are here,” I announced in my strongest voice. “It’s an honor for my wife and me to stand with you here today and to join with you as you demand justice. We will try our best to spread the word about you and use the photographs to help. We hope to bring copies back to you as well. Please continue your struggle for what you know is right. Sí se puede!” The crowd erupted in applause. I got down off the bench and went back to the line. I framed the next person in my viewfinder, and he stared back at the camera with a stony but kind face as I snapped the shutter. “Black cowboy hat, glasses, mustache, yellow striped shirt,” I said to Hope. She wrote down his name as I moved to the
next in line.
The Border Etched in Bones
Juarez, El Paso, and the Davis Mountains
I had never I mag I ned when we first planned our trip that such a scene would be waiting for us in Ciudad Juarez, the difficult place Chuck Bowden titled Murder City, the place where tens of thousands of people had been killed over the past decade, the place where thousands of young women working in maquiladoras had been disappeared, trafficked, or murdered, giving Mexican “femicide” its grisly meaning. We never dreamed that in the place where men and boys had turned up bloodied on streets, some decapitated, some hanging from bridges, we would find an unlikely group of elders demonstrating so openly and with such courage for a cause that has nothing to do with drug cartels or murders.
It became clear after days of traveling along the U.S./Mexico border that the frontera was more multifaceted and profound than anything we could have invented about it from afar, particularly in a place where fear influences how we imagine it, and how could there not be fear of Juarez? Deeper understanding was exactly what we had hoped for by going there; still we could never have planned or even imagined that scene with the Braceros in the park. Maps had been only outlines, stark lines drawn in two dimensions. Going there made possible varied colors and detail, texture and depth that I’m still trying to fathom.
We had thought we might spend our time in Juarez behind walls at the university and that Poncho might not let us venture beyond them. Instead, he had filled our days with exploration. By the time we met the Braceros on a Sunday morning in May, we had driven all over Juarez, meeting a variety of people, including migrant farmworkers on both sides of the border, priests, activists, and even a bride and groom getting married in a Mexican hotel. What had seemed a single image of violence had been transformed into faces of dozens of people whose eyes I had looked into and whose stories I’d written down. What had sounded from the outside like a stark cry of fear and hopelessness now seemed like a chorus of human voices calling us to deeper understanding and even encouraging us to help rebuild relations between our two countries. Then what?
I had no solutions to our diplomatic challenges, but I did have stories that had convinced me we had gotten the border all wrong. I had images in my camera and words written down in my notebook, and they called to me, they urged me to give something back. The Braceros’ stories had been the result of only one morning of dozens spent along the border, and before I finished there would be many more that would weigh on me until I could release them again. Stories are the opposite of walls: they demand release, retelling, showing, connecting, each image chipping away at boundaries. Walls are full stops. But stories are like commas, always making possible the next clause.
Walls between humans have never worked anyway, whether the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Jerusalem’s West Bank wall, or even the ugly fence constructed between two Virginia neighbors that I had seen plastered with “no trespassing” signs. All were and are futile attempts to block out problems that need to be addressed head on. Hadn’t the strategy of building walls proved faulty back when medieval castles were under siege? Boiling oil and showers of arrows raining down on intruders might have worked for a night or two, but they never proved to be good long-range strategies, especially when the water and food began running low. It seemed to me that only the defense contractors who build and maintain border walls could be pleased with our new distinction of having the best fence in the world.
Before our trip when Hope and I traced the single black line from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific on maps, highlighting in yellow the dotted lines signifying back roads closest to the border, everything had looked so clear and unambiguous on paper. What had been a single line in the landscape in satellite photos had now become multidimensional, messy, and human in all the best and worst senses. Even the physical wall itself had been painted, filled with graffiti, blowtorched, and cut. We saw that in some places the fence had just stopped mid-hill, leaving unexplained gaps. I realized these complications would have to be included in my telling of the story of the border. It would be chaotic at times, come out in fits and starts, and be nonlinear, but in the telling I knew that no matter how lost I was in its confusion and danger, I always had the option of heading back to the line to regroup. Maps aren’t places themselves, but they provide a useful fiction to guide us through the realities otherwise impossible to contain.
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After saying our good-byes in the Juarez Park, Diego, one of Poncho’s colleagues, drove us across the bridge and back to El Paso in his family’s Toyota van. He had a pass that allowed him to cross the border for a day, and he had an errand to run in the U.S., so he volunteered to take us back. As we neared the border bridge, we pulled into one of the dozen lines of traffic waiting to go north. While we had walked into Mexico on foot without being questioned three days earlier, the return trip was much more complicated and time-consuming. Diego considered us lucky to sit in line for what he predicted would be two hours. As we waited and talked, dozens of small-time entrepreneurs meandered on foot through the parked traffic, some selling ice cream in pushcarts, others hawking newspapers, Chiclets, roasted nuts, huge placards of religious icons, jewelry, and more. Three indigenous women, Tarahumaras wearing long colorful skirts and no shoes, had only their outstretched hands to offer and walked through traffic pleading with their eyes for money. This border carnival in the hot sun on pavement was repeated every day. It provided the crossers some sense of community and distraction as they waited, sometimes from morning until night.
We reached the electronic sensing devices near the U.S. Customs entrance. We handed our passports to Diego and waited some more, making sure not to say anything critical about the border or immigration, or even to joke, as we had heard that the sophisticated detection devices monitored even the sounds inside vehicles. When we finally got to the inspection station, a dark-uniformed customs agent approached Diego’s car door, took the passports, and, seeing that we were American, looked over at me to ask what we had been doing in Ciudad Juarez. I could see he was wearing a bulletproof vest and knew that he had to be sweating inside it.
“We were guests of the College of Chihuahua and the University of Juarez. We both gave talks at a conference for grad students. I showed my film about immigration to students and faculty there.” All of that was true. It would have sounded ludicrous to go into my additional reasons for traveling the border: the stories, images in the park, and all the rest.
The young, stocky white guard looked at me and shook his head. “You’re lucky to be alive,” he said, looking back at our papers. He chuckled a little, handed the passports back, and added, “Just kidding.” We knew that he wasn’t.
The university had put us up in a Best Western with palm trees and a pool. Three fancy wedding parties took place in the hotel that weekend. The brides and their attendants wore long pastel formal dresses, the men dark suits and pointy boots. They danced to live bands into the night as we sat by the pool and listened to the music. Meanwhile, twenty-four young men and boys were murdered during the weekend in the streets of the city. Territorial fights in the drug wars, Diego surmised, just the kind of danger the officer was talking about. So I knew what the guard meant about luck, but we had also seen what was on the other side of fear, an entirely different reason to feel lucky.
We had parked our car in a border lot in El Paso watched over by several disheveled Latino men who played cards in a little shack at the entrance. They told us that they slept there all night and let in no one but the car owners. We didn’t worry about the rental car. After all, we knew that statistics show El Paso had long been one of America’s safest cities. When three days later we shouted our return greetings from Diego’s car window at the gate, they looked back from what looked like the same card game, remembered us at a glance, and waved us through. Clearly there had not been a lot of gringos parking their cars and walking into Ciudad Juarez.
We thanked Diego for the hours he had just spent taking us across the bridge, got our bags, and loaded them into our trunk. We waved good-bye, started the Chevrolet, and drove mostly in silence through the peaceful and deserted El Paso downtown. We found our way quickly to I-10 East and drove to a Texas state park where we would stay for the night. We started talking about what we had just been through, knowing we still had over a thousand miles to cover and much more exploring along the way.
That afternoon we arrived at the lodge at Fort Davis and went hiking. Up in the Davis Mountains, about fifty miles from the border, we saw signs along a trail that warned of mountain lions that stalk small children or women hiking alone. I had heard about the big cats bringing down men my size by jumping off ledges onto them from behind. But I didn’t worry too much as we hiked. After Juarez, a threat I could understand as part of nature was almost welcome. At least there were instructions about what to do. Never walk alone. Make noise. Try to look larger and more menacing than you might feel. But I noted that none of those signs said not to go.
At the border everything was different. There, authorities wanted us to stay away. The border is a dangerous place and there’s nothing to be done about it. You’re lucky to be alive if you make it out. They might as well have had signs that said as much. But our trip along the border was our push back against all that.
We weren’t trying to be foolhardy. While heeding the travel warnings as well as we could, we had wanted to find an alternative to the narrative of danger that we’ve all become accustomed to. We were trying to do something to help change the vision and the conversation about border fears. We knew there had to be something more to immigration discussions than just to repeat over and over again that we should make the wall stronger and crack down on illegal immigrants. It seemed every politician always began any talk about immigration with a nod toward “strengthening the border.” We were after an alternative narrative.
After you walk a trail with your own feet, talk with others along the way, breathe the air, touch the rocks, smell the plants, see the clouds above you, and even keep watch for the mountain lions, a trail and the places it traverses become part of you. You return with your own memories and maybe a few pains, and the place gets etched into your bones. This book is my telling about the border from my bones: my discoveries and frights, new friendships and hauntings, pains and possibilities, all gained because we ignored warnings to stay away.
Why tell it? First of all, the border belongs to all of us. Like the underlining of a sentence, the border wall is a line beneath our country that emphasizes what we believe about ourselves—at least officially. I was afraid that if we weren’t careful, the wall could start to define us, and we could become the people of the wall, overpowering all that I grew up believing, eclipsing even the symbol of a crowned lady holding a torch. I decided to face our fears by going there, hoping to replace fears with understanding.
Looking back now at the whole trip, I’m happy to say we lived through the experience, though “understanding” might be too strong a word. I can say that the border taught me about possibilities beyond a single stark line, all gained from listening firsthand to those who, like the Braceros, live the frontera and bear its consequences. I returned home with a complicated set of images, experiences, and stories that needed retelling. But simple lines couldn’t begin to contain them. Perhaps that is the major point of it all. Simple lines can’t contain people either.