Three border crossings
The border by foot
There are two bridges that cross the river between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, called Bridge One and Bridge Two. They have other names, if you look at the signs more closely, something like Bridge of Fraternity and Solidarity or International Friendship Bridge. But everyone here seems to refer to them by their numbers. On a recent Friday night I was one of the only people crossing Bridge One on my way to Laredo, passing a line of informal merchants who looked bored and ready to go home. The last of these was an accordion player propped up sleepily against the bridge rail, the hat at his feet bearing barely any change. As soon as he saw me approaching he started pumping out a Mexican love song, and then abruptly stopped after I walked by him. Fleeting love, I suspect.
When I approached the end of the bridge it became clear that there was a crowd, a line of people and families in that linear pose of conversation that only happens in crowded hallways and slow lines. I asked the rear guard of the line what people were waiting for, and the answer was one word: “Permiso”. Two hundred plus people were waiting for permission to get into the U.S. Nothing unusual or special, but it is hard not to feel a bit of something (guilt? empathy?) at moments like this when geopolitical realities are laid bare by long lines of real people. This was compounded by an unfortunate linguistic coincidence: I then had to make my through the crowd saying con permiso, “excuse me” in Spanish but literally meaning “with permission.” Kind of embarrassing.
By the end I started to say perdón, but by that point it just seemed like an admission of guilt: pardon me.
The Border Patrol officer on the other side looked quickly at my passport and asked me what I was doing “over there”. I briefly told him where I was working. He then asked me how crime was these days “over there,” and a couple more “over there” questions. He was talking about it as if it were a town somewhere in Spain or in Puerto Rico. We were standing about 200 yards from “over there”, mind you.
I had a desire to take him by the hand, lead him over to the line of people waiting for permiso, have a short conversation with each of them to see what they had to say about “over there”, walk across the bridge (pointing out its short length and the pleasant river breezes) and then treat him to tacos in Mexico.
The border by water
I remarked in my first posting that the river that acts as the U.S. – Mexico border seemed neither big (Rio Grande) nor angry (Rio Bravo), especially considering what a well-known international demarcation it is. I have since been corrected that the Spanish name translates more as “rough river.” And I have since been told that its placid look is deceiving, especially when it has just rained.
I live about 4 blocks south of the Rio Grande/Bravo. The river still looks tame to me, nevertheless, and on a hot desert day its water looks pretty inviting. I have been told by a family that lives next to the river – the second house in from the border – that even good swimmers have been drowned by the strong undercurrents. Still, would-be migrants arrive at the border wanting to cross over; some don’t have money or don’t want to pay a coyote to cross them over clandestinely, so they decide to try their luck at crossing what seems like a short distance.
Just a couple weeks ago, said the mother of this family, they pulled two men’s bodies out of the river. She called the river a “traitor” given the way that it looked so smooth but could be sinister.
I recently chatted with a Texas journalist who just did a tour of the border with the Border Patrol. (She said they’re a lot nicer than the INS, or BICE, as they’re called now.) They showed her the strategic points where people cross clandestinely. When people swim or wade across they get really muddy. So when they reach the other side, she explained, they remove their clothes and put on a change of clothes that they bring along.
At some point along the banks of the Rio Grande there is apparently a long colorful string of wet discarded clothing, forming its own kind of borderline. I’d like to take a photo of that.
Border by train
When I walk home in the evening I come to a railroad track that takes commercial trains across the border, loaded with goods coming from other parts of Mexico and the world, from factories and Pacific ports. I prefer to just walk across the tracks rather than duck down into the foul-smelling underpass.
With the slow-moving train blocking the way, I stopped to talk to a guard there the other day. The train slowed down at this point in order to pass through a big sensor that could supposedly detect the heat of a human body. I noticed the signs warning you not to remain for an unnecessarily long time in the area. Never did I think that small talk could have a slightly dangerous edge to it.
He told me that about 1,000 train cars passed across the border rail bridge every day. Since the track across is only one lane, there was a schedule for going north and schedule for going south. He said that right before the border every northbound train was checked by U.S. Border Patrol and Customs officials, four men and two dogs on each side of the train, inspecting the contents car by car for drugs and I’m not sure what else.
As I write this, my next door neighbor’s dogs are marking their third hour of almost constant barking. Either they don’t like my music, or something serious is happening in Dogland. I wonder if the K-9 squad accepts unsolicited deliveries of mutt poodles and chihuahuas.