A River Runs Through It

El Paso and Juárez were like two halves of a single community, and growing up I traveled back and forth between them without a second thought. Later, as a historian, I came to understand how fraught those border crossings were.
The author with his tía Adela in 1964, above his father’s butcher shop in Juárez.

Growing up I had no idea of the multiple layers of meaning connected to the places I passed through every day. The layers opened up slowly. One such place was the Santa Fe Street international bridge, which links El Paso to Juárez. In many ways this binational thoroughfare best captures the essence of the fragmented city I’m from, a city originally called El Paso del Norte (the Pass of the North) that was later split in two along the Rio Grande. As a kid, going back and forth across the river was no big deal. We did it several times a week—to visit friends and relatives, eat at restaurants, and buy groceries in Juárez. For me the bridge was just a way to get to the other side of a muddy river. But as I look back, I realize that even then I could already sense that this narrow strip of concrete had deeper layers. My earliest memory of crossing the Santa Fe Street bridge from Mexico into the United States took place when I was about five years old. I was in the backseat of my father’s Mustang. When we reached the checkpoint, my parents took out their U.S. residency passports and showed them to the customs agent. The stern-looking man stuck his head inside the car window, pointed his finger at me, and asked: “Citizenship?” I wasn’t sure what he was asking, so I took off my Mickey Mouse hat and waved it in front of his face.

As an adult I still have trouble answering questions at border checkpoints. For some reason interrogations always make me feel guilty. Plus I find it difficult to answer the profound existential questions the customs agents pose at these crossings: Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? Why? They’re the sort of queries I’ve never been able to answer truthfully in five hundred words or less. I always simply answer “American” to the citizenship question. But what I really want to say is that I’m a fronterizo. I’m from both sides.

I come from a long line of paseños who went back and forth across the border most of their lives and who, like me, ultimately established deep roots in El Paso without losing their connection to Juárez. My maternal grandmother’s family immigrated to El Paso nearly a century ago during the Mexican Revolution. My great-aunt Adela Dorado, who was kidnapped by a Mexican federal soldier and later managed to escape, found refuge in the Segundo Barrio, a south El Paso neighborhood where much of the plotting and propagandizing for the revolution took place. Her family followed her, but as soon as the violence across the river subsided, many of them went back to Mexico. Others stayed in El Paso for the rest of their lives, while a few moved to California and South Texas. My tía Adela took my mother to work in the tomato and peach canneries in San Jose, California, in the late fifties. That’s where my mother met my father and where I was born. Before my first birthday, we drove back to the border on a truck that my father bought with money he had earned as a garbage collector in San Jose. He sold the truck to make a down payment on a butcher shop in Juárez. In 1965 he sold his butcher shop to buy a Chevron gas station in El Paso.

The first time my father entered the United States it was not through the Santa Fe Street bridge. He crossed into this country illegally in 1953 near the Tijuana border—just before Operation Wetback, which the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed to have resulted in the removal of more than 1.3 million undocumented Mexican workers from the borderlands, either through actual apprehensions or by departures under the threat of deportation. A Border Patrol agent caught him and handcuffed him to a telephone pole while the agent chased after another unauthorized border crosser. Before handcuffing my father to the pole, the migra, who was pissed off at my father for running, threw my father’s sack lunch at his face. There was a bottle inside the sack that broke and gashed my father’s forehead. That was when he was fourteen years old. Many years later, not long after I graduated from Stanford—the same university where my father used to collect garbage as a young man—he took a pilgrimage of sorts. He returned to the exact spot where he had been handcuffed to the pole. There was a fancy restaurant near that spot, where my father and my mother sat down to eat the most expensive meal they could order. That was all the revenge he needed.

For decades my great-aunt Adela kept many of her own memories of crossing the border checkpoint to herself. It wasn’t until I was in high school that she first told our family about the fumigations at the Santa Fe Street bridge. We were all sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table. She described humiliating experiences as a young woman in which she’d had to strip naked and be examined by public health inspectors when she crossed from Juárez to El Paso. Beginning in 1917, Mexican border crossers like her had to take a bath with a mixture of soap and kerosene and have their clothes sprayed with pesticides whenever they entered into the United States. My aunt, who always took great care to look her best, said she felt very embarrassed because the customs officials didn’t order everyone to bathe, only those they thought were dirty. Once, she had to put her shoes in what she called a huge secadora, and when she got them back, they had melted.

I had trouble believing this story. It certainly wasn’t anything I had been taught in school. I doubted whether the secadoras, or drying machines, she described had even been invented back then. Surely my great-aunt’s memory was failing her. At the time, I didn’t know what to do with

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