“American citizen?”

In our post-9/11 world, this question looms in our consciousness as much as “Is the cost of gasoline up again?” Yet there was a time when it was familiar only to international travelers and especially to those of us who lived along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border is my home. Both my mother’s and father’s ancestors received Spanish land grants and settled in what is now the southern tip of Texas and northeastern Mexico in the late 1700’s—well before the Rio Grande was even a boundary. When I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, making our way around the region required passing a federal checkpoint every time we crossed from one country to the other. It was a ritual my family rehearsed each Sunday afternoon after having spent the day with my grandmother on a small Mexican ranch thirty minutes from the bridge that joins Brownsville and Matamoros, Tamaulipas. We didn’t refer to either side of the bridge as “Mexico” or “the United States”; we called them, simply, “this side” and “that side.” “Este lado” and “el otro lado.” As in, “¿Vas al otro lado?” “Are you going to the other side?”

There were actually two bridges between Brownsville and Matamoros when I was a kid, and those we called the “old bridge” and the “new bridge.” Both charged the same toll (about $1.25 each way), and both consisted of two lanes in either direction. Some locals swore by their bridge like they swore by their soccer or football teams. My own family shifted alliances back and forth between the two, never really making up our mind over which one was faster to cross.

As we’d drive up to the bridge of choice in our 1976 beige Impala, which always looked a little slouchy in the back, we could already see the lines of cars that snaked for miles, and we’d know we were in for a tense afternoon. Crossing the bridge was a defensive sport. To aggressive drivers such as my mother—my father usually talked his way out of the Sunday visits—it was a sin to let even one car cut into the line, so one had to remain vigilant at all times, edging forward anytime a nearby vehicle hinted at movement. Sometimes the aggressiveness was unwarranted, and someone would end up bumping someone, and then both drivers would have to get out of their vehicles to inspect for damage. As the perfectionist in my family, I was obsessed with picking the quickest line—and, of course, the quickest line always turned out to be the one my mother hadn’t picked. As we took our place, I’d note the car to our side (say, a maroon mini-van), then watch in agony as it crawled ahead and gradually left us behind.

The stifling, humid heat of South Texas posed a second problem. The worst thing that could happen in the bridge line was for one’s car to overheat. The temperature gauge became much more important to us than the speedometer, and as the red pointer inched closer to “H” and smoke started curling from underneath the hood, all bets were off for getting home in time to catch the opening of Siempre en Domingo, our favorite Sunday Spanish-language variety show. My mother would have to get out of the car and put on her “I’m a woman alone” face. A small herd of males would then appear from nowhere and help push the car to the side, while others made nasty faces because we were holding up the line. The men would pry open the hood and douse the burning engine with water, making it steam dramatically. Then came the worst part: sitting, waiting until the old Impala had cooled enough for the engine to start again.

And so none of us would say a word as we approached the line and my mother reached for the air-conditioning knob, which we took as a sign to roll down our windows. But tempers smoldered in silence. My father had reupholstered the car’s seats in a forest-green vinyl, the effect of which was that our bare legs quickly grew wet and began to stick to the searing seats. My mother tried to be understanding. If there were a few pesos left from the day, she’d buy something from the vendors who buzzed about the bridge line offering cool treats of all kinds: brightly colored snow cones; Popsicle-like paletas with chunks of fruit; fresh limeade with ice floating atop; slices of mango or jícama sprinkled with lime and red chile pepper; cold, peeled prickly pears, or tunas; and bolis, which were long plastic-wrapped ice sticks that came in a rainbow of flavors. Coconut was my favorite. My sister Cristina, who was five years older than me, preferred the guava-studded paletas, while my twin sister, Celia, favored icy eggnog treats. As we ate, our tongues became too frozen for us to talk, and peace reigned inside the Impala.

But there were days of no spare change—and then all hell would break loose. Celia had a particularly terrible temper. If Cristina, who, as the eldest child, always rode shotgun, rested her elbow on the passenger-side door, Celia would kick it down swiftly from behind. Cristina would say nothing but would put her arm back up. Celia would crouch low on the backseat, bend her knee up to her chin, and flex her leg with all her might.

Cristina, the quietest and least combative of us three, tried to swallow the humiliation, but her eyes would betray her and turn red and teary.

“Ma, Celia’s kicking me!” she’d finally say.

“Celia, párale—stop.”

“She’s blocking my air!”

“There’s no air. The air conditioner’s off.”

“Well, she’s blocking my air from outside! I’m hot!”

“Leave her alone!”

I’d mumble, “I told you we should’ve gone in the other line . . .”

When my mother burst into tears, that’s when we knew we’d pushed too far. We’d ride the rest of the line in silence.

At some point, usually after too much physical and emotional damage had been inflicted, we’d spot the tollbooths and the row of federal inspection stations that were spread out several hundred yards beyond them. After we paid our $1.25, the two lanes we were in would split into three, four, or even five, depending on the number of inspectors who were on duty at that time. Again, the stress level rose as my mother tried to pick the right line for a second time. Much depended on the person standing inside the inspection booth. The four of us would eye the agents and make quick, intuitive guesses. Female agents were always meaner than male agents, and middle-aged men were tougher than either the old guys or the newbies. We were looking for Santa Claus in a blue inspector’s uniform.

As we approached, all four of us sat up a little straighter. In the front seat, my mother and sister would have already fished into purses for green cards. My mom was legalized in 1971 when she married my dad, whose father was an American citizen. But although she’d started studying for the U.S. citizenship exam at various times, she’d become overwhelmed with all the presidents’ names and quit. Cristina, meanwhile, arrived into the world while my parents lived in Matamoros, so she was a Mexican citizen. A fifteen-year-old with long, glossy hair who was trying to survive her teenage identity crisis, she was forced each time to pull out a peeling ID with a picture of a discouraged-looking child in sloppy pigtails.

Celia and I were U.S. born and bred. So we sat smugly in the backseat without lifting a finger. After the agent had taken my mother’s and sister’s ID cards and squinted at them, he’d return them and move to us. There were two things we could say, depending on his approach. If he just looked at us with his face like a question mark, we’d say, “American citizen,” in our accent-free English. If he asked us directly whether we were citizens, we’d respond, “Yes, sir!”

Every now and then, some agent would doubt our sincerity, thinking we were illegal children who’d been carefully coached, so he’d pitch a follow-up question meant to throw us off. But we always knew the answer, and proving it somehow made us feel even better.

“What school do you go to?”

“Perez Elementary.”

“What street do you live on?”

“Clover Drive.”

Crossing the bridge isn’t the same anymore. International borders no longer stand as everyday rituals to be managed with as much patience and humor as possible. They’ve become more like high school exit exams, and there is no room left to challenge the inspector or be coy and slip in a little white lie as a way to amuse oneself. The spirit of crossing the bridge has become something else entirely. The color, and the sense of familiarity and memory, is gone. When I do cross now, it’s always in a car whose engine is new enough to remain cool while I blast the air-conditioning as high as I please. There are three bridges to choose from instead of two. I usually cross alone, and instead of eyeing the car next to me, I read a book to kill time or try practicing “mindfulness.” It doesn’t even anger me anymore when a car suddenly juts in front of me, prompting the rest of the line to berate me with their horns (which don’t bother me either). As I approach the inspection station, I automatically pull out my wallet and ready my driver’s license. In these days of permanent terrorist alerts, everyone—citizen or not—has to show identification, and as of this month, we’ll all have to display passports. I don’t dare joke with the agents or take risks. I might lie about a tequila bottle that I stashed under the passenger seat to avoid paying the state’s liquor tax, but I don’t lie about my address or about what I was “doing in Mexico” to amuse myself like I used to just a few years ago. If I cross in one city after having recently crossed another part of the border, I’m summoned to secondary inspection and my car gets turned inside out, in case I should be a wanted contrabandist.

But back then, when I was growing up—ah, back then there was still a small payoff to the crossing. After everyone had been cleared and the federal agent had waved us on, the mood lightened immediately, and my mother would promptly announce how long the whole ordeal had been, for she had been tracking the time all along: “Thirty-four minutes.” It always sounded so much shorter than it had felt! The four of us would ride in silence then as the car picked up speed and the wind blew through the windows, cooling our faces. We blinked at the air. And for a few minutes, we felt free. Not because we were back in the United States or because we were “home” but because we were done explaining ourselves for a while.