Robie Flores couldn’t get out of Eagle Pass fast enough. Growing up in the border town as the only girl in between her older brother, Paco, and her younger twin brothers, Marcelo and Alejandro, she felt frustrated by the boredom and wanted to escape the confusion of a place that made her feel like she wasn’t American or Mexican enough. “I actually always told people when I went to college, [that] I’m from San Antonio, because it’s the closest notable city,” Robie recalls.

When she graduated from high school, Robie left Eagle Pass for wider pastures and a chance to reinvent herself. She earned a master’s degree in news and documentary journalism from New York University and worked for CNN and Bloomberg. Then, in July 2015, Marcelo (“Mars” to his family and friends) died unexpectedly, during a trip to Acapulco, at just 23 years old. His death brought Robie back to their hometown. It coincided with an election cycle that cast Eagle Pass and other border towns in a light that distorted what Robie knew her hometown to be. So, in early 2017, she moved back to Eagle Pass to document it.

Spanning nearly six years, the resulting documentary, The In Between, which premiered last week at South by Southwest, follows the children of Eagle Pass as they experience the same things that shaped Robie’s own childhood: dance practices across the border in Piedras Negras, Selena-themed birthday parties, peewee football, and so much of the silliness and bluster of childhood. The documentary is lush and lyrical, sprinkled with the quiet conversations and small joys of childhood among the landscape of a place bursting with a culture defined by the U.S. and Mexico in a way that’s unique to border towns. The film is also a meditation on nostalgia and grief, and Robie’s diary-style narration brings viewers into her ongoing conversation with Mars.

Early in the documentary, Robie explains that the siblings had always had an interest in film (Mars studied film at UT-Austin, where I was loosely acquainted with him and his brother) and planned to make films together. After Mars died, it seemed as though that dream was lost. But Mars’ perspective, including photos and footage he’d shot over the years, was crucial to the film. At the end of the documentary, there’s a gorgeous sunset scene on the Fourth of July, when residents of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras gather along the banks of the Rio Grande to watch the fireworks together. It was a scene that Robie had been trying to capture for years, never finding the right kind of light. And then, finally, on the last shot, the sky was soft and pink.

“Paco was in Eagle Pass on the bottom, coordinating with people there; Alex was on the Mexican side coordinating; and I was on the [Eagle Pass international] bridge. And Mars was in the sky,” Robie said. “It was incredible. We very much did get to make this movie together.”

After the SXSW premiere, I chatted with director Robie and her brother and coproducer Alex about identity, working through grief through filmmaking, and how politics have changed Eagle Pass.

Texas Monthly: Your narration in the film felt really raw and honest. How did you find that voice?

Robie Flores: It was so hard. But in the time that Mars has been gone, I write to him sometimes, and at one point I shared that with Alex and Kellen [Quinn, coproducer and cowriter], and it planted a seed. But it wasn’t until, I think in 2021 that we connected with our writing consultant, Barbara Cigarroa, who’s amazing. She’s also a border kid and has this incredible family in Laredo, the next border town over to us, and just really shared so much of the experiences that we had. And when she was watching the film, she said, “Let’s just talk. Just tell me about your life and experience.”

With Mars, Alex, and Paco, growing up, our favorite topic with new people was always talking about each other. After Mars died, I just suppressed that because it felt weird. Like, “How do I talk about [his death] while figuring out how to still talk about my identity?” They’re so much a part of my identity. And Barbara really made this space to make me feel that normal conversation come out again. And she’s like, “Now all of this footage makes so much sense to me. When I have this lens of your brother and your relationship, I understand all of this.” And so, obviously I talked about it with Alex to see how he felt about us using the inspiration [of Mars] that was always driving us, but that we wouldn’t really talk about.

TM: What really struck me in the opening scenes was how magical Eagle Pass looked. I’ve never been there, so I didn’t really have a sense of what it looks like beyond your lens and news about the border. How much of making the documentary was shaped by wanting to counter those narratives?

Alex Flores: That [magic] is intentional. It’s intentional that we don’t want to enter this dialogue of responding to what the border is to the news and to politicians. Because if we enter into that, if we respond to that argument, then we’re accepting that argument. And so, we’re completely subverting it and we’re just going to enter into a dialogue that we want to be in, which is about growing up and about identity and memory and exploring.

TM: There’s a section of the documentary when Robie talks about growing up and feeling a little embarrassed by Alex and Marcelo, because they were “Americanized.” Alex, after being accused of being “Americanized,” how do you feel now about your identity?

AF: It was a journey. I was shocked to find out that she was embarrassed of me—in the making of this, that’s when it really came out. I was like, “Okay, that’s why you kicked me out of your room and you wouldn’t let me play with your friends when they wanted to hang out with us.” But Mars and I went through the same thing [as Robie]. It’s this code-switching. We wanted to show how Mexican we were whenever we were hanging out with friends from the other side. It was so embarrassing to go to a party and not know all the lyrics to all of these pop songs the way that everybody else did.

RF: Spanish pop.

AF: Specifically Spanish pop songs. And not knowing the slang, not knowing how to dress. Even up to a few years ago. I now live in Mexico City, and I feel like I moved to the city because I wanted to prove to myself, and to people back home and Mexican people my age in general, that I could fit in. Through the process of finishing this and also having more Latino influences, I was like, “I’m not this thing that I’m trying to be. I am fully Mexican American, and maybe a little bit more American, and that is badass.” That in and of itself is expansive. It’s enough, and it’s more than enough. It’s like a superpower. Had it not been for this film, I know that I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now, because some adults, when we go back home, they still exist in trying to be someone that they’re not, depending on who they’re surrounded by. Some people, they never get to have that experience of feeling fully settled in their own skin.

RF: Yeah. To be grounded in that “in-between” identity.

TM: Robie, you started working on this documentary by yourself, and then you called Alex to come and join you. What was behind the decision to have him be a part of this project?

RF: When I went back home to start this movie, there was a lot [happening]. I also wanted to impress a boy I just met and who’s actually my husband now. I was in love and inspired, and I wanted to feel alive. I was really inspired by Mars and wanting to see in Eagle Pass what he saw, because he was always so proud of it in a way that I wasn’t. I mean, when he came up to UT and he was meeting everybody, he would always invite people back home to show this place off. And I never saw it as a place to show off. My husband did films with his friends, and he had done a film in Eagle Pass before, and I was yearning for that experience. I wanted this collaboration. I didn’t want to go out and be there by myself. Our older brother, Paco, made his first movie at nineteen, and he had this incredible relationship with his friends and the community. I wanted that. And we had always said, “We’re going to make movies together, the four of us.” Mars went to film school. I told Bill [Ross], my husband, “I’m so sad because we were always going to do this and now Mars isn’t here, and I feel so alone in this space.” And he was like, “You could still do that with Alex. Just tell him to quit his job.”

TM: Alex, what made you say yes?

AF: I was making a lot of money [in a corporate job at Lidl], and that felt great. But I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing. I wasn’t passionate about the work. I remember there’d be days where I would be in my car, just waiting for the fifteen minutes before going into the office and thinking, “I don’t want to go in today.” But part of me was also really missing family. Mars passed in July [2015] and I got this job in November and then I moved to Germany. And for me, it was this way of not having to be around people that knew what I had gone through because I didn’t want to feel pity. I didn’t want to have to acknowledge any of the pain. I just didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. I didn’t want people to look at me who knew this story.

After being gone for a couple of years, I [realized] it hurts more to not have the ability to acknowledge somebody that’s foundational to who I am. And I wanted to be surrounded by family again and by people that knew him. Also, I could die tomorrow. Having this perspective made me realize that it’s so important to spend the time that we have here doing something that we’re inspired by, that we’re happy with, that allows us to inspire others. 

TM: Nostalgia is another theme throughout the film, and now, with the way Eagle Pass has changed in the last few years due to Operation Lone Star, I wonder if in filming this documentary, you’ve captured a version of your town that doesn’t really exist anymore?

RF: It’s insane. The cognitive dissonance of that is wild, because in finishing the film, I’m constantly living in the images that we shot. And then I’d have people at home sending me what they’re seeing or me going home and being like, “Wait, I can’t go to the river anymore?” And it’s just it’s so weird. We caught a moment in time, which is bullshit to me because that’s always what it’s been. That’s always how we experienced [Eagle Pass]. And now it’s been occupied. And the people that have done all of that, that have taken over our community, just have more power to tell their story over ours. And you know, when it comes to the border, we’ve been stuck in like that dangerous single story. So then it becomes that [story], and then people come down there, and now it’s just a movie set. They added all of these props down there, and so it looks insane to people from the outside. But when you go there, even if you go there now, it’s still our home; it still has a fluidity and that warmth and that community. Except there’s all these people that are, you know, that have militarized it and taken over. And are not letting us access our park or our river.

And I realize that all of us want the same things. We all want to be in safe communities, and we all want to keep our fluidity. But the way that it’s being handled, it’s politics. It’s not community.

You should definitely come down and visit. It’s beautiful. It’s really cool. I mean, even with all the crap they’ve done—it’s terrible—but on the Mexican side, there’s a beautiful river walk. People are still biking, fishing, hanging out. And it’s so nice. It’s such a special and unique experience. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.