This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

It must have been a Saturday afternoon, the one day of the week when my father would take me across so we could get haircuts. Back then, “across” was shorthand for across the river, and “the river” was shorthand for the Rio Grande. We lived in Brownsville, and we were heading to Matamoros. 

This was fifty years ago, so bear with me. Much has passed since then, but certain events, however random and fleeting, continue to lap up against my memory because they never left me, and I’ve been trying to make sense of them ever since.

There was the barbershop, across the street from a theater and half a block from Plaza Hidalgo. And there were the French doors that opened out to Calle Sexta, so the barbers and their clients could witness the parade of humanity outside. And the mothers with their kaleidoscope of nylon bolsas brimming with groceries, the shoeshine man hunching before a pair of lathered botines, the balloon vendor guiding a flock of shapes and colors tethered to the hooks of a long wooden pole. 

To see all this, I first had to stand on the chair and then sit on a red cushioned plank that the barber laid across the armrests. I was nine years old, and my Spanish was limited, so my father did most of the talking when it came to explaining how short my haircut should be. Afterward, I remember moving my hand across the spiky surface at the back of my head and how my hair would stay this way for five or six days and then how one morning I’d wake up and it would be soft again, which meant that in another week or two we’d be heading across once more. 

On our way home, the line to the bridge was backed up for several blocks, past the elote vendors, past the women hawking crucifixes the size of the small children they carried in rebozos on their hips, past the legless beggar in a wheelchair that brought him eye to eye with the impassive faces of motorists. When we finally reached the tollbooth, my father paid the few centavos it took to cross back, and then we inched onto the bridge behind dozens of other cars headed al otro lado, to the other side. Along the border, from El Paso to Brownsville, we say este lado or el otro lado, “this side” or “the other side,” but only now do I hear how those phrases allude to the two halves of what was once the same world and to many still is. 

The bridge was actually two bridges, one heading into Matamoros and another into Brownsville, set about 25 yards apart, which left enough of a gap between them that from above I could see down to the pillars of the opposite bridge. There I spotted a couple of men camped out with sleeping bags. And in that moment, without thinking twice, as if the question that flitted across my nine-year-old mind couldn’t possibly wait a second longer, I turned to my father. 

“Someday can I borrow your water jug?”

“Borrow it for what?” he asked. It was a small water jug with a blue base and a white screw-top lid that he carried in his government truck for when he was out in the country. He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, visiting farms and ranches to inspect horses and cattle to prevent the spread of fever ticks and patrolling the river on horseback to make sure livestock didn’t cross over from Mexico.

“I want to camp down there, under the bridge.”

He looked at me the way parents everywhere look at their children when they make the most outlandish suggestions, though in this case he had firsthand knowledge of just how unsafe this would be. I hadn’t stopped to consider that these men were experiencing homelessness; to me they were just hanging out alongside the river that separated the two countries. For years I had daydreamed about being older and camping out at Boca Chica Beach, where the river met the Gulf of Mexico, but this was the first time it had occurred to me to do something like this so close to home.

“And why the hell would you want to do that?” He wasn’t one to mince words, even to his kid.

“I don’t know,” I said and then laughed. “Just to say I did it, and because you do it.” I threw in that last part thinking he might have ridden his horse under the bridge at some point, when in truth he patrolled only in rural areas. 

“I don’t camp under bridges,” he said. “I ride along the river, for work. Nothing else.”

Traffic moved forward, enough that we couldn’t see under the bridge anymore. We were nearly on the other side, just a few cars away from the U.S. Customs agent leaning out of his booth. “Maybe we can find some other place to go camping,” my father said to me, and then he rolled down the window so we could declare that we were U.S. citizens, a drill he detested. But, like everyone else here, he tolerated it. By that point our family had been living along the border pretty much forever, if a hundred and twenty years counted as forever.

My father never found a place for us to go camping, and I knew better than to remind him how this had all come up in the first place. For years, I thought my interest in exploring the area under the bridge had been influenced by a desire to emulate my father, that I was trying to reenact what I imagined he did every day when he left the house before dawn. That was true, in part. But I think there was more to the story. 

Only now do I see that my desire to camp under the bridge was spurred by how confining Brownsville felt to me. Many kids believe that nothing ever happens in their relatively small towns, but for me that sense of restriction was magnified by the fact that we lived at the southernmost tip of a border state. I felt it every time I looked at a U.S. map and spotted, at the very bottom, a tiny black dot acknowledging that people lived this far from the rest of the country. I saw it from the back seat of my parents’ car any time we traveled to Houston to visit family but first had to stop at one of the Border Patrol checkpoints in the middle of the King Ranch to declare our citizenship, as though we were crossing over from a foreign land. And then, on our way back, we would drive for a solid hour through that same desolate landscape, an interminable distance to a nine-year-old, only to arrive at the outskirts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and still have another fifty miles to go before we reached Brownsville. 

That remoteness had led me to spend hours imagining ways I could escape. And the clearest example I had was my father riding along the Rio Grande, which seemed to me like the movie set of a great western he lived on during the day before returning home at dusk. I didn’t have a horse, so setting up camp under the bridge, on the banks of the river, felt like it would be the next best thing. 

Even back then, a part of me understood that the border was a boundary, where one country ended and another began, where you were often asked to identify yourself, where your answer determined how freely you were allowed to move around, where the many decades your family had been here mattered less than it should. And yet, to my young mind, there was a freedom in being near the river. 

This was before things changed, though. 

We were still years away from the era when the number of Border Patrol agents surged, when it felt like you couldn’t drive from one end of town to the other without spotting them in SUVs and patrol wagons, on horses and bikes, even in helicopters, until they became so common that it seemed as if they’d always been here. We were decades away from 9/11, from talk about “bad hombres” at our “back door.” We were a long way from the wall actually appearing, not only in secluded rural areas, where you might expect the largest number of crossings, but also, literally, alongside our downtown. 

In other words, we were still years away from the border being a place for so many to fear and argue about, and to cause angst and despair. Which isn’t to say there weren’t thousands of immigrants arriving at the border or that cities on the Mexican side didn’t experience sudden bursts of cartel violence or that this insecurity didn’t curtail our willingness to go across for dinner, for shopping, for something as simple as a haircut. All this is true. But it’s also true that the border eventually became an opportunity for politicians to play on voters’ fears about what could be out there, if they didn’t build that wall high enough or long enough, if they didn’t enlist more Border Patrol agents, if they didn’t stop campaigning about it. 

It was tough to witness these changes, especially since, by then, I was living in Austin and visiting my family only when I could find time to make the long drive to Brownsville. After I’d been away for more than ten years, I began thinking and writing about my experiences growing up there. This led to my publishing a collection of stories and later a novel set in the area and then one day, in 2014, receiving an email from a producer at National Public Radio who had read an essay I had written for this magazine. She told me that Steve Inskeep, a host of Morning Edition, and his staff were traveling the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, from California to Texas, and he wanted to interview me when they arrived in Brownsville. As it turned out, I already had plans to drive down that weekend for Charro Days, an annual celebration of the cultural ties and history between Brownsville and Matamoros. After we agreed on a place and time to meet, she asked if I’d also be available to take Inskeep and his staff across the bridge to Matamoros.

I told her yes, but the truth was, I hadn’t felt comfortable going to Matamoros for quite some time. It had been only three years since the Mexican Navy had gunned down cartel leader Antonio Cárdenas Guillén in downtown Matamoros, during an offensive that lasted more than eight hours and, according to some sources, accounted for more than a hundred deaths. Then there were the carjackings, murders, extortions, kidnappings, sexual assaults, and armed robberies to think about. My family and most of my friends warned me not to go across with Inskeep and his team. Some of them tried to minimize the threat, claiming they still went over, but only for lunch, not dinner, and only so long as it was to a section of town that seemed relatively secure. Other friends had family on that side of the river and continued to visit, though always keenly aware of the risk.

When we finally met in Brownsville, I told the producer that it was probably best if we just walked across the bridge to Matamoros, which meant we wouldn’t be traveling more than a block or two beyond Mexican customs and the military posted there. Our planned interview started off with us discussing Charro Days and my essay, but it quickly transitioned into questions about the border wall. We were walking toward the bridge when Inskeep asked me why some people called it a fence and others, like me, described it as a wall. I told him that you called it a wall when you wanted to be more honest, and as soon as I said it, I knew this one quote would be used in the interview. 

In Matamoros, we went to García’s, a restaurant, bar, pharmacy, and curio shop, easily the most popular destination for tourists who want a sanitized taste of Mexico, which probably wasn’t what the producer had in mind but, given what I knew, was as far as I was willing to travel. Inskeep spent a few minutes talking to the pharmacist at García’s about his store and customers, and later I met up with the NPR crew for drinks in the bar overlooking Calle Obregón, the same bustling street my father would take when he drove us into the center of town for our haircuts. 

For a Saturday afternoon, the traffic headed back across was as light as I’d ever seen it, another clear sign that things had changed. Once we walked to the other side, we joined the line with dozens of people waiting outside of the U.S. Customs office. It was only when we stepped inside and I felt the cold blast of the AC that it dawned on me that I hadn’t brought my passport. The rules had changed since the last time I’d crossed, and now the U.S. was requiring a passport or something called a border crossing card that worked like a visa. Before that, all you needed was to nod your head when the customs agent asked, “U.S. citizen?”

I mentioned the situation to Inskeep, and he looked concerned. The rest of his group already had their passports in hand. He asked me if there was anyone in Brownsville that I might call for help getting across, but I couldn’t think of anyone with that kind of pull, and besides, we were already in a space where cellphones aren’t allowed. 

Inskeep and his staff had their passports scanned and were cleared by the customs agent. Then came the awkward part where I had to tell her that I only had my Texas driver’s license. She was Hispanic, but after countless crossings, I knew this had little to no bearing on how my father and I were treated during border crossings. In fact, sometimes it seemed to make matters worse, as if the agent were trying to overcompensate for any suspicion that he or she might show us preferential treatment. 

She asked why I didn’t have the proper documents. 

Because I didn’t know about the new rules, I told her. 

“Your friend knew about them,” she pointed out, meaning Inskeep, who wasn’t exactly a friend but was nice enough to wait for me just beyond the checkpoint.  

She wanted to know where I was from and why I had gone across. 

I explained to her that I was showing these journalists around and that I was born in Brownsville, but I stopped short of saying I had written a book about growing up here, thinking this might come across as presumptuous, as if this detail might grant me the right to cross freely into the country. 

She consulted with her supervisor, who glanced at my license and then stared straight at me, as if he were trying to make me look away or get nervous, which anyone who has grown up in these parts knows not to do. This went on for a few seconds, the two agents staring at me and, just over their shoulders, Inskeep in the background waiting to see how this was going to turn out. Finally, the second agent jerked his head to one side, signaling that they were letting me enter the country under dubious circumstances. 

Afterward, we walked to a festival on the other side of downtown Brownsville and listened to the operatic voices of the women competing in a grito contest, in which they tried to outperform one another in re-creating the famed yell of the vaquero. This is easily my favorite part of Charro Days, but my mind was still back at the bridge. 

It felt unsettling to have been grilled about my background and nearly prevented from entering my hometown and country. It made me think about how naive I had been as a child, and even later, in believing I could have it both ways, that coming from the border somehow allowed me to exist in both places simultaneously, without having to choose between este lado or el otro lado, without first having to identify myself with the proper documents. 

I remembered that afternoon with my father and wondered what would have happened if later I’d somehow taken his blue-and-white water jug and camped under the bridge where we had seen the unhoused men. Would I truly have been free, neither here nor there, in a space between two countries? Or would I have been just another wandering soul, looking for a safe place to lay my head?

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Crossing Over.” Subscribe today.