Tag Archives: border

Giving Gracias on the Border

4 Feb agua prieta, mx

I was looking through some old stuff on my computer, and found my application for the fellowship that brought me here last year.  It reminded me why I`m here, and why learning Spanish is both a huge opportunity and responsibility.

When I first decided to learn Spanish, it was because I wanted to say “thank you.” I had arrived, sleeping bag in hand, at Blanca’s door just moments earlier.  I would be staying in the cinder-block house of this family of maquiladora workers in Nogales, Mexico, as part of a trip for a college course on the U.S./Mexico border, and I couldn’t even say thank you.  I had, of course, said gracias as Blanca, the mother of the household, began serving dinner that first night, but that garbled attempt seemed inadequate coming from a privileged American student who had literally just been airlifted into the lives of this struggling Mexican family.

I still remember the pregnant silence that descended over the table arrayed with bean stew, meats, homemade tortillas and guacamole; so many conflicting emotions and thoughts roiled in my head, but I was deaf and mute, unable to communicate with my hosts.  Unable, that is, until Blanca’s sister Carmen joined us.

Carmen could speak some English, and upon learning I was in Nogales to learn about the border, she began recounting painful stories of migrants attempting to flee poverty and hunger in Mexico.  She told me of children drowning in the moat-like canals lining the border as they tried to cross with their parents, of old women being abducted and robbed by smugglers, then left to die in the swaths of desert engulfing much of the border, and of cesarean sections performed with kitchen knives in Chiapan homes due to the lack of basic health services in rural Mexico.  She told me that Carlos, her son, had lived in the U.S. since age two, but was expelled by the INS just after being accepted to a visual arts school when he was 18; he now earns less than two-hundred dollars each month driving a forklift at a landfill in Nogales.  She told me it was too painful for her to go to the side of town where a twenty-foot corrugated metal wall separates it from Nogales, Arizona, and by the silent watchfulness of the rest of the family, I could tell she was speaking for them, too.

As the meal ended, Carmen, in tears now, thanked me for coming to Nogales and listening to her stories.  Sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears myself, I found some small piece of redemption in her gratitude.  Blanca’s family had given me so much and I had so little to offer in return, but maybe, for an American to travel to Mexico, to listen to the humanizing, heart-breaking stories of the people many Americans dismiss as “illegals,” was an offering in its own right.

you can see the border wall bisecting the neighborhood in the background

Bus-a-thon 2010: Vermont to Guadalajara

29 Jan zacatecas

Being such a big advocate of responsible travel, I decided to try taking the most carbon-efficient mode of travel to get back to GDL from Vermont after xmas: long-distance bus.  More than anything, I wanted to prove that it`s doable, if not enjoyable. I was tired of the hypocritical dissonance between my climate idealism and my penchant for flying.  And, admittedly, I didn`t want to wuss out on my former roommate Andy`s challenge to travel the 3,000 miles by  bus.  So off I went!

I cheated from the start, taking a train from Montpelier to New York City to save a few bucks and 5 hours.   After 3 great days catching up with friends in NYC (thanks for the futon Fergy!), I woke up at 4am on a freezing Thursday morning to make it to the Port Authority terminal for my 6am bus.  Got my ticket, an accordion of perforated glossy sheets for each of the stops on the my trip.  It read like a band`s reunion tour through the south: New York, Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Winston Salem, Charlotte, Duncan, Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, Monroe, Shreveport, Dallas, San Antonio, Laredo, and finally Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, Mexico.

The next week and half was a bumpy ride of travel highs and lows. There was a great conversation with a young Iraq vet-turned pacifist on the bus from San Antonio to Nuevo Laredo. There was the anxiety-inducing run from the bus station to my hostel in the freezing early-morning darkness  of Zacatecas, a city I`d never visited, using only a  hand-drawn, un-labeled map I`d picked up at another hostel and a bumpy commuter bus.  There was the quiet wonder of hiking lone in the mountains in Chinpinque park, outside Monterrey.

But there were there were also the drivers`terse, early-morning wake up calls blasting from scratchy loudspeakers as we rolled into depressed Southern towns in our fluorescent-lit, jam-packed buses.  The physical discomfort of days without a shower, or real food.   There were the desperate-looking riders waiting, sleeping, or sometimes just swaying in place in shabby greyhound terminals.  And there was the sobering moment when I crossed the border into Mexico with just my passport and a signature, while hundreds of people die every year trying to do the exact same thing, but in the other direction, in the surrounding deserts.

Coming back to Guadalajara was like coming home after a long trip.  The warmth of rekindling memories and friendships from last year was great.  But the let-down of not being on the road anymore, of not being in motion, in emotional and geographic flux, made me feel idle and impatient.  Living life on such a wide emotional spectrum is addictive.   Even if you`ve just spent a whole week on cramped buses and dirty terminals,  sometimes coming home can be the most uncomfortable part of traveling.

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