9 things most people don't know about life on the Mexican-American border.

We're masters at juggling the two cultures that surround us.

I grew up in Nogales, Arizona, a border town along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nogales has always had a big, physical barrier between the two countries, and I never quite understood what that meant as a kid. Back then, it was normal to drive along the freeway toward downtown and see a whole other world through a dingy fence.

Homes in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, across the border from Nogales, Arizona. Image by Nieves Montaño, used with permission.


Through that fence, I remember seeing houses seemingly stacked on top of each other, painted in bright colors, like hot pink or teal. I always wondered how those residents got in and out of their houses, which were perched on a steep hill. I imagined a long stairway winding up the back of the mountain, a stairway that I couldn't see.

Mexico wasn't physically far away from me at any time growing up. But culturally, Nogales, Mexico, was worlds apart from Nogales, Arizona.

Lately, there's been a lot of conversation about border towns. So as someone who has lived in one, here are nine things I want you to know about living on the U.S.-Mexico border:

1. Going back and forth between countries is hard ... and easy.

It's super easy to walk or drive from Arizona into Mexico.

When I was growing up, we often drove or walked across the border for everyday activities and errands. As an American, it was easy to cross the border to have lunch with a friend or even to attend less costly doctor appointments.

Even today, if you walk to Mexico, there's hardly (if any) contact with an agent. If you're crossing the border in a car, you may get sent off to the side for a quick car inspection, but that's about it.

View from Nogales, Arizona, going toward the Mexican port of entry. Image by Jesus F. Barrón, used with permission.

But crossing from Mexico into the U.S. is no piece of cake.

If you want to walk from Mexico back into the U.S., you'll have to stand in line and wait to be called up to a counter by an immigrations agent. They'll ask you to show your passport and possibly answer a few questions, and you'll also be subjected to a search.

If you drive across, you're looking at a minimum of 30-45-minute wait in your car to reach the checkpoint. Then the agent will ask you questions, ask to see your passport, and possibly ask to search your car.

It's super easy to leave America, but not so much to come back ... which is a small example of the much larger story of immigration in America.

Cars waiting to cross from Mexico into Nogales, Arizona. Image by Alicia E. Barrón.

2. Some Mexican children cross the border every day to attend school in America.

Fernanda Astrain lives in Nogales, Mexico, and she drives her two elementary school kids to a private school in the U.S. every day so they can learn English while simultaneously learning about the Catholic faith, which is very important to her.

A group of Catholic school students. Image by Alicia E. Barrón.

3. There are also special circumstances during which border crossings become more common from Mexico to the U.S.

On Christmas Day, for example, kids from Nogales, Mexico, are often selected at random and bused over to the U.S. to collect presents and a meal.

And once a month, volunteers prepare special permissions from customs so that kids from Mexico can come to the U.S. side and get medical treatment from American doctors.

4. Border towns tend to be almost 100% bicultural, which affects the terminology we use.

Most kids on the border grow up thinking everyone is bilingual — I know I did. This is because, in order to communicate in a border town, you really do have to understand both languages.

This can affect even basic things like the terms we use, terms I've never heard used anywhere else. For example, I grew up referring to Nogales as "el otro lado," which literally translates into "the other side" (this term applied whether we were on the American or the Mexican side).

Another curious term that I've found to be completely exclusive to our border town vernacular is "across the line." Say that to anybody who's not from Nogales, and they'll look at you perplexed. But for us, Nogales, Mexico, was so close that it was literally "across the line."

Looking through the iron fence from Arizona into Mexico. Image by Alicia E. Barrón.

5. But if you don't speak English? No problem!

In border towns like mine, Spanish takes precedence. The "No hablo Inglés" phrase is almost nonexistent in American border towns with Mexico because, while some may not speak English, all of us speak Spanish.

Most of us also speak a hybrid variation. It's very fluid and natural and now has an unofficial official name: Spanglish. While ordering at a drive-through, it's completely normal and acceptable to place your entire order in English, Spanish, or Spanglish. The message will always come across loud and clear, no matter how you say it.

6. When I was growing up, we got to boogie young.

Growing up in a border town, I was exposed to nightlife a lot sooner than most American kids. That's changed quite a bit in the last 20 years, but back then, a fake ID could get you into any bar or club in Mexico when you were as young as 14 or 15.

Good idea? Absolutely not. Was it a good time? You bet! However, mandated curfews and officers waiting at the border for incoming partygoers from Mexico have really changed things to ensure everyone's safety. Parents are now required to go pick up their kids at the border if they're under 18 years old and coming back from Mexico late at night.

Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Image by Nieves Montaño, used with permission.

7. Culture shock? Also not a thing for me.

When you cross that line between Arizona to Mexico, you'll instantly see a difference in culture, hear a difference in sounds, and experience a totally different environment from the one you're coming from. But for me, there was never such a thing as culture shock.

Living between and within two cultures was my norm, and I still find that I can navigate between the two worlds seamlessly. In many of my childhood memories, Nogales, Mexico, bleeds into Nogales, Arizona. I wish more places had a melding of cultures like this.

8. The curious case of the currency.

We often use American and Mexican currencies in my town, which means a two-peso coin and a quarter are easily confused because they are the same size and shape. It's not uncommon to be rummaging through your coin bag and present the cashier with a handful of pesos.

The kicker is just how different they are in terms of actual monetary value, though. The devastating devaluation of the peso (currently at about 19 pesos per dollar) is also making things extremely difficult for people who work in Mexico. As Astrain (who you'll remember lives in Nogales, Mexico) explains, "My husband earns money in pesos and we are spending money in U.S. dollars. That is expensive!!"

A quarter and a two-peso coin are roughly the same size. Image by Jesus F. Barrón, used with permission.

9. The Border Patrol is a constant presence.

I'm used to it, but you might be shocked if you visited my town because those green and white vans and SUV are everywhere. There are also agents on bicycles always riding around town.

Oddly enough, while the agents become part of our reality, they're also pretty detached. For the most part, they don't get to know the community, and we don't get to know them. They're there to do a job, and once you get used to it, they almost start to blend in.

Image by Alicia E. Barrón.

With all this talk about Donald Trump building a yuuuuuuge wall between the U.S. and Mexico, border towns like mine have suddenly jumped into the limelight.

But oddly enough, few people who actually live or have lived on the border are losing sleep over this divisive rhetoric. Yes, the border wall has served a huge political purpose as both a literal and figurative prop in this election. But to most of us who live exactly where it's supposed to go up, the concept is obviously flawed.

The odds of waking up to a mega-team of construction workers erecting a 10-foot-tall wall in our hometown seems so highly unlikely as to be almost impossible. We would sooner expect a visit from the Queen of England.

To me, growing up in a border town means being part of two cultures.

Living in a border town is about an added layer of cultural identity. It means becoming a master at juggling American culture and Mexican customs. It means that every fiber of my being is bicultural.

To me, growing up in a border town has been the best secret weapon I could ask for. I'm able to go into the world and explore it with an open mind and as much curiosity as I can gather.

View of the wall from the Mexican side of the border. Image by Nieves Montaño, used with permission.

As the saying goes: You can take the girl out of the border town, but you can't take the border town out of the girl. And for that, I am extremely, and truly, grateful.

Because after walking across a line for my whole life, boundaries don't seem so immoveable.

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Inclusivity

Anyone who's done yard work on a hot day can tell you that it can be just as good of a workout as playing a team sport.

You're down on your knees pulling weeds, up on a ladder lopping off errant tree branches, and pushing a heavy lawnmower that never seems to start on the first try.

Unfortunately, because lawn work is so physically intense and not everyone can afford a gardner, the elderly and disabled sometimes have to let their lawns and backyards grow wild.

An alternative learning center in Dubuque, Iowa is helping its kids stay physically fit while helping out their community with a new program that gives them high school PE credit for doing yard work for the elderly and disabled.

The Alternative Learning Center is for high school juniors and seniors who are at risk of dropping out of school.
As part of the program, the teens visit homes of the elderly and disabled and help out by raking leaves, pulling weeds, cutting grass, and cleaning gutters.



Teacher Tim Hitzler created the program because it helps the students get involved in the community while helping those who need it most.

"The students aren't typically too excited at the beginning but once they get involved and start doing the yard work they become more motivated," Hitzler told KWWL. "What they really like is A: helping people. They really like giving back to people and meeting the person."

Nick Colsn, a 17-year-old student at the learning center, told NPR that the program allows him to meet people he wouldn't have otherwise. "I'm more of like go-to-school-go-to-work-home-repeat kind of guy," he said. "So to me, I probably would not have met any of these people."

The end-of-year program has been so successful, Hitzler hopes to expand it next year. "You know, in education, a lot of times, there's so many different gimmicks and curriculum packages you can buy and things like that," he told NPR. "And something like this all you need is a few garden tools. You know, I mean, it just makes sense. It's so simple. And it works."

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If you're a white supremacist, I imagine drinking beer (or any other alcoholic beverage) is a nice way to relax and tune out the fact that you're a terrible person who's helping set human progress back at a rate the bubonic plague would be proud of. But for some self-professed white supremacists, it wasn't quite so easy on a June weekend in Germany.

According to Newsweek, the hundreds of neo-nazis who flocked to the "Shield and Sword Festival" in Ostritz found themselves uncomfortably dry when a court imposed a liquor ban at their gathering of hateful bigots who also like to listen to awful music together. The ban's aim was to prevent any violence that might erupt (you know it would...) and the police confiscated more than a thousand gallons of alcohol from those attending the weekend-long event. They even posted pictures on Twitter of the alcohol they'd removed from participants.



But that's only half the story.

Residents of the town of Ostritz, who've had to deal with the bigots before (they threw the same festival last year on Hitler's birthday), knew that the ban wouldn't stop the festival-goers from trying to obtain more alcohol while in town. So the townspeople got together a week before the festival and devised a plan which would truly make the white supremacists focus on how terrible neo-nazi music is: They bought up the entire town's beer supply.

"We wanted to dry the Nazis out," Georg Salditt, a local activist, told reporters. "We thought, if an alcohol ban is coming, we'll empty the shelves at the Penny [supermarket]."

"For us it's important to send the message from Ostritz that there are people here who won't tolerate this, who say 'we have different values here, we're setting an example..." an unidentified local woman told ZDF Television.

At the same time the festival was going on, residents also staged two counter-protests and put on a "Peace Festival" to drive home the point that bigotry wasn't welcome. If the festival is held in the same town again next year, ticket-buyers should be aware that Ostritz isn't playing around when it says that white supremacists aren't welcome.

There's some good news, too: Aside from the fact that residents aren't afraid to send the message that they're intolerant of intolerance, attendance to the far-right music festival has drastically decreased in the past year. In 2018, 1,200 people attended, according to the BBC. This year? Approximately 500-600. Here's hoping the festival won't have a return engagement next year.

Culture

I sent both of my children on a bus on Tuesday. I knew where they were going.

The morning started rainy, buggy, and too early. To be fair, it always feels too early.

My husband and I waved from across the street as the buses pulled away, our kids, along with a hundred or so others, behind tinted glass. We waved like we were excited. Our son was likely not looking. Our daughter may have been, but she also could have not been paying attention until the bus started into motion. We won't know for sure if she saw us waving until she returns.

Returns.

Every day when I leave the house, I expect to return.

That's the default.

It's so much the default that realizing it is actually stunning. We run our lives as though anything else other than what's in our head, our routine, our privilege, is what will take place. There's that little truism that a worrier shines like a pebble in the hand: you're more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. Yet we are much more likely to be worried about flying because it is out of our routine. Being out of your routine awakens you to the precariousness we completely shut out in our day-to-day lives.

I put my children on a bus. My oldest will be gone four weeks, my youngest, two.

What should be normal: sending your kids to sleep away camp. What feels wholly unnatural: sending your Jewish kids to a Jewish sleep away camp in the world we're living in now. Even writing those words: JEWISH SLEEP AWAY CAMP make my fingers seize at the knuckles. I don't want you to know there are such things as Jewish sleep away camps. Even having others know that they exist feels like a danger.

I'm used to my feelings and my instincts seeming like hyperbole to others. I'm emotional. I'm tuned in. I'm hyperreactive. I have a hair trigger. I have anxiety and depression.

I also come from a genetic and cultural history of people who ended up in this country because we were hunted and pursued and needed to escape. Over and over and over again. The cells that have come to build the tissues and structures of my body and my brain have been organized by UNSAFETY.

In "normal" suburban upper-class life, this can be a huge detriment. A handicap. It can manifest in the most unhelpful and frankly, startlingly blind ways. I've spent so much of my life reacting and feeling and then trying to understand what makes me tick. I've spent so much time learning to train and control and ignore and channel.

I wasn't made for easy times. I was made for survival. I was made, like an animal, to intuit danger and get the hell out, fast. I was made in the image of fight or flight. I do both better than most people. It's not something I brag about, because it doesn't feel like a good thing most of the time.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp. Because when my husband and I got married (I'm Jewish, he's not), our pact was this: if our children live in a world where historically they could be targeted and threatened because of their Jewishness (regardless of their actual observance of religion or customs), they deserved to know that being a Jew is not negative. We should give them every opportunity to be proud and happy about their Jewishness. Their belonging should help them to feel good about themselves and the world. It should help them seek connection and understanding of the human condition. They should know songs. They should sing full-throated. They should feel comfort in our traditions when they are useful to them, but never feel threatened or unnecessarily constrained by them.

Research funded by Jewish institutions and communities suggests that the number one way to help ground kids in their Jewish identity is to send them to Jewish sleep away camp. It's the glue.

And yet.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp at a time when our government is putting migrant children into concentration camps.

I bought all the supplies on the list. I washed and labeled and sorted and packed. I zipped up those bags to accompany my children. And then I dropped my children off and couldn't see if they were waving back as the buses drove away.

Of course, the camp I'm sending them to has a stellar reputation. Every day they post updates on a special web site, along with hundreds of pictures of the kids in action. I send emails to the kids which are printed out and given to them. I send packages with stickers and trading cards and all sorts of goofiness so that they know they are loved.

Migrants from central America have made their way to our border with just what they could carry. (My children's bags were so heavy that neither of them could carry them. Likely at least 1/4 of what I sent will come back unused or untouched.) Migrants are following the rules of asylum seeking. They are fleeing violence and intimidation and abuse far greater than I will allow myself to imagine. They are separated from their children by a government that has no business doing so.

I, an upper-class white woman, expect my voice to be heard. I expect to be able to vote and call and hold my elected officials accountable. I know what to say to get my point across. I've given money to candidates and I know how to threaten that support in the future. I also have the privilege of time and energy with which to do it. My underlying expectation is that there are very few problems that I don't have some redress for.

Asylum-seekers, in good faith, and following the rules, have nothing left to lose. They are coming here seeking something less life-threatening than what they're fleeing. They're seeking some good will. Or, at the very least, safety. Or relative safety.

I put my children on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp knowing that in my daughter's cabin of 8 girls, there are 4 young adult counselors who are there to make sure that she's safe, happy, and her needs are being met.

I also know that last year, an asshole white supremacist antisemite decided to go to a synagogue on shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and turn it into a bloodbath. Well before that ever happened, well before the era of mass shootings and Columbine, Jewish institutions like synagogues and preschools and JCCs have needed extra surveillance. We've had police guard our religious services and social gatherings. Even (and perhaps especially) seeking out Jewish belonging, Jewish joy, has always been a reckoning with danger and threat.

After I sent my children on that bus—the one I knew where it was going—the one where I'd shoveled their overpacked duffle bags into the bowels of the bus—I came home to a house strewn with the remnants from packing. Laundry bins with unneeded t-shirts and shorts and single socks. The cat—he normally comes to greet me when he hears the garage door open—was nowhere to be seen. I called for him. He still did not come. I came upstairs and looked in my son's room. No cat. I looked in my daughter's room—with its orange and pink somewhat darkened by the rainy skies—and there he was, tucked into a furry circle in an eddy of her duvet. I laid down next to him and lost control. The control I never really had.

Twitter this week has erupted in a jagged back-and-forth between politicians and pundits and opinion-havers about whether or not it is appropriate to call the migrant detention centers run by ICE and our government "concentration camps." I, and most other Jews I follow and know, agree they should be called exactly what they are.

Non-Jews (and, to be fair, some Jews as well), like to tiptoe around the Holocaust and any words or imagery which may in any way encroach upon the historical accuracy or singular legacy of that horrible period. To a degree, I might agree when the comparisons are used flippantly or improperly.

But the legacy of the Holocaust, we are all reminded, is NEVER AGAIN. And NEVER AGAIN means that we don't wait until something worse happens. What's happening RIGHT NOW in the United States shares that DNA.

In the same way I understood or had an inkling in my bones that the election might go a way I didn't want it to, I know this same thing: we are not ok. This is not just the start. This is halfway down the road to the place where we lose not just perceived control, but real control. For all the current administration's lies and purposeful incapabilities, know this: the cruelty that comes out of the mouth of our president and those who continue to support him in the government and in the populace is not a lie. It is predictive. They're telling us in advance what they intend to do. And then they are doing it.

In a world where I still have the ability to put my daughter and son on a bus with all their toiletries and know that they will likely arrive at their destination, I also know that our government argued for the legal right to deny soap and toothbrushes to migrant children. When anyone's children are denied such basics—human basics—no one is safe.

I know it will sound like hyperbole. I know that those who so easily dismissed my concerns early on—before this administration even took office—will still attempt to dismiss my warnings now. But do so at your own peril.

I was not built for normal times. I was built for times like these. And I haven't been wrong yet.

This post originally appeared on Outside Voice. You can read it here.

Inclusivity