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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.

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

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.

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."