La Frontera

It sounds exotic – mysterious, even. Doesn’t it? La frontera. The frontier… a line marking the other side of something… perhaps something magical. It reminds me of something from the wild west, where I’d expect to see horses and cowboys on the other side. La frontera.

Down in these parts, la frontera, or el bordo, if you prefer Spanglish, looks more like this:

The mighty Rio Grande, the physical border between the U.S. and México.

The mighty Rio Grande is the physical border between the U.S. and México. Texas is on the far side of the river in this photo.

About a quarter of a mile from our home here in Matamoros, this river- the mighty Rio Grande (Rio Bravo in Mexico), is what separates Mexico from the United States. I was expecting something bigger, something… well, mightier, rather than this, which to me looks more like a creek and less like a river.

Some people risk everything, including their lives, to cross it in search of a better life in the United States. I try to imagine what that must be like – to want so badly to leave my home that I would be willing to risk prison and even death in the hopes of making it across the river and into a new and unfamiliar land, unscathed and without being caught and sent back home. How must it feel to stand on one side of la frontera, to see the University of Texas at Brownsville just barely on the other side? So close, yet so far away. And how could you know for sure if  the grass really is greener?

Coconuts for sale in line at the border.

Roasted corn for sale while waiting in line at the border.

My family immigrated to the United States from Egypt in 1960 in search of greener pastures. What they found instead was a population unwilling to accept them because they were different… that my grandpa’s education and law degree “didn’t count” in the United States… that their brown skin was considered ugly. It took them decades- a generation, even, to overcome those barriers. And though our country has come a long way since then, I still can’t help but wonder if life as an immigrant- documented or not- is any easier today than it was in 1960.

An immigrant visa cannot be obtained in Matamoros. Immigrant visa applicants from all of Mexico must apply in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. In Matamoros, the only visas issued are non-immigrant visas, typically for students, workers, and tourists. The majority of those who apply for a visa in Matamoros, and who are eligible to receive one, are issued a border crossing card. Most often, people use their border crossing card to visit relatives or to shop in Texas, where quality tends to be higher and cost more economical. Crossing the border on a Saturday can be quite the experience, depending on when you decide to get in line. It can sometimes take up to two hours, and while you wait, there is no shortage of vendors selling everything from fresh fruit and nuts to newspapers to crucifixes and statues of the Santa Muerte. Young boys plead to wash your windshield for a few pesos while others display their supplies of hats and sunglasses hoping you will make a purchase.

Waiting in line to cross the border to go to Brownsville.

More snacks for sale as we wait in line to cross the border to go to Brownsville.

The border crossing card allows one to cross the border and travel north about a hundred miles into the interior of Texas. Unbeknownst to me before my husband was assigned to his post here, there is an interior border partway between Matamoros and Corpus Christi, staffed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who stop each vehicle that passes through and examine each driver’s and passenger’s documentation before either allowing them to proceed or turning them back. A border crossing card is not sufficient for travel beyond this point.

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Cars lined up at the Gateway Bridge in Matamoros.

These checkpoints exist in other states bordering Mexico as well, and every year, hundreds of bodies of undocumented immigrants are found in areas near the checkpoints. They are the bodies of those who tried unsuccessfully to evade being caught and who ran out of water and became too dehydrated to continue their journeys. This is most prevalent in the Rio Grande Valley, where temperatures and humidity soar and the vast nothingness of the south Texas brush offers no shelter or relief from the heat. Brooks County, Texas has seen an especially high rate of deaths in the last two years.

It saddens me terribly to know this, though I’m not sure which saddens me more: that people are dying such harsh deaths or that their lives are so terrible that they risk so much for the idea that there is something better in store for them. I often think about this as I run on the dirt path at the top of the border levy, particularly when I see a person gazing at the other side, or when I myself gaze at the other side and spot a CBP vehicle making its rounds.
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A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) vehicle makes its rounds on the Texas side of the Rio Grande just before dusk.

Last week, it was a CBP helicopter that we saw flying overhead as we ran our miles along la frontera, presumably looking for someone in the tall grass… the grass that is supposed to be greener.

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The running path along la frontera.

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