Navigating the Borderplex

By car, and not counting the time at the checkpoint, it only takes about half an hour to get from the University of Texas at El Paso to the heart of Ciudad Juarez. On foot, and at a normal pace, it usually takes between two to three hours. For all intents and purposes, this is an incredible short amount of time. And yet, this kind of journey is an enormous cultural, ideological, and political journey far exceeding the eight or so miles of physical distance.

El Paso — Juarez is also called the Borderplex. It is a complicated metropolitan space centered on two large cities: El Paso, Texas, U.S, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. The region is home to almost three million people and remains the single largest metropolitan area along the United States — Mexico border. In 2007, the Borderplex was home to one of the biggest commercial bilingual workforces in the Western Hemisphere. In the decade since, the regional economy has continued to grow, but the sociopolitical relationship between the two (fairly well demarcated) subdivisions of El Paso and Juarez have become increasingly complex and difficult to navigate.

The communities of El Paso and Juarez have historically seen themselves as closely aligned — often to the point of being a single, indivisible region. There have certainly been eras in history when access and movement between the two municipalities were much more intensely restricted — Prohibition and World War II among others. Most recently, the new administration has been unashamedly advancing an agenda of constructing a two-layer deep border wall running along the entire length of the U.S. — Mexico border. If built, the wall will almost certainly be taller and more fortified than the one in place since the barrier between El Paso and Juarez was originally authorized by President Bush in 2006 (and completed in 2008).

The currently maintained project along the border is, on average, 18 to 21 feet tall and was supposedly built with metal six feet underground. Despite these averages, however, the fencing between El Paso and Juarez is remarkably varied. While the majority of its construction is corrugated metal, large swaths of the length are a metal mesh. Perhaps most importantly, citizens of both El Paso and Juarez have become fairly well adapted to its presence and have learned how to fluently navigate the complicated pathways between both cities.

Things have changed since the election, however. When I arrive in El Paso, the first thing that I notice is the presence of paramilitary groups that were surprisingly visible in the city. From what I knew prior to coming to Texas, paramilitary groups (such as the Minuteman Project or the Three Percenters) tended to congregate around sections of the border that are less populated and, in some instances, rather desolate. I had done some reading on journalism regarding these paramilitary groups and movements and expected them to be somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico and certainly not in El Paso. Unfortunately, I see my fair share of camouflage gear, tan combat boots, body cameras, and weapons.

I later find out from the people who I was meeting at the University of Texas in El Paso that such sightings had become more and more common within recent months, and particularly since the inauguration in January of this year. I am meeting with activists and organizers in the area who have been working (some of them for years) with media/awareness campaigns such as Ni Uno Mas and with local legislation. Almost all of them identify as Latino/a/x. One of them tells me that many of their volunteers are undocumented, and that the events of the past few months have made it significantly more difficult for those volunteers to contribute in the same, steady ways that they have always done. In many cases, in fact, the very real and tangible risk of interrogation, detention, and even deportation have forced volunteers to remain relatively immobilized, their safety being substantially threatened. At the same time, these organizers have noticed more and more paramilitary individuals and bands in the Borderplex region. While concentrated mainly in El Paso, allies in Juarez have noted similar movements. These paramilitary groups often enjoy accessibility and unchecked travel across the border.

Many of these activists are also artists. As we start walking from the University — heading towards the nearest crossing into Juarez — some of them carry crosses for a project that they are working on: an installation of crosses to represent the many undocumented workers who are killed or die as they try to cross the border in the arid desert. Others carry with them banners and paintings of their own design, all with a similar message. One even carries with him a small statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I carry my camera and my GoPro (strapped to my chest). About forty-five minutes into our journey, a crew of paramilitary vigilantes drives by us, their trucks slowing down to a crawl. Some of these men ride in the back of the trucks, weapons displayed prominently. Most of them are white and adorned in symbols of the American flag and skulls. They leer at us, seeing the color of our skins. For the most part, none of them say anything to us. Rather, they conspire with each other in low voices, gesturing at our artwork and to my camera. One of the more outgoing individuals on the back of a truck goes so far as to spit in our direction before they collectively drive off, peeling away from the main road in an unknown direction. This is a fairly normal occurrence these days, I am told. Understandably, there has been little effort to figure out the different kinds of paramilitary groups that are in El Paso these days or where they are stationed.

When we arrive at the checkpoint, the others ask me to stow away my GoPro and my camera. Having my electronic equipment out could contribute tension to a situation which may already be difficult, given the nature of our group and the things we carry with us. I comply, of course, and (unsurprisingly) I have the easiest time getting through. The agent, who is white, checks my passport card even gives me a perplexed look, asking: “what are you doing with them?” I am struck by this — not because the agent emphasized “you” and “them,” but because he had distinguished me from the others in the first place. I had thought it more likely that he see the color of my skin and assume that I, too, am Latino.

When we are finally officially in Juarez, it feels like a giant weight has been lifted off our shoulders. One of the quieter members of the group notices some of the unease on my face and talks to me about it. She tells me that it hasn’t always been this way and that she is afraid that, if Trump finds a way to build his proposed border wall, this Borderplex community will be intensely divided and the damage to the cultural unity in this region may be irreparable. She confides in me that she is also worried that the number of undocumented workers who die trying to cross the border will exponentially increase.

We continue our trek, this time on the Juarez side of the Borderplex. The Spanish in the air is, immediately, more pronounced — despite being rather noticeable in El Paso as well. Aside from the language, however, there is very little to distinguish between the Juarez side of the fence and the El Paso side. The buildings and streets look familiar, and people seem just as busy as they rush by. I start to get a more full understanding of what the others mean when the say that El Paso and Juarez are truly meant to be one community. At the same time, however, I am realizing that the almost-surprising normalcy of our journey and the transition from one side to the other is only possible by the methods people have developed to navigate the complex space of the Borderplex.

By that, I mean that people living in the Borderplex have either been raised in the area and are intimately familiar with the rhythm and flow of life in the community or they have moved to the region for work or school and become quickly acquainted with what it takes to maintain one’s own mobility and safety. For me, my existence as an Asian American in a group of primarily Latino identified individuals only improved my access and movement, even if it did not protect me from the intense gaze of the paramilitary group we encountered along the way. Latinos living in the Borderplex, however, do not enjoy that same privilege. They must deal with the political issues of work, wages, employment discrimination, transportation, housing, education, and civil rights on very real and concrete terms in their own lives. They are, most assuredly, the target of directionalized surveillance by those who work in the name of the government (e.g. border agents, ICE, police, etc.) and those who might be staunchly anti-government but are equally hateful against Latinos and their communities.

The Borderplex has historically always been an incredibly complicated space to navigate. With the ideology being propagated by the new executive administration, however, the region is becoming an increasingly difficult space for Latino identity to live in, let alone grow and thrive. While my own exposure to and immersion in the issues of mobility were brief, they illuminated many ways in which those who are not Latino are treated differently in marked ways, despite the deeply Latino nature of the Borderplex culture and communities. It is my hope that we can advance a more critical understanding of what it means to be Latino today — here in America and along its borders — by accessing the Borderplex as an archive of culture, media, policy, text, human geography, legal rights, and power.