Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 5.1 (2003) 63-75
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Always it began with the drive down Highway 19, not a particularly exciting stretch of highway, but an access road of sorts, a gateway. I'd pass the Duvall copper mine to the west, blue and almost glowing; the spiky Santa Rita Mountains to the east; the senior citizen sprawl of Green Valley on both sides. The speeding and swerving shuttle vans from Phoenix would invariably pass me in my clunky truck.
The only peculiar thing about this highway was where it ended—at the southern edge of the United States, in Nogales, Arizona. From there it pushed me under an overpass and into Mexico. There, I'd feel either violently accosted or pleasantly received. This, I suppose, is the mercurial nature of borders.
If it were still early in the morning, the city cool and just waking up, I felt at ease. The foreignness was a rush. Suddenly I was in another language, and it changed everything. The movement was what I liked—a man towed a burro across the street, hunched doñas carried baskets of tortillas, children in school uniforms poured out of buses. People did not hide inside homes. On the street, I could hear the tapping of women's feet on the pavement, the shouts of boys on their way to school, the crescendo cries of vendors trying to make a sale.
But if it were hot, late, and I was in a hurry, the motion was what I most disliked. Buses pulled out in front of me. Potholes in the road compressed my spine. I swerved to miss mangy dogs. Everyone honked. I felt like a warrior on a mission to get through town. I could not fully enter the language, and my tongue stumbled.
Then there was the process of adaptation. A friend in Tucson finally installed a new horn in the truck in an ingeniously Mexican style—I had to reach for a large, white plastic button under the dash. I was deeply satisfied with making my own noise and used little discretion. With the radio tuned [End Page 63] to loud, bouncy Norteño music, I stared back at people. I gained full control of Spanish, and in it, I cursed eloquently. I relished the chaos.
I drove this stretch of highway into the city of Nogales, Sonora, mostly because I had to cross a line to get there. With this, there was an instinctual and endless fascination. And also, of course, a certain sort of privilege.
The trips I made were regular visits to a community called Colonia Solidaridad on the outskirts of the burgeoning Mexican border city of Nogales. There, I gathered together a group of children to find out what it meant to grow up right next to the world's most powerful country, my own. I assumed that the children would have feelings about it, that the line would somehow be significant in their lives. Over the course of several months I offered a series of summer and weekend workshops in the neighborhood school. I asked children to write about, draw, and photograph the place where they lived.
I picked Solidaridad because it was close. Representative of a typical self-help neighborhood on the border, it seemed an appropriate vantage point from which to understand something about the impacts of global economic change on Mexico's children. In 1964, the Mexican government lured foreign-owned assembly plants known as maquiladoras to its northern border through tax incentives. Since then people have left the ailing countryside and flocked to the border in search of more permanent work. And not just in the factories, but also as chauffeurs, homebuilders, waiters, seamstresses, hairstylists, photographers, hotdogueros,drywalleros, or merchants in the tourist district. Decades later the city still struggles to keep up. In Nogales, as in other border cities, houses of cardboard, shipping pallets, and aluminum are tacked together almost overnight. Today, over half of the houses there still do not have running water or plumbing. Water is delivered by a truck...