Originally Posted: March 2019
Roberto José Andrade Franco, a History PhD candidate at SMU
When I think of la frontera—the El Paso–Juárez borderlands—the first thing that comes to mind is the oppressive heat and dust, and our attempts to defy them. When I was growing up, those suffocating summers during which months pass without a single raindrop made me fantasize about winter and fall and even worry that they’d never arrive again. I feared we’d live the rest of our days waiting for the faint smell of wet dirt.
Since few things grow without water, the default landscape on this stretch of the border is patches of dirt separating islands of weeds or poured slabs of concrete bounded by small fields of river rock with the occasional outcropping of yucca. Where one might expect idyllic white picket fences, there are only rough rock walls. A lush, green yard is a privilege in the blow-dryer weather. To grow and maintain one requires a sizable investment in a monthly water bill—and if there are water restrictions, a willingness to break the law as well.
Even more extravagant than the occasional lush lawn are the fountains. On many blocks you can spot a few houses displaying them as the front yard’s centerpiece. When new, the fountains are run by their proud owners as they were meant to be run. The sound of water pouring into basins is almost loud enough to drown out the hum of the motorized pump, working hard in the desert to make it seem as if the water will never stop flowing.
Making something appear natural where it’s not meant to be requires discipline. Faking it, month in and month out, must be exhausting for a fountain’s owner. And so, eventually, the water does stop flowing. When it does, the sun and the dust storms start eating away at the fountain’s paint—and then, in time, the material beneath the paint too. The once beautiful fountain, a testament to a homeowner’s moderate affluence, turns into a crumbling monument to the abiding harshness of desert life.
My parents were born in this place, on the south side of the El Paso–Juárez borderland. My mother, Norma, finished the Mexican equivalent of high school, and my father, Roberto, ended his formal education in fifth grade. For a while, he sold lemons on street corners. My mother was seventeen when she married him. He was four years older, lived a block away from her, and, because my maternal grandparents disapproved of him—with his long hair and penchant for getting into street fights—she essentially had to run away to live with him, his mother, and his six siblings.
In 1980 my father’s search for employment eventually took him to Chicago. He found a job working for the census and a place to live, with a cousin who had also moved there from Juárez. A month after he arrived, he sent for my mother. Undocumented and three months pregnant, she crossed at the international bridge without incident. “Things were different back then,” she tells me in Spanish. “All I did was say ‘American,’ and I crossed.” She boarded an airplane to Chicago. READ MORE