Nogales: Past the U.S.’s Front Door

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The United States’ wall splitting the border town Nogales stands as an inescapable fact, cleaving through the hills like a knife slash scabbed over. Streets on both sides run straight up to its rusted beams. On the Mexican side a woman washed a car’s tires beneath the fence’s 30-foot height in the morning sun, Nogales’ American twin visible between the bars. Signs for Burger King and Ed’s Border Parking (“Safe and Convenient!”) poked up from the other side.

Dozens of people lined up to go north through one of the wall’s gates. They silently ignored a thin man with a worn face and worn baseball hat who thrust the hat through the vertical aluminum bars around the line. Farther down the line another man in a black vaquero outfit sang a mariachi ballad with a guitar. When he finished his song, no one clapped.

Across the street, men with blue and red bandanas covering their faces picked through the burning wreckage of several stores. Smoke drifted from heaps of blackened wood through intact plaster walls and doorways. The men squinted at us. Someone repeatedly wolf-whistled in the distance. I turned around. Cauliflower storm clouds piled on the northern horizon.

When I first approached the border that day, I was struck by the oddity that I had never before seen the wall around my own country. I was like a child first encountering the fence around my backyard, where home abruptly halts. On the other side waited a new world, the front porch of a country where the conflicting urges to stay, to go, to invite, and to push away grappled in every street and restaurant and market.

A man solicits what he says will be donations for schools in exchange for papier mache art made with trash just inside the gate to Mexico.
A man solicits what he says will be donations for schools in exchange for papier mache art made with trash just inside the gate to Mexico.

We crossed the fence with little more than a wave and a bienvenidos from two Mexican officers in bulletproof vests, who ushered us into a garish avenue of dentist and doctor and pharmacy offices. Their owners had painted them in vivid blues and oranges and purples and topped them with English ads. A couple of women and their daughters walked among the stream of visitors, two of them clutching purple Disney princess tents folded flat against their legs. Overheard conversations in English were suddenly out of place.

Along streets filled with white busses and honking traffic, a father with a round belly helped his tiny daughter in a pink dress scale a curb. Two sisters and their brother teased each other in English while trailing their mother, who jabbered excitedly into a phone in Spanish. Hills rose on all sides, brightly painted houses planted into their faces. People went about their business, and the city seemed fairly relaxed.

But the day’s newspaper headline, trumpeting that a Nogales lawyer had been arrested with several pounds of methamphetamine, pierced this mellow routine. In a leather shop, past the luggage sewn with NFL mascots and fake designer logos, the shopkeeper had pictures of his wife and three children displayed in a glass case above dozens of gun holsters. A vendor displayed several ceramic figures of Jesús Malverde, a well-groomed and mustachioed Robin Hood-like bandit from the early 1900s —  the so-called patron saint of drug traffickers — mixed among other figurines of frogs, crucifixes and the alien from Predator.

Near the visitor entrance to town, fenced in by three streets, stood a maze of twisted iron suns, brightly painted lamps and boxes, wooden wolves and lizards, cheap replicas of Aztec calendars and hundreds of cow skulls piled in huge cones like bleak Christmas trees. Smiling shopkeepers beckoned me from booth to booth.

A shopkeeper outside his shop in the maze-like market near the Nogales gate.
A shopkeeper outside his shop in the maze-like market near the Nogales gate.

One, a man in his 20s named Israel, waved me into his shop exclaiming, “I’ve been waiting for you all year.” I relented and he said, “God bless the U.S.A. – and Canada.” While I looked around, he lightheartedly accused a couple of customers, dubbed Papá and Mamá, of ripping him off (but he’d sell for that price anyway). He edged around his cramped shop, his frizzy hair tied back in a puffball ponytail.

Israel said he had worked there for seven years with a good friend, a man with graying hair and moustache who I mistook for his father. Business had slowed in the past several years for this market, he said; the paths between its piles were almost empty. Israel said tourism was fickle. Other shopkeepers blamed the economy.

“Want a little hat?” he asked, showing his knack for deflecting personal questions into sales pitches by pointing to a small pile of tiny red and blue sombreros with silver threads. “They can be for dogs, cats, Pépe,” he added, stringing a red specimen onto his only slightly larger black Chihuahua. Pépe recalled a certain cartoon skunk of the same name with his unceasingly amorous behavior toward a larger, mellower black dog that kept trying to lie down in a corner.

Israel’s friend took over and Israel sat down outside his shop against an adobe wall, quiet for a rare moment. He told me he was from near the Californian border and wanted to leave Nogales, but not for the U.S. It was much easier to go to Canada, he said.

I stopped for lunch at La Roca. Around noon six policía federal officers, thickly built and armed with guns and nightsticks, entered confidently in single file, their title emblazoned in silver on their black uniforms. The smoky jazz played on from the ceiling and conversations in Spanish and English continued unperturbed, restaurant patrons meticulously avoiding looking at the newcomers. The police made no angry word or gesture but scanned the room impassively from their table, murmuring to each other. The dark blue walls and deep orange window curtains gave the room an oddly dusky feel for the middle of a bright August day.

Richard Grant, the travel writer and author who was leading my little expedition, had warned me to stay away from police, who in Mexico are notorious for colluding with the drug cartels they’re meant to fight.

Most of the waiting staff abandoned their other tables and clustered around the police three or four at a time, whisking away empty plates, bringing drinks, setting out napkins. After about half an hour the federales finished their meal and filed out. A waiter held the door open for them, bumped fists with the last man before following the group out and closing the door. In the restaurant’s courtyard outside, women in pastel skirts posed with balloons for pictures in front of a chattering fountain.

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Near the market, teachers stood along the curved curb holding sheets of white paper that declared their holders to be against education reforms in the state. A young woman protesting said the government blames teachers for the country’s education problems but government corruption is really to blame. An SUV with a deep bass system and a van for a local radio station dueled for our eardrums, blasting music and advertisements over each other. A man with a straw hat as broad as his shoulders sold orange pinwheel confections from a cart. At this intersection, fewer people than usual looked at me out of the corners of their eyes.

The noise pushed me into a church of pale, rough-hewn rock. Police sirens and screeching car horns, flying through doors flung wide to the streets, echoed inside as if in a cave. The handful of men and women scattered among the smooth wooden pews were quiet. The men wore plaid shirts and cowboy hats.

One man leaned on a wooden cane with a blood-red tip at the end of a pew and prayed to the statue of Maria at the front of the room, reaching with thick fingers that appeared to have been broken several times. Maria stood against a turquoise wall beneath small fluorescent-bulb chandeliers. Her feet met the top of Jesus’ cross carved below her. Light blue light filtered through tinted windows 20 feet up. A bronze plaque outside declared the building had reached its centenario, its 100th year, in 1991.

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Walking toward the door, the man turned back, framed against glaring sunlight. Drowned out by traffic he made a final plea, crossed himself gravely and left, putting back on his brown hat. A mariachi song wafted in from a passing bus.

Outside the church, boys played with toy trucks, sending them clattering down the steps that led down to a row of shops. One of the town’s many lime-green “natural stores,” promising all-natural cures, stood at one end.

As I sat down on the steps a woman named Nora in front of another shop asked with a warm smile if I would buy the packaged round lemon cake in her hands. I demurred, taking off my sunglasses. She complimented my eyes and jokingly lamented that I was so young: 22 years to her 34. She often pulled her light yellow shirt to her eyes, wiping away sweat almost apologetically.

“It sucks here,” Nora said, smiling bashfully after being so blunt. It was the mountains she disliked, Nora said. Almost as an afterthought she added that her parents and five children were in the U.S. Her children had been born there and she had been studying in Tucson, she said. But Nora had been deported about six months before. She said it was because of a paperwork problem or mix-up, which struck me as all too plausible.

Nora wanted to rejoin her family. She didn’t know when this would happen. I wished her buena suerte, good luck, and since I wouldn’t buy the lemon cake, I bought a lemonade from her. With a tinge of melancholy she handed back the 2-peso change and said goodbye.

I went back to the U.S. shortly afterward, my admission costing a 20-minute wait and a quick passport inspection by a young, tan U.S. border officer who said, “Hi, how’s it going?” Other officers chatted past the checkpoint. It was a relaxing notion that I could once again trust uniforms. Thunderheads still climbed in the distance, fanning out across the sky.

Fellow workshop member Fiona Brohamer poses for Richard Grant to take a picture.
Fellow workshop member Fiona Brohamer poses for Richard Grant to take a picture.
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