Ciudad Juárez, Mexico — Growing up, “¿Ya listo pa’l Paso?” — “Ready for El Paso?” — is the phrase I’d hear my mom say almost every Saturday morning. But since COVID-19, I haven’t heard her say it for the past eight months.
Once coronavirus cases started going up in March, the U.S. and Mexico both banned Mexican citizens from crossing the border. Only essential travel to the U.S. is allowed for Mexican citizens, and even then, under very strict and controlled conditions, such as receiving medical treatment, traveling to attend educational institutions or traveling for (very specific) work reasons. Juárez residents who cross frequently to do their holiday weekend shopping, hang out with friends and spend time with family are feeling the impact of the restrictions. But so are the residents of El Paso. Crossing has always been an everyday ritual, one so common that it adds to the liveliness of both El Paso and Juárez, and unifies the two towns.
Just like everyone else here, crossing the border has been ingrained in my DNA since childhood. As a kid, my life consisted of regular family weekend trips from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. Starting in middle school, those weekend trips turned into everyday 6 a.m. trips when I switched schools from Juárez to El Paso. The family weekend runs to El Paso never stopped, even when I spent five days a week there, especially during the holidays. Crossing to El Paso for holiday shopping was a special bonding time for us as a family. We’ve always been close, but the holidays and making our weekend trips to El Paso brought us even closer.
During our holiday El Paso runs, we would all jam into the car to get to the Americas border bridge and wait three hours to cross, two and a half if we were lucky. Back then, as a 7-year-old, those two and a half hours became an escape to another world as I observed, listened, and tasted the bridge’s microeconomy that surrounded us. Vendors of all types passing in between cars, shouting all the different snacks and items they sell. I’d beg my mom to buy me a paleta de fresa from the paletero, even in the middle of December. Musicians playing regional Mexican songs in the hopes of receiving money in exchange. I’d often tell my mom to hand me a few pesos to give to them and hear them say "gracias." People handing out store pamphlets with all the Black Friday and Christmas deals. I’d scan every page of the Toys "R" Us and Best Buy catalogs and be blown away by the toys and gadgets I never saw in Juárez.
Once in El Paso, it was a matter of where the bridge holiday deal pamphlets convinced us to go. Maybe it was Cielo Vista Mall nomás pa’ dar la vuelta, just to look around. Some days it was Walmart for my mom to shop for groceries not found in Juárez while I spent hours mesmerized at all the lights and decorations in the Christmas section. It didn’t matter where we went, every trip was special.
Despite the alarming high COVID cases in El Paso, U.S. citizens don’t have crossing restrictions into Mexico and back. Yet, many are opting not to travel to protect their families in Juárez or for fear of being exposed. For me, having dual nationality, I'm allowed to cross to El Paso and back, even if it’s just by myself — to drive around highway I-10 and recount memories as I pass by the city, but it’s not the same. Crossing isn’t complete without the people who made those memories and experiences so special.
“¿Qué se les ofrece de El Paso?” — “What do you need from El Paso?” — I’ve asked my family once about every two weeks. I go and pick up las cosas que nomás se encuentran allá, the things you can only find there. Hard-to-find vitamins in Juárez for my abuelitos. That green mouthwash my mom loves so much. The canned pumpkin puree that can’t be found in Juárez to make home-made pumpkin spice latte and a Whataburger honey BBQ chicken sandwich for my drive back home.
There is a certain joy for people in Juárez when they cross. The same for El Pasoans when they cross to Juárez. Something that can’t be described to those outside the border aside from the consumer dependability. (Ross would be bankrupt if it wasn’t for Juárez shoppers and Juárez’ dental clinics would not be as successful if it wasn’t for El Paso.) Crossing is part of our holiday traditions, our jobs, our education, our shopping, our friends and families, nuestras raices — our roots. We all share a collective nostalgia, yet different in each family’s way.
For now, that nostalgia is on pause. While it resumes, El Pasoans are surely counting the days until they get to say “¿Ya listos pa’ Juárez?” I, like all of Juárez, am counting the days until we say to our loved ones again “¿Ya listos pa’l Paso?”