El Paso; Texas — The border is a hot topic but many of us living on the border can’t help but feel that most of the country doesn’t understand what it’s really like to live here. Whether it’s Fox News stories talking about the wave of immigrants getting into the country or the spaghetti westerns that make border cities like El Paso (where I live) look like towns with nothing but churches and cantinas, these narratives are missing by a mile.
Here are some things that really represent what it means to live on the border.
1. If you don't pay attention while driving, you could end up in Mexico.
There’s close to the border, and there’s being CLOSE to the border. For El Pasoans, missing an exit or taking an early exit on the freeway could mean crossing the border. We’ve all been driving along only to be confused by the “Welcome to Mexico” signs.
2. Your slang is a mix of two languages, but doesn't make sense in either
I thought “ay ay” was something everybody said. It wasn’t until friend from California told me the first time he heard a girl say it, he thought she was sneezing. Other staplies like "Parkear" and "trocka" are actually bad translations from English to Spanish, but have become frequently used words in southern border towns.
3. You've been criticized for switching languages
Whether you’re bilingual, semi-fluid in Spanish, or just know the popular slang, we’ve all been called out for mixing languages -- what we in El Paso call "speaking 'pocho.'" What many don’t understand is that code switching between languages has created a Borderland language of its own.
4. You've been told to speak “American” by someone who wouldn’t fit the “American” stereotype.
Viral videos of the police being called on people of color for silly reasons, or people using racial slurs or racially charge comments have become common. But on the border race, ethnicity, nationality, and philosophical labels are trickier. Same city does not mean same household, and where two people may look the same, it is common for people with the same background and even last name to be different skin tones and identify differently. I’ve been told to speak “American” by people with last names much less “American” and with much darker skin, proving that race may be a social construct, but racism is definitely not.
5. You see some form of law enforcement everywhere.
The list of agencies patrolling on the border goes on and on. Whether you’re a frequent speeder or don’t get pulled over at all, the constant presence of officers can be unnerving. In El Paso there’s not just police, there’s Border Patrol, state troopers, the sheriff’s vehicles, and ICE.
6. You know that bi-cultural meals are heaven sent.
I was asked once if we celebrate Thanksgiving on the border. Yes, we obviously do, as we are part of the U.S. The only difference for border towns is we get food from both cultures. We’ll have turkey, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato; but we’ll also have menudo, tamales, and champurrado if we’re lucky. This goes for every holiday. We need extreme workouts after the holidays to get back in shape too.
7. You are confused by portrayals of your hometown in mainstream media.
Border towns are just as diverse as any other cities; some are small and agricultural, others are large and expanding hubs. And while there are some issues that arise from a binational and bicultural environment, there are just as many positives that come from it. What hurts is seeing movies like ‘Sicario,’ or the beginning of ‘Logan,’ that make cities like El Paso seem like small villages in the middle of nowhere.
Living on the border, like living any where else, has its positives and negatives. But it isn’t a war zone nor is it a small village with more tumbleweeds than people. Sometimes it takes more than a news story; it takes actually experiencing it first hand to really understand what life on the border is like. That’s definitely something legislators need to understand as they enact policies that may harm communities and individuals without having to.
This story was originally published July 27, 2018.