What does it mean to see your childhood behind a wall? To know that you left behind what you love for a chance at freedom. What does it mean to be free?
Over two years ago I walked along the border wall at the Reynosa-Hidalgo cross point. I was invited to participate as a student panelist at a three-day conference about the US and México’s border. On the last day of the conference, panelists and those interested enough to attend were driven in a charter bus to the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse. The pumphouse used to extract water from the Rio Grande to purify for consumption, so it is within walking distance of the wall.
Tuve la fortuna de caminar a lado de ese monstruo en contra de la libertad with the activist and Dreamer, Allyson Duarte. A dear friend and one of my personal heroes. Una intelectual carismática and fighter of social justice for immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community. Born in Veracruz in the early 1990s, she crossed the Rio Grande in the late 2000s to escape economic hardships. In late 2017, she returned to the Valley for the conference after lobbying in Washington DC for a couple months. She is everything I aspire to be.
As the two of us walked along this wall, I felt intrigued by what was on the other side, as if I were being called by forces from my past. Al otro lado de ese mounstruo, to the other side of that wall, those bars, is my hometown. The city that harvested me from the toughest maize, capable of surviving any climate and situation. Mi Reynosa la hermosa, the one place close by where I feel truly free. Free to do what I want, to have fun how I want. Never in imposition of what I want, just… the way I want. Living free, without repercussions to my actions.
Except, the danger of my hometown is independent from one’s actions. Its dangers are being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Independent from your decisions, a bullet may get ‘lost’ in your head. At least, that is what had happened to mi tía Lidia a few months back, as she was walking from a grocery store to her parked car. Tamaulipas state police raced by, shooting at a truck with a giant “Z” in the back (a sign of the Zetas, the most violent cartel in the area). Los sicarios in the truck were firing back at the federales. In all that commotion, the bullets that do not meet their intended target, are called “balas perdidas”, lost bullets. Lost in her head as she was treated en el Hospital Santander, right across the river. I could see the hospital standing from the side of the free and in it I could see my aunt who had fought and succeeded in her recovery.
Among those buildings pouring over each other, with billboards and gray hues that make for a beautiful contrast with graffiti. The green tones of the grass and trees and the statue of an eagle devouring a snake on top of a cactus at the central park. I could see it all. Each building held a different memory. I could envision my past. The past of a life without displacement, without violence, and free from anxiety. It was then that I saw a tower with a cross at the center and a bell tower next to it. La iglesia de la Señora de Guadalupe, the church where I did my first communion. Behind those bars I saw my memories and the lives of mi gente.
Cuando le dije a Allyson sobre la iglesia, she urged me to write about the experience; and how could I not? As she was inspiring me to pursue this endeavor, a white CBP truck with blue details stopped right by our side. An ICE agent lowered the window in the driver’s seat to ask what we were doing and proceeded to demand for identification. We refused to show ID as we were student panelists at a conference. As the agent proceeded to drive away, Allyson spat at the truck driving by, though she hit the ground instead. A few dozen feet in front of us, the agent stopped to ask a dark-skinned paisana from our conference group to provide documentation. We rushed over, but she had already proven her citizenship to la migra agent. Once we spoke with her, we learned that she showed documentation out of her own volition to avoid trouble.
Apparently, it’s not rare for her to have a hard time with la migra. For a moment, I thought back to the church. I know that I saw my childhood on the other side of the wall, the river. Although, I wasn’t sure which side was truly free…
I am fortunate enough to have never seen a loved one behind bars. I wonder if it’s a similar feeling to seeing the town you love behind a wall. To see the church where you did your First Communion behind bars. To know that the cancer of drug trade and the chemotherapy of war against the trade is destroying everything you hold dear in your past. To witness your past behind a wall, your reason to fight, everything that made you into who you are at the other side of a wall.
Hoy en día la Guerra en Contra del Narcotráfico spreads across las Américas, infecting its most vulnerable communities. Así como el cáncer que empieza con una célula muerta, la cual se reproduce sin alto, creando tumores. The tumors created by the drug trade have spread for over a hundred years. Las comunidades sin recursos tienden ser donde los carteles obtienen la mayor parte de sus reclutas. The promise of fast money, power, and a life of luxury incentivizes those who lack resources to join the cartels. Their influence is felt en todo el cuerpo de las Américas. The solution by the government, both Mexican and American, was war against the cartels and their drugs. This chemotherapy intended to kill the cancer, instead destroys the body, as the cancer is too far spread to be killed completely. It continues to grow and be reborn from the ashes of bullet ridden abandoned hideouts, laboratories, and farmland.
La guerra es capaz de paralizar ciudades enteras. Aunque, me sorprende más cuando la violencia se mezcla con el movimiento de la ciudad. Be it mi hometown de Reynosa, Tijuana, or Cuernavaca, the struggle to prosper and the defense of illegal capital coexist in México. A ride to work may get disrupted by a drive-by shooting between the cartel and the cops; or the cartel and the cartel; or the cartel and the army; or the “army” and the “cops”. It is impossible to ignore the fact that your hometown looks like a scene from an action movie, all the carnage and none of the grandiose romanticism behind it. Lost bullets threatening the lives of la gente en mi hermosa Reynosa.
Aunque, earlier this year, before the pandemic hit, I was surprised to see an active Reynosa, its population growing. A consequence of the Trump Administration’s refusal to allow refugees seeking political asylum. A city brought back to life by those fearing for their lives. Warriors, la gente de Reynosa y aquellos que llegan ahí.
En mi hometown de Reynosa, la violencia en algún momento logró quitarle vida a la ciudad. People may get their houses and vehicles taken by the cartels, or the army. Most times it is impossible to tell who is stealing from you. Fear paralyzes, but mi gente are tougher than that. They are a breed of warriors, luchando para ganarse la vida, aun si tienen que arriesgarse para ella.
Aunque, a warrior’s life is not for kids. I feel sorry for mis hermanitas y mi hermanito. My siblings from my dad’s side, apenas los veo una o dos veces al año. My memories of them are pure bliss, but the trauma of studying war riddles my thoughts of them with anxiety. I dread the day I will encounter their deaths or disappearances amidst my research. Mis hermanitos. Mis niños who are growing up amongst violence, not knowing what life playing on the street is. To gather con los niños de la colonia to play fútbol, o voto, or stop, or las escondidas. To walk from your house to la casa de tus primos y amigos sin tener que preocuparte de nada, salvo el no perderte. To have a childhood where none of your friends have been victims of war. To not know what war is.
A modern theory of freedom entails that the amount of freedom a person has is congruent with the ability of a person to do something and the repercussions of their actions. The more things and less consequences a person experiences, the more freedom that person enjoys. Alternatively, the less things a person can do and the more repercussions that person suffers from, the less freedom they possess.
The freedom of life in the streets de mi hometown. Siendo un niño de 7, 8, 9, y 10 años, I could practically do anything. The streets and abandoned houses were the playground of children in Reynosa. I remember running around in spaces where kids should not have been at. Laughing as the older kids with barrio lit up acid bombs with no consequences. I am glad no one was ever hurt from that. The broken bones usually came from children scaling up to the roof of houses or being chased by dogs. I am now aware of our luck. I took it for granted. The same way I took for granted the life of true liberty. No repercussions, just life.
Siempre y cuando no te metieras con alguien más, tendrías libertad… Aunque, now that I think of it, bullying was quite common. Ese era el cotorreo entre los amiguitos, the most verbally skilled at the art del albur was typically the most popular… I suppose that we had almost as much freedom as the impeached sitting president of the United States.
I can hardly remember living in a place where there wasn’t law enforcement at every turn. Where the army hasn’t been sent by the president of my country of residence a la ciudad que llamo mi hogar. I can’t help but think that one of these days I will be taken away from the Rio Grande Valley. To witness my hometown escape my grasp when it is within reach, again.
The last celebration I lived en Reynosa before the start of the War Against Drugs was my First Communion. La última vez que jugué con mis amigos en mi primer hogar. At that point I was unaware where I would study next year, I thought it would be at the same school where I had attended for the past 7 years. Where I studied pre-K to fourth grade. All my friends finished elementary at el Colegio Particular Reforma, known for being a neighbor to a Coca-Cola factory. The only education I got to finish was my religious education for communion.
The preparation for the communion was more than anything I had done for the past 9 years of my life. For several hours a day for 2 weeks before the ceremony, I was forced to memorize several prayers along with el Credo. Even after becoming an atheist five years ago at 20 years old and cutting ties with the church, I could still remember the prayers. El Credo. At 25, I can still hear it.
Yo creo en un Dios todopoderoso. Creador del cielo y de la Tierra. De todo lo visible e invisible…
El padre Vicente was a friend of the family. He was a common guest to the house parties my parents would throw occasionally. The man was a great singer and orator; but he was harsh when it came to learn el Credo. Even then, he dared not touch a single hair on any kids. Even those of us who did not demonstrate by the week before the ceremony that we knew el Credo. I messed up at various lines. I do not remember saying anything during the ceremony itself. All that comes to mind are the prayers I made para no cagarla en frente de toda la misa. I couldn’t handle the thought of messing up in front of the whole church. Sitting before the altar, before la Virgen llorando por su hijo Jesús crucificado, at the center of the ceremony itself.
This was the last time I ever felt close to God. In a way, the reason why I left Reynosa and the fact that I left, are central to the reason I ceased to believe in a higher power. I doubt that anyone who spends their days learning about the darkest moments in the history of their country and the play it had on their own life will have much faith. Even then, it is hard not to call a “miracle” the fact that none in my family have been added to the death toll of the war. None of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. None of the kidnaped, never to be found. None in my family “lost”. I truly am lucky.
Aún y con esto en mente, cuando dejé a mi país de origen, para vivir en el país del norte, también dejé atrás a Dios. The same way my parents fled the war for a better future for their children, yo dejé atrás a Dios para trabajar en el de mi gente. The church at the other side of that wall and mi gente with it, I left behind unwillingly. God, I left by choice. This was a choice that I doubt I could have made if I were still living in México.
If I were to question why I chose to study the war that made me and my family run away from home, it all comes down to the same reason why I do not believe in an idea of perfection. I know for a fact that college changed me, but I do not know if it would have changed me the way it did anywhere other than UT Pan-American/UTRGV. For, it is here where I studied a degree in Philosophy, en una comunidad de migrantes de la violencia. It is here that I learned to live and love como un Valley resident. It is here that I gained an interest in the illegal trade of narcotics from my country of origin to my country of residency. Along with tools of critical thinking which lead me to conclude that I had no reason to believe anything that had no evidence for its existence. Atheism was the logical conclusion.
Without this choice my past and its present would not haunt me like they do today. Es una cosa investigar los horrores de la humanidad, es otra saber que tu familia es susceptible a ellos. El tener de frente a la pared que te separa de ellos e informarte sobre el cáncer y la chemoterapia que mata a su (mi) pueblo. That changes you. I had the choice to change or remain to be someone who only wants what is best for himself. Neither choice would make me a better person.
En mi tercer año universitario, I was invited to participate at my first conference. I went to talk to a professor about some of the readings that were assigned that week. When I walked into her office she asked if I had received an email about the joint conference between the UTRGV Philosophy department and the STC History and Philosophy department. I told her I had not checked my email, and as soon as I replied she told me that I had been selected to represent UTRGV as a student panelist. It was then that I learned that Allyson Duarte was going to be the second representative of UTRGV’s alumni.
The news took me by surprise, my grades were not stellar in most of my classes. However, I had demonstrated interest in Philosophy and the topic of the conference, the US and México border. By this point I had been researching the war for almost 5 months. I decided to include some of that research into my presentation. I prepared myself by reading up on the four cases I decided to discuss, then I questioned how each of those cases would be defended and criticized by Henry Thoreau under his concepts of justice and freedom.
At the conference, I spoke about civil disobedience. I used Thoreau’s essay on the topic to formulate a framework of different cases of civil disobedience in the US and México. The farm workers’ labor strikes under Cesar Chavez, the civil rights strikes under Dr. Martin L. King and the Black Panthers, the strikes of Ayotzinapa students and those after the disappearance of the 43, and the armed forces under Dr. Jose M. Mireles in Michoacán. The last two of these are a direct result of the war in México. In a country riddled with death, kidnappings and disappearances, a functional government ceases to exist. Criminal cases never close. The disappeared remain so. The 43 remain to be the symbol of the thousands disappeared in México. Not to mention the abuse of power by those with the means to abuse it. The cartels have taken everything away from the people and in Michoacán many decided to fight back under Mireles. Many pueblos regained autonomy under his command. At least, that was then.
I was the third student panelist to present at the conference. I was nervous and my voice shook during the first half of the presentation. By the second half, I reminded myself of the countless hours of research that prepared me for that moment. This helped me manage to conclude my presentation within the allotted 10 minutes. Recuerdo poner un timer con 10 minutos tan pronto y empecé mi presentación. As soon as I was done, I thanked everyone for their attention and almost simultaneously the timer went off. Allyson gave her presentation right after mine.
She had just graduated from UTPA (now UTRGV) and had been helping La Union del Pueblo Entero as a lobbyist in Washington DC for a clean Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act. She wrote a piece about her experiences as a young, lesbian, brown woman lobbying for a cause that directly affect her to primarily rich, old, white men. She’s one of the most intelligent people that I have personally met, yet she spoke of these congressmen and senators as dismissive of her arguments. Arguments structured by someone trained in classical logic and with extensive knowledge on the issue.
After she was done, a few professors from UTRGV approached us to congratulate us on our presentations. A few other panelists approached Allyson to discuss her presentation. As for me, fui a platicar con mi mamá, mi hermano, mi abuelo, y un amigo quienes fueron a ver mi primera presentación académica.
That night Allyson and a couple of friends went to Roosevelts, a bar in the border city of McAllen. We were surprised to find some panelists at the same bar. We decided not to interrupt their symposium, aún así reconocieron a Allyson, and we got to share a beer with truly interesting individuals.
The next day, my brother woke up ill, and my mother had gone to México for an event from her work. Así que I took care of mi hermano cuando yo tenía cruda. Luckily, the second day of the conference took place at Las Palmas hotel in McAllen, which is close to my house. So, I made mixed vegetable soup and rice for us, and left for the conference before it was done. When I got home, I learned that my brother forgot to turn off the stove once the soup was ready. Esa tarde we ate vegetable and rice pudding, at least the seasoning was good. It was a pleasant meal.
That night, I drank with friends. As I was doing homework after the conference that day, I was invited to share a bottle of my favourite whisky. After the stress of the conference, my classes and extracurricular projects, the bottle allowed me to destress.
The next day, I prepared a meal for my brother and left for Las Palmas Hotel, from there we were driven to the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse. In the bus, Allyson sat next to me; she was excited to visit the wall. She had never been that close to the border. Once we were within sight of the bridge, I told her how I have easily spent over 500 hours throughout my life waiting to cross. As a Mexican de la frontera, I had crossed the bridge countless times in my 22 years of age. Waiting times to cross can take up 5 hours sometimes.
“Tanto tiempo desperdiciado” she replied as she realized the amount of time lost to waiting to cross a bridge.
There, the last of the panelists made their presentations. As soon as everyone was done, we were fed tamales and frijoles. Por suerte también ordenaron tamales veganos, así que comí muy rico ese día. Cuando terminamos de comer, we were invited to walk along the wall a few hundred feet from the parked buses.
It was then that I saw it. Mi pueblo. The town that saw me rise from maize and run away from violence. Standing in the country that molded my academic growth. Mi gente, my past, and God behind that wall. La iglesia de la Señora de Guadalupe, la Virgencita, y mi cultura ravaged by cancer and its supposed cure behind that wall.
I told Allyson about my past. Her words of inspiration and courage bounced around in my head. But, my thoughts were clouded. Before I knew it, ICE had arrived, nothing happened, pero se metieron con mi gente. Yet, I did not move, not until I saw Allyson in front of me. Her courage inspires me to this day. I can only hope to catch up to her as she runs to defend her people and fight for mi gente as she does. De este lado, y aquel.