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Letter from the Borderlands


Keoki Skinner

When I built my house here in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, I couldn’t have been further north and still be in Mexico. At that time, the international border consisted of a funky cyclone fence. Now, I have an 18-foot, rusty wall as my northern boundary; the U.S. Border Patrol my constant neighbor.

Anyone who has traveled in Latin America can attest that Spanish speaking countries have a lively street culture. Eating on the street has long been a way of life in Mexico, long before food trucks became hip in the U.S. With the street food comes the music: huge speakers blare in front of businesses, while strolling musicians lugging stand-up basses, snare drums, and the ubiquitous guitars and accordions entertain diners in restaurants.

So, when I hear that because of the coronavirus there is going to be a curfew, or “toque de queda” (in Spanish literally a knock or touch that remains), I prepare for the worst. To give you a sense of how important street-life is here: the only other curfew I have borne witness to in Agua Prieta came some 8 years ago, following an ugly gun battle between rival drug traffickers wielding 50-caliber weapons.

Now, a dreaded virus has intruded on the Mexican nightlife, silencing the muffler-less cars and the ​norteño​ music that normally serenades the night air.

Into the second week of the toque de queda, I’m getting restless. In the evening I get a call from a good friend who operates an AirBnB on the Arizona side of the border. David is out for an evening ride on his bicycle and I detect in his voice that he also is craving some conversation that doesn’t include staring at a phone screen.

I walk out of my compound and cross Calle Internacional, looking for him on the north side of the wall. He's straddling his bicycle about five feet from the fence, partly out of respect for the virus and partly to provide peace of mind to the Border Patrol Agent who stands at the ready outside his idling truck.

I wedge my face into the narrow space between the bollards. I'm immediately blinded by the powerful stadium lights shining down on all that rusty steel as if it were some ill-conceived and poorly wrought art installation. It does offer sad commentary on our times but unlike art, it has no hopeful alternatives to suggest. As if the huge steel columns aren’t enough, draped from them are coils of razor wire, installed last year by the Arizona National Guard.

The border patrol agent watches us closely. I see him straining to hear as we discuss – how disappointing for him, or perhaps a relief – the books we have been reading, food shortages at the local WalMart, the virus numbers, and the fact that, without testing, who knows how close they come to reality.

Under the bright lights, with the wall and the illuminated razor wire between us, it is as if we have been cast as characters in a play Samuel Beckett may once have dreamt. We exercise the usual conversational tropes – pleasantries and insights – but beneath these runs a current of unspoken anxiety. What looms in the “real” world just offstage? How long will the health crisis hold at bay our normal lives? Will our economic and political systems withstand the strain put upon them by this weightless, invisible virus? Will we be able to feed ourselves in the coming months? How fragile are we, really? How fragile is our way of life and all of life?

We float our words over the tension, occasionally forgetting the guard standing by: a state-sanctioned eaves-dropper. When we remember him again, our stage play becomes a prison yard. It is hard to tell which of us is on the inside and which is on the out. In a mild way, the stay-at-home orders have made prisoners of us both.

Mexico’s reaction to the pandemic is unsettling. The Mexican President, Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, as he is called here, followed Trump’s disheartening lead: denial, downplaying the contagiousness, telling the press that there is no reason to panic.

Other government officials in Mexico follow suit. The governor of the state of Puebla recently claimed the virus could be controlled by “eating a good turkey mole with plenty of hot chiles.” A recent Mexican press photo showed a priest hovering over a virus-stricken village in a helicopter. Next to him was a statue of Our Lady of Dolores which he claimed would protect the suffering masses below - medieval plague cures in the age of science.

Equally superstitious, but somewhat more palatable because injected with self-deprecating humor, is this adage which I have heard from more than one of my neighbors: “Mexicans have lived in unhygienic conditions for so long, and eaten so much microbe tainted food, that we have developed our own kind of antibodies that will keep us safe.” While it is one of my favorite claims to viral immunity, I don’t plan to rely on it myself...

They may try, but saints and tainted food can’t protect us without a little official help. On the political front, in Mexico, as in the US, the states are more active than the federal governments. Here in Sonora, health officials confirmed the first coronavirus case on March 16. The state’s governor, Claudia Pavlovich, declared a health emergency on March 25. According to the Imparcial, the state's largest newspaper, Sonora now has 69 confirmed cases and 8 deaths as of last week. Most of the cases have been centered in the urban area of Hermosillo, the state capital.

Whether it will remain contained, or not, is another question. I worry for the sprawling migrant camps in Mexican border cities, particularly Tijuana and Juarez. These camps were created by Trump’s “Stay in Mexico” policy. Migrants seeking political asylum must remain on the Mexican side of the wall until their fate is determined by American bureaucracy. These overcrowded and overflowing camps are fertile areas for the virus. Once infected, I fear the virus will be uncontrollable.

Like our ancestors, these migrants come seeking a better life. Unlike our ancestors, instead of prosperity, they meet only death. If the camps become hotbeds of infection they will generate not just misery and mortality, but a pretext, in the minds of Trump and his policy advisor, Stephen Miller, to force a complete shutdown of the border.

In the meantime, we live with a partial border closure. US citizens and American green card holders who live in Mexico, as I do, or who visit Mexico, are still allowed to cross back into the US. Mexicans with LaserVisas, or border crossing cards, are no longer permitted entry. The long lines of Mexicans going to shop in the US have disappeared. This deals a potentially fatal blow to merchants in the town of Douglas, Arizona, where 33 percent of the population subsists under the poverty level and Mexicans are responsible for more than 60 percent of retail sales revenues.

The US has implemented social distancing, mask wearing and other preventive measures, but people entering the U.S. through the Douglas Port of Entry are not subject to medical checks of any kind. Customs officers are handed, and then hand back, hundreds of ID cards and passports per day. Rarely do I observe them wearing gloves or masks.

Yet when entering Mexico from the U.S., your temperature will be taken by Mexican medical personnel who look, as well, for other signs of illness.

I think I'll stay for a while.

Keoki Skinner is a journalist who has long reported on the U.S.-Mexico border. He ran a juice bar called El Mitote (The Gossip) for 16 years. For the last two years he has been offering cultural, historical, and neo-narco architectural tours of Agua Prieta. 

The Unbearable Sadness of Being on the Border

broken image

On the U.S.-Mexico border, ordinary life has always been punctuated by bursts of violence, often committed by people from north of the line. This is the ugly side of human nature seeping up in the fracture zone between two countries, one rich and powerful, one poor and less powerful.

Now the violence is institutionalized. The U.S. and Mexico are trading places now. Mexico's middle class is growing. The U.S. is becoming colonial in its vicious inequality.

A scapegoat becomes necessary. Migrants from places like Honduras and Guatemala crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are pawns in America's electoral politics.

There are 200 immigrant prisons and jails in the U.S. currently holding roughly 40,000 people. The largest facilities are in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, California and Georgia, but they exist in almost every state. More than 70 percent of detainees are held in private detention centers, even though these cost the government more than government detention.

Thirty-three of these detention centers have reported COVID-19 outbreaks. Forty-four have been reported as having inadequate medical response. In March, a judge ordered the release of four children diagnosed with COVID-19. There are an estimated 7,000 children in detention centers. 

The U.S. has the largest immigrant detention system in the world.

The Editors

Border Radio : The Blasters

The song Border Radio has been done so many different ways. Started by the brothers Phil and Dave Alvin in Downey, California, the Blasters blended rockabilly, early rock and roll, punk rock, mountain music and r & b. The brothers went their separate ways in the '80s; Dave Alvin became a solo act and Phil Alvin remained the band's front man. The brothers reconciled in 2014 after Phil had a near-death experience and released the album Common Ground. This is Phil fronting the Blasters in 2011.

Chambao : Papeles Mojado

Chambao was a flamenco-electronic band originally from Málaga, Spain, known for a Flamenco Chill sound that fuses flamenco sounds and palos with electronic music. The name of the band is taken from an improvised form of beach tent that is constructed as a means of sheltering from the wind and sun. 

The rate of migration is higher than ever before in human history, even allowing for population growth. If we don't deal with it as a global problem, the abuses will intensify.

Mojado means "wetback." This song turns a pejorative into a battle cry. 

Stories of the day, the real day,

histories of good people,

The fear is reflected in their eyes

the sea breaks out into tears.

Every night the tide brings in thousands of shadows.

They navigate laden with dreams left at the shore.

Stories of the day, the real day, histories of good people.

They gamble their lives tired, with hunger and a cold that hurts.

They drown their sorrows with a candle -put yourself in their place

The fear that they reflect in their eyes, the sea breaks out into tears.

Many don't make it, their dreams sink to ruin

Mojado papers, papers without owners.

Many don't make it, their dreams sink to ruin

Mojado papers, papers without owners.

Fragile memories in the drift rip the soul to shreds

The water penetrates all the bones, it drags them without mercy.

The powerlessness in their throats with the taste of salt,

a mouthful of air gives them another opportunity.

All this injustice makes me despair -put yourself in their place.

The fear that they reflect in their eyes, the sea has thrown itself to tears.

Many don't make it, their dreams sink to ruin

Mojado papers, papers without owners.

Many don't make it, their dreams sink to ruin

Mojado papers, papers without owners.

Who's Gonna Build Your Wall: Tom Russell

Joe Ely: Deportee

Written by Woody Guthrie and Martin Hoffman after the 1948 crash of a plane near Los Gatos Canyon in California. Guthrie was inspired to write the song by what he considered the racist mistreatment of the passengers before and after the accident.] The crash resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico.

Joe Ely performs Woody Guthrie's Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) on June 30, 2018, a day when hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the U.S. in opposition to the Trump administration's anti-immigrant policies.

Pobre Juan : Maná

Maná is a Mexican pop rock band from Guadalajara, Jalisco formed in 1986.  Maná is considered the most successful Latin American band of all time with over 40 million albums sold worldwide. They have played with Pavarotti, Queen, Deep Purple, Ricky Martin, and Bono. If you're a white American, you haven't heard of them. 

Written at the height of the migration in 2002, after the North American Free Trade Agreement bankrupted small farmers by flooding the market with cheaper corn grown by U.S. agribusiness.

Poor Juan 

John went walking north

Looking for a decent life

Across Mexico by valleys and mountains

He was full of faith, Juan

The story is that John was going to marry

With Maria pregnant

But he did not have a penny

Not a nail to give

But this Juan was very determined

And he came to the border

He connected with a couple of coyotes

And the story is told

Look, I want to cross and

to San Diego or Chicago

Tell me what I have to do

What price do I have to pay

Juan never returned

On the border he remained

Poor Juan

Migrants killed

Buried in the desert

Poor Juan

Juan shows the coyote a photo of Mary

Whom he would marry

He promised that he would return

To make a family

But Juan was betrayed by the coyote

Leaving him to oblivion

Three bullets thundered, Juan

Poor Juan

He did not return

No, oh

Juan never returned

On the border he remained

Poor Juan

Migrants killed

Buried in the desert

Poor Juan

And Mary went to look

And she never found


Border Radio : Dave Alvin. A very different version. Kinda makes us cry.