I expected to come and go through El Paso, which is what most people do. It’s a place, for centuries, of passage. El Paso is the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountain cordillera, where the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo snakes southeast, a wide pass for travel, a natural place of crossing by wagon, by railroad from east to west, and the crossing point of the Camino Real from south to north. I like passes. In mountaineering, I like coming to the place where one world falls away and the next unfolds. I like that brief moment which is often blustery and exposed, of beholding both worlds at once.
I planned to stay in El Paso for five days. But the day came to leave, and I couldn’t go; I wanted to see the next morning nowhere else but here. I needed to return to the migrant shelter where I had started working, to meet the next busload of people, to share the next meal. So I asked Vanessa if I could stay in the little stone house behind her garden and she said yes. El Paso is a pass, and this feeling of beholding, of the realness of both sides and the contiguity of the earth, is unforgotten here.
Since I like passes, I love El Paso. I have been here for three weeks and it’s the first time I’ve been in any one place for three weeks since the fall of 2017. It’s easy to feel a sense of belonging here after only three weeks because so many people come and go more briefly. I have been working at one of the migrant shelters for the Annunciation House, set up last fall in response to a sharp rise in asylum-seeking families being released from detention in El Paso.
My shifts are typically 2-10 pm and involve receiving 50-80 folks in family groups, largely from Guatemala, Honduras, and Cuba, and also from Mexico, El Salvador, and Brazil, and occasionally other countries outside Central America. We contact sponsors around the country and give them information about buying a bus or plane ticket, give families a room to stay in the disused nursing home we’re using, offer meals cooked by church groups, give medical care, let folks call home for the first time on their journey, ensure families arrive to the bus or train station, and give folks a bag of food for their trip, most of which are bus trips across the country. I’ve slept at the shelter for the overnight shift several times and in the past week have begun shift coordinating, organizing about 15 volunteers and 80 guests.
When I’m not at the shelter, I’m falling in love with El Paso. El Paso, where in the morning the sun shines along the striations of Trans Mountain with its gigantic white chalk “E” on the western hillside and the striped TV towers on top. Falling in love with this zone of exception, where I ask people if they’re from here (and most people are from here), and they say El Paso/Juarez, sí, and el otro lado is entirely inclusive of ‘here.’ I walk through Chihuahuita with the bold, colorful murals and buy mole burritos for $1 from the señora selling them from her trolley.
El Paso and Juárez form the largest binational community in the world, and Mexico can be seen from every part of the city. From the vantage point of El Paso, Mexico is the hillside with the white lettering announcing “La biblia es la verdad-- LEELA” (“The bible is the truth—READ IT”). Mexico is the enormous red equis sculpture, an iconic public art piece lit at night as a tribute to no more deaths in Juárez and which now serves as a landmark for coyotes to instruct migrants to meet to cross. Mexico is the vast hazy sprawl of suburbs and colonias (slums) and maquiladoras (assembly plants). The proximity is ever-present.
[Santa Fe Bridge, US/ MX border]
El Paso is an exceptionally safe city, exceptionally comfortable, and friendly. It is bisected by Trans Mountain and contains the largest wilderness area of any US city. Vanessa and I go hiking with the kids in the Piedmont among creosote and prickly pear and ocotillo and the city falls away from the desert canyon. We talk about the dust storms of the spring and the summer’s mortal heat and we picture the deluge of the monsoon pummeling through the canyon, but for now the cool breeze of the evening wraps around us in t-shirts and we eat pistachios on the mountaintop and squint to see the little white monument market of the border across the valley on Mt. Cristo Rey.
On Saturday, Vanessa works in the garden among broccoli and chard, succulents and aloe, pomegranate and olive trees, and the cats circle, yellow like the daily sun. She suggests I stop by Jurado, the wholesale produce dealer in the fruit district, among fruit-named cross-streets-- ‘pera,’ ‘durazno.’ Jurado sells produce that has just come across the border from Mexico. I get bags of oranges, grapefruits, spinach, kale, onions, potatoes, apples, pecans, avocados which last me two weeks and it comes to $23. In the evening, Vanessa and Rich go out for a date to a pool hall in Juárez and send me a text “All good? We’re crossing over!”
One day I have tea at La Mujer Obrera, a women’s community organization, and I drink ‘Sana sana corazon’ herbal tea called Inanna’s Delight made by a new friend. That night an abuela paces the halls at the shelter in heartache from being separated from her granddaughter in immigration and I give her two cups of the tea and the plastic cup collapses in her trembling hand. That night we start texting about bringing herbal medicine to the shelter, about the dolores (pains) that need deeper healing.
La Mujer Obrera is near Maternidad La Luz, a birth center which largely serves Mexican mothers coming across the border to give birth to US citizens. Midwives come from around the country to serve there, and I stop by to ask what they know about housing. Nearby is Cinco Puntos Press, an incredible small press, which was my first point of contact in El Paso. Lee Byrd introduced me to Amber, who runs the dual-immersion program in the El Paso Public Schools. Amber takes me out to see La Frontera Bugalú, an amazing Cumbia band composed of musicians from both El Paso and Juárez. Amber’s boyfriend, Chris, is a drummer from El Paso/Juárez and he knows all the steps, all the gritos and all the friends.
I’ve been to two sessions of the Tumblewords Project writing group, a committed gathering of about twenty-five writers from all walks of life each Saturday. The first was led by rad queer Chicana writer Rios de la Luz and today we’ll meet in Savage Goods to give poetry feedback before the Crisis on the Border Festival open mic. University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) also has the country’s only bilingual MFA in Creative Writing along with the bilingual journal, the Rio Grande Review.
People here love the border. There is much to be hated and much that is despicable. But the inhumane treatment of brothers and sisters caught up in an immoral, wounding system has also aroused the greatest sensibilities of generosity and solidarity amongst communities in El Paso. Sigred takes me out to her family’s restaurant, El Rincón de Cortes, and talks about the night in October when hundreds of migrant families were dropped off downtown without any means of shelter, food, or communication. Within hours, the community gathered to create an impromptu shelter at a nearby school, and walked together with the hundreds of families through the streets to the school with police protection. Both El Pasoans and guests held back tears at the immense spirit of collectivity. Sigred worked for the Secretary for Homeland Security under Obama and moved back home to El Paso in the Trump administration. I ask her all the questions about how to help siblings who come to the shelter separated from their families, what to tell folks who don’t know where to present themselves for their court hearing, and how policy changes will affect our work at the shelter.
Coming up in El Paso is the Border Learning conference, the General Assembly of the World Dance Alliance under the title ‘Moviendo La Frontera: Dancing Through/In-between Borders’, the Writing on the Wall creative writing series, and my visit to the Tierra es Vida community farm, run by La Mujer Obrera. In this February 2019, the border is grief and confusion and rage and the border is also gatherings and dance, growth and song. And light! So much light.
- Bobby Byrd, Cinco Puntos Press editor and legendary border poet