110 IN THE SHADE: Across the border

“I passed El Centro — a beaten-up grid of hot streets and faded bungalows — and then Imperial Valley, chronicled by William T. Vollmann in “Imperial,” an exhaustive work of social observations, scholarship and vagabondage. A friend loaned me the Vollmann book a while back. It’s more about Mexicali, and its heftiness makes it a good door stop.

Well, Paul Theroux got part of it right. There will be plenty of hot E.C. streets in a couple of months’ time. He was writing in his latest travel odyssey, “On the Plain of Snakes.” Theroux is one of America’s top travel commentators. His books are not akin to Rick Steve’s guides on what museums to visit. Rather, he delves into culture, politics and his impressions of the quality of life from Africa to South America. He favors travel by train, but in this 2019 book he travels by car along the U.S.-Mexico border hopping back and forth across the border staying for a night or spending a full day in Mexico, walking across from adjoining U.S. towns or cities. Eventually, he drives far south to Oaxaca.

Theroux is a sharp observer and interviewer of the locals to get a sense of what’s behind the chamber of commerce facade of “all is well.” In Nogales, Mexico he gets his teeth whitened. He enjoys eating in Mexico and exclaims about the food’s tastiness and the reasonable prices. He asks strangers to recommend local specialties. He drives from Massachusetts but soon immerses himself in Mexican cultures as he is keen to emphasize that Mexico is difficult to capture. So many indigenous languages, varying topography, contrasting histories and cultures.

For as much as he has traveled throughout the world, Theroux still revels in crossing a border. With two steps I’m in another country, and so much changes. He often asks Border Patrol and other U.S. government officials and civilians if they travel into Mexico. “No” is the usual answer. More so, he’s warned not to travel down there.

It’s a different story in Mexico. So many of the people want to slip into the United States The contrast between maquiladora pay is one reason. In Mexico, a worker can make $8 dollars a day. In the U.S., it’s $14 an hour. For many, it’s worth the risk to pay coyotes, and attempt to evade the U.S. Border Patrol.

Theroux accurately points out major events and their impact on Mexico. NAFTA shifted most of Mexican agricultural money to agribusiness and larger farms. The thousands of displaced small farmers in Chiapas and other southern states migrated to the northern border to work in maquiladoras. Enlarged shanty towns were one of the many results.

Another major impact was 9/11 that made the border less porous and more official. Combined with NAFTA, commerce in the north of Mexico shifted from tourism to manufacturing. In so many towns, Theroux is told by locals that tourists don’t come here anymore.

A third force deterring tourists is the awful drug cartel wars. Roughly 150,000 have been murdered between 2006 and 2018. Femicide is another troubling issue. America’s hunger for drugs brings in $19 billion to $29 billion annually for the cartels. Incredible disruption results for civil society.

I owe many of my visits to Mexico as well as exposure to Mexican culture to SDSU-Imperial Valley and San Diego Campuses. Before the above disruptions, we had local deans who would bring in folklorico dancers and mariachi groups from Mexicali. SDSU’s main campus would regularly send students and faculty to La Paz in Baja California Sur. Once in the 1980s, the entire Calexico campus traveled to Guanajuato for a few days. It was an incredible trip, and you should have seen the rustic furniture and crafts the staff brought back. Like many Americans, we no longer travel across the line as much as for the hassle returning to the U.S. side as for crime in Mexico.

Read the book. It’s well written and informative.


Richard Ryan is at rryan@sdsu.edu.

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