A Tale of Two Places: What Is a Border Town?

A Tale of Two Places: What Is a Border Town?
Teresa Villegas


The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now, featuring a series of essays that explore how our city's proximity to Mexico makes it better.

So often we talk about border towns as if geography were all that defines them.  While that is initially true, geography is only one of a hundred ways of thinking about what a border town is and what it offers to the world at large. It is further interesting to understand that when we say border towns, we don’t think of Colorado City or Window Rock or Ehrenberg. In the Southwest, we are actually referring to those towns that border Mexico. In Arizona, these would include Nogales, Douglas, Naco, Sasabe, San Luis, and Lukeville. For these towns and where they are, the word border signifies something much more than obvious geography. Border here is a place where two worlds meet. They are the kiss of cultures, or the slap.

Most states in this country do not have border towns, though this fact does not stop people from talking about them. Indeed, many people in Arizona talk about the border without having been there. In this state, it’s like the Grand Canyon and the anecdotal story that, while tourists flock there from around the world, relatively few Arizonans themselves have seen it.

Border towns are places you’ve gone to but have never been. They’re like the big cities: New York, Paris, London, Rio — you’ve grown up reading about them in books, seeing them in movies, watching them on the news, so that when you get there, you’ve already seen them. What distinguishes the border towns from the legendary big cities is that, like New York City, you have also read about them in books and have seen them in movies, but you never quite get there. It is a good bet that, as an Arizonan, you have been to New York but not Douglas or Nogales. Even so, border towns are where the news goes to find news. They are themselves the news.

No matter what a map shows, no matter how simple they are to locate, border towns are inaccurate points on a map, not simple or static at all. It is so easy to be fooled by what a map shows, as opposed to what it does not show — and can’t. These towns are places of constant movement on the one hand and great stability on the other. According to the Arizona-Mexico Commission, the border towns are unique in that their official populations are less than 25,000, yet the daily population doubles owing to the amount of border crossings into the Arizona cities. They are who they are, but they are a whole other city simultaneously.

This is a magical idea, difficult and wonderful both, and constantly surprising. The core of the border towns is curiously unchanging — Nogales, for example, the largest of the Arizona border towns and the main corridor for tourism and trade with Mexico, from the turn of the century into the 1970s had a stable population of about 8,000 people on the American side. Simultaneously, the number of people passing through at any given point was likely much bigger than simply double the population — more like three or four times the size. So, even though the core is stable, the town is profoundly kinetic — it is not and cannot be static, is never standing still. It is itself and its twin — fraternal, not identical.

A border town is not just two halves of something, though that geographical construct alone defines what André Breton called surrealism — the juxtaposition of two wildly different things in order to create a third reality, a more real reality, a surreality. It is the formation of that third thing, that surrealism, that is so often overlooked when discussing border towns — the new town that is created from the two, a new town fully peopled, fully ravenous, fully eloquent. But to get there, one must see that, no matter what the map shows, a border town is not on the edge — it’s in the middle: of two cultures, two places, two languages, two world views. In this way, a border town does not teeter at the far side of a teeter-totter — rather, it is the center, the fulcrum, allowing both sides to move up and down appropriately, give and take, first you, then me. That a map shows a border town to be on the edge is to misread the map.

This new creation can, of course, seem scary. To many, border towns seem like the belly of the beast. To those who live there, the same thought attaches to the idea of Phoenix. Neither is quite true, though perhaps neither is quite wrong, either.

We cannot romanticize or gloss over the clear problems of border towns, but neither can we generalize their problems as being their entire story or overstate their centrality. There’s a reason people live there. There is a reason everyone does not pick up and leave. And the reasons are not simply economic. People love places for reasons. My own family has been in the area since at least the 1800s, inhabitants of the Pimería Alta, a traditional trading and migration route that extends generally from Guaymas in the south to Tucson in the north, loosely the Santa Cruz Valley.

Clearly, a border town germinates the seed of difference, of perspective. It lends this sensibility to the rest of the state and beyond. While perhaps everyone in the state may not need to learn two languages, the border circumstance makes this highly desirable — necessary, even. But with reward. It is a living dictionary, a working thesaurus. It is two languages in action along with the active argot of the in-between: two cultures, two worlds. It helps us to understand the working nature of possibility and it gives us constant choice. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the indigenous languages, such as Yaqui, which are absolutely part of the speech in this place, even when much of their vocabulary is mistakenly called Spanish.

I grew up in a border town, in Nogales, on the American side. I had family on both sides. I have always cherished this special circumstance, though it could not have been more normal as I was growing up. I had languages all around me: English, Spanish, Yaqui, border, along with the occasional other tongues, as this was an international crossing point, after all. Tourists were a major part of the economy. I also grew up in a postwar time, and in a war-bride, mixed-marriage neighborhood — my father was Mexican and my mother English, our neighbors directly across the street were Mexican and Japanese, other neighbors down the street were Mexican and Swedish. This was the world, these were the times, and this was one place that was all of that.

For me, it meant learning from an early age that everything, literally everything, had more than one way to be invoked. Everything had at very least two names — a pencil was also a lapiz. In this way, you might speak the name of a thing, but you could never be sure that you were done with it — if a pencil was also a lapiz, it might also be something else and something again — rather than being identified in your hand, it was suddenly alive with itself, wild in the moment. The world was full of itself, and just when you learned one way to say it, another one presented itself. You were in constant movement as a thinker.

What this also meant is that everything was more than one-dimensional. Everything had more, and I knew it. While I could not learn every word, I knew there were always more out there, something that keep prodding you along. Two ways to say something meant two ways it could be seen, as if, simply by speaking its various names, you could turn something around in your hand, examine it by renaming it. Everything in this way had depth. Everything in this way was poetry.

This sense of perspective applied to people as well. For one thing, everyone had a formal name and a nickname both, along with any number of other ways to be addressed. This came from Spanish, though English had its share of nicknames.  But Spanish was full of them, and if you understood the process, you were 20 different people in one. I myself was Alberto officially, Albertito to those who knew that my father was also an Alberto, Betito to my grandmother, Tito to my friends, Albert somehow officially in school, Güero to anyone who took note of my light hair and blue eyes, and more. I answered to all of them. I myself could not be named in just one way. I would later learn that Whitman had written, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He could have grown up on the border.

In this world, everything was always being invented, including ourselves.

Invention was normalcy on the border. When I was young, I remember a particular term, very mild and only a little funny, but it has stayed with me. When there was nobody to give you a ride to where you wanted to go, you were told to use your patamobile — that is, your “footmobile.” In other words, walk. I was just recently at the border with a friend, and dusk was fast approaching. My wife and I had been showing him around southern Arizona that day, and we naturally ended up in Nogales. None of us had thought to bring a passport — a relatively new development and a good indicator of how things change — and so we could not cross over into Nogales, Sonora.  

We found ourselves instead on the small walking bridge at the Grand Avenue crossing gate, a bridge that does not go into Mexico but which faces the other side of the border fence. We had a view of what was happening on the other side, which wasn’t much on a Monday evening in the summer. But we did hear some voices and saw some teenagers at a spot just next to the fence. We couldn’t see clearly at first, but then everything became clear. In this area, which extends over to give you access to the smaller Morley Avenue crossing, there are giant Border Patrol temporary lights. They are the kind that are used for nighttime construction, for example, and give the illusion that they are not there to stay. Just as dusk set, the lights came on and the teenagers suddenly became animated. We heard a basketball. And we saw that they had made a makeshift court out of the wide sidewalk and the street, attaching a hoop to what seemed to be the other side of the fence. This was invention, and normalcy, at work.  

Growing up on the border, we rarely thought in such lofty terms. Nothing global.  All we could see is what we could see, and we called the border demarcation, in all its various iterations, simply “the line” — la línea. It’s such a simple designation and such an enormous metaphor. But we didn’t know about metaphors yet, at least not as kids.

We as adults want to impute major consideration to this place, taking cues from the news, from various targeted statistics, from the imagination. But in truth, it was Coronado Elementary School, the Nogales Apaches fight song, the old courthouse where my father worked, and the imposing Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where I was baptized, where my parents were married, and now where both of their funeral masses were held. The Nogales Cemetery is becoming the memory of the town from the time before now, from the Cinco de Mayo celebrations where the border gate would be thrown wide open and the marchers — including the Queen and her float — would march from the far side of Nogales, Sonora, across through the Morley Gate and past the courthouse, all to the reverberating sounds of the Mexican drum and bugle corps and the high school marching band. 

On the Mexican side it was the mercado, La Caverna with its turtle soup, Avenida Obregón with all the tourists, Don Chuy’s for carne machaca, Kin Wah’s for Chinese food and to look at the birdcage that went from the floor to the ceiling. The monument to Benito Juárez and the Mono Bichi — actually a tandem of two statues, a serious and wizened Juárez in his jurist robes pointing figuratively toward the future juxtaposed with a much-larger statue of a very naked indigenous man spearing a winged beast meant to represent ignorance. Bichi is the Yaqui word for naked. It was high art, it and made everyone giggle a little, while taking a second look. Bichi works the same everywhere.

It was a place to live. But it’s true — it is a different town now. This is not a news bulletin from a border town, however. All towns are different, now — the world itself is different. One certainly can’t point to border towns and say that change is all a consequence of that place and whatever is going on there. It’s going on everywhere.

It was a place to live, to do what people in other places do, to be a kid, to watch Huckleberry Hound and Don Francisco both, all in black and white. The thing is, and we didn’t really understand it, but we ourselves in this border town, with all its gradations of hue and subliminal subtlety: We were color before there was color. We were the imagination unintentionally but pragmatically made larger. We were multiculturalism and bilingualism and border studies before any of these words had found themselves in universities. We were what is.

But for us, it was a life lived on the border, not a life studied. This may seem a rosy picture, but embodied in it is what I said about language — it is one version, but there are many others as well. Of course.

Growing up in a border town gave me perspective, balance, and an unbounded sense that everything can be seen in more than one way. That has always helped me to respect other points of view, and, more than that, to sometimes join them. As it turns out, good ideas come from everywhere. Wherever they come from, whatever the word for that idea is, whoever shares it with us, we are lucky to have each other and not to have to try and invent the world by ourselves. 

But, Phoenix. 

I’ve been discussing and describing border towns, but it is no leap to move all that discourse into a discussion of Phoenix, with whatever border or line we might each imagine. There most certainly has been a border, of course — the river, south of which until very recently African-Americans, Latinos (and Mexicans specifically), Asians, and indigenous groups mostly all lived. Ironically, the area is now increasingly gentrified, with new kinds of neighborhoods springing up and adding to the mix. But in its time, that river was a border fence in Phoenix.

The border might also just as well be economic, or other things. We have languages, we have snowbirds passing through, we have the melting-pot influence of people from Chicago and Guadalajara both — the essence of what the best part of a border town shows us. We are the largest city at the far reach of the Southwestern border, which, pragmatically, makes us a border town in the region, or rather, a border city. The border is not simply down there — it is right here.

When I was growing up, I remember the botana on late Sunday mornings at the VFW. Botana meant snacks, something like tapas or happy-hour hors d’oeuvres, all funny-sounding, faraway names for a little bit of this and a little bit of that. They were samplers and we were tasters. The savory helpings were also simply excuses for getting together and talking, after church, before television. In a bigger sense, these were resolanas, a tradition of gathering and talking. The talking stick, the resolana, the pulpit, and more — different cultures all seem to have ways of figuring things out. This was when towns were themselves families, and everything got mentioned thoroughly and finalized with laughter.

These small experiences, these small solutions and behaviors, still resonate for me and speak well beyond their moment. Phoenix is now, and has always been, those border towns magnified — and everything that implies. It’s hard to gather people and have everyone take a turn. But there’s still something in that wisdom. We are the wall, if we want it. We are the daring tasters, if we are brave enough. Every day we choose, but those choices are changing. It would be good to think that we are still able to solve this at the kitchen table, but, as I said, the choices are changing.

Alberto Ríos, Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, was born in Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexico-Arizona border, and has written from that geographic and sociological perspective through five decades. He has taught at ASU since 1982. His latest book is a collection of poems, A Small Story About the Sky.


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