Standing at the Border: Experiencing Xenophobia Through My Wife’s Skin

April 15, 2021

Monday was harder than I thought it would be. We’re on a cross-country family road trip, driving from Atlanta to Portland, via Savannah and New Orleans. Part of our route was designed to skirt the Mexican border to find the spot my wife crossed into America when she was a child. Andi is a brilliant writer, working on a book on the immigrant experience so that stop was crucial.

While it was nice to see the Trump signs gone, whenever you drive through the South, there’s always racial tension. Andi got a death stare from a white woman in a Waffle House in southern Alabama who was probably also triggered by the fact our six-year-old daughter was wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. We probably fooled ourselves into thinking we left that bigotry behind when we crossed from Louisiana to the formerly Mexican territory known as “Texas.”

We started Monday in a Red Roof Inn in El Paso, awoken when a white guy drove his Toyota through a wall in the room below ours and then calmly drove away. I’ve made it a habit on my cross country drives to stop by famous crimes scenes that I lecture about. (In 2009, I made an entire Portland to Atlanta to Portland trip based on over 40 crime scenes.) But this wasn’t about me. It was about Andi and how she experienced the day and all the people that didn’t live to experience the day. That’s why our first stop was one of the worst crime scenes of all.

On our way out of El Paso, we stopped at the Walmart where a 21-year old white supremacist went on a shooting spree, killing 23 people and injuring 23 others. After posting an anti-immigrant manifesto that referenced the xenophobic rhetoric of President Trump on 8chan, he drove from Dallas to El Paso with the express purpose of killing Latinx people. Semi-automatic rifle in hand and activated by Trump’s alarm about an “immigrant invasion,” he began firing in the parking lot and then walked into the store, shooting every brown person in his path. It became America’s worst hate crime. It was in 2019 and you probably haven’t heard much about it since it happened. After all they were only brown people.

I walked into the Walmart and asked a police officer (whom I was glad to see) if there was a memorial to the victims of that day. She said it wasn’t much of a memorial, but it was on the far side of the parking lot, facing I-10. Andi, Cozy, and I walked over to what was a large metal candle, with a plaque in English and Spanish. It was stark but effective and brought Andi to tears. The names of the victims were the names of her people, including one who shared a name with her father who passed away a few weeks ago. She couldn’t go into the store itself because it would be filled with people who looked like her, like the people who were killed that day. It was a superstore-sized reminder of the hatred of hispanic people. And Walmart still sells guns.

I could feel the pain in Andi’s body and, as a white person, all I could do is say I was sorry for the hate and ignorance of white people and pledged to do this work on bias crimes with more fervor.

Then we hit the road for New Mexico and got off I-10 in Arizona to take backroads to Douglas, which is across the border from Agua Prieta, the place Andi crossed from in 1998. As soon as we got off the highway, we began to see Border Patrol trucks, La Migra, on the hunt. There was even a lonely National Guardsman, shirt on his head to protect himself from the sun, leaning against a vehicle holding up a giant surveillance camera. The news had just come in that President Biden was working with the Mexican government to “strengthen” border security. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Andi crossed in the middle of the night so this daytime view gave her another perspective of the harsh nature of the land she walked across as an 8-year-old. It also began to trigger memories of sage brush branches cutting her skin. I could see her body change as we got closer to the border, the hard journey coming back to her. We reflected on the thousands of people who died trying to reach a better life, 7,000 since since Andi crossed. (2020 being the worst year on record for migrant deaths, but that’s what Trump and his people wanted.)

Douglas is a quaint little town that appears out of the vast desert, full of franchised America, like McDonalds and, of course, Walmart, and completely populated my Latino-Americans who probably long for the days when the open border was a reality and nobody (including white people thousands of miles away) cared about it. We stopped by a playground so Cozy could stretch her legs. The wall with Mexico was a hundred feet away. I just watched Andi smell the air and look at the faces of the people living their life in a border town.

After picking up some tacos, we headed west to try to find the exact spot where my wife entered the country. We found a road off of Highway 80 called W. Paul Spur Road that took us to a dirt road simply called Border Road. As we approached the border a massive wall emerged. The Trump wall. We stopped on the side of the road to have our tacos and let Andi walk in the brush that she made her way through when she was a child. I took a video of Cozy standing in the wind has her mother felt a flood of emotions. She became nervous about being there as Border Patrol helicopters and planes flew over our heads. Her first night in that place she and her group were captured by the Border Patrol, detained and taken back across the border. She was unsure of going any farther, but I urged her to make it to that point, the eternal return.

We drove all the way to the newly constructed wall, with it’s erection date written on it, 10-10-20. Trump’s last act of anti-immigrant violence, less than a month before election day. How many more would die because of that wall? Slow painful deaths. Children dying without water, in the cold desert night. Parents who just want to work and find a better future for their families, alone, to become bones in the sand. I watched Andi reach through the slats in the wall to the Mexican side, touching the air of her home. She placed a picture on herself on the other side. On the back of it she had written, “Yo crucé” (I crossed). “I just want to give hope to someone like me,” she said.

We stood at the wall for a while, taking it in, taking pictures, including one of Andi and Cozy that seemed to bookmark the night Andi and her mother crossed. The weight of it all was on her. The weight of all those who died alone in the desert and the weight of a hateful nation that chanted “build a wall.” I thought about all the amazing people who would not be adding to American culture because of that wall or because they died trying to make it to their American dream. Andi just said, “If this had been here then, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”

The Border Patrol helicopter must have become suspicious that we were going to smuggle some migrants in our Prius and became more present, so we put the border wall in the review mirror. About 500 miles later we were in Las Vegas, where the water dances in fountains and the deaths on the border and in El Paso Walmarts are never thought of. But we will think of them and more.