Letter from the Borderlands

Photo: Mark Adams

By Keoki Skinner*

HAVANA TIMES – 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.

The Mexican government and the Coronavirus

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.

This article was originally published by: https://www.journaloftheplagueyear.ink/



3 thoughts on “Letter from the Borderlands

  • Actually, Trump is handling this crisis very well, he’s letting states decide on which health measures to impose instead of a “one size fits all’ approach which the authoritarians favor.
    Trump has put vaccine development on a fast track unlike anything the World has ever seen, we probably will have several types available before the end of the year. In short, don’t buy into the negativity, despair and blame game..

  • Keoki, I was so glad to read this.
    I live just north of the border in Naco. I’ve been here 16 years.
    A friend tried to walk across a few weeks ago and was denied entry. Another was allowed into Mexico. Neither had their temperature taken. How very odd it all is!
    Emilie (Gail)

  • My abiding memory of first entering Mexico is of vendors endeavoring to sell ‘jumping beans’ to make a living.

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