I think that really loving someone or somewhere means not romanticizing it, because many times it’s the things we don’t know enough about that we add bits and pieces to. It’s nighttime outside of my kitchen window and I’m watching the lights sprawled across the dark horizon. Some evenings when we’re in the backyard watering the trees my seven-year-old daughter points at them and says, “That’s Mexico.” It saddens me that I haven’t taken her there, that her physical point of reference for such a complex part of her history up until now is blinking lights. Our natal country just a few blocks from where we live, the bridge, the border, the umbilical cord.
“There wasn’t always a border wall there”, I tell her. She looks up and over me towards the south and I wonder if she understands what I mean.
“There was a time when people would just cross the river and it wasn’t a big deal. There was even a time before that when it was all the same land, both sides, and the river was just a river. There was more water then, too, before they lined it with cement so it wouldn’t move.”
I wonder how much her child’s mind can fathom how complicated and jagged my history with this border is, or if it will be for her the same badly healed scar it has been for me. I am aware and even hopeful that it might not even be a scar for her at all.
“One Easter, our whole family decided to spend the day by the river. I was seven, exactly your age. I remember sitting in the back of the van watching the road until it became bumpy and we rolled onto the grass. We were parked under a pair of giant trees. Aunts and uncles began to BBQ, my cousins began to play football and soccer. I stayed behind and watched everyone from the car.”
“Why didn’t you go play, Mommy?” she asks.
“Oh, that’s just how I was, always watching, always wanting to be alone.” I smiled in a way that overly tried to hide the taut emotion I was restraining.
I didn’t tell her how removed I felt from my family, even then, like I didn’t belong. I’d sit in the car and watch everybody, their smiling faces, the sun. I remember taking a walk and sitting under a tree for a while that afternoon and staring at the dirt, at the shadows the leaves made on my feet. I know now that I was a lonely child born from a lonely mother, whose mother, I have a feeling, was lonely, too. I don’t know if my daughter has inherited it as well, although there is a goodness about her that makes me hopeful she hasn’t, it’s like she’s always content and hasn’t felt rejection yet, or seen violence. She’s good-hearted and wants to play.
“That Easter Sunday, 1987, there was no border wall. There was just a river and tall yellow-green grasses surrounding it, grasses bent by the wind. There were families picnicking on the other side, and I watched the kids play over there, too, how they ran and picked up things from the ground, sticks, rocks, balls.
There was a paletero gently wheeling towards them. The bell got everyone’s attention, on both sides. I watched my cousins, the big boys, yell out that they wanted some, too. He yelled back that he could not carry the paleta cart across the river. When more kids on our side said they wanted some, he left for a little while and then came back with some young men. My brothers and cousins waded out into the river and met them halfway. Everyone was laughing and watching as we watched the paleta cart float across towards us. Once everyone had bought paletas, they helped him back across.”
I don’t remember if I got one, I don’t think I did since I remember the scene so clearly from far away.
This border is now something distinct from my memories, the river, strained. When they built the border wall I remember staring at it sadly. My daughter will never know this river as intimately as long as we’re here on the militarized edge. I want her to know that this land was ours once and will be, even if at times it forgets our faces. If your mother was shackled and forced to walk in a line, she might not recognize you, not even be able to lift her head. There’s other rivers who don’t hold the responsibility of marking a border, other rivers who don’t feel torn apart and coerced. Sometimes responsibilities get too heavy, even for rivers, and knees buckle. Imagine being the only water in an angry desert, how hard it must be to survive, everyone so thirsty.