Essays on the Border

'Puro Border' cries out for fairer treatment of our Mexican neighbors.

Puro Border is a hodgepodge of essays, quotes, statistics and photographs from various contributors about life along the U.S.-Mexican border. Sometimes quirky, sometimes provocative, the "dispatches" include reports of discriminatory U.S. policies, stories about ordinary people's lives and essays about the drug trade, many of which were published in The Texas Observer.

Our continued ethnocentric history is documented. Mexican maids crossing into El Paso from Juarez in 1915 were required to take baths on the American side. School districts kept records of how many baths they gave Mexican children during the first part of the 20th century. One senator referred to this practice as "the bleaching process."

What are borders but political illusions? Howard Zinn, the historian and author of A People's History of the United States, has suggested that the Declaration of Independence apply to all world citizens. The U.S. government assumes that many Mexicans are drug smugglers, but they're more often parents hoping for a better economic future--in other words, they're pursuing happiness. Roman Castillo comments: "What I did was to come here illegally, and this is against the laws of the United States. But it is not against the law of my family."

In "All Jokes Will Be Taken Seriously," David Romo sees the humor of his border crossing in Israel, playing with the absurdity of separating members of the human race. An attractive Israeli security agent asks: "You're from Chicago?" "No, I'm Chicano," he replies.

To Romo, the political becomes personal. When customs officials order Mexicans to drop their pants, searching for drugs, it's "sometimes hard to tell the difference between an investigation and a seduction."

Prostitution catering to Americans is rampant along the border. So are frequent slayings of young women--whose bodies are often found in the desert by grieving parents. The Chihuahua State Attorney General implies that victims contribute to their own rapes and deaths through their dress or lifestyle. Diana Washington Valdez recounts the killing of a Juarez lawyer contending that his client was tortured into confessing to the slayings of eight women. The Chihuahua State Police were acquitted of the shooting death and remain impotent in stopping these murders.

"Double Standards: Notes for a Border Screenplay," by Debbie Nathan, provides a chilling account of global economics run amok, exemplifying the inequities between the United States and Mexico. Why would a company make an attractive young woman transport large amounts of cash every week, along a desolate route infamous for drug trafficking and vehicle hijackings?

Contico is an American company in El Paso. Its subsidiary, Continental Sprayers de Mexico, manufactures spray bottles for chemicals that clean windows and kill pests. The conditions Mexican workers face for $24 a week don't make it to the American media or the Mexican press.

When Lorena Mendoza--the aforementioned young woman--was brutally murdered, El Paso lawyers Scherr and Legate were infuriated at the double standard used for American and Mexican workers. They argued that Mendoza's death was the American parent company's fault.

Why did the company send a private, unmarked car on such a dangerous route? According to Contico lawyers, it was the Mexican way of doing business. "Cultural differences," the defense argued. The Mendoza lawyers uncovered a deal made with the rental car company to pad pockets. But the family settled out of court, recognizing the decidedly pro-business stance of Texas courts.

Puro Border cries out for fairer treatment of our Mexican neighbors who die in the desert and for economic and legal reforms within Mexico. The writing is uneven, but the message is clear: As Nathan wrote, why is there the great disparity between "discounted standards and the kind of fire-sale ethics that put Lorena Mendoza on a highway to her death?"

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