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Final Days in the Borderland

But there was still another semester at El Paso Community College to complete. In addition to the usual beginning composition course, I was teaching, of all things, “introduction to film.”  Asked to do this by the English department head, I agreed, even though I had no experience in such instruction.  Shots, scenes, angles, lighting, fades, wipes: the course was as instructive to me as it undoubtedly was to my students.  The class not only included the study of film technique, but also the viewing of films, which occurred in a conference room of the college library with a device that projected videocassettes onto a large screen. 

Throughout my life, I’d enjoyed―too much, perhaps―watching movies.  I cannot count how many times as a child in the 50s and early 60s I watched Godzilla, King Kong, Crime School (starring my favorite delinquents of those years, the Dead End Kids), The Thing from Another World, Preston Foster in The Last Days of Pompeii, and other films presented by Million Dollar Movie, WOR Television’s program broadcast from New York City on weekday evenings.  The program always opened with music that never failed to stir my young heart: a segment from “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind.  As a teenager, I thrilled to the music and visuals of A Hard Day’s Night and was titillated by the scantily-clad girls in I’ll Take Sweden, starring Bob Hope.  As an adult, I counted among my favorite films The Godfather, Mean Streets, Red River, Hud, Lonely are the Brave, Easy Rider, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy, and Deliverance

For the class, I presented some films―available at video rental stores in the area―I’d never before seen, including Dark Victory, It Happened One Night, and Robert Enrico’s masterful short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  In addition, I presented a film whose story line I hoped would be particularly encouraging to my Latino students: Stand and Deliver, in which Edward James Olmos plays a Latino inner-city high school instructor who inspires his students from troubled neighborhoods to overcome huge odds and master advanced mathematics. 

I enjoyed teaching the class, and yet there were times when I felt like I was pimping out a subject that had no place being taught in a community college.  I found myself coming to the conclusion that movies―no matter how critically acclaimed, no matter their artistic and technical achievement―are essentially entertainment, rarely an intellectual exercise.  And if community college students needed anything, I thought, they needed to exercise their minds in the fundamentals of academics; “film” would have to wait for the four-year university or college.  Indeed, I suspected that many of my students were requiring a hand-up in a community college precisely because they had spent too much time watching movies and television in high school, and that “video” had made mush of their curiosity, critical thinking, and imaginations.  Why, the very textbooks that I used to teach my classes often contained a compelling essay―”Amusing Ourselves to Death?”―by university professor Neil Postman decrying the scourge of television on young minds. In terms of an intellectual exercise, I doubted there was a single movie that could challenge the mind of one of my students more than a mere half-hour of reading the lowliest supermarket pulp fiction. 

And yet, had I not taught the class, I would never have introduced my students―and myself―to the genius and heart-rending tenderness of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.  I would never have been touched and gratified to hear one of my students, who likely had never met The Tramp, laugh again and again at the primitive film’s visuals and subtle humor.

I also substitute-taught English for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez.  The head of the community college English department informed me of the opportunity.  I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―mostly full-time ones at the institute, I presumed―of various subjects at an El Paso shopping center near the border, and we climbed into a van for the ride south.  Evening traffic on the various bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso was considerably less than that during the daytime, so we entered Mexico with a minimum of delay.  We then hurtled this way and that over the more streamlined avenues of Juárez to reach the institute, which was southeast of downtown El Paso. 

The campus of the 35-year-old institute was spacious, clean, and attractive.  Prior to my first class, I met with a pleasant, bi-lingual administrator of the institute, and she led me to a second-floor classroom where I was to substitute.  The room had the familiar institutional drabness of my classrooms at El Paso Community College and UNM.  The mujer introduced me to the students in Spanish.  The students were generally older than any I’d taught in America.   Many of them were smartly dressed, the men in business jackets, dress shirts, and ties now loosened, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced jobs in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devices―I’d heard so much about since moving to the borderland. 

I have little recollection of the precise nature of the English my Juárez students were being taught, although it likely had something to do with communicating with English in the business environment.  The administrator told me that many of the students spoke English, although not with great fluency.  If the class was using a textbook, I was not shown it.  In any event, I quickly concluded that my purpose as a substitute was not to delve into the class’s current linguistic focus, but rather to fill the 75 minutes of class time with conversational English about any topic under the desert sun and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth until the return of their regular instructor.  I encouraged the students to tell me what they did for a living and share the challenges they felt they faced as students of English.  I also prattled on, quite self-consciously, always wondering how clearly I was communicating, about myself and my impressions of the borderland.  As with my older American students, I sensed my Mexican students were all highly motivated.  To a person, they were respectful, and I liked them immediately.  After class, the drive back to America was even more disorienting, as night had fallen completely over Mexico and the spring winds drove clouds of dust over the feverish streets and neighborhoods of Juárez.

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Welcome to the Mesilla Valley

Our first week in Anthony―a week in which New Mexico’s newest country squire noted in his journal that “My wife is greatly entertained by my enthusiasm for our new surroundings.”―I unpacked, looked, listened, and explored.

Pleasantly absent was the urban roar that always filled my ears to one degree or another in Albuquerque.  Only vaguely, and then depending on the wind direction, could I hear the steady rumble of traffic on I-10, some two miles to the east of our house. 

In this relative quiet, I heard new sounds, particularly those of birds.  In the pre-dawn hours began the bubbly chirp of dozens of kingbirds in the green mansion of our cottonwood tree.  I met a new species of dove, plumper than the mourning dove of central New Mexico and possessed of a different call.  Instead of the mourning dove’s “coo-AHHH coo coo coo,” the white-winged dove inquired, from the power lines overlooking our property, “Who cooks for you?”[1]  I heard roosters crowing throughout the day.  And what I originally thought was an elderly lady yelling “Helllllp!” every dawn from a farmhouse a quarter-mile to the northeast, I would soon learn was a peacock. 

One day I went for the first time to the IGA Feria supermarket in Anthony, Texas.  There, for all I knew, I was in Mexico.  I estimated that 98% of its customers were Latino, and a combination of Mexican-American and Mexican. (There had to be Mexicans, legal and illegal, in both Anthonys, I concluded, given their economies and proximity to the border.) The only two customers I heard speaking English were . . . Asian.  The market’s produce section included something I’d never before seen: cactus leaves, sans spines.

Row after row of four-inch-high cotton awaited flood irrigation in the huge field that bordered our backyard. Indeed, I was fascinated by the four-mile-wide greenbelt that humanity, harnessing the Rio Grande, had created through what was once almost entirely desert; how the river, which ran a mile-and-three-quarters west of our house, spread, through a variety of irrigation systems―canals and ditches―to our part of town.  Everywhere there were ditches, some earthen, some concrete, three to four feet deep.  Some were bone dry. Beneath parched skies, water, swiftly moving and lustrous as polished chrome, filled others.  Some of the earthen ditches were falling into crumbling, eroded neglect.  Yet these primitive ditches, no doubt dating back scores of years, were still working.  Their antiquity was stirring, these Roman aqueducts in miniature.

In my pickup, after driving through the Texas towns of Anthony, Vinton, and Canutillo, I entered the city of El Paso for the second time in my life.  The twin cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, are separated by the Rio Grande and cupped between the Franklin Mountains of Texas and the Juárez Mountains of Chihuahua.  Thus, El Paso’s legendary name.

I entered El Paso via Paisano Drive, which, as it skirted the Rio Grande, initially took me through a community named Smeltertown, after an ASARCO copper smelting plant that may have still been in operation―I didn’t know.  In any event, it was a name that surely made industrialists swell with pride and environmentalists cringe.  To the south, meanwhile, rose Juárez, population one million, its many squat, drab buildings covering small hills seemingly bereft of trees.  I saw a man on the Juárez riverbank dipping a five-gallon bucket into the Rio―here simply a trashy, languid stream―in order to painstakingly rinse the dust from his little school bus nearby.

A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated Paisano Drive from the Rio Grande.  On the opposite side of the thoroughfare, another chain-link fence, this one crowned with razor wire, blocked access to the tracks―tempting, no doubt, to a hungering undocumented citizen of Mexico―of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s main line. 

Now began the swarm of United States Border Patrol vehicles variously crawling and scurrying everywhere.  When not in motion the vehicles were idling, their cabs comfortably air-conditioned, under metal lean-tos at the river’s edge.  This scene depressed me: Here were armed employees of the United States government darting about with, it seemed to me, the absurd purpose of arresting and deporting people who merely wanted to clean American motel rooms, hoe American onion fields, and pick and sort American chile peppers.  The simplistic view of a liberal new-arrival, perhaps. 

As a railroad fan, I naturally chose to check out El Paso’s downtown railroad station.  It was not fenced.  The station, which witnessed a periodic stream of rumbling freight trains during my visit, was a grand red-brick edifice that included a handsome bell tower.  After leaving the station―which, I was interested to learn, was visited by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited nearly every day of the week―I accompanied the tracks as they headed east, but quickly lost them as they commenced to tunnel through El Paso’s heart.  The tunnel was no doubt constructed to facilitate the city’s north/south flow of car and truck traffic; yet, to me, it was a reminder as well of the clamp―consisting of the rugged Franklin Mountains immediately to the north and the formidable political and psychic wall that is the border with Mexico just to the south―in which the El Paso finds itself. 

Although considerable stretches of El Paso exhibited signs of poverty and decay, compared to dusty, smoky Juárez, El Paso, with its typically American abundance of steel and glass, shone.  And, of course, its overwhelming Latino population made El Paso look and feel far more New Mexican than Texan.   

Up and down the Mesilla Valley, murals―grand, colorful, ambitious, and frequently honoring Mexican history―graced the walls of even the humblest businesses.  At Charlie’s, a little Mexican restaurant in Anthony, Texas, a six- by twenty-foot mural on the dining room wall featured a buff, golden, bare-chested man in a giant headdress―undoubtedly Moctezuma II―reclining on a verdant hillside on the outskirts of a many-templed city.  In his arms swooned a voluptuous woman―undoubtedly one of his wives, concubines, or queens―her full lips about the length of an enchilada from his.  Elsewhere in the mural a jinete, or horseman―the revolutionary Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata?―brandished a rifle.  There were iconic images of El Paso and Juárez, including the Santa Fe Street bridge linking the two cities, and the 40-foot-tall limestone statue of Christ atop Sierra de Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, New Mexico, which borders west El Paso.  On the north wall of the room a smaller mural depicted a humbler scene: the open door of a casa, revealing a cigarillo-smoking hombre reading by lamplight, his hat and dog at his feet. 

Purely commercial art saluting the area’s history was typified by the sign for El Pollo Ranchero, a fast-food restaurant in west El Paso, which depicted a menacing chicken with narrow eyes and―never mind the gender incongruity―a Zapatista mustache.  Wearing a ten-gallon hat, the feisty bird was armed with two holstered six-guns, and both wings were ready to draw.  One law-and-order pollo, all right―about to be plucked, chopped, grilled, and served up hot and spicy in a tortillaDelicioso! 

Meanwhile, in a different cultural vein, a large billboard along I-10, just south of the Anthony exit, advertised an El Paso “gentlemen’s club”―that is, a titty bar―that invited its prospective customers―“gentlemen,” of course―to “FEEL THE POWER!”  No subtlety there. Machismo in full bloom.  This would take some getting used to.       


[1] Since then, the white-winged dove has expanded its territory northward and today is well-established in Albuquerque, if not beyond the city, as well.