Humans and ecosystems mix it up on the U.S. - Mexico Borderlands

Everything moves across lines here. Nothing’s straightforward.


In August, we did our part as a family and visited a national park on the 100th anniversary of our nation’s “best idea.” We’d made our annual pilgrimage to New Mexico to visit my wife Angela’s family in Albuquerque, and instead of taking one of our usual outings north towards Santa Fe and beyond, we headed in the opposite direction, to one of the more remote parks in the country, Carlsbad Caverns. Angela had stirring memories of her own childhood trip — the fantastic formations emerging from the darkness, the spectacle of bats spiraling into the sky at dusk. Now she would usher me and our twin 9-year-old daughters, Ruby and Lucía, into the depths.

We took the long drive south from Albuquerque through sharply contrasting landscapes: the gypsum flats, which inevitably brought to mind the original ground zero at Alamogordo, 71 summers ago; the lyrical shapes and blues of distant mountains rising from the desert floor. We blew through Roswell’s alien kitsch and arrived as the white light and heat were peaking. We were surprised to find the parking lot jammed: It’s about five hours from Albuquerque and three from El Paso, so you really have to want to get here. The rangers told us that the wait time to take the elevator back up was at least two hours. They recommended that we take the elevator down (no wait!) and then walk up the 750 feet of steep switchbacks to emerge from the natural entrance of the caverns.

And so we did. At the first sight of the speleothems — the columns, stalagmites and stalactites — I was stunned speechless, seeing them with Angela’s child-eyes and those of our own children. Forms that resisted naming (and thus have been tagged with childish descriptors like “popcorn,” “Swiss cheese”) drew us in with their overpowering strangeness. I have poor vision, especially in the dark, so it took quite some time for the formations to fully materialize, and as they did, so did the humans around me — and, unexpectedly, their differences. An African-American kid half-jogging through with a backpack and earbuds. A group of what I took to be Pakistani women wearing hijabs. Plenty of European and Asian tourists, of course; I heard German, French, Japanese. And the Mexicans, or Mexican-Americans. A lot of them. From what I could hear in snatches of conversation, most sounded like they were from Chihuahua, where the regional accent softens “ch” almost into a “sh.” They wore the uniform of the rural Mexican family: dad in baseball cap, untucked pearl-button plaid and boots, and everyone else in T-shirts and jeans and sneakers.

This was not the crowd I was expecting. I’d been to Joshua Tree National Park earlier in the summer, and to Yosemite not long ago. The demographics there were in line with surveys the National Park Service itself has conducted, showing a dearth of diversity among visitors, owing to our schisms of race and class. America’s best idea is subject to all the divisions of our current national reckoning as the Dis-United States of America. (There is no demographic breakdown for Carlsbad specifically, but I was told by staff that its proximity to El Paso/Juárez undoubtedly accounts for its mix of visitors.) We’d all come together in the Big Room at Carlsbad, and it seemed that our best idea was, at the very least, salvageable. 


Bats emerge from the caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park into the New Mexico sunset.
National Park Service

We were in the Borderlands, literally and figuratively. Near the state line with Texas (which meant there was also a fair amount of Ford F-150s in the parking lot and, as we refer to them in our family, the sometimes “scary white people” that owned them), and near the frontier with Mexico. The region that comprises northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States is a social ecotone writ large. Latinos, whites and Native Americans predominate, but there are significant African-American and Asian-American populations, too — and every mixed shade we can humanly derive therefrom.

Take a look at a map that charts “multiple race” prevalence and notice the swath of color over the Borderlands — and how it resembles the blue-red divide of our political geography. The diversity extends to the flora and fauna, climate and geology of the four great deserts (Mojave, Great Basin, Sonoran, Chihuahuan) that delight in disregarding human demarcations, and to the fuzzy transition zones between them. Forested sky islands and infernal playas. Singing sand dunes where bunchgrasses miraculously sprout and effusive riparian areas along the rivers that are regarded as sacred by indigenous tradition and that are profaned by our (over) development schemes.

Everything moves across lines here: human desire and solidarity and jealousies petty and big, jaguars and grasshoppers. The headwaters of the San Pedro River gather on Cananea Mountain in Sonora, and the flow breaches the border, coming northward about 80 miles into Arizona. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandated fencing right where the San Pedro crosses the line, but not even the Army Corps of Engineers could figure a way to stop the river. I’ve never heard of the Border Patrol attempting to apprehend and deport the water.  

Of course, the Borderlands are a place of great contradiction and conflict as well. The bloodshed of the misnamed “Drug War” in Mexico and Central America reaches us on this side, in the seldom-told story of families that suffer largely in silence when a loved one is kidnapped or disappeared back home because there is simply no law enforcement authority they can trust — here or there. Racial tensions date back to the “cycles of conquest” across several centuries by Spaniards and Americans. These lands are haunted by traumatic history. When you look across the “empty” basin towards the range in the distance, you are looking at the stage upon which unspeakable violence occurred and continues to have an impact (in different ways) on the descendants of the Native populations. With that knowledge, it is impossible not to sense an uneasy melancholy settling on the view. 

And so this special issue of High Country News. It’s a homecoming for me, since I moved outside the traditional geographical boundaries of the Borderlands a decade ago. Although I could easily say that in their demographic and cultural unity and divisiveness, Los Angeles and Oakland, the two cities I call home today, are firmly in the Borderlands as well. Just as is the small town of Victor, Idaho, which saw its “Hispanic or Latino” population more than double between 2000 and 2010, mostly due to the availability of immigrant-friendly service-sector jobs in the resort town of Jackson, Wyoming, less than an hour’s drive away.

I’ve known some of these writers for decades, others for a few months. I sought to gather voices with contrasting passions, vantage points, and experiences of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Taken together, their stories form an integrated geography that will ideally give you a sense of land and climate, the human and the animal, history and culture and politics — and how these are all inseparable. As we face the greatest test to our species and all species in climate change, we also confront the challenge of difference itself. If we allow destructive differences to continue dividing us, there will be nothing left to fight for.

The San Pedro River runs below the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border near Hereford, Arizona.
Norma Jean Gargasz/Alamy

After a couple of hours in the caverns, we maneuvered the steep switchbacks up toward the surface. Imperceptibly at first, we began entering the “twilight zone,” the farthest reach of light from the natural entrance, the huge eye-shaped gap in the limestone that gradually came into view. We returned to the heat and light and yucca spikes of the Chihuahuan Desert, aware now that every step along the ground is above a great world below.

Now we just had to wait for the bats. Perfectly cast for the Borderlands, they are called Mexicans: Mexican free-tailed bats. The amphitheater that looks down upon the great eye in the limestone filled up with the same motley cohort we’d been shoulder to shoulder with below. A Park Service ranger explained how the cave “breathes” to maintain fresh air, and told us that the first 15 minutes of life is a time when sight (bats are not blind!) and touch and smell bond mother and bat pups so intimately that they can find each other amid the half-million other bats in the colony.

The pups are born here, and as soon as they are old enough to fly, the colony migrates south, to Mexico. Angela whispered to me that surely a Trump supporter was going to complain about “anchor babies.” Get Trump, the great builder of beautiful walls, to erect a thousand-mile aerial screen to catch alien bat traffic!

I was expecting the sky to grow black with bats, like a plague of locusts. What emerged was much subtler, and sublime. My eye caught sight of a single bat — at a distance of 50 yards, a modest gray fleck against the dark of the cave, its wings beating rapidly but not so fast I couldn’t make out discrete movements. It drew a big graceful arc above the mouth. And now another bat and another and another, now dozens, hundreds, formed a cyclone that expanded as it ascended, flying counter-clockwise, gathering momentum. Then suddenly the group hurled itself eastward, towards the river for its first drink.

For several minutes, the audience — that great American crew of difference — sat utterly quiet, transfixed by the spectacle. Ruby and Lucía were having a moment; I could tell, because they didn’t say a word. We were stunned into silence by a life alien to us, yet one that we sensed a deep connection to. Our differences — the borders within our species and the borders among species — didn’t disappear in the dark of the caverns. But for a few moments, those differences interwove, gathered in a cyclonic updraft, in the great arc of life, and we followed its flight into the dark. 

Welcome to the Borderlands.

Rubén Martínez is a writer, teacher and performer. He is Fletcher Jones Chair of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University, and the author of several books, including Desert America: A Journey Across Our Most Divided Landscape and Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail.

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