In Nogales, joy endures

The Borderlands may be militarized, but for writer Alberto Ríos, it’s still home.


In 2014, children run past U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

I was born and grew up in Nogales, Arizona, on the Arizona-Sonora border. My wife was born on the Nogales, Sonora, side — a nice cultural symmetry. The border was central to my understanding of the world, but what the border was when I was growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s is not what the border is now. My home is sadly hard to find in the great morass of newspaper headlines, speeches, new laws and everything else, much of which may seem to address the border but little of which addresses Ambos Nogales, the two sides of the border, the actual place where real people have lived, live to this day, and where they will continue to live. The Borderlands is not an abstraction. Nor is it defined only by a wall.

In all the talk of the border, that word is used as if it defined this place. But the far greater truth and the more apt word for this place is desert. It was true when I was growing up, and it’s just as true now. We lived in the desert more than, or at least as much as, we lived at the border. Nature was so often louder in its quietude than people giving orders in uniforms, or fences keeping us and the cows from wandering where we weren’t supposed to go. The border made Nogales a major international port of entry, giving us the foundation for produce and tourism, both of which moved through town, but the desert gave us actual place, a geography on which to stand and find a steady footing. For those who live there, the desert, too, has always been a place of scarcity, of sparseness. Making do with what you had was a regular way of life. It was constant invention.

Making do with what you had was a regular way of life. It was constant invention.

I was reminded of this the last time I was at the border, when a funny thing happened. I’m not sure “funny” is how people imagine the border, but, in truth, it is the nature of my border, which is defined by a myriad of feelings, most certainly including humor. Humor, and making the most of what is around you.

My wife and I had taken a visiting friend on a tour of the state, moving south from Phoenix, where we live, and ending up in Nogales, on the Arizona side. The two Nogaleses, or rather, the one Nogales divided by the barrier of the moment, was alive with itself — tourists, people shopping and going home across the border to Sonora, produce trucks from Mexico being inspected. It was, by this time, a little late in the day, with dusk starting its cricket and woodsmoke entrance. We had not brought passports — a difficult and disagreeable requirement for just crossing over the border, even if only for the evening and nothing more, that I still was not used to. It’s a far cry from the amicable circumstance of our growing up, when crossing was often a whole-community event, with the fence thrown open all day for Fourth of July parades and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

We could only shrug our shoulders and promise to ourselves to be ready the next time we came down here. But this time, instead of crossing, we did what we could. We walked through the old downtown, wandering around Morley Street, talking about the striking storefronts and the life that used to be — like the romantic-sounding corner clothing store La Ville de Paris, whose name is still embedded in the sidewalk — and then inevitably about the wall that now scars the hilly landscape. A pedestrian overpass goes along the border crossing, allowing a view of the immediate other side of the border, the Mexico side. We started our small tour.

That early evening, we saw some young boys standing around talking on the Mexico side of the wall. This was not where people used to gather, so it was curious. In our walking, we had also seen, quite clearly, the array of lights that were now around the streets on the American side, right up against the wall. They were the kind of lights one might see at a construction site, meant to be temporary, though these had been here for decades. And, to be clear, they weren’t going anywhere. Anything marking these lights as temporary was long gone. They suggest a militarizing of the border, clear enough in their purpose of deterring people from crossing illegally. I’m not sure who would actually try to cross there, really, with authorities everywhere around the area, but there the lights stood.

Just after dusk, when the encroaching evening had begun to turn dark, the lights quite suddenly and dramatically came on, making the theatrical sound of big, synchronized machinery, thap, thap, thap, even if it was in essence just the turning on of a big light bulb.

But when those lights came on, the world changed.

The elemental nature of light showed itself pure.

The boys we had seen milling around suddenly whooped loudly and threw their hands up in the air. We saw immediately, or rather heard, that they had a basketball. They had attached a basketball hoop to the Mexico side of the wall and, thanks to the inadvertent but indispensable help of the U.S. Border Patrol, could now start their game. We leaned over far enough to see the well-worn hoop, and laughed as loudly as they had. La migra — that haunting cry in this place — for a moment in time meant something else. The Border Patrol didn’t mean run away.

We watched for a while, and would soon leave for home. In that moment, in that lit-up darkness, I was happy to find again the place in which I had lived. The boys’ exuberance was a small moment of adolescence — theirs and mine both.   

Alberto Ríos is a National Book Award finalist, Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate, and a recent chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. His latest book is A Good Map of All Things (2020). Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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