Not everyone is lucky enough to grow up on the United States/Mexico border.
Did I think I’d be saying that when I was 18 years old and desperate to escape to a bigger city? Absolutely not.
But that’s the thing about leaving home — you gain perspective.
I grew up in a small town called Nogales, Arizona. Just south of my hometown is Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The border fence was quite legitimately in my backyard.
I’ve had people ask me: “What was it like to grow up on the Mexican border?”
And, to be honest? I didn’t even realize what a big deal it was.
I’ve found that people have an image in their head of what the border is like: us vs. them.
But that’s not true. If that was the case, I’d be able to talk about each individual experience I had crossing the border. I’d be able to recall every single moment I spent in Mexico.
In actuality, none of my trips to Nogales, Sonora stood out to me. The relationship Nogales, Arizona has with its southern neighbor is quite fluid. It was never, “I’m crossing the border to go to a beach in Mexico.” It was simply, “I’m going to San Carlos.”
It was normal. Nothing to call out. No big deal.
It’s strange to me to see news pieces with titles like “Border Wars” or “Battle on the Border,” because there’s no battle on the border at all.
Discussions on the United States and Mexico — the people, the exports, the imports — aren’t fought at this physical barrier. They’re fought in legislative chambers, in offices, in your home, and sometimes even on Twitter.
Each dinner table discussion about “how dangerous Mexico is” is an argument. Each news segment showing hooded figures running through desert terrain, their eyes flashing green because of night vision, is a brawl. Each DC politician who has never been to the border without an agenda (yet somehow knows all about those “bad hombres”) is a war.
Knowing is half the battle.
When I first left for college, that 18-year-old so eager to get out, I was embarrassed to tell people where I grew up. Not because it was on the border, but because it was boring.
“Well, there’s nothing to do there,” I’d think to myself, anytime anyone asked where I was from.
But I’ve come to realize, through years of listening to people tell me what Mexico is “really” like, how important it is for me to educate about my experiences.
Nowadays, I don’t shy away from telling people where I grew up. And when people ask me what it was like to grow up on the border, I’m happy to tell them.
Or, as a co-organizer of Wanderful’s Tucson chapter, I’m happy to show them.
Recently, 21 Wanderful women joined me on a road trip to Nogales, Mexico, to see what the border is really like.
Even though Nogales is only an hour’s drive south of Tucson, not a single woman in the group had ever been. And these are adventurous ladies!
I don’t blame them. Like I said, there really isn’t a whole lot to do there. But there is enough to make a day of it — especially with a native Nogalian leading the way. And our group was lucky enough to have two native Nogalians with us.
Well, sort of.
My parents have lived in Nogales for 40 years. They moved to the city from Boulder, Colorado for teaching jobs, and figured they’d stay for five years before moving back. That is, until they made a huge group of friends (which they’re still best friends with today!) and fell in love with the landscape. They all still hike together on many weekends.
My mom, in true Wanderful fashion, came with us on our trip. I’d say a 40-year Nogalian is close enough to a native.
We grabbed our passports, walked through the Mexican border’s gates, and soaked it all in.
Nearly a decade ago, when it was exclusively drug wars and beheadings (the majority occurring in places like Sinaloa, Juarez, and Tijuana) that were shown on the news, tourism in Mexico declined rapidly. As a result, many of the colorful businesses along the border in Nogales went out of business.
Things are thankfully picking back up now, but it’s still not exactly a sexy place to be. “It’s a little neglected,” as someone in the group said.
One place that survived through it all — a decade of hurting but another decade on its belt, nonetheless — is La Roca. Built into a rock face and painted in oranges, pinks, and blues, it was always the place to go for celebration (my graduating class even held our prom there). But in the late-2000s, the parties slowed to a molasses pace, the servers who worked there for decades identifying most with the sad part of Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” (“Ah, those good old days when we were useful; suddenly those good old days are gone…”).
Leaving the pothole-filled street and entering into La Roca’s courtyard, we were greeted with a merry fountain and a canopy of colorful ribbons that danced in the wind. When our group entered the restaurant, the place was packed. A mariachi band strummed and the smells of spicy chilaquiles, sizzling carne asada, and charred onions filled the air.
Our group listened to the music and savored crunchy tacos while my mom and I answered questions about what life was like on the border. We talked about how things have changed and how things have stayed the same, and shared funny anecdotes about our lives in Nogales.
You don’t realize how strange some of your experiences are until you talk to someone who hasn’t lived on the border their whole life.
For instance, not everyone goes clubbing in Mexico at 16 years old. Who would’ve thought?
After lunch, we headed downstairs to El Changarro, a store with Mexican home goods and clothing. Some of the group purchased knickknacks and others took photos of the courtyard.
I hope that these women tell their friends and family in Tucson that they took this trip.
And I cross my fingers that when they’re asked what it was “really” like on the Mexican border, they think back on our time at La Roca. I hope they they remember those tacos, they see that gorgeous courtyard, they hear the mariachi band’s soft tunes, they imagine those beautifully dilapidated storefronts, and they say, “You know, it’s not too bad.”
Not everyone is lucky enough to grow up on the border. But if you’re lucky enough to know a Nogalian, have them show you around!
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