La Frontera: Arizona/Sonora, a Wall Runs Through it

Great Wall of Arizona

Great Wall of Arizona

The border used to be a happy place, the US border with Mexico, that is. This was Geography 499 for most Americans, the Big Trip to that wild wacky “whole other country” that lay just south of a line dividing us from ourselves, for the most part. There are no shortage of ethnic ‘Mexicans’ within US borders, after all, and no shortage of ‘Caucasians’ on the other. Most people don’t realize that national borders are a relatively recent phenomenon. Ancient times—the turn of last century—had none, only spheres of influence, and taxes. History is all about ethnic mixing. The twentieth century is all about ethnic ‘cleansing’.

But the border used to be lively and weird (it was only south of there that things got ‘normal’). Teenagers could drink at eighteen years old. Boys could shop for switchblades and Clint Eastwood ponchos. Girls could shop for cheap perfume and velvet Elvises. Women could shop for kitsch and kitchenware. Men could shop for tequila and women’s pelvises. There was something for everyone. Best of all: it was cheap.

Cathedral on the plaza in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico

Cathedral on the plaza in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico (with newsboy)

That all changed about a decade ago, which can be blamed on many factors: 9/11, terrorism, drug traffic, NAFTA, violence, immigration issues, but most of all—passports. Until recently an American could travel over much of this hemisphere without a passport, very convenient for nearby travel. Unfortunately it also limited the desire to go farther afield. It is an expensive hassle, after all. Now that you need a passport just to cross the border, those Mexican border towns have suffered.

Decapitations at the hands of drug cartels don’t help, either. Heads hanging from bridges? Meh, no thanks. And if that involves mostly local functionaries, then kidnappings of Americans, if few in number, are big news. ISIS could take lessons. Maybe they did. I’ll make no comment about the percentage of Arab blood in the Spanish conquistadores of 1492, and its ‘founder effect’ on Latin America, the same year as the reconquista of Spain from those same Arabic Moors. There, I didn’t say it…

Psychedelic corn-on-the-cob? I'm in...

Psychedelic corn-on-the-cob? I’m in…

If Ciudad Juarez at the border with El Paso has suffered the most, well, they’ve all taken a hit. This is especially apparent along the Arizona border, apparent mostly because of one thing: the Wall. Khrushchev would be proud. If there is at least ‘a’ wall at every border crossing and its immediate environs, then here it’s The Wall, deterrence apparently the intent, overkill the effect, accent on ‘kill’.

There are few, if any, tourists in Agua Prieta, a city of almost 100,000, on the border with Douglas. I had trouble finding the actual crossing, in fact, and there were NO parking lots; in a metropolitan area of 100,000? So I just parked on the street. There ain’t much there. The big thrill on the other side was finding newly-manufactured wood stoves, just perfect for the nearby Mexican high sierra. Forty years ago, this would be orgasm city for us late 20th century cabin-dwellers…

Miracle Mile in Naco, Sonora, Mexico

Miracle Mile in Naco, Sonora, Mexico

Besides that, it’s just a typical Mexican small city: tacos y taquitos, burros y burritos, hamburguesas con papas fritas. I’m hungry. I sit down and check the breakfast menu in the central plaza’s main cafe, but with prices as high or higher than the other side, I ultimately decline. By the time I tip the waitress it’d be ten bucks, IF I get the right exchange rate. In a funky Mexican border town for a funky Mexican breakfast? Naah…

But the fun is just beginning. As usual US Customs ask the stupidest questions.

“Where do you live?” ‘All over.’

“What brings you here?” ‘A car.’

“What countries have you been to in the last year?” ‘How much time you got?’

“What did you buy in Mexico?” ‘A taco.’

“What is travel writing?” ‘Writing about travel.’

“Who buys your books?” ‘Anybody who wants them.’

“Come this way.”

Scene in Naco, Sonora, Mexico

Scene in Naco, Sonora, Mexico

So I’m led into a little room off to the side for further questioning, me and a half dozen others at any one time, all of them (us) apparently begging further scrutiny. There the questions, and googling, continue, for however long it takes, like an hour. Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit snarky, but in the year 2014, is this really necessary? If I fit some profile and you need more time to check further, then fine; do it. Get it over with. But don’t expect me to get all excited over your stupid questions.

Here’s my favorite: “You’re from Mississippi? You don’t have much of an accent.” Ooohhh, that’ll make me quiver and shiver. Now I’m really scared. They’re on to me—fake passport and all, haha. Maybe I should put on my best fake Mississippi accent, yeah: ‘Am I in jail? Shazam! Where’d ‘y’all little pea-pickers get them fancy badges?’ Naah. Honesty is the best policy.

“Thank you,” is my only clipped reply, verry clipped. “It isn’t easy to lose.” I nail it. Grins. This is over. I win this round.

“What’d you say is the name of your blog?”

“Backpackers and Flashpackers.”

He googles it. “Hmmm, pretty cool. I’ll read this further later.”

“Please do. And don’t forget to push that ‘like’ button.” Smiles all around.

“You can go.”

“Don’t let the bad guys in.”

Pueblo Revival border post in Naco, AZ..

Pueblo Revival border post in Naco, AZ..

So then I go to Naco, same day, the next God-forsaken little border town down the road, no more than an hour away, and a few tens of thousands of people behind, as if anyone’s counting. Once again, I have a hard time finding the actual entrance. Once again I park on the street, main street, the town’s only street, really, one bar the only active business; makes sense. Maybe throw in a church and you’re all set. You could buy this town for six figures, probably, and turn it into a border-town theme park, complete with brew pubs and dub clubs, parties 24/7/365, hmmm…

As it is, there isn’t much to see or do, on either side, and few or no tourists. People aren’t as friendly here, either, and a couple even downright aggressive. You’re not in New Mexico any more, Hardie, nor Chihuahua, Mexico. This is Arizona, and Sonora, and a wall runs through it. That’s my take. They didn’t just build a wall. They built resentment. At least US Customs doesn’t detain me this time. They probably don’t even have a place TO detain, the first Customs post I’ve ever seen, in fact, that screens pedestrians and car arrivals in the same place. Fortunately it’s not raining. To be continued…