One of the highlights of our trip was our tour of a border crossing. While Ann Arbor is not too far from an international border, the US-Mexico border is very different. This is the border that countless people have crossed, many “legally”’ and others not. People south of the border have left their lives behind in order to cross this line and seek a better life in el norte. Countless lives have been lost in doing so. It is extremely powerful to see the waters that make one mojado, a wall that attempts to divide the two countries, and site where the flow of goods and people is immensely political.
In some respects, the border seems impenetrable. A looming metal wall snaking away through the countryside, border patrol cars cruising the shores of the Rio Grande, large scale X-ray machines, customs agents. Yet at the same time, the border is very fluid. Masses of tourists can be seen returning from day trips in Mexico, many returning with cheap liquor, cigarettes, and medicine. People stand under the bridge on the Mexican side, begging the tourists for help. Mothers with children return to their home in Mexico from their schools. Others return to Mexico with groceries bought in the United States. Countless trucks cross the border- NAFTA en vivo. One can even stand on the Texas side and hear the sounds of Mexico: music, food venders, and advertisements being projected form loudspeakers.
As we have witnessed from our time in Texas, the border does not mean a separation of cultures (nor should it). The dominant language along the Texas border communities is Spanish. A walk through downtown Brownsville feels like a walk in another country. When asked how the white and Mexican populations in Brownsville interact a local replied, “There is no white group.” We were the outsiders in the valley. It makes one question where Latin America ends, or even if it does.
While the borderland is not Mexico, but it’s definitely distinct from the rest of the United States. As described by locals down here, the Rio Grande Valley is “in limbo” between the countries. Spanglish is an actual language in the region. The politics that dictate relations are very complicated. Many are undocumented and live every day in fear. Others are of Mexican heritage but have lived in Texas for many generations. Such dynamics make the border a very hard place to define.
Experiencing the border region has been an eye opening experience and formative as we embark on a career in public health. Different places have different histories and stories to tell. The border populations are very complex and subsequently, so are their health issues. For example, the violence in Northern Mexico limits to great extent any collaboration with institutions across the border. Thus, while people and their illnesses cross the border, public health efforts do not. This can be seen in issues such as the high prevalence of Tuberculosis, for example. Public health initiatives to combat this disease are not synchronized between both sides of the border, making adequate control difficult.
A week long stay in McAllen and a trip to a border crossing allowed us to only scratch the surface to begin to understand the dynamics of health in the region. However, it was an extremely valuable growing experience for our team as we develop both as public health professionals and as socially conscious adults.