Not Enough (by Amber James)
When I first read Luis Alberto Urrea’s By The Lake of Sleeping Children, I was living in a small town in Arkansas, had no experience with the border and had so little experience with any hardship or the world in general. Perhaps that is why that I associate this book—which details life on the border—with my coming of age, with the coming of awareness about the world. I was so, so naïve when I read these books for the first time that I sobbed over them, angry and frustrated. This was probably 2007 or so, and at the time, John McCain and some other candidate were talking about the “crisis on the border” (sounds familiar…) and gearing up to “fix” issues that truly seemed to be pressing in our country. Or at least you’d have thought it was a dire emergency by their rhetoric; as it always is. I remember staying up all night reading the books and weeping over the injustice of the immigration system and the border situation, a pretty big shock at the time for a small town bumpkin who had lived in relative privilege and comfort. I realize now that I had lived a life so cotton-batting protected that I’d missed what so many had known for ages.
At the time what I didn’t have the capacity to evaluate was the following: These books are a telling of a story of the border, a story that is true, but nonetheless limited to a particular time, a place, and context. These texts forced me to start engaging in the world, a place that I had not always believed to be fair, but a place in which I somehow still thought that if people just worked hard enough they could overcome.
Shake your head ruefully at my naivete. I don’t blame you.
What I realize now is that reading these texts made me a better human and many years later, a better adult. But in the journey of trying to be better and understand more, I’ve also realized the story of the border is gargantuan, maybe, too big to hold.
I’ve often made the argument in academic papers and in conversations about border books, that By the Lake of Sleeping Children, a work that details Urrea’s youth and young adulthood growing up on the border in and around Tijuana, is a journey. Urrea situates the reader by letting them get to know the issues surrounding immigration as well as the quality of life in Mexico due to the hyperbole of American consumerism. He doesn’t pull any punches for gringos who continue to perpetuate these issues, nor for the “warriors” who show up with their cameras wanting to document the poverty porn that mission trippers and other groups seem to find so attractive.
Slowly, and over time, Urrea guides the reader and lets them see Tijuana as a complete city, a city rocked by vast economic differences between it and her sister city—San Diego. He lets you in on the secret that people in Tijuana are just as scared of going into the crazy north as Americans are about traveling across the system of bridges and walls that crisscross our southern border.
Eventually, Urrea takes readers to the colonias and allows them to see his work with his mentor, Pastor Von, in the orphanages, in the fringes of town, and in the dompes, where people scavenge a life from things that have been thrown away by consumers. Urrea, after wielding golpes with the chancla of truth enough times, lets (even the gringo) reader in and introduces them to border language, (it’s called Chuco Spanish here in El Paso) the people who live in the trash, to the children who live in the orphanage, and to the women and men who are the casualties of bad border policy and even worse treatment of the poor, ill, and sometimes mentally unstable.
These books did something to me.
Of course, it didn’t happen all at once, but looking back and how my life followed the path it has taken, these books are the starting place, the moment of epiphany, the wakeup call. This was before I knew much about border literature at all, not having been introduced to Anzaldua, Troncoso, Flor Ada or any other amazing fronterizo literature that I have had the joy of reading now. These texts gave me the first glance of what I wanted to do as a writer, which was to tell important stories with and, when necessary, for people who no one would give the air time to. After a long journey with that goal in mind, I actually find myself writing less and listening more, reluctant to retell these stories—not because they aren’t important, but because these border stories feel like a gift, that they are sacred and not mine to give away. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that my voice matters less and the people that my stories would want to gaze in upon matter the world. And I realize, too, that the border is a story so big and so ugly beautiful that I’m scared to try and capture it. We should be. This place is the story of magnificent proportions.
As I think about reading these books now, in the current context of what is going on on our border, this is where my mind goes first—out to the colonias, to the bridges and the crossings and the Rio Grande, and to that feeling of wanting to blast the hell out of people who don’t know what they are talking about. More than anything, I have to guard my mind as it flies away to the colonias and to the poor because this is not the story of the border—it is only one piece of it. A certain place, people and context. And even more so, I hesitate, feeling like sharing these stories is a betrayal because they do not, and never have, belonged to me. They are whispered secrets on immigration shelter intake sheets, they are murmurs in the dark after lights out. These stories are stoic silence on men’s faces, side glances from children who have reasons not to trust you. But these stories are also about community and menudo, showing up with things that people need, from blankets and food to a simple hug. They are family and quinceñeras, chelas and carne asadas too. They are hikes through desert bramble; they are the smell of tacos frying; they are border music bands mixing languages and convincing everyone that they can dance cumbias. You can’t wrap up all the stories just like you can’t wrap up a sandstorm with all of its tumbleweeds, dust and earth. All the saran wrap or old margarine tubs in the world can’t contain it.
That is the border. A big jumble mess of all of the humans who live here. Any other assessment is incomplete, however well-intentioned, however true the particular story might be. It’s not just a single narrative, it’s all of those voices chiming in together.
I don’t know how to say this enough: things are much more complicated than simply looking down at the border and feeling sorry. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be sorry for. There is plenty to rage against and scream at the air for. But that’s not a full picture, either.
Months ago, during the election, Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native, was trying to tell the country that the border wasn’t a single story and since the election ended, I feel a void. Not just for my border town, but whole damn line. If people won’t listen to the actual people that have existed in these spaces for generations, if people won’t listen to people going through situations caused by what may be the worst border policies in the last 50 years and want to listen to a multimillionaire who has never even been to our border, then are we lost? Are all of these stories just…gone? Or is it that we only want one story, even if it isn’t the whole picture? How do we write about the difficult issues of poverty on our borders and still include the fact that there are truly great things about living here and existing in this space?
I get it. Things are complicated for us all: For Christians who are blindly following what I can only call an authoritarian regime that disregards the teachings of the Bible to pander to its base; for people who traditionally consider themselves Republicans, and for Democrats, too, as they try to navigate a completely upside situation that seldom seems to make sense. The entire context of our country and how we deal with the border has doubled up upon itself, been used as political bait and been lied about so many times. I suppose it is easier to go with a single narrative than to recognize that things are not simple. I cannot even count the times newspapers, books, certain members of the media and political candidates have told falsehoods or misrepresented the imaginary line that separates the United States and Mexico. Maybe that’s just easier. Fake news and all that.
As I’ve watched all of this in unfold, not just in the past three years but for many, many years before, I had to experience this place on a grand scale. I leaned into the complexity of my feelings about this place, about the people who inhabit it and the issues that surround it by—after several moves in different states—taking the leap and moving to El Paso, TX. If I thought it was going to resolve any conflicts I had about immigration I was wrong. On a personal note, things are more complicated—albeit more beautiful—for my family and I, too, because we love this place with all of our hearts. But I have struggled with writing about it, telling any kind of story because the story is just too big. You can eat the dust, you can live in it, you can even roll in it, but you can’t exist as it. Así soy en la frontera. Perhaps, así somos.
Which is why I don’t want you to think my comments or reflection is any criticism of Urrea. I am as beholden to him as I am to any of the other border writers I have read. He does a damn good job of capturing Tijuana, of memorializing the people he worked with and for. I had the honor of talking to Pastor Von once. Urrea is right on in his descriptions of him, just as he is about so many things. And I feel I would be remiss, too, as a white person to critique border literature. I love living here, but I am not from here, nor am I of here, and I feel like if you’re going to levy a critique then you darn best better have the authority to do so.
Once, at a book conference, I had the opportunity to meet Urrea through friends. I’m not going to make any pretenses, I was so starstruck that I turned bright red and couldn’t stop giggling. To my chagrin and to the humor of my publisher buddies, I was just in awe of his work and the ways that it changed my world view. This is a meeting that I still haven’t lived down with my friend and former internship boss. But Urrea’s is just one perspective, and I deeply feel the desire for others to fill in the other aspects. It’s not that I can critique Urrea on something he has done wrong. It’s that I just want other people who are in the know to chime in and keep telling these stories. I want to know how they can tell any other stories, and yet I know that the impossibility of telling these stories caries its own impossible weight. Don’t we always want to write about the thing that is impossible to write about?
What I mean to say is that after living on the border for the past four years, I feel like there are so many different kinds of people in so many different situations with so many different backgrounds that it would be impossible to get it completely right. Maybe that’s why, in the last four years, I’ve barely written at all. I want you to see it so clearly, so holistically that I choke. I want you to love my city, to love the border like so many of us do.
I think that Marsha Gessen of the Atlantic captures this the best when she says this about writing about immigration: “Sometimes I wonder if we even have a right to write any other stories. What if we didn’t? What if we took a week—or maybe a day—to do nothing else? Only immigration stories. I suspect our readers would be overwhelmed. There is only so much human misery you can witness. There is only so much personal narrative you can absorb before it all runs together.”
When I realize that Gessen is only talking about immigration stories and not even the whole picture of the border, I have to stand back and realize that to write this place is impossible. Perhaps, it is for this reason I haven’t gone back to read Urrea’s work in a long time. Even now as I am writing this, I have not done so—nor does it seem likely to happen soon. Partially, I have not gone back to reread because I have too many things going on, too many eggs in my basket. But part of it is that since I first read these books, the way I view the border is so vastly different, so painstakingly extracted from the way that I first saw it through Urrea’s prose that inevitably, I worry about ruining the experience I had when I first read these books. I recognize now that he’s telling part of the story and that the rest of the chapters are too big and too ineffable to contain. There is no other place like this one.
How could you approach it? How could you bear it to write the beauty of this place every day and also the tragedy? I feel like it could break you, this juxtaposition of a space.
How do you talk about the way the sun sets on the westside of the mountains, turning the sky magenta and purple and tangerine? I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the way that the community comes together, or how individuals take care of each other, making caldo when the neighbor is sick or fixing something in their yard for no charge if you can’t talk about the way that children are being held alone and away from their parents in a tent city less than 20 miles away.
I don’t think we can talk about the beauty that exists here unless we talk about the women who are raped by coyotes—illegal guides—on the trip. Without talking about the way that people used to be stripped down naked and sprayed with lice spray to cross the border from Mexico, I don’t think we can talk about the ways that our city exists. We could talk about the way that the rain smells or the way the big puffs of clouds gather in the foothills of the Franklins as you climb them with friends before a storm. But we can only do that if we talk about the way that my friend’s father is detained every time he comes back from Juarez because he has the same name as a criminal. My friend says the agents have embarrassed him time and again by forcing him to submit to strip searches, and that she’s watched her father reduced to tears as he thinks about the next crossing.
I had no idea.
Even after reading Urrea’s books. I didn’t know this land before, and even if it could be distilled into a text, I worry that no writer could bear it. I don’t know how you write about this place if you’re not just talking about immigration and the border because this topic is and isn’t the foundation of it all. Truth be told, that is why it has taken me more than ten years to begin writing about one border experience of millions, and nearly two weeks to even begin to write this piece. I keep trying to help you understand and yet I realize you can’t. This assertion is not the basis of good writing, I know.
I can tell you ‘representative’ interactions, I can assure you of certain truths, but it’s a flailing attempt. I’m trying but I’m also inept to catch it all, just as many of us are as we try to capture the essence of the border—and even more so because this is not my land.
But on the other hand, I need people to know. I need them to read the authors who have done this before—most of them people of color—and to keep compiling and reading the stories that are the chaos and order of our towns dotted along the line that separates us from this “other” country that is more part of us than separate.
Here is one try, though I recognize it’s feeble:
It’s the holiday season in El Paso, one of the safest cities in the United States, nestled on the border. On both sides of the line, families—military families from Fort Bliss, families with every immigration status you can think of from citizen to “illegal”—will celebrate Christmas and Hanukah and Posadas and Reyes Magos by exchanging presents, serving others, going to a variety of religious buildings: Catholic, Methodist churches, Mosques, Synagogues. People will speak Spanish and English and a slew of other languages including the languages of a tribes that existed in this region long before colonization. They will speak Chuco Spanish and English with “Ya sabanas/estufas” and “pinchis” and a slew of terms that are both languages and neither. Tamales will be consumed by the pound and will be washed down with champurrado, atole and calientito. And beer. Don’t forget the beer.
People will go to downtown Juarez and El Paso to see the Christmas concerts and lights, will feel the cool desert air slip about their skin. Those who have them will pull their jackets closer to their bodies. They will build fires to keep warm in the colonias or turn the heat up in their houses in the cities. Some will have Christmas trees, and some will not. Some will have hot water, and some will not. They will participate in processions to church, Christmas parties. Some will be in orphanages, or homes for the elderly without access to basic utilities. Some will be in sprawling homes with family; some will be serving dinner at refugee centers all over the city. Some will retreat to their little craftsman style homes in Central EP. Presumably, some will be policing the desert and manning the gates on the bridges.
Not a side note: Some will be locked up in immigration detention centers.
The holiday season, a time to give. Tonight, I spent hours unpacking soccer balls. That’s a weird sentence, a weird experience. But there I was, in the office of a state representative, helping a team unpack Amazon boxes of hundreds of soccer balls that were sent by people all over my city, all over my county, state and country. It will take hours more work to unpack and blow them all up, and the people who do this work will ask for absolutely zero credit, and my mere two hours will look like chump change time when it is all said and done. That’s exactly how it should be. These volunteers will go home to their families and feel like it is never enough. They will also feel like it is something. This is part of living here, knowing it’s always something and never enough. You learn to live with it. Uncomfortably.
The 2,000+ soccer balls will go to children who are locked up in a tent camp just beyond the reaches of El Paso, along with thousands of cards created by children who are free in schools throughout the region—assuming that the people in charge keep their word and deliver these items to the kids. Stranger things have happened than items given in good faith never reaching their target. The people who put their time into the project of obtaining and distributing the gifts will not likely know if their gifts ever reached these kids. There’s only so much we can control. ICE isn’t one of those things.
For the children that receive these gifts, this will be their Christmas. Most of our kids have at least a little more—and sometimes a lot. At least most of our kids will be with people who love them. That is a grim thing to think of, but it’s worth considering again. So just pause a moment and think about it. The children in the tent camp will not be with people who love them—or who even care about them—for the time of year that most of us consider the most sacred. These children will be alone for the holidays, in jail.
Don’t try to justify this. It’s horrific. I’m going to suggest that if you’re thinking that they’re better off locked up then there is something disturbingly wrong with you, but that’s out of my control. I can only invite you to my city and try help you understand. It’s an open invitation.
In contrast, many of the students who created the cards will have family in Juarez that they will celebrate the holidays with, and with family members who are unable to cross into the United States in order to celebrate. Despite the struggles that some of the kids in El Paso and Juarez do face, being with family matters.
Being with family is something.
The lines on the bridges will be long.
The desert dust will rise and fall and float and lie on the ground as winter settles.
And if all goes right, children locked up in the tent camp beyond our city will be able at the very, very least, to play soccer.
It’s a poor stand in for being with the people you love, but it’s something.
Amber James is an educator who lives in El Paso, TX, which is one of the safest cities in the United States—if not the safest city. This bicultural community has its problems but can best be characterized as a strong community with people who love and support each other—even at a whopping 600,000 residents.
Ms. James has lived all over the US including New York, Tennessee, Oklahoma, California, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Texas, but has fallen in love with the city she currently inhabits. She considers El Paso, TX her home, and a place that she is proud of.
Amber is a PhD student in Teaching, Learning and Culture at UTEP, and finds herself increasingly interested in supporting students of all backgrounds. This she attempts to achieve through her employment in a nearby district.
Amber is committed to advocating for others and echoing others as they advocate for themselves. While Ms. James is dedicated to writing about important things in the world, she recognizes that her job is to amplify the voices of people who have less privilege and to allow them to take center stage.
If you would like a list of border voices that are better than Amber’s, please contact her at email@example.com. She will be happy to put together a list of books that will help you understand our borders, and will collaborate with others to ensure a wide range of voices and representations of the region.