Magazine Feature


Mexican and U.S. students look both ways and cross the border.

Twenty-two kilometers outside Santa Ana, Mexico, Hali breaks the silence: "Is anyone getting scared?"

"Yes," answer three girls in flat unison. The van, crowded with six Arizona teenagers and two adult chaperons, is hurtling southbound across a desert landscape that’s both familiar and strange.

Up ahead, another van, carrying five boys and three more chaperons, leads the slow descent toward Santa Ana, in the Magdalena River valley. The town of 25,000 is located about 100 miles south of the U.S. border, at the far end of the same Sonoran Desert that the Arizona visitors call home.

In town, the vans pull up in front of a school painted lime green and shaded by palm trees. Mexican children and adults wait three deep out front, smiling, waving and pointing.

A welcoming banner arches across the street. Here, at the end of a dusty three-hour drive, an experiment in international relations is coming full circle.

Four months earlier, it was the U.S. students who played host. During the winter of 2002, teenagers from the Mexican state of Sonora journeyed to Arizona for a home-stay visit. While north of the border, the Mexican students bowled and saw snow for the first time and attended a middle school dance.

And now, in Santa Ana, eleven 7th and 8th graders are reunited with their friends from the south.

The Arizona boys are already curbside and answering questions. "You want to play football?" one of the Mexicans asks. "You mean soccer, right?" a U.S. student responds.

Cultural geographers have described the 2000-mile, sun-baked, history-rich, heavily patrolled U.S.-Mexico border as the world’s most dynamic international frontier.

Compared to current flashpoint border regions, such as India-Pakistan or Israel-Palestine, "la linea," as it is called in Spanish, is remarkably peaceful. But disparities between the two neighboring democracies generate a unique and complex array of tensions.

This arid stretch of North American geography is poised, in the era of North American free trade and shifting demographics, to become even more important to the two countries’ economic, social and environmental well-being.

Touching four U.S. and five Mexican states, impacting millions on a daily basis, the border region is many things to many people: a precarious political reality, a dangerous chance at a new life, a challenge to immigration control, a perpetual party, a fragile desert landscape in need of protection, a water management nightmare, a place of intractable poverty or a public health debacle.

To others, the border is a colorful hotbed of economic activity and Anglo-Latino interaction annually worth billions of dollars (and growing) to both countries in the brave new world of free trade.

For all its vibrancy and contradictions, the border provides a unique educational opportunity for U.S. and Mexican students on both sides to interact with one another, help bridge cultural differences and solve problems that can fester between these neighboring nations. And the best way to interact, many educators believe, is for young people to hit the road, meet face-to-face and spend time in each other’s cultures.


Youthful Diplomacy

Before the Mexican students traveled to Arizona the previous winter, none of these American teenagers from rural Clarkdale-Jerome Middle School in Clarkdale, two hours north of Phoenix, could count a Latino youth as an acquaintance, let alone a close friend, and most admitted they held a few negative stereotypes about Mexicans.

Their Spanish, furthermore, was rudimentary at best, especially when held up against their Mexican exchange partners’ firm grasp of English.

But after spending a mere four days in Mexico, the U.S. students could say this about their experience: We stayed with Santa Ana families, attended classes at the public Escuela Secundaria Profr. Alfonso Marin Retif, hung out with our Spanish-speaking peers, broke open a piñata, horseplayed around a pool at a hacienda, danced together — basically soaked ourselves in uncountable things truly Mexican.

In the process, the students helped break down cultural barriers, promoted tolerance and practiced an unusual style of adolescent diplomacy that, in tangible and intangible ways, strengthens U.S.-Mexico relations.

Experiences such as these form the core ideal behind a typical program arranged by Hands Across the Border (HATB), a Tucson-based non-profit organization "dedicated to improving cultural sensitivity and understanding among citizens ... through short-term cultural exchange programs."

For more than 20 years, HATB has spearheaded the movement for cross-cultural experiential education in the American Southwest.

"This is what matters," says Cindy Emmett, the Clarkdale-Jerome 6th grade teacher who gave up a favorite English unit in order to lead the expedition. "We wanted to learn more about our neighbors, how they live. This is our future."

Emmett’s sentiments are echoed by 8th grader Blake, student body vice-president, who explains, "I wanted to see and participate in a different culture so I wouldn’t have any stereotypes. Besides, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why not go?"

Hali, whose father accompanied the group as a driver and videographer, had a different reason for going. "I wanted to see what the tourists never see."

Hali’s friend Ali, Clarkdale-Jerome’s student body president, offered a more blunt assessment for her motivation. "I wanted to come back humble. Americans are too spoiled."

South of the border, Mexican students who signed on had their own reasons for participating in the cultural exchange. "I wanted to know what America is like. It will help us all not be racist," says 13-year-old Andrea in impeccable English. Her friend Alejandra, also an accomplished English speaker, adds, "We can get to know the differences and become friends, see and meet their families, too."


A Road-Tested Formula

Working from donated office space on a shoestring budget, traveling all over the shared Sonoran Desert region, HATB’s small staff has facilitated cultural exchanges between U.S. and Sonoran schools that involve rural, urban and suburban children from elementary to high school age.

In 2002, HATB sponsored 106 such exchanges, 53 heading north, 53 heading south. Most of the U.S. schools are spread across Arizona, but two California groups and a New Mexican one also participate.

Plans to rope Texas into the program are in the works. According to HATB estimates, more than 4,000 people participate annually in the program, and the organization’s board plans to expand ambitiously in the coming years if additional funding comes through.

Each exchange costs the U.S. partner school around $3,000, and the Mexican school roughly half that amount. Creative fundraising plays a role at each end, but in some cases, districts and local governments kick in a portion. By no means is the program restricted to affluent communities, the coordinators note; participating U.S. schools represent diverse socio-economic profiles.

From its humble origins as a pilot project in 1981, HATB has become a fixture in Arizona public education circles and recently received an award from the Office of the Governor’s Arizona-Mexico Commission commending it for "improving your region through education and cultural exchange."

On one morning of the Santa Ana trip, U.S. students spend several hours at the Mexican secundaria, attending classes with their partners. At the school’s cantina, Judd, from Arizona, cools off in the shadows and marvels at Mexican students ordering bags of corn chips that a clerk rips open and douses with a red or green salsa ladled from a bucket.

As he samples a bag, Judd is still moved by the hospitality shown to him by his Mexican hosts the previous night.

"The four brothers and grandfather slept in one room," he says, "and the husband and wife gave up their bed for me and slept on the couch." Minutes later, several U.S. students and their chaperons devour Mexican confections prepared in the home-ec room.

As they eat, a musical performance unfolds by a student ensemble: three girls, four boys, each singing and playing nylon-stringed guitars in arrangements with soaring multi-part vocal harmonies, dueling solos and a variety of complex bass lines.

As Blake is surrounded 15 yards away by 15 Mexican girls and grilled on his likes and dislikes, Judd takes a moment to reflect on what he’s learned so far from the exchange.

"I thought there would be dirt streets and shacks, but there are lots of nice houses. There may be a lot less discipline in this school — I mean, a kid just walked out of class and got a Popsicle — but they don’t have a police officer with a gun like we do."

Hands Across the Border follows a road-tested formula for successful cultural exchanges. All those involved who organized the Santa Ana program agreed that bringing groups as large as 30 across an international border for a prolonged home-stay is not something "to be winged."

The first steps are recruiting student participants and establishing a partnership with a school across the border. Almost a year of preparation precedes the students’ dual visits.

In the fall, HATB requires that the teacher and chaperons from the Mexican school visit the U.S. school, and then vice versa, to get the lay of the land and begin face-to-face planning. Later in the spring, students travel across the border and participate in a series of activities, but not before intensively studying the other country’s cultural customs, geography, language and other subjects relevant to foreign travel and staying in a stranger’s home.

In the beginning years of an HATB partnership, the program focuses on cultural exchange — getting to know a new person from a foreign but not-so-distant culture and having a lot of fun. As schools cultivate a deeper relationship, participants design and implement academic projects addressing problems specific to the shared Sonoran region.

One such program is ECOSTART, an environmental education program focused on water conservation in the San Pedro river basin. In 2001, HATB teamed up with the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy in Tucson to implement a pilot project in which students on both sides of the border studied the history of the area and issues related to water conservation.

A grant to expand the program into a three-year project to train teachers and students through HATB is under review by the Inter-American Foundation. Along with HATB’s intercultural training, environmental training will be provided from various sub-grantees to teachers from southeastern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. If approved, says Alicia Bristow, director of HATB, the project will involve about 30 schools and 435 students.


Challenges on Both Sides

While HATB’s primary mission is to put students from Mexico and the United States together in positive, enlightening situations, adults tagging along gain something valuable as well.

"This is something that keeps my fire lit," says Cindy, explaining why after 23 years in the classroom, she took on coordinating the Clarkdale-Jerome contingent.

Doug, Hali’s father, notes, "I hadn’t been to Mexico in 20 years and you can talk about it all you want, but coming here is what it takes for change."

On the Mexican side, Alma, a parent, feels that participating along with her daughter amounts to almost a national duty, something in which she takes great pride. "It has a direct impact on our personal and country’s future," she says.

The Clarkdale-Jerome and Santa Ana connection came off smoothly, but it wasn’t without challenges to surmount, challenges that face all HATB partnerships.

For the Arizona schools, the exchanges usually coincide with statewide testing. In an era where local newspapers as well as real estate agencies publish standardized test results, pressure on individual districts and teachers to score well is tremendous. And anything extracurricular that might undermine proper testing preparation can easily get neglected or dropped altogether.

It takes grit and finesse by HATB coordinators and glowing testimonials by teachers, parents and students to keep exchanges going and nervous school boards soothed. It also helps to have a supportive superintendent like Pete Turner from Liberty School District southwest of Phoenix, who as a principal and superintendent has traveled 14 times to Mexico chaperoning HATB exchanges.

"I’m so thoroughly invested in the program. I believe in it," Turner says. "Exposure leads to tolerance."

Turner admits he has experienced some pressure to scuttle HATB because it takes significant time away from academic study and thus is perceived by some to contribute to lower test scores. But his defense of HATB is aggressive.

"The exchanges give the kids a special advantage in the world because it helps reduce their biases," he says.

"For me, the program is, first, an extension of the Spanish language program," explains Brenda Perkins, ESL coordinator at San Clemente (Calif.) High School.

"But other benefits are so important. The atmosphere is accepting and comfortable and the students come away feeling a bit of a kinship with Mexico. This will affect the way they interact with Mexican students at school as well as with anyone else from another culture."

For the Mexican partners, the challenge is mainly about money. Many schools struggle annually to meet the financial requirement, but Mexican parents in the Santa Ana program have made it clear they want this for their children, and they work hard alongside school officials to make it happen.

They all concur that in the last two decades it has had a significant positive impact in their state. But the Mexican public education system is critically underfunded and can barely provide adequate buildings and basic educational necessities.

Thus, securing public funds for cultural exchanges is usually a hard sell to state and federal authorities.

The U.S. and Mexican students fresh from an HATB experience don’t yet wield the power to ensure that existing partnerships receive proper recognition and funding. Nor are they in the position to advocate effectively for an expansion of HATB.

But these young ambassadors of the Sonoran region have now met, shared, learned, broken bread and laughed together. Most have pledged to revisit one another in the coming years. They will continue to communicate on a regular basis.

In the new light of budding friendships, the notion of an arbitrarily drawn political border separating them cannot be so fixed as it once was. This has to bode well for the future — on both sides of the border.

After four days, the visit concludes in an outpouring of hugs and handshakes and souvenirs. The Arizona partners reluctantly climb into their vans and roll out of Santa Ana with a lengthy, noisy procession behind them.

A few carloads of Mexican students speed past the vans and disappear down the highway. Several minutes later, they appear again, now parked on a dust-choked, blazing shoulder, waving, honking, saying a last good-bye to their new friends — until next time.

Living on the Border: A Wound That Will Not Heal

The following essay is reprinted with permission from the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.


Living in the geographical area where the United States and Mexico meet, the truth is always present. It gnaws at one’s consciousness like a fear of rabid dogs and coyotes. Beneath every action lies the context of border life.


And one must see that undergirding for what it is: the pain and sorrow of daily reminders that here disease runs rampant, here drug crimes take a daily toll, here infant mortality rates run as high or higher than those in Third World countries, here one cannot drink the water, and here, this land that is our land — and has been our land for generations — is not really ours.


But one must also see border life in the context of its joys, its continuous healing, and its celebration of a life and culture that survives against all odds. For to do otherwise condemns us to falling into the vortex of pessimism and anomie where so many already dwell.


La frontera: the frontier, the edges, the limits, the boundaries, the borders, the cultures, the languages, the foods; but more than that, the unity and disunity: es lo mismo y no lo es (it’s the same and it isn’t).


Chicana novelist Gloria Anzaldua speaks of this same terrain, this same geography, but her words are hers; they are not mine, not ours, not those of everyone living along the border.


However similar experiences may be, they are not the same, for the frontera is as varied as the geography from Matamoros/Brownsville to Tijuana/San Ysidro, and the people that inhabit this wrinkle in space are as varied as the indigenous peoples that first crossed it centuries ago and the peoples who continue to traverse it today.


The Aztec pantheon didn't really rule these northern lands, and the norteno personality, customs, rites, and language are testament to that other native culture, now all but gone, which survives in vestiges sometimes as vague as an image in the sand, on the wall of a cave, or in the lexicon and intonation of a border native's speech.


These lands have always harbored transients, people moving sometimes north, sometimes south. Like birds making their annual trek, migrant workers board up their homes and pack things in trucks, and off they go with the local priests blessing.


In Laredo, in Eagle Pass, and elsewhere, the matachines celebrate on May 3, December 12, or another significant date, and as they congregate to dance in honor of the holy cross, the Virgen de Guadalupe, or other local devotions, they remember other lands and other times.


Spanish and English languages both change along the border: Manachis are flour tortilla tacos in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo and within a fifty-mile radius of the area; the "calo" (slang) of the "batos locos," lowriders, "cholos," or "pachucos" maintains its literary quality in its excessive use of metaphor all along the stretch, yet changes from community to community, just as the names for food even the foods themselves, change.


Differences have been there since the settlement of the borderlands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the changes brought upon the border culture have occurred over the span of more than three hundred years; yet there are other changes as well, ongoing changes that will alter the very fabric of borderlands culture.


The collusion of a myriad of cultures, not just Mexican and U.S., makes the borderlands unique. It is a culture forever in transition, changing visibly from year to year.


The population increases in number and variety, as Koreans, Indians, and other peoples of non-European non-indigenous, and non-Mestizo origin flow into the region. Because of such an influx, it also changes environmentally, economically, and even in style.


The names for the river may be different — Rio Bravo/Rio Grande — but it's the same river whose life-giving waters flow down from Colorado, and whose life-taking waters spill out into the Gulf of Mexico.


The same river is a political boundary between nation-states, but people on both sides of the river retain the customs of the settlers from Spain and from central Mexico along with those of the original inhabitants, which they have inherited and adapted to their particular needs.


Newcomers integrate their ways into the existing culture, but the old ones remain. Intriguing syncretisms occur. Weddings, for example, integrate traditional "Mexican" customs such as the Arabic arras (marriage coins) and the Native lazo (bonding cord) along with the German-style polka or conjunto music and brindis (toast).


An infant's baptism becomes an occasion for godparents to exchange prayers, an indigenous form encapsulated in a European logic. Conversely, a "quinceanera" (young woman's fifteenth birthday) becomes the modern-day puberty rite of a community.


In local dance halls, dancers engage in weekly rites as culturally choreographed as those of the Catholic pilgrimages to santuarios from California to Texas; both customs embody forms and values that endure from times before European contact.


Gloria Anzaldua says that "The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds." And she continues the metaphor by adding that before the wound heals it "hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country, a border culture."


First shaped by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that cut the area in two, the wound has continuously bled, as politics, economics, and most recently environmental pollution exacerbate the laceration. If some healing occurs and a scab barely forms, a new blow strikes, such as the economic blow struck by the 1982 Mexican devaluation.


Ours is a history of conflict and resolution, of growth and devastation, of battles won and lost in conflicts not always of our making. Often these contradictory outcomes issue from the same set of historical events, like the development of the maquiladora industry, which provides jobs even as it renders the river's waters "a veritable cesspool" (The Laredo Morning Times, 1993).


The inhabitants of the borderlands live in the consequences of this history, in the bleeding that never stops. Those of us who inhabit this land must live with daily human rights violations, contrasting worldviews, two forms of currency, and different "ways of doing things" that in some cases make life easier but in others nearly intolerable.


Immigration and emigration have shaped the borderlands. The exodus of Texas border natives to the metropolitan areas of Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio or to California or the Midwest during the 1950s was due in large measure to the depressed local economy.


But, as immigration to the north occurred, emigration from Mexico into the area continued. The unemployment rates often hovered around the teens and did not noticeably decrease, in spite of large numbers of families relocating elsewhere, settling out of the migrant labor stream in industrialized areas such as Chicago or going to work in other areas of Texas.


In the 1980s and 1990s, some of these same people, now retiring from steel mills in Illinois or factories in Detroit, returned as retirees and settled in the South Texas border communities they moved from forty years ago.


For many, like my mother's cousins who moved away and worked for Bethlehem Steel, Christmas and summer vacation were times to visit relatives on the border; these days, it is their children who make the trip down south to visit them.


But in many cases the move was permanent. With little to come back to, families settled permanently in places like California, Wisconsin and Nebraska. This was the experience of my father's cousin who lives in Omaha and who retired from the upholstering business she worked in for more than thirty years.


She speaks of her life away and her reasons for leaving with great pain: There were no jobs to be had, political machines controlled the few jobs there were, the pay was below the national minimum wage, the schools were not good for their kids, and the streets weren't paved.


At least up north, in spite of discrimination, language barriers, alien foods, and cold weather, there were jobs; one could dream of a better life. The border population is in transition once again as it has been for centuries. The healing occurs for but a short time when the newly formed scab is torn by a new element, and the process begins anew.


The border is not homogeneous in geography or in culture; there are many borders, resplendent in their heterogeneity.


We who live in these realities celebrate our day-to-day life with family "carne asada" gatherings; with civic events such as George Washington's birthday celebration with its numerous border icons like the aorazo (embracing) ceremony and the international parade; with high school graduations and other markers of academic achievement; and with religious events such as the matachines dance or the annual visit to the city by the image of the Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos in Mexico, venerated on both sides of the border.


The pain and joy of the borderlands — perhaps no greater or lesser than the emotions stirred by living anywhere contradictions abound — come from a wound that will not heal and yet is forever healing. These lands have always been here; the river of people has flowed for centuries.


It is only the designation "border" that is relatively new, and along with the term comes the life one lives in this "in-between world" that makes us the "other," the marginalized. But, from our perspective, the "other" is outside, away from, and alien to, the border.


This is our reality, and we, especially we Chicanos and Chicanas, negotiate it in our daily lives, as we contend with being treated as aliens ourselves. This in essence is the greatest wound: the constant reminder of our otherness.

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