IN 2008, WHEN I VISITED MY MOTHER IN EL PASO, she pouted like a toddler who has been told a lie and said: “Usted me dijo que íbamos a ir a Mexico.” It’s true. I had promised we’d go to Mexico. In the wake of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I was grappling with ways to enrich her life before the disease fully took hold. This trip was to be a gift, the last time she would travel someplace other than to my home in the Dallas area. We planned to caravan with cousins who make a yearly August pilgrimage from Juárez to Las Nieves, Durango, for the annual feast of La Virgen de las Nieves. Our Lady of the Snows is my family’s patron saint. What better way to reconnect my mother with her heritage one last time than to visit her hometown in honor of our family icon.
But 2008 was the year when border life changed. The Mexican drug cartels pulled out all the stops in their struggle for power over one another and over law enforcement. Authorities unearthed mass graves. Children found beheaded corpses outside their schools. Narcos gunned down entire small- town police forces. Some news stories bore datelines from the highway between Juárez and Chihuahua, the road we would take to Las Nieves.
Could I protect my mother if something happened? Was it fair to take her when she no longer understood the risks?
I decided to postpone. We would go, I assured her, after the violence died down. I believed then that the bloodshed would end quickly. Now, when I go to El Paso to be with my mother, I feel as if I’m only halfway home because I cannot muster the courage to cross the border for even an hour or two. I find myself inhabiting a destierro of the spirit, an exile from my parents’ homeland and my cultural heritage. I wonder: Will the violence abate in my lifetime? Will I ever be able to return?
LIKE MY MOTHER’S FAMILY, my dad and his brothers migrated from near Chihuahua city to Juárez in the 1950s. Some of them, like my parents, became American citizens. They set up house in El Paso or a few miles north in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Others stayed in Juárez, Mexican citizenship intact. Either way, they defined home by sangre, by the geography of heart rather than nationality. Hogar y familiasubsisted where life was nourished by two cultures and two languages. The international border was a line that separated our family, but that we crossed to connect the two pieces of our lives. During the week, my parents worked, and my brother, sister and I went to school. Weekends, we drove across the river to visit my father’s brothers or my mother’s parents and siblings.
My father had lost his parents years earlier, so my memory of his family is of a loosely joined group of people. But my maternal grandparents were alive, and our visits to Juárez often revolved around their home. My earliest memory of them is that they lived in one of three tiny, adobe houses set at right angles to one another on a rocky hill. The houses formed an upside down “U”, its opening facing an unpaved, sloping road, and its middle being an earthen patio where chickens pecked at the ground. Two aunts and their families lived in the other two houses. Some afternoons our tías slaughtered chickens on the patio while we played quinceañera. Then, beneath dusk’s violet skies, we told ghost stories. There was the tale about the viejito who would cart you off in a sack. I pictured a shriveled raisin of a man carrying a burlap sack containing a struggling child. There was also the ever-frightening La Llorona, icon of matricide by drowning, who would make her way from the river to the barranco behind the houses to sweep us off to a watery death.
I was about 10 when my grandparents moved to a larger house on the corner of—I can’t tell you exactly where. This is where my fear comes in, fear of the beasts killing law enforcement officials, politicians and innocents. In a city of a million and a half people, this may seem irrational. Would drug cartels really single out my family? Maybe not, but there have been some 1,700 homicides in Juárez this year; I won’t take the chance. Anyway, about the house: Its tiny front porch opened to the street through a wrought iron gate. From the front door, a hallway led to a living room and kitchen on the right and bedrooms on the left. At the back of the house was a tiny patio.
My grandmother lived her last days in this house. Sometimes, as she lay dying, we kids forgot ourselves. Despite the moans of our abuela in her darkened bedroom, we’d break into squeals during some impromptu game, bringing one of our parents running. Once my mother marched my sister and me to our grandmother’s bedside so we could witness a human’s battle with death. We walked back into the hall somberly and, overcome with emotion that refused to express itself as tears, collapsed in horrified giggles, hands over our mouths. When she died, we held our grandmother’s wake in the family room in the Old World tradition.
In the years that followed, my primas and I morphed into teens who wore lipstick and eyed the crisp-shirted young men ambling by the house in the evenings. Some nights, under the eye of an aunt, we donned party dresses and slipped into a taxi, our feet twitchy in their high-heeled shoes in anticipation of the baile. Eventually we grew up, launched careers, married and had children of our own. But always we returned to that house. Long after our abuelo died and left it to one of our tías, it remained the star we orbited.
My life is more complicated now than in the years I lived on the border. There is my mother’s Alzheimer’s that has me shuttling from Dallas to El Paso several times a year. There’s the fact that in 2003 I met two half-siblings, a son and daughter born to my father (long divorced from my mom) and living in Ciudad Juárez. Since that discovery, I’ve tried to forge a bond with them. Who are they? What are their hopes? They have relationships and dreams of which I know nothing. This would all be easier were I not 600 miles away. As it is, when I’m in El Paso, my time is devoted almost entirely to my mother. Further complicating life is the violence that has become a hallmark of Mexico’s frontera. Every day I’m reminded of the drug wars by stories of kidnappings and mass murders—stories that paralyze me into staying on the American side.
WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I dreamed of fame and a dazzling career. These days, I dream about a reunification of my soul. This dream is the brilliant blue of sky and hope. In it, I vanquish my fears and cross the border to reclaim my cultural birthright. I spend time with my newly found siblings, seeing in them the line of my own nose and the slant of my own eyes. In this vision, I connect them with the part of my life I spent in the city of their birth. I walk them through my grandfather’s house: Here is where I hid when we played las escondidas. Here is the bed where we lay giggling over the guy I left on the dance floor because he looked down my dress. Here is the kitchen where my mom smoked a Salem after her mother’s death—the kitchen where my grandfather and uncles sit in a perpetual tableau around the table, their hair crushed by hats removed, their laughter cracking off walls layered with the aromas of a thousand meals.
More than anything, this image of the family table, where food nourished our bodies and love fed our souls, is the one I hold as road map to the border’s future. It is prologue and epilogue: family we have loved, family for whom we long. So powerful is this image that I even dare to envision this: We, the exiled border souls, gather on that line that has been taken by thugs and criminals. We gather by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, and we walk south across that line. We breach it, together. In the throngs of this critical mass, I hold my mother’s hand and lead her across to take her home. Once there, who can stop us? We will just keep walking.
Beatriz Terrazas is a writer based in Dallas. Her work has been published in The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News, as well as in Heal, Cure and Skirt!magazines.
[Photo Courtesy Beatriz Terrazas]