Who is Selena? for several days last spring, that question was on everyone's lips, as America struggled to come to terms with the tragic loss of a celebrity it didn't even know it had. In the aftermath of Selena's death at the hands of her fan-club president, Yolanda Saldivar--whose murder trial began last week in Houston--thoughtful citizens wondered how a nation that heaps recognition on Ricki Lake could have ignored for so long this immensely talented young singer in spangled halter tops. The obvious answer--"Well, for heaven's sake, she sang in Spanish"-- fails to address the perplexing heart of the matter, which is that, at the same time, millions of people in Mexico City were wondering Selena? Quien es Selena?
National borders are often anomalies, like Alsace-Lorraine, neither quite French nor wholly German. The Mexican-American border, isolated by empty deserts from both heartlands, has undergone what University of Arizona historian Oscar Martinez calls "a profound, silent integration" of its two halves. Selena, legally an American, by culture and background was a citizen of a place that issues no passports. She was of la frontera: the border.
From the mouth of the Rio Grande to the Pacific la frontera is 2 000 miles long, and it: extends, by conventional estimates, perhaps 60 miles in either direction (map). It thus comprises parts of four American and six Mexican states and a population that has grown in a decade from less than 7 million to some 12 million, and could come close to doubling in the next decade. It speaks two languages plus an indigenous hybrid known as "Spanglish" (box); it has its own music with roots in both traditions (following story) and a religion that borrows from the vivid Indio-Catholicism of Mexico and the ecstatic faith-healing tradition of the Anglo settlers.
The region has inspired a burgeoning literature, whose best-known products in-elude Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses" and Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate." Filmmakers like Mexico's Maria Novaro find the border's "vital nonconformity" irresistible; in her new movie "El Jardin del Eden" ("The Garden of Eden"), a single Chicana mother moves from Los Angeles to Tijuana to raise her children, and confronts her estrangement from her culture. The region has a national sport, which consists of impressing girls by driving around in low-rider sedans that drag a trail of sparks on the pavement. And it has its own transnational economy, predating NAFTA, consisting of maquiladoras--the factories where Mexican workers assemble goods to be shipped to the United States--and department stores that sell the selfsame TV sets and dungarees back to Mexicans.
The unofficial gateways to la frontera are Monterrey, Nuevo Leon and San Antonio, Texas. From San Antonio you can drive southwest on I-35, past rangeland that grows progressively drier and rockier, to the warehouses that mark the outskirts of Laredo, the second fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States and one of the poorest. Martha Fenstermaker, now the chairman of the art department at Laredo Community College, made this trip in 1983, and was astonished to find "a different world" 150 miles from home, where July 4 was barely celebrated but everyone got excited about the Day of the Dead, a Mexican folk holiday in which families pay ritual visits to festively decorated cemeteries and eat candy skulls.
Other migrants from the heartland are unsettled by the formal courtesy of everyday exchanges in MexAmerica; they feel as if they're being shown up when strangers address them as "Senor," or even "Sir." "People 150 miles to the north or south of us don't know who or what we are here," says Sam Johnson, a prominent Laredo businessman who teaches a class to help newcomers from the north overcome the shock of feeling like strangers in their own country. He encourages them to leave the malls occasionally for the colorful shopping streets of Laredo's cross-border twin city, Nuevo Laredo, where merchandise is organized on the principle that every store sells everything. "Dulceria y Materias Primas," reads the sign over one establishment that evidently deals in candy and building materials. Religious items are ubiquitous in the stores, reflecting the role of religion in people's lives. A well-stocked yerberia will sell curative herbs and incense, along with cooking spices including four kinds of dried chilies, icons of doe-eyed saints along with China eats and milkmaids. This can be disorienting to citizens of a country where shoes, running shoes and hiking boots each have separate stores devoted to them. "I don't want to sound like a goober, but it was like getting a foreign assignment," says one of Johnson's former students, C. W. Moore, a U.S. Customs special agent transferred to Laredo last year from Jacksonville, Fla. Miserable at first, he and his wife are now assimilated enough to plan a festive Day of the Dead visit to their newly deceased neighbor's grave.
An important transition takes place around Cotulla, 50 miles north of the border at the boundary between Texas open-pit barbecue and the tortilla-and-chili cuisine known as "Tex-Mex." There is an emerging haute border cuisine, which emphasizes regional ingredients such as pinon nuts and even tequila (unheard of in classical Mexican cooking)--Texas cookbook author Lucinda Hutson has published a recipe for gazpacho with a whole cup of tequila, plus serrano chiles. But newcomers quickly find that the staples of the border diet-tortillas, rice, beans, enchiladas and tacos--are impervious to refinement; they are the same from place to place, and since you always order the combination plate,they are the same every day, too. On the Mexican side, you may find barbecued cabrito (baby goat) or a dish made with mole, although perhaps a mole Americanized to a point midway between the enigmatic, exotic original and a melted Hershey bar.
For the American managers of maquiladoras, getting used to quesadillas for lunch is easier than adjusting to an essentially colonial relationship to Spanish-speaking workers living on less than $15 a day). In Nuevo Laredo--poorer by far than the American city, but still one of the most affluent in Mexico--workers live in colonias on unnamed dirt streets in shanties built mostly of junk. In Colonia Nueva Era ("New Era"), a man squats in the dirt outside a cantina, performing the timeless Third World ritual of repairing a fiat tire, while under a roof of scraps of plywood and tin lashed together with live electrical wire, a girl is selling cold beers for 50 centavos--around eight cents. No wonder they look across the river at Laredo's malls and lawns and wonder, Why shouldn't I have that too?
Unfortunately, they are more likely to wind up in an identical colonia on the American side. Five hundred miles away on the outskirts of El Paso lies the burgeoning Colonia Las Pampas ("The Plains"), which has better houses, including some made of cinderblock, but lacks the one amenity Nueva Era boasts, running water. (Neither place has sewers.) Inhabitants trek with their empty cans a half-mile to where the Southern Pacific obligingly provides them with free water. Most of them are in the country illegally, says the woman who runs the local grocery (La Economia). Being undocumented here is taken matter-of-factly; there is nothing fugitive about it, and indocumentados freely give their names to reporters.
Migra': The growth of colonias such as Las Pampas may be, in part, an unintended consequence of "Operation Hold the Line," a highly publicized program to crack down on illegal entries in the area around El Paso. Shortly after taking office in 1998, Border Patrol sector chief Silvestre Reyes began stationing officers at intervals of a quarter mile or less along the Rio Grande, which can be easily forded at this point. Soon the number of successful crossings fell dramatically, but those who did make it across had an incentive to settle rather than return home and risk not getting back in. On a barren embankment west of the city, a group of four Mexicans were lounging in the afternoon sun one day last month. They had arrived at around dawn and spent the morning watching a speck on a distant mountain, which they took to be the van of "La Migra," the Border Patrol. They were waiting for La Migra to go to lunch, so they could dash across a dusty field into America, where they might find work clipping hedges for $10 or $15 for what was left of the day. Apprised of this, Reyes--who is widely expected to resign soon and run for Congress--roars that the poor souls might as well go home. "La Migra," he says grandly, "never goes to lunch!"
Of course, if they had regular jobs, or enough money to spend the day shopping instead of working, they could have obtained a border-crossing card and walked unchallenged across one of the bridges leading to downtown El Paso. Americans, for their part, can cross to Ciudad Juarez with barely a nod from Mexican immigration. Returning to the States is almost as simple; Juarez is the capital of North American drug smuggling, but the ordinary traveler is rarely troubled by Customs. A taxi driver in Juarez agreed to drive three Americans back to their car in El Paso--although he demanded $20 for the 10-min-ute trip--but as he approached the crossing he grew cagey and advised the senorita to pretend to have twisted her ankle. Otherwise, he said, the immigration officer would make them walk into America. There was no obvious reason for this policy, since taxis elsewhere freely carry Americans across the border but he was right.
The border is a harsh land and a poor one, but it commands a loyalty all the more fierce for having no flag or anthem to rally it. The region is full of families who trace their ancestry back three or more generations in the same corner of Texas or New Mexico. Denise Chavez, one of the Mexican-American authors known (in Spanglish) as las girlfriends, adores the easygoing, generous spirit of ni modo she finds in her hometown of Las Cruces, N.M. This is an untranslatable phrase that means something like "No, I don't feel like getting that wrecked car out of my yard, but you're welcome to any parts you can get off it." On the border, she says, "exteriors are crumbling, unpainted, ramshackle, but inside is a realm of magic." She is entranced by the folk religion: the curanderos who heal with holy water and herbs, worshiping before altars that look like religious garage sales; the local saints like El Nino, a faith healer who died in 1988 in Espinazo, Mexico, and has been canonized by acclamation, not Rome; the sacred tortilla on which appeared an image of Christ's face, and which can be viewed, partially eaten, in a glass-fronted shrine in someone's living room. But mostly, she loves belonging to a place that is neither Mexico nor America, but some of both. Her ancestors came north from Mexico four generations ago, and she is as American as . . . well, as Selena. But "every day," she says, "I think of myself as a person with one foot on each side of that border."
The U.S.-Mexico border region has come into its own in the past decade. With its unique music, literature, religion and economy, it's a whole 'nother country, senor.
ARIZONA: 'La Migra,' the U.S. Border Patrol, apprehends more than 1 million illegal immigrants a year
NEW MEXICO: A couple dancing la quebradita--a mix of lambada, jitterbug and hoedown, but more formal and dignified
TEXAS: Pumpville is where Cormac McCarthy's two teenage cowboys cross over into Mexico in 'All the Pretty Horses'
TEXAS: Laredo is the arts center of the region
SONORA: Banda and techno-banda music--an electric version of of a traditional Mexican dance rhythm--rules here
CHIHUANHUA: Nogales is one area known for maquiladora (factory) laborers who work mostly for Anglo-U.S. management
MEXICO: Piedras Negras was the setting for the best-selling book and box-office hit 'Like Water for Chocolate'
CORPUS CHRISTI: Corpus Christi is the heart of Tejano music
TAMAULIPAS: Mexicans make pilgimage across the border to McAllen malls to carry home U.S. goods
2,000 miles long, 60 miles north and south of the border
Capital El Paso-Ciudad Juarez
City Tujuana-San Diego
English, Spanish, Spanglish
Roman Catholic, Protestant, Curanderismo (folk healing)
less than $15,000
factory assembly, cotton, fruits and vegetables, Tejano music
'Spanglish'-- a Spanish-English hybrid dialect-was once the street slang of tough, colorful Mexican-American cholos. Today Spanglish is the region's third language, spoken by young and old, Latino and Anglo. Here's how:
With hybrid words:
(See you later, hasta luego--literally, we'll watch each other there)
(to shower, banarse)
Using Spanish colloquialisms unique to the region:
[This character cannot be represented in ASCII text]Como la juegas? ([This character cannot be represented in ASCII text]Cual es tu trabajo?, what's your line of work?)
[This character cannot be represented in ASCII text]Que cura? ([This character cannot be represented in ASCII text]Que hay de nuevo?, What's up?) ?A la brava ese! (Let's cut the bull!)
Blending Spanish and English phrases in the same sentence:
(inversion: What's the name de ese lugar?)
(inversion: Want to go a bailar?)
(inversion: Que haces this weekend?