Sometimes I imagine threading them as you would thread the holes of a double needle. Or they remind me of the little triangles along the edges of dress patterns that show where you match up one piece with another.
I think a lot about stitching up the border here in Deming. That's one of the reasons I'm living here. I'm not sure if it matters to anybody else, but what I'm doing is stitching the border—the one inside me, if nothing else.
It's the border between rich and poor, a "wound," as some people refer to it. This place needs a lot of binding up. Many people are broken as they try to cross this gap. They founder and fall in the desert strip of land that exists between the two worlds.
When I've gone to Palomas, Ascension, Parral, Zacatecas or, as I've done years ago, to Guatemala and Colombia, it's as if I'm pulling a needle back and forth, creating links, drawing up connections.
I've worked at the chile processing plants a few months and in the fields about a dozen times. Spanish is spoken almost exclusively in these semi-autonomous zones. It's as if the border has been moved north to include these special districts. It's one of the reasons I work there.
The border crosses me in these work zones—I don't cross the border. This is convenient. I get to travel without having to pay for gas or hotel rooms. In fact, they even pay me to be there.
While working at Border Foods, I swear I could tell a young guy, about 18, was from Zacatecas because he looked in so many ways like a teacher I had in a language school in that city—his tall skinny frame, the dark tone of his skin, even the way his feet wobbled when he walked, like my father's. And I was right. He was in fact from there.
When I was in Salem once, north of Hatch, a farmworker in his fifties claimed he remembered seeing me in a restaurant in Zacatecas, where he was from. Central Mexico seemed breathtakingly close just then—right next door.
But despite stunning coincidences and similarities, there are deep differences between Mexico and the US, in their history and economic level, and in their ideologies and legal systems. There is a lot more dust in Palomas. The two countries dream in different languages.
So I get a little jolt when I see students in Palomas who have been in the classrooms of Deming or Columbus where I substitute teach. I see guys passing by me in the plaza give me a wry smile and a wisecracking "hi." Girls cruising the main street at night in a car next to mine chorus, "Hi, Ms. Lilly."
To see them against a different backdrop provokes a mental adjustment. It's partly because I know the standard of living there is lower than even that of Deming, like the family I know whose only running water comes from their showerhead.
Recently I drove down to have my car fixed by the husband in this family. I had brought chiles and squash, and the wife cooked them up. Sitting at the table was her son, whom I knew from somewhere. As it turned out, it was the Mid High School in Deming. He said I'd had him in Mr. Punke's class and maybe someone else's. Here was another stitch in the embroidery I'm doing.
Much of the border near Palomas is no more than tangled, cut-up barbed wire. You can easily play hopscotch along a lot of it. It's kind of hard to grasp, but all Latin America begins at that Port of Entry in Columbus. Central America, the Caribbean, the Amazon basin, the Andes, the Southern Cone all start right there at the linea.
What makes it at least partly graspable is being able to talk to border crossers from a majority of Mexican states, as far south as Chiapas and even from Honduras or Guatemala, right there in the plaza a few blocks from the border.
I've talked to five campesinos at one time from different Mexican states—Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Puebla—and still made it home for supper. When I asked them if they felt the Mexican government had "abandoned agriculture," all of them nodded their heads deeply.
The stitching I'm doing along the border doesn't always come out right. There are dropped stitches and wild zigzags. I have experiences that don't fit into feel-good essays like this. I feel like giving up sometimes. But there are other times when the stitches start forming a nice pattern.
The other day I saw a man named Arsenio at the photo center at Wal-Mart. I know him from the pharmacy in Palomas. He's also a teacher at the high school there.
We chatted about a friend of mine who traveled through his home state of Veracruz and told me about sidewalk cafes where you get the waiter's attention by tapping the side of your cup with a spoon. I could see it warmed his heart to remember the tropical ambience of his home. Arsenio has poetry in him.
Just having a friendly, normal, cross-border chat like that left a smile on the air between us when he left.
I used to help out a bit at the old orphanage they had in a house in Palomas, bringing gallons of milk when I could afford it. These kids in actuality are children of prostitutes. Three of them had been rescued from a mother who kept them drugged up.
I was there one afternoon when the kids were doing chores after school—sweeping, taking out garbage and making beds. They knew what they were doing was needed to keep the place going, and they worked in a happy swirl of activity. Afterwards they stood together talking excitedly as if they were having a party. This happiness in the midst of such sordidness and grittiness touched me deeply.
As I drove home that night, the border dissolved the way water is transformed into another substance in a wake of moonlight. A line of warm, lambent light that ran from the orphanage to my house wiped out the border.
When that happens, you say: This is what it's all about. You say: I'm not sure if I can live anywhere else. Binding up the border is about finding that transparent space where there is no border, as I do every once in a while.
Columnist Marjorie Lilly also wrote this issue's feature