Tuesday, January 22, 2019

About that southern border

We lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico for nine years, not far from the Mexican border. Go into many commercial establishments and you'll find people who speak both Spanish and English, sometimes switching back and forth between the languages in the same sentence. The kid at the McDonald's counter takes one look at you and knows to greet you in English, then greets the next customer in Spanish. Signs in storefronts read "Se habla español." Hungry folks who visit Delicias around noontime will find the restaurant packed with Spanish- and English-speaking workers sitting at brightly colored tables and chairs. A few years ago, a mariachi band occasionally came in and serenaded the customers. Perhaps they still do.

Many laborers make a daily round trip from Ciudad Juárez to do much of the work Americans want done but won't do themselves. A landscaping crew might have one man who speaks sufficient English to talk to the customer. They work in the hot sun, wearing long sleeves, jeans and boots, hats with a cloth in the back to cover their necks. Offer them agua, and they gratefully respond with sí, gracias and a smile. At least in the moment that's enough Spanish for a gringo to know. Of course, many Mexicans work here for a time before recrossing the border to home and family. Some live on this side of the border.

In El Paso, a woman told me she is from Mexico and is annoyed when her compatriots come to the U.S. and do not speak English when they're here. On that side of the border, you speak Spanish. On this side, English. I told her New Mexico has two official languages, English and Spanish. She didn't like that. Me, I don't mind at all.

The border, la frontera, is artificial anyway. A huge swath of the Southwest was occupied by nomadic Indian tribes, colonized by Spain, and became Mexico. Then the United States took a lot, bought some, and drew a line.