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    During Prohibition, Victor Delgado used to hear gunfights in what is now the Chamizal National Memorial. Back then it was No Man's Land, a disputed territory between Mexico and the United States where people grazed their goats and ran tequila across the border. Though the national boundaries are now official, Victor still lives in a transitional space: up until the border fence was built, he'd often find people in his yard, hiding from the Border Patrol.

  • r-young-chamizal-03 +

    Claudia was born and raised in the Chamizal neighborhood. After seeing the way drugs had affected her family and community, she decided to become a drug counselor. She bikes to work and runs daily at the Chamizal National Monument. Claudia is transgendered. In high school she named herself after the most beautiful girl in her class, but her ID still says Ricardo. Claudia doesn't go to Juarez anymore, but when she used to visit, she always went dressed as a man.

  • r-young-chamizal-04 +

    Hector Arredondo runs the San Pedro Pharmacy on Alameda Avenue. Many El Pasoans go to Juarez for cheap prescriptions and medical care, but Hector has found that over the past few years, more people have been filling their prescriptions in the United States because they are scared to cross into Mexico. Hector has always known how porous the border can be. When the United States was rationing gasoline during World War II, Hector and his friends would just cross into Mexico to pick up more. And during the Mexican Revolution, Hector's grandmother was hit by a bullet that strayed across the border into El Paso.

  • r-young-chamizal-01 +

    One day, while sitting in front of his church, Saul Sustaida saw a black van pull up to a spot across the street where sidewalk grates kept going missing. Someone pulled up the floor panel of the van while another person lifted out the sidewalk grate, so Saul notified the police. It turned out that drugs were being smuggled through an underground tunnel from Juarez to the Chamizal neighborhood. This particular tunnel is now mortared shut.

  • r-young-chamizal-05 +

    Araceli came to El Paso from Juarez by wading through the Rio Grande with four of her children. "When we finally found an apartment, the landlord said, 'Okay, you can move in all your furniture now,' but all we had was the shirts on our backs." The whole family shared one mattress; though she was pregnant at the time, Araceli often slept on the floor. Now she works cleaning houses, and supplements her income scrapping metal after work. Her kids do exceedingly well in school; their awards hang in a large frame above their bed.

  • r-young-chamizal-06 +

    Richie Valadez with his 1983 Cutlass Supreme and Josue Del Campo with his 1964 Cutlass.

  • r-young-chamizal-07 +

    “Goldie” crossed the border when she was 16 and started dancing at a topless bar where most of the dancers were illegal immigrants from Juarez. She soon left that life behind, and now she owns Goldie’s Bar, a tiny cantina in an industrial section of south central El Paso. The walls of Goldie’s Bar are littered with pictures of her hero, Marilyn Monroe: “I like that she often said that women should be liberated, that men shouldn’t limit them, that a woman should be the way she wants to be.”

  • r-young-chamizal-08 +

    Estine Davis runs Estine's East Side Barbershop in the south central neighborhood of El Paso. The city keeps expanding eastward, but when Estine was a child, this was the East Side, a mixed black and Mexican neighborhood and nightlife hub. The area changed dramatically in the late 1960s: when Interstate 10 was built, it cut right through the neighborhood, and after the Fair Housing Act was passed, African Americans started moving to other parts of the city. Estine has met several presidents. Her least favorite is Eisenhower, who she encountered when she was a barber at Fort Bliss. "His dry ass. He wouldn't let me wear nail polish."

  • r-young-chamizal-09 +

    In the 1980s, El Paso was known as the blue jean capital of the world. Ana Gomez came here in the early 90s and worked at a lavandería contracted to "age" jeans. The jeans were sandblasted and placed in dryers filled with rocks and chemicals. Though the sandblasters wore dust masks, none of the other workers who handled the jeans did; today Ana and her husband both suffer from respiratory problems. The North American Free Trade Agreement decimated El Paso's garment district as factories moved across the border; Ana and 300 of her coworkers were fired one day without notice. Now she heads the kitchen at La Mujer Obrera, a community center run by women who lost their factory jobs to NAFTA.

  • r-young-chamizal-10 +

    A group of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Chamizal neighborhood. Even during the height of the violence in Juarez, Jehovah's Witnesses went door to door across the border every day; some were killed in the line of duty.

  • r-young-chamizal-11 +

    Alameda Avenue is the unofficial piñata district of El Paso. On nearby side streets you can find big papier-mâché forms drying in backyards. Josefina buys the forms wholesale and then dresses them herself.

  • r-young-chamizal-13 +

    Rosa and her makeshift ice cream truck.



Last year, El Paso was named the safest city in the United States, while Juarez ranked among the most violent in the world. The year before that, San Diego, which also shares its border with a violent Mexican town, earned the title of safest city in the US. It’s hard not to think that in these metropolitan areas, crime, rather than being delegated to the “wrong side of the tracks,” has been pushed to the wrong side of the border. When we talk about immigration policy in the United States, we often refer to Mexico as “our backyard.” The backyard is where you hang your dirty laundry, a place hidden from view. In that respect, can tidy El Paso be viewed as a front yard of sorts, the place for keeping up appearances? And if so, what’s inside the house? But perhaps these metaphors are too blunt; the border is, after all, much blurrier than it appears.

Over two million people live in the metropolitan area of El Paso-Juarez. From the highway it seems as though the two cities could be one, but drive up to the Franklin Mountains, where the lone star of Texas glows blue at night, and you’ll see the bright white scalp of the Rio Grande, parting the two cities with a winding border. One especially prominent curve in the Rio Grande sticks out like a large hump from Ciudad Juarez: this is the area ceded to Mexico during the Chamizal Agreement of 1963. In the 1800s, it was decided that the Rio Grande would serve as the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez; no one knew then that the river would steadily shift southward. As the boundary shifted, El Paso encroached on what was formerly Juarez, and the territory became hotly disputed. It was known, for a long time, as No Man’s Land, a zone for smuggling and other gray market activities. Finally in 1963 the United States and Mexico reached an agreement on the border, and soon afterward, cheery and green memorial parks were built on either side.

Last summer, we visited the Chamizal neighborhood in El Paso, a small area–its own boundaries much-disputed–of South Central El Paso. Chamizal abuts the border–at rush hour, traffic for the Free Bridge spills over into the neighborhood, and Border Patrol agents can be seen idling their cars on side streets. Many residents there are recent immigrants. Many of them are not legal. Many of them have not been able to see their family for years, though they live only a few short miles away.

While the nation turns its attention to immigration reform, it is important to hear from the people these policies will most directly affect. But life on the frontera, though in some ways defined by concrete boundaries and ironclad law, is a much blurrier thing than the national debate can grasp. Family ties stretch across riverbeds and chain link fences, and morality is not starkly black or white but hazy, like the dust storms that swirl across the desert with no care for the border.