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Reflections on my years of covering borderlands

Mayté Luján runs a small hotel in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, that is frequented by tourists from other parts of Mexico and from New Mexico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)


“I decided not to be afraid,” she said.

Mayté Luján stayed in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, through the years when the violence in Ciudad Juárez frightened many American tourists away from northern Mexico.

She kept up her clay-colored hotel, each room with a wooden door and blue frame. She refined her softly lit collection of Mata Ortíz pottery in a small gallery.

And she waited.

Mexican tourists from farther south have returned, and so have some New Mexicans.

“The Texans, they’re still afraid – they always were,” she said. “But New Mexicans are my people. They come here.”

This is the Mexico beyond the dusty border towns that I have come to love so much, the Mexico of pueblos magicos where the sky is a New Mexico shade of blue but the people and the music and food are all quintessentially Old Mexico.

Although my byline will still appear in this newspaper for a few more weeks, this is the last column I will write for the Journal.

Photographer Roberto E. Rosales and I have crisscrossed New Mexico’s southern border together for three years now.

We’ve come to know the Mexican barrios nestled in the dirt and shadow of the rusted-steel border wall, the scrappy New Mexicans living in hope and poverty in Columbus, the industrialists in Santa Teresa trying to build up the state’s trade and economy, the Border Patrol agents trying their damnedest in the rugged and relentless mountains of the Bootheel, migrants scrambling through the desert to a better life or a jail cell; the farmers, the ranchers and their endless creativity in a tough environment; the hunters who are as passionate about wildlife conservation as they are about the hunt.

In short, the people who proudly call the borderlands of northern Mexico and southern New Mexico home.

This region is intricately, inextricably connected in ways that are too often invisible, especially to the people barking about the border from afar.

Reporter Lauren Villagran visits Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, during one of her trips through the borderlands of northern Mexico and southern New Mexico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

If covering the border has showed me anything, it’s that those of us who live in the borderlands – on both sides – are family, business partners and vecinos, good neighbors, first, despite the line.

Southern New Mexico chile grower Dino Cervantes partners with chile farms in Chihuahua and sees “one community,” he says.

“You can go down to Casas Grandes and Ascención and I will see neighbors down there, other (New Mexico) growers,” he says. “The border is really just kind of a fence. It’s not much else.”

Border residents live among contradictions.

Like the Border Patrol agent whose grandfather came from Mexico to work in an El Paso factory, when crossing didn’t require a passport.

Like the judge, a devout Catholic, whose dismay is evident every time he sentences an immigrant whose only criminal violation is having crossed the border illegally, forcing him to send mothers and fathers home to Mexico or Central America, separating families.

Like the Bootheel rancher who frets about border security but keeps bread, bologna and water in an outdoor freezer for the migrants or drug runners who might cut through her property.

Luján’s best customer is a wealthy Santa Fe collector who has bought more than a thousand pieces of Mata Ortíz pottery. Her own family is scattered from Mexico City to the American Southwest.

In the morning, she chatters on about Mexican and U.S. politics while thin-slicing potatoes and jalapeños, frying eggs and scooping out fleshy yellow mango from its skin. She speaks with pride of her Mexican culture – the ancient settlement of the Paquimé people is in front of her little hotel – and then she asks me and Roberto, “What makes you proud to be an American?”

I say: That this country welcomed my family – immigrants from an Italy that was once as poor and troubled as Mexico can often be – and offered bountiful opportunity. Roberto, who himself emigrated as a young boy from war-torn El Salvador, answered the same: That this country took him and his family in when they had nothing left to lose.

This is a country, I told her proudly, that absorbs all people, from all cultures, and transforms them into something new: Americans.

The borderlands are where that transition unfolds in real time.

Lauren Villagran interviews a man in Ciudad Juárez while working on one of her final stories for the Albuquerque Journal. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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