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Hitchhiking Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Sylvain Prudhomme; Translated by Jessica Moore

Nov 2, 2020

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Playas De Tijuana border wall as seen from the Mexico side

Photo by Richard Newsome/Shutterstock

Playas De Tijuana border wall as seen from the Mexico side

In this excerpt, a French writer heads to the U.S.-Mexico border for a road trip and recounts the characters he meets along the way.

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Juan is a taxi driver who lives on the Mexican side of the border, in Tijuana, across from San Diego, California. I get into his car around noon, after three or four hours of walking around downtown. I pay my way, of course, so it’s not really hitchhiking yet—I’m cheating—but it’s just so I can have a better chance of thumbing a ride later. I crossed into Mexico early this morning through the main border post, the one that lets out into the center of Tijuana, and I want to cross back into the States through the other one, at Garita de Otay, twelve kilometers east of the city. That’s where the trucks cross, in the middle of an industrial zone. I’m hoping to find a big rig to take me eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean along Interstate 8 and then Interstate 10, the highways that cross California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

“Welcome to Tijuana / Tequila, sexo y marihuana.” Songs by Los Tigres del Norte and The Buitres can be heard everywhere, and I discover that Manu Chao still has some smash hits too. Tijuana has changed in the past twenty years. Once a party zone for thrill-seeking Americans and other foreigners, the city has become more violent under the increasing influence of drug trafficking. The Sinaloa cartel controls this area, headed by the famous “El Chapo” Guzmán, whose extradition to the United States in January 2017 set off a bloody war of succession. The number of homicides rose drastically—758 between January and April 2018, an increase of 67 percent compared to 2017. What strikes me most crossing the border is something unexpected—the omnipresence of medical establishments, flooded with thousands of Californians who come here every day to seek the medical attention they can’t afford in the States. Dental offices, specialized clinics for cancer care, plastic surgery clinics, and pharmacies: medical tourism has begun to rival drug and sex tourism.

Juan and I drive dead east toward the maquiladoras, the factories that have sprung up all along the border to take advantage of the influx of cheap labor—immigrants from all over Central America end up here, ready to do any job in order to survive. I had imagined dusty old warehouses, but these are massive, modern, windowless crates, like the ones found in industrial areas all over the world. The maquiladoras produce everything: ready-to-wear fashion, electronic components, airplane parts. Evidence of the efflorescence of global capitalism, they are the property of big companies based in the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, and sometimes Europe.

The contrast couldn’t be starker between the two worlds, the two sets of conditions, the two systems of freedom.

The road runs along the wall—the one that exists already, three to four meters high, whereas the one Trump wants to build would be at least ten meters tall. He’s even said twelve or fifteen meters in some speeches. As our eyes slide along the length of the imposing barrier, Juan explains the symbolism of the innumerable planks of wood nailed to the wall: they are funerary crosses. Thousands of them, placed there by families, each for an illegal immigrant who died trying to cross the desert that begins a few dozen kilometers to the east. We pass the airport, driving under a narrow walkway that straddles the wall, a footbridge designed to facilitate tourist traffic—this way international travelers can come back to the American side without wasting time, explains Juan. The contrast couldn’t be starker between the two worlds, the two sets of conditions, the two systems of freedom: crosses nailed to a wall for the people on one side, a raised walkway for the people on the other. “The most amazing thing,” laughs Juan, “is that Trump wanted us to pay for it at first—he wanted us to pay for his wall.” He points out some very tall warehouses on the American side. “Imagine—it would be as high as those buildings. All that for nothing. Smugglers are already digging tunnels. And for drugs, they have drones, submarines, and planes anyway. What difference would a wall make?”

Back on the American side, I walk two or three kilometers east toward the point where, in an Internet search, I spotted the first fragments of the wall: eight sample sections ten meters high, one after the other, like carpet panels hanging in a hardware store window. Two Border Patrol agents block the way. Beyond is the sierra, the desert of stones, the beginning of the great playing field where, every day, border guards and illegal immigrants play a deadly game of cat and mouse. One of the agents—José—stops me to ask what I want. I say something about the prototypes. He points them out, way out there on the far-off plains—I can just barely make them out. He lends me his binoculars so I can see them better. Is this hitching? Does the loan of binoculars from a border guard count as a ride offered? I decide it does. I take a photo of José and continue on my way.

At the entrance to Route 125, I get into Luis’s 4x4. He comes to the States regularly for the avocado-import business he started three years ago, when he graduated from business school in Tijuana. Next, I climb into Mauricio’s delivery van, filled with vacuum cleaners and pumps. Mauricio is also Mexican but has permanent-resident status in the US; though he doesn’t believe in the wall, he does think something has to be done. “We can’t very well take on the healthcare costs for everyone who enters the country illegally,” he says, alluding to Obamacare. He seems glad that Trump has quashed the program.

“You want to taste some true San Diego? You want to experience the real West Coast?”

Then there’s the aptly named “Great,” who screeches to the side of the road, picks me up, and takes off again like a shot. He’s African American, originally from Chicago, talks really fast, gets annoyed when now and then I ask him to repeat himself. There won’t be a photo of him, he tells me early on: “You can write whatever you want but no picture, okay?” He tells me I’m crazy to be hitchhiking: “People are evil. People will kill you. And they’ll do it with a smile, that’s the worst part: they’ll smile at you and at the same time, bam, they’ll kill you.” Right. And besides that, I ask him, everything’s cool? He stops once, twice, three times, for the time it takes to pick up an envelope, to bring it into a snack bar or a store, to come back again . . . After three such stops, I put it together that he’s delivering: “Weed. Weed, obviously, man!” He holds out a little plastic box for me to smell. Recreational cannabis is legal in California. “We fought for that. We went to see all the old guys, everyone we knew, we went door to door to explain to them that they had to vote for legalization.” Great is thirty-nine. He fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was one of the Marines who held the Baghdad airport. The phone rings—he answers, looks at me, and apologizes. “Man, I’m gonna have to go back to Spring Valley, I’ve got a delivery to do there. But after that I’m going your way, I swear. You wanna stay with me or get out here?” I picture myself gathering dust on the shoulder of the road. I stay. “Cool,” he says. We do a U-turn and head back toward San Diego. Once the delivery is done, we pass a park. Great asks if I want to go smoke one with the big dudes chilling there, dealers even more burly than he is. “You want to taste some true San Diego? You want to experience the real West Coast?” He laughs when I check the time. “That’s your loss, man.” I get out at a rest stop, the Rest Area of Boulder Oaks—which is actually just some miserable porta-potties under the on-ramp—a cul-de-sac where no one stops. It’s 5:00 p.m. I still have two hundred kilometers to go before Yuma. I’m in the middle of nowhere.

I wait a good hour among the desert hills and stones, solitary birds of prey circling overhead. I refuse a ride from a fat man with a pasty complexion and greasy hair who says I can ride with him so long as I strip down too. “You can come with me, but look, I drive naked,” he tells me, lifting his belly with both hands to show me he’s not kidding. Then I meet Hector, a computer equipment technician for primary schools in San Diego. He commutes every day from Calexico, where he lives, on the border facing Mexicali—twin cities whose mirrored names are a symbol in themselves, a symbol of the incessant exchanges between the two countries.

Shelvy knows the names of the trees and plants, and he tells me about the countless flowers that bloom in these dry lands at the first spring rains.

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From El Centro, I catch a ride with Shelvy, fifty-eight, whose dust-covered car looks like it’s been through a storm of plaster and rubble. There’s a jumble of tools, plastic rims, and hub caps in the back. “Sorry about the mess, but I’m a mechanic, so . . .” He’s one of five employees in an El Centro garage specializing in repair of the buggies, quads, and Jet Skis that abound on and around the Colorado River. I enter Arizona with Shelvy. We pass through magical landscapes—deserts of stones, then dunes, then stones again. I discover the imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, the site where a number of scenes from Star Wars were shot, and where, once the season opens, up to two hundred thousand quad drivers gather. Shelvy knows the names of the trees and plants, and he tells me about the countless flowers that bloom in these dry lands at the first spring rains. At times the road runs alongside the wall, clearly visible here, hugging the curves of the hills a few hundred meters away. The Camino del Diablo—the Devil’s Path—is very near here: one of the most well-used routes for illegal immigrants. One of the deadliest too, since water is so scarce and the heat brutal. Border Patrol cars are everywhere—they track would-be immigrants day and night now, sometimes driving up to one hundred kilometers into the territory. Mexicans? Shelvy has nothing against them. But he doesn’t hide the fact that in El Centro, there are two worlds: “There are lots of them, the city is split in two. There’s us and them”—and I understand that this “us” means white Americans, who speak English, who often feel they’re being overrun, and who voted for Trump.

The next day I ride for a good two hours with Mélanie and Martin, Mexican residents who work in real estate. They admire Trump’s chutzpah—“He has balls!”—but find most of his actions absurd. They rail against the financial waste of the wall and the recent move to send soldiers as backup along the border, “thousands of guys who know nothing about the area and won’t do any good.” They also talk about the gun madness in America: “Sure, people settle scores in Mexico, too, but do crazy men open fire in a high school for no reason?”

At Gila Bend I meet José, forty-nine, a mason, who says possibly the most profound thing I’ll hear about Trump: “The giant of racism was sleeping peacefully—all Trump did was wake.” He calls him “El Trump.” José builds houses for pro-Trump white Americans and sometimes even for Border Patrol agents, who, like everyone else, he laughs, employ illegal immigrants. “I swear, the same illegals they spend all day trying to catch. Even his stupid wall—if he makes it happen, who’s gonna build it? Us, of course. Mexican immigrants. And there will be some illegals among us, that’s for sure.” He himself came into the United States illegally in 1986, “when it was easy.” José, like 2.7 million other immigrants, benefited from the vast legalization bill signed by President Reagan that same year. Even today, economists recommend the Immigration and Control Act because of the economic benefits these undocumented immigrants bring to the nation. José talks about the difficulty of crossing without getting caught, of the five or six terrible days that illegal immigrants face before arriving in a safe space, especially those who don’t have much money and can only pay the minimum—around $6,000, the sum that los coyotes demand nowadays to smuggle people, called los pollos, “chickens,” which says a lot about their vulnerability. “The more money you pay, the less they make you walk. People who can afford it can arrange to be driven part of the way. They get meals and barns to sleep in. For the others, it’s six days of avoiding the patrols, a bad fall, snakes, and the heat.”

“Ay Silvano! We were lucky to be born in this life. What do you say—life is beautiful, no?”

We’re in the middle of Tohono O’odham territory, not far from Yaqui territory, two Native American peoples for whom the wall would be another humiliation: “They’ve been living on horseback between Mexico and Arizona forever. It would be like cutting them in two.” But José is hopeful for the Dreamers—the eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States and who were allowed to stay in the country under Obama’s presidency. Now Trump wants to deport them. “It’s crazy, they came here with their parents, they grew up here—they don’t have any other country besides the United States. Plus, almost all of them are highly qualified, hard workers. Trump won’t win this one.” José is a philosopher. He loves talking about life, and celebrating the fact that, in spite of everything, it’s pretty sweet—suave in Spanish. “Ay Silvano! We were lucky to be born in this life. What do you say—life is beautiful, no?”

A sad motorist with tattooed arms in Tucson doesn’t see things this way. He parks his truck in front of my Nogales sign and looks me up and down with disgust. “What the hell do you want to go to Mexico for? There’s nothing there. It’s ugly, it’s dangerous—there’s nothing but thieves and drug addicts. You want to get killed, is that it? I hope you have a gun at least.” I imagine this is what is meant by white trash: a white person who’s racist and proud of it.

Next are two mythical border cities: El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Juárez is where the Mexican Revolution started in 1911 with Madero and Pancho Villa; and Juárez is also where people have been traveling from Mexico into the United States forever by crossing the Rio Grande, which the Mexicans call the Río Bravo. It’s here, across the border, in El Paso hotels overlooking the Mexican side of the river, that spies, outlaws, businessmen, and journalists from everywhere have always kept watch on comings and goings, sniffing out trouble. More recently, Ciudad Juárez, population 1.3 million, also became known as the “murder capital of the world,” with a record of three thousand homicides in just 2010—including an exceptionally high number of murdered women, most of them female workers who came here alone to work in the maquiladoras. This is the terrible state of things: lack of guilty parties convicted, omertà imposed by the cartels, atrocious abuse inflicted on the victims. Several documentaries, TV series, films, and books—beginning with the novel 2666 by Roberto Bolaño—have attempted to tell the story of feminicidio, “femicide.”

Cameras, barbed wire, walls, fences, Border Patrol cars lying in wait every fifty meters: the cities touch, infinitely close and intensely separate at once.

I reach Juárez by way of the fenced-in bridge on the border. From above, the contrast is spectacular: on the El Paso side, huge buildings catch the eye and draw an insolent, dominant skyline against the backdrop of hills; on the Juárez side, tens of thousands of tin roofs and ramshackle electrical connections sprawl, and no monument stands out, aside from a mural dedicated to Juan Gabriel, the famous singer of the city. On one side, glass and marble facades, verticality, newness, shininess, the promise of opulence, the Wells Fargo sign legible from dozens of kilometers away; on the other, the labyrinth of overpopulated colonias, alleyways as far as the eye can see, the cloud of pollution, every last inch of ground covered with buildings, at the foot of rocky hills adorned with the words “The Bible is truth. Read it.” Below, the mythic river, the Rio Grande—which springs forth from the Rockies and rushes three thousand kilometers downstream, marking the border all the way to the Atlantic—is nothing but a thin trickle of brownish water between two banks reinforced with concrete like a sewer drain. Cameras, barbed wire, walls, fences, Border Patrol cars lying in wait every fifty meters: the cities touch, infinitely close and intensely separate at once. Fuck Trump, says a tag beside a drawing of the White House with a wall all around it.

In Juárez, it’s a sunny Saturday in April. The pedestrian avenue that leads to the cathedral and to the market, entirely car-free, is incredibly lively. I hear Hector before I see him. Mainly, I see the hundreds of spectators amassed in a circle around this thirteen-year-old kid, cheering. He’s in the center, microphone in hand, wearing a suit, his face proud, beaming at the ovation. He sings his heart out, corridos and other Mexican love songs, in grand lyrical style, amplified by two powerful speakers. It’s beautiful. It transports me as much as the drivers I have been riding with—I count this as a trip. A little farther on there are duos, sometimes a full orchestra—perhaps a dozen ensembles altogether from the end of the street up to the cathedral—norteños, electric rock, mariachi guitars. I was a little nervous when I got here. But now, against all odds, I have the feeling of coming back to life after the dreadful boredom of the streets of El Paso. Families buy balloons, sweethearts eat churros and shrimp cocktails with tomato and avocado, a group of high schoolers take selfies in front of a mime. Same buzz of activity at the market. Fruits and vegetables, clothes made in China, chicharrones, cell phones, school supplies, toys, religious knickknacks, T-shirts dedicated to the glory of the “Santísima Muerte,” the Reaper worshipped by narcos and mafiosos. I see bordellos, too, with large colorful signs to attract customers. Everywhere, things are stirring, people coming and going, buying and selling, drinking and eating, chatting, living life. “Hay movimiento,” as the Mexicans say. In the paper, I learn that five murders were committed the day before. Even so: things are moving, and it feels good.

“Who was here before the arrival of the Americans? Who were the first inhabitants? There was no one but brown-skinned people here. It’s the whites who came illegally.”

Farther east, I hit the south of Texas. This is cowboy country, and the beginning of Route 90. I get a ride with Simon first, who talks about the Bible; the apostolic community of which he’s a member; his father, a pastor in Juárez; and the righteous ones who paid with their lives for having told the truth—Jesus, Lincoln, Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pancho Villa. “Trump says he doesn’t want any more illegal aliens, but who was here before the arrival of the Americans? Who were the first inhabitants? There was no one but brown-skinned people here. It’s the whites who came illegally.” He doesn’t want his photo taken—this would be the sin of pride—unless I take it “without his permission,” a kind of contortionist pact he offers, which I accept and which results in an almost-brutal picture, in which he’s protecting himself from the lens.

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After Simon, there’s Macarid and Nelly, also Mexican residents—like almost everyone who has helped me from the start. They’re headed for Midland—the oil stronghold of the Bush family—where Macario works behind the wheel of a giant cement mixer beside a drill that digs new wells each day—some more than seven thousand meters deep. Next, I meet Armando, in charge of maintenance of the glass roof over a tomato plantation where all the employees are Mexican—two thirds of them without resident status. “They get up at five each morning, do the round trip from Mexico by bus, one hundred kilometers from here. If not for them, who would do the work?” He smiles. “There’s only one white person on the plantation: the boss.”

Farther on, in Marfa, an elegant little town where minimalist artist Donald Judd set up an art foundation, I get into the sublime Lincoln of the artist DonJon Vonavich, wearing a cowboy hat and leather boots. I will drive nearly four hundred kilometers with him. Of course he hates Trump, makes fun of and trash talks him. “Obviously he’s racist. But not racist like an illiterate person from the South. You could say he’s even more classist than racist. He hates poor people more than anything. If a black person succeeds, if he makes a good living, he has his place in Trump’s America.” DonJon has seen the world of finance up close—he made his fortune in the 1990s and lost everything in the crash of 2000. At the moment, he’s appalled by the ever-increasing gulf between rich and poor.

From a bin of dollar-a-piece clothing, DonJon unearths a gorgeous cowboy hat and gives it to me.

We reach Sanderson, a stone’s throw from the spot where the hero of No Country for Old Men, the Cormac McCarthy novel made into a film by the Coen brothers, picks up the suitcase full of money abandoned after the narcos kill each other. From a bin of dollar-a-piece clothing, DonJon unearths a gorgeous cowboy hat and gives it to me. The landscapes are majestic, the sky immense. After five hours, I get out in Del Rio, walk past the Regal Motel, and think about stopping here; but I end up continuing on, hitching a ride to Eagle Pass, one hundred kilometers farther down the road. That night as I rewatch parts of the Coen brothers’ movie, I realize with a jolt that the motel where I almost stopped is the very same one where Josh Brolin hides the suitcase of money, and where Javier Bardem comes to find it, bottle of gas and shotgun in hand. I would have thought the motel would capitalize on the movie to attract tourists, but the shoot-out that follows must not have seemed like the best publicity. The Regal Motel remains a basic motel, forty dollars a night.

The next part of the trip is a gentle slope down toward the Atlantic coast. Among the drivers who pick me up, there’s Emiliano, my first truck driver, returning from a delivery of solar panels near Dallas. Then Laura, as I’m coming back from a visit to the Mexican side, in Piedras Negras, where her husband used to live—he passed away seven months ago. Next is David, a carpenter, mason, electrician, and also a singer. “Or rather, singer-songwriter, since singer by itself wouldn’t be quite true: I don’t sing particularly well—my wife even accuses me of singing off-key. Whereas songwriter is true. Even if I’m all alone in my room, I write songs!” Victor, my second truck driver, drives a red race car he’s repainted himself. He likes his job, makes $1,400 a week. “I get paid to travel around, what do you think of that?” I meet him as he’s on his way to pick up his truck in Laredo. From there, he will take deliveries to Michigan, Mexican-made carbon-fiber staircases—“bought by Trump, I imagine, to stop the Mexicans from using them to scale his wall!” he jokes. A Border Patrol car passes us, white and green as they all are, and he points to it and says: “You know what we call them, among us? Green beans.”

Laredo is as depressing as Juárez was delightful. This whole eastern zone has become the most dangerous area of the border. Two all-powerful cartels fight for control of the plazas: the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. The news headlines are grim: confrontations between narcos and soldiers are an almost daily occurrence. Forty percent of all US-Mexico trade passes through Laredo—the largest commercial port in all of Latin America. The largest drug port, too, inevitably. I walk through the streets, on both sides of the border, until evening falls, without ever finding the movimiento of Ciudad Juárez. I’ve barely arrived on the Mexican side when a white car with tinted windows pulls up. A man gets out, impeccably dressed, with slicked back hair and an immaculate white T-shirt. He asks if I need any drugs—“whatever you want, I’ve got everything”—tells me he can deliver it to the American side the next day. His car follows me for a moment, weaving behind me through the traffic. Then finally disappears.

“We should be careful, yes, but we should always remain open, always have trust.”

I head off again with Belinda and Rodolfo, a stay-at-home mom and a house painter, then with Roberto and Hector, who let me ride in the back of their pickup for the next three hundred kilometers. At one point when I’m having a hard time getting a ride, a guy passing cheers me on: “The whole border zone stinks, man. You’re in shit. No one will pick you up. Because no one trusts anyone here.” When I arrive in Brownsville, I have only forty kilometers left until the sea. The last legs of the trip are with Maria, a graphic design teacher who traveled alone in Europe when she was twenty and from that trip retains the conviction that we shouldn’t fear anything in life: “We should be careful, yes, but we should always remain open, always have trust.” Then with Dror, an Israeli who lives in a religious community in South Padre Island with three generations of cousins and relatives, sixty people in three houses. Ironically, I only learn what he does for a living as I’m getting out of his car: he’s an ICE agent. In the air deportation service. “Just today, we took sixty Mexicans back.” He’s the one I should be asking about Trump’s wall, what he thinks about it, about the Dreamers, the eleven million undocumented immigrants on American territory, who, if legalized, would help the GDP to increase by 20 percent. The truth about the drug-trafficking industry is that billions of dollars are laundered by American banks in Dallas and Houston, profiting several high-profile politicians and businessmen in both countries. Ed Vulliamy reported on this in the 2010 movie Amexica.

Finally, South Padre Island. I head for the beach: it’s massive and deserted in the fading light. I watch the waves. The Atlantic. Two lovers are entwined on a plastic chair. They are the only other people as far as the eye can see. The next day I catch a plane to Matamoros, the capital of the Zetas cartel on the Mexican side. Getting into Alfredo’s taxi, I can feel that he’s tense. Just as I’m about to take his picture, I ask if it’s a bad idea. “That depends,” he says, smiling, “on whether you want them to kidnap us both. The downtown is small here. Everyone notices when a stranger arrives.” He shows me the cathedral, tells me the narcos set off a bomb in front of it one day when the street was packed. “Just to show everyone that they’re here. To say it’s in everyone’s interest to pay the cuota, the tax, without protest.” We’re driving slowly through the narrow streets of downtown. “The mafia controls everything here. All of Mexico is ruled by the mafia. Even the politicians are mafiosos. They’re just a different kind: accredited mafiosos, with license plates!” We pass several cars stamped Seguridad Privada, probably the most booming business in the city, and the one with the shortest life expectancy. Police cars too, that look more like tanks than regular vehicles: a heavily armed man in a bulletproof vest surveys the scene through the open roof. You’d think you were in Iraq.

I leave with this final image of the border: one of tension, fear, and real prevailing violence. On my way back to France, a stopover in the wild energy of Los Angeles only heightens, in contrast, the lasting impression of the cities I’ve just traveled through as poor places, hard places. Places where there’s little room for pleasure. Where life is toilsome, harsh, and precarious. Where many people are busy just surviving, others trafficking, and still others spying on the traffickers, dodging those who spy. And something else occurs to me: the rides I was offered, the hospitality, the warmth, were almost entirely from Mexican residents. How many white Americans have picked me up in this whole trip? Two, maybe three at most, out of about thirty. The ones who did were tremendously welcoming, but rare. And yet—white Americans do exist and are even numerous, statistically. Particularly if we reduce the target population to drivers, as in my case. How many passed right by me, often alone at the wheel, careful to keep their distance? When we get down to it, there’s a consistency here: they are the ones who want the wall to be built. In the latest news, at the end of May 2019, Trump confirmed that it would be built, and quickly: “We don’t have a choice.” He even chose the sample he liked best, said José, the border guard who lent me the binoculars in San Diego. “The one farthest to the right.”

Excerpted from America © 2020 by François Busnel. English translation © 2020 by Jessica Moore. Originally published as “En Stop le Long de la Frontière” in the Summer 2018 issue of America. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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