Driving south from Albuquerque on I-25 is a surprisingly relaxing experience; unlike in Texas or Florida one can drive with the window down without breaking into an uncontrollable sweat. The desert landscape has a calming effect as I keep to the 75 mile-per-hour speed limit, blaring the country music (as always). In my mind, I laugh about the ridiculousness of driving four and a half hours to Puerto Palomas, Mexico. After all, it is a town that will likely be completely as advertised; it is a gritty, dusty, border town, one that a shoddily done Chinese documentary warns is becoming a “ghost town”. Still, due to my love for pivotal geopolitical regions, I know that I have to see it for myself.

 

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Southbound I-25. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Staring out into the stark desert landscape while keeping a rented Nissan between the lines I realize that this is a good chance for me to clear my head after taking care of my father for the last month following his heart surgery. I liken this drive to one I took six years ago from Austin Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, after feeling the need to get away from it all for different reasons. For generations, Mexico has provided an escape from reality for Americans and today I am no different than Jack Kerouac. This famous “escape from reality” has been embraced by country music stars who often sing about Mexico’s border towns in terms of “escape from reality” (Kenny Chesney’s Beer in Mexico and Charlie Robison’s New Year’s Day are two good examples of this phenomenon).

Even if heart surgery and aging parents are the reality, I reason that my journey might also be an escape from banality itself. Albuquerque, New Mexico is—like all the towns I’ve lived in in the United States (Providence, RI; Boulder, CO; Austin, TX; or Gainesville, FL)—full of the familiar sites of extreme consumption that all Americans know: the one street lined with a Target, a Wal-Mart, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and maybe a Home Depot or a Wendy’s thrown in for good measure. In the end, however, it makes the outskirts of many American cities indistinguishable from one another. While this offers a sense of security for many—which I understand—it is also extremely boring (to me at least). Perhaps this is why I have always sought out the oddest of destinations in my life, from Tashkent to Tangier . . . and now Palomas.

Of course, escaping banality (or reality) comes with a price: the sense of “danger”, whatever it may mean. The United States Department of State “warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain parts of Mexico due to the activities of criminal organizations in those areas,” specifically:

 

Chihuahua (includes Ciudad Juarez, the city of Chihuahua, Ojinaga, Palomas, Nuevo Casas Grandes and Copper Canyon): Criminal activity and violence remains an issue throughout the state of Chihuahua and its major cities. Travel between cities only on major highways and only during daylight hours.

 

On 7 July 2017, the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, said “There is a likelihood of additional violence among drug cartels in the areas of Palomas, Janos, and Nuevo Casas Grandes. Information indicates this uptick in violence is likely to continue through the near future.” Interestingly, the department of state has a similar warning for my other country, Turkey: “Carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey at this time, and avoid travel to southeast Turkey due to the persistent threat of terrorism”. Of course, to me this sounds comical. Yet, this kind of fear is a reality for many in the United States. I recall my dentist, as well of one of my father’s nurses in the hospital, inquire as to whether or not I was afraid to travel to Turkey to do research for my PhD because “it is so bad over there”. This kind of detachment from the world—from “reality”—is harmful to Americans (something I have written about in the past), and thinking about the similarities between Palomas and Turkey (in the eyes of the U.S. Department of State) makes me chuckle as I drive past the exit for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It is a fitting name; if the warnings of danger are the “truth”, what will the consequences be?

 

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Truth…Or Consequences? Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

These are my thoughts as I exit off I-25 to Hatch, New Mexico, home of New Mexico’s famous green chiles, before continuing on to Deming and, ultimately, the border. After crossing under the I-10 underpass and passing through Deming I realize that I am the only car heading south on two-lane U.S. route 11 to Columbus, NM. The vast amount of emptiness is shocking and I wonder how people can live in the glorified no man’s land that follows the length of the U.S./Mexico border.

 

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Its a Half Mile to Mexico Amidst the Emptiness. Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

As I near the border I head into a small parking lot that (apparently) used to serve a duty free shop; it looks all but abandoned now. Outside sits a golf cart adorned with an American flag, waiting to carry travelers across the border. The clientele waiting for the ride says a lot about the broken healthcare situation in the United States, since one of Palomas’ main draws is the availability of cheap prescription drugs and cheap dental care. Judging by the enduring lure of Palomas, Obamacare has not been as successful as its proponents may claim; that American citizens should seek dental care in another country—to combat the rising insurance costs in the United States—is unfortunate to say the least.

 

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Derelict Duty Free. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

I cross the border into Mexico with little fanfare, no one seems interested in me as I emerge onto what is…a dusty main street. Somehow, I am not surprised. Palomas is basically a single street headed south, the side streets branching out to the left and right give way to sandy desert after a couple blocks, constrained by the border fence (which is not quite a wall). Crossing the border the first thing travelers see is the Pink Store, an emporium of hand-made Mexican souvenirs that also doubles as a cross-border cultural exchange according to the Albuquerque Journal. Unfortunately, due to border violence from 2009-2011, most of the other stores in Palomas seem to have fallen on hard times.

 

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The Borderline (Top); The Pink Store (Middle); A Dusty Border Town (Bottom). Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

I walk down the dusty main drag for a few blocks, past pharmacies and discount dental offices, before returning toward the border in order to exchange twenty dollars for Mexican Pesos. Local money in hand, I go to indulge in the kind of cultural exchange I came for: Mexican food. I head down the first side street headed west, parallel to the border fence, and find a small taco stand. I order off the chalkboard menu in my rudimentary Spanish—learned in West San Antonio—which fails miserably. Luckily a patron asks me, in English, what I would like and kindly translates for me. Apparently they have run out of barbacoa, so I choose a bean and cheese taco instead. As I wait I learn that the lady who translated my order lives in both Columbus and Palomas; though she is clearly Mexican the blonde blue eyed little girl with her looks like what many would call “American”. It is an example of the population mix that makes border areas so fascinating.

 

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Pharmacies and Decaying Buildings Define Palomas, as Well as Some Interesting Street Art. Such Is the Melting Pot of the Border Town. Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

Sitting down to enjoy my taco with a view of the border fence, I can’t help but think about the illegal immigration debate in the United States. On 5 June 2017 CNN reported that two thirds of the 700 children at Columbus elementary school—on the U.S. side of the fence—live in Palomas. They are children of illegal immigrants who were born in the U.S. before their parents got deported. Because of New Mexico’s state constitution which provides a free education for all U.S. citizens, these children are bussed across the border every day for school. Given the current political climate, outlets like The Atlantic are worried that the election of Donald Trump will change everything on the border.

 

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Tacos With a View Of the Border Fence. Image Courtesy of the Author.

 

To me, the entire debate about illegal immigration seems absurd to say the least. After all—as Palomas shows so clearly—nations have boundaries. I was not able to order my tacos in English because…Spanish is the language in Mexico; it is not the United States. And that is ok, because Mexico is its own sovereign nation. That nations should enforce their boundaries seems—to me at least—very normal. Some accuse people like me, who believe in borders, of being “cruel” or “lacking compassion”. To me such claims lack validity not only because the term “compassion” is relative, but also because in order to understand the situation on the border people must actually visit, interact with people, and be able to empathize. To opine on (southern) border politics from Boston or Seattle (both extremely liberal cities by U.S. standards) is useless, it is an exercise in building moral superiority at best. Two AP journalists who travelled the length of the U.S./Mexico border put it well:

 

What we’ve found, from the near-empty migrant shelters of Tamaulipas state in Mexico to the drug-running corridors of the Sonoran desert, is a region convulsed by uncertainty and angst, but rooted in a shared culture and history unlikely to be transformed by any politician, or any barrier man can construct.

 

Borderlands certainly do have a mind of their own and it is unlikely that a single politician can change that. One of my favorite trips to a border town was to Yuksekova in Hakkari province in southeast Turkey. As the biggest town in a province that borders both Iran and Iraq, Yuksekova represents the meeting point of Turkish, Persian, and Arab culture (not to mention the ethnic Kurdish majority in the province). It is the kind of real diversity that has survived the Ottoman and Safavid empires as well as the modern nation states of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; it is not the kind of manufactured diversity that typifies urban areas in “Western” civilization. In a sense, Yuksekova—like so many borderlands—is a timeless place. Palomas is no different, but to understand it one must understand people. And that means empathy.

 

While the fact that students from Palomas (who are American citizens) are educated in schools across the border is celebrated by media outlets like CNN and The Atlantic, there are others who disagree, and for good reason. American taxpayers are paying money to educate students from Palomas while the families of the students from Palomas are . . . not paying anything (since they live in another country and are not required to pay taxes to the United States). Of course this is an absurd situation, and one that residents of towns on the U.S. side of the border have every right to be upset about. That this situation is absurd should not be a surprise to anyone, it just takes a little bit of empathy to see things from the perspective of taxpayers in towns like Columbus, NM and Deming, NM.

Similarly, the debate about illegal immigration often devolves into an inquest on the morality of those who dare oppose it. Personally, I believe that illegal immigration is unfair to everyone, not only to residents of the United States, but also to legal immigrants to the United States regardless of their country of origin since illegal immigrants essentially “cut in line”, so to speak. But these are not the only two groups who are treated unfairly by illegal immigration: the illegal immigrants themselves are also treated unfairly. A tragic news story from 24 July 2017 details how ten illegal immigrants savagely died in the back of a truck while being smuggled/trafficked into the United States. If laws regarding illegal immigration in the United States were more strict—and if sanctuary cities (like San Antonio) did not exist—it is possible that this needless tragedy could have been avoided. Had the likelihood of apprehension—and subsequent deportation—been apparent, it is possible that ten human lives would not have been needlessly lost in the back of a semi parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Sadly, the politicians are not asking the right questions and we are likely to see more needless deaths in the name of “diversity”; no-one can try to empathize with those in the truck in order to see why encouraging illegal immigration is far from the moral high ground.

After finishing my up my taco I pay and the lady says, with a voice of resignation, “its cheap here”. I can’t help but feel for her and this broken community. I ask her about sites to see in Palomas and she directs me to the museums on the American side, in Columbus, because Palomas’ museum has closed down, likely because of the violence. Disappointed, I ask for a restaurant recommendation and I am directed to an amazing place. Although some patrons laughed at my West San Antonio Spanish when I ordered, I can honestly say that the steak quesadilla was one of the best I’ve ever had—on either side of the border.

 

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If You Every Find Yourself In Palomas, Support Local Businesses and Find Yourself Eating Here. Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

Walking away from my meal I am disappointed that border violence keeps travelers away from Palomas; without traveling people will never be able to empathize with the hard working individuals whose lives depend on a functioning border culture. Without traveling, these same people will be left dependent on the news of CNN and The Atlantic, who look to sell a story by capitalizing on the tears of a little girl without acknowledging how illegal immigration and drug violence hurt both the United States and Mexico: Mexico gets rid of its lower classes, sending them to the United States, while the United States benefits from an influx of cheap labor. Unfortunately, this kind of illegal immigration does nothing but harm to the honest working class people on both sides of the border; both Mexicans and Americans are hurt by the failure to enforce border security. As if to prove my point, the abandoned shell of an aborted casino appears in front of me, its construction abandoned due to instability. As I explore the rain starts to come down and the streets of this dusty border town begin to turn to mud. I decide to cross back to the United States, passing the Mile 0 sign.

 

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The Aborted Casino (Top); The Once Dusty Streets Turn Muddy (Middle); Mile 0 and Speed Limit 5(!) (Bottom). Images Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Inside the Customs and Border Patrol building I am the only traveler subject to interrogation.

“Where are you going?”

“Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Rhode Island.”

“That’s a long way…why did you come here?”

“Pure…curiosity.”

“Curiosity? What’s in that bag? Did you purchase any drugs, alcohol, or tobacco?”

“No sir…its just some souvenirs from the Pink Store.”

The customs official has heard it all before and he waves me through. As I amble to the parking lot I take one last look at the border fence. After this short interrogation at the border, it surprises me that the idea of a “wall” should be so strange to people. Then again, I realize that most who opine on the subject—and who do not believe in borders—have likely never set foot in a gritty border town.

 

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Welcome Back…and a Rainbow. Because…why not? Images Courtesy Of the Author.
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