In the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the air is eerily still. Scrub and sand stretch starkly into the distance. Occasionally, border patrol helicopters swoop low, cutting through the calm.
The mighty Rio Grande is not quite an oasis, but it's a brief respite from the sand—and a marker of the border between the desert of the United States and the desert of Mexico. Between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the river is straddled by a concrete bridge that tethers the sister cities.
Even though it spans two countries, the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo area is one massive metropolitan singularity from a demographic perspective, with roughly 8,000 people crossing back-and-forth on foot and by car each day. Some Nuevo Laredo residents walk across to buy groceries at Texas supermarkets. People who work in Laredo live across the border for the cheaper rent. Like the river, the bridge has a natural flow.
Near the Mexican side, the number of armed police increases. Throngs of the unfazed—people carrying babies, baskets of flour, backpacks of books—head in both directions, passports in hand. In the distance, beyond the entrance to Mexico, a masked man guards a machine gun anchored to the bed of a matte-black truck. He stands at attention: shoulders back, head tall, finger on the trigger.
Not far beyond the border, there are dental clinics, shops filled with shiny helium balloons, and gangly kids hawking Technicolor packages of gum. I duck into a divey joint called El Gusano—to drink whatever they have (Bacardi) and listen to whatever is playing (old Metallica videos on bootleg VHS tapes). After a few rounds, I walk back to the bridge under a setting sun.
When I hand my passport to the stern-eyed Mexican guard at the gate, he waves me through, irritated I'm taking up his time. Many of the people behind me are not so fortunate. A half-dozen or so Mexicans—all women, several with small children—are detained. Some cry.
When I reach the middle of the bridge, I pause, blinking in the twilight of a liminal space.
Below, in the middle of the river, people on a makeshift raft are attempting to float across the Rio Grande from Mexico to the U.S. On wooden boards slatted over an inner tube, they are moving slowly—very slowly—through the water with practiced caution. They confer quietly in Spanish about the best way forward and row gingerly with their hands. Like in the moment immediately before a car crash, time seems to stretch on forever. I stand above like a voyeur.
Their raft hits the shore, and they scramble off.
Borders are arbitrary, but they can feel transcendent. The bridge is a Brutalist handshake of camaraderie, honoring the give-and-take between towns on either side of the border. And yet, there are still those who must float below the masses in darkness, searching for a different life.
A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.