First Crossing: Nogales, 1971 by Robert Richter

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a highway sign on border that says "mexico only - no usa return"The bar was called The Three Roses, three blocks south of the line, maybe, and right on the Ferrocarril del Pacífico railway. We had warm Tecates and peanuts in hand, squinting to stare through the dim billows of cigarette smoke at a poker game of guys with guns on their hips, the mariachis strumming out a beat just behind them, a trumpet blaring and tenor voices wailing out the ranchera ballad on request. The place was packed from the bar to the back and we were jammed in with an air we’d never felt before, with drifters dragged in from everywhere, both sides of the border, biding time or making deals over beer and cigars, bound one way or the other—north or south—sooner or later. The man next to me was shouting over the music to my beaming gringo smile, “You goan esouuthh? By train?”

Sí, por el ferrocarril,” using my first Spanish and liking the way the sounds slid across my beer-tipped tongue, easing into it all, cooling off, over the border of what I’d known before, drinking up the celebration. “Mas Tecate, por favor!” I bought one for the hombre next to us, too, for talking to the gringos. He was headed north, maybe next week, or next season, or the next time there was an easy chance–another outlaw. His gold eyeteeth glittered under his beer-sudsed moustache. The others were yellow or missing, and his smile looked meaner and wiser than his eyes. He wore a western shirt with pearl white snaps and torn pockets and a pale, frayed straw cowboy hat from Sinaloa. His eyebrows arched when he talked California fruit and women in Culiacan—Sonoran women, he specified, not border women. “They have the hottest eyes, and that means fire in the pants. They have strong children. All of Obregon’s army, Sonorans and Chihuahuans, from these women.”

Made sense to me, willing now to believe in everything.

Two hours before, we had stood just outside Tucson in an uncomfortable winter heat and caught only short, sporadic rides from there through a desert that dried us out, heading for the edge of what we knew. The final ride was in the back seat of a rust-colored Volkswagen beetle: “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog” blasting through huge speakers, and two unbelievable beauties from the U of A, winter tanned, legging up the front seats and cruising down to Nogales for some border shopping. The one on the right, long, sun-bleached brown hair, turned to look us over with an experienced glance as we crammed our dust and bags into the back seat. Eyes that matched the desert noon sky, pale unreadable expression, she asked, “Nogales?”

Ogle-eyed and sweating, we just nodded like smiling fools for this blessing we never dared dream of, though the legends of such rides were well known. But before we could recover our cool to come on with charming conversation, we’d already been considered and dismissed. Dusty, disheveled, and young, we were ragged cultural misfits–yet innocents, too, running for the border of Mexico like a century of outlaws and artists before us. Not the ladies’ type, and with no charm or cool to recover anyway, we wouldn’t be lured from our flight for Mexico. They or their sisters had no doubt met us or our brothers on this road or another like it many times before: political dissidents or draft dodgers, potheads or college flunkouts, born again hippies or red light runners, rebel artists or just curious wanderers–anyone or everyone on the run for Mexico at some time or other at the turn of a turbulent decade. The two Tucson ladies had been indifferent to our particular version of the story, but willing enough to silently aid our flight. They had parked two blocks from the border, turned their backs on us, and fifteen minutes later we were in Mexico, in Sonora, in Nogales, in Las Tres Rosas.

We leaned backs against the bar to survey the scene, only nodding to say, “All right. We can live with this awhile. It don’t bother us none, and we don’t bother it,” the feeling we had run for. There in The Three Roses, Redmond used the only Spanish he ever learned, “Dos cervezas, por favor,”—two beers, please. They went down easy.

Our journey was twenty years later, but that crossing in the early spring of ‘71 was a Kerouac copy out of Lonesome Traveler: “Like you just sneaked out of school…you just come home from Sunday morning church and you take off your suit and slip into your soft worn smooth cool overalls, to play.”

Cultural renegades, we had brothers, fellaheen, though we were unaware of it. Juan Esteban, standing at the bar with us, was a first time, easygoing border runner, a wetback, before the coyotes made it a deadly serious business. And we were only that year’s models of the burned out artist running from American reality for the carnival air and unknown of the Mexican frontier. I was looking to get lost in a new and different land, abandoning my own country’s chaos, and Redmond was a poet out to record the roadside scenes of American sorrow in the Seventies. There were plenty to portray then, from Kent State to Hanoi, from the war wounds and drug deaths of friends to the murders of Kennedy and King and American innocence. Time of turmoil, simple as that, and we were running from it, trying to leave behind our national history and cultural definition to discover what we were at the moment, holed up now just over the border in a hideout bar called Las Tres Rosas. Had I known beforehand of Jack’s journey or read his Mexico Fellaheen, I might have felt full of universal spirit there in the music and cool shadows and silky, smoky language, with a beer in the blood on a desert afternoon. But it was simply a youthful, singular and private feeling of freedom—over the border.

The border towns mark change, but no traveler along the Mexican-American border would have you believe those cities—then or now—represent a deliberate divide between countries or cultures. They are a territory unto themselves, and if anything, the swirling commerce of border crossing signifies the fluid osmosis of human contact and culture and the nature of national change. The border towns can be official places to hole up for an afternoon in a bar or at a street vendor’s cart, or in the shops full of Mexican image and gringo gazers, and feel not the sense of one culture or another, but an irrepressible shade and shadow of one country forever infused and confused with the other—culture simply becoming. Sharing beer with the poet, Redmond, and Juan Jose Esteban Guitierrez, fruit picker and sometime dishwasher, I was standing at a bar in the borderland. You can look it up if you need orientation, but even Webster calls borderland “a vague condition.” It’s the outer limits, the perimeter, the margin, the flank of familiar surroundings. Frontier. It can even be the edge of what you are and what you know, but when I crossed the border that winter, there was only an exhilarating sense that a change was taking place. And that we’d find the world to be more than what we already knew about it.

In unsettled times we took our chances, cast off familiar surroundings and ingrained attitudes, took our lives in our own hands, and stepped in unknown territory. Such a crossing is a solitary act of private courage, no matter who or how many others step over the border before or behind you. It’s a move across a more personal than physical frontier. The gringo tourist flies in for the fast blast, six nights-seven days in Los Cabos or Vallarta or Mazatlán jets two thousand miles and never really leaves home. He cruises in for another version of American resorts like Vegas or Vail to party and spend money and meet other Americans on the hotel beaches or in the nightclubs and shops along the oceanfront drives. There is a slight Mexican theme in the setting and mood because, after all, he is in Baja or Jalisco or Sinaloa; but he travels only to an extension of his American environment. He does not cross country, cross borders, range wider into new territory.

To walk across the border, hauling all your possessions by hand like all the other refugees crowded in line passing over the edge–queues both directions, traffic and people so thick no one seems to know which side of the border to be on; to tramp a ways into Nogales, or Juarez, or Nuevo Laredo and flag down a cabby in the battered traffic madness, speak Spanish for the first time and give up to a ride you’re not sure goes when or where or why you want to; to take two hours moving through a border town and resting with a cool-shadowed beer before you board a south-bound train; that is to pass over into a vague condition, to move beyond your limits. From the border town then, either direction, you trek deeper in. Crossing over is only where the journey begins.

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