I first crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 1996, at 19 years old.
I took an airplane.
No passport required then, I presented my Texas Driver’s License at customs in Mexico City as documentation of my American citizenship. My purpose: to help run a day camp for the summer through a YMCA exchange program called Mano a Mano Sin Fronteras. Each day, I walked a mile from my host family’s apartment in the city center to the metro station, rose out of the subway system 40 minutes later to catch a bus that dropped me another mile-walk away from the community center in Naucalpan, an outlying barrio of the federal district, where I spent my days with Kristy and Luis, my peer volunteers, building a program from scratch.
For weeks I fought off back-to-back cases of dysentery as well as a buzzing terror that lived in my ribcage—everyone spoke Spanish too quickly, stared at me on the subway cars, men clucked at me from the backs of sidewalks, and since cellphones were still a rare commodity, I couldn’t speak to my family often enough to remain rooted in my own world. Kristy and I walked door to door in Naucalpan, using our high school Spanish to recruit day camp participants anywhere from age 4 to age 12, their mothers skeptical of her nose piercing and dark concert tees. We designed art projects out of street litter, and planned basketball and volleyball games that the town children invariably rewrote into soccer matches. Each morning my host mother tried and failed to cook me an egg Sunnyside Up, the form she considered the most American, and which I didn’t have the heart to tell her I never ate at home.
A few days into day camp, two adolescent boys showed up in the morning. The skinnier one looked down at his feet and pulled his hands in and out of his shorts’ pockets. The taller, fuller boy—he already had the whispers of a moustache—grinned.
“You’re too old for camp,” Kristy said in broken Spanish.
The boys shrugged.
“Podemos ayudarles?” the bolder boy asked. May we help you?
“God, yes. We need the help,” she said.
Diego and Jose came everyday to help, often clarifying our fractured Spanish for the younger children and picking more fair teams for soccer hour. They were both 15 years old, more like brothers than friends, sometimes telling dirty jokes and then blushing on the occasions we understood them. School out for the summer, and their parents working all day like all our campers’, they didn’t have much to do but wander the streets avoiding dangerous older boys who might pull them into the various temptations of boredom. They loved camp.
One day towards the end of the summer, they invited Kristy and me to dinner.
“You’re going to cook?” Kristy asked and laughed.
“Si, si,” said Diego. “Hot dogs.”
Kristy was a vegetarian, and she slid her eyes in my direction.
“What do I do?” she asked me as we followed Juan and Diego down the dirt road toward Diego’s small apartment, dust popping off our flip-flops.
“You have to eat the hot dog,” I said and she nodded.
On a hot plate in the pink kitchen, the boys boiled water and ribbed each other about who should set the table and which cups to use of the six mismatched plastic mugs on the shelf. Kristy and I suspected the boys wanted to impress us. They were nervous, but more than that—furtive and twitchy, and we also suspected they had not asked Diego’s mom for permission to prepare a makeshift meal for two, older gringas. Juan pulled a limp package of hot dogs from a plastic bag, the money for which I still have no idea how he scraped up, and plopped them into the pot. No buns, but the boys cut up mango to pair with our dogs.
At dusk, they walked us to the bus stop, and Kristy surprised me by kissing Diego full on the lips. Juan shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, and I smiled at him as Diego tried to go in for a second smooch and Kristy swatted his face. From the bus we watched them punch each other’s shoulders and throw their heads back.
I never saw Diego or Juan again, nor did I ever send letters. Kristy returned to Cincinnati, and I back to Houston for the few days before my sophomore year began at Smith College. The summer was a mere, magical blip on the electrocardiogram of our privileged lives.
No plane carried me back over the border. Instead I crossed via a faded white YMCA van that rattled over potholed streets. I wore smudged overalls and an Aztec-patterned friendship bracelet some of my camp kiddos weaved for me, my heart bloated and throbbing. My host father refused to come with the rest of the family to see me off that last day, and when I asked why, my host mother told me, “Tequila. Pero mas, su corazon. Es demasiado roto, hija.” His heart is too broken, daughter.
Now it’s 2014 and children pour over the border in alarming numbers. Their battered bodies wash up on our shores from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador through Mexico, after horrific odysseys. They do not fly in airplanes or ride in camp vans. They crouch in dank corners of 18-wheelers or man rafts across the Rio Grande or hike over dry crevices in West Texas or tunnel underneath the border with the sewer rats. A large number of the children are 15-17 year old boys. Here, adult men and women use big words to argue about what to do with the children, whose responsibility it is to care for them, whether they should be here in the first place. They use words like” “detain,” or “ fragile infrastructure,” or “invaders.”
I think about hot dogs.
I think about watching Juan and Diego’s silhouettes from the bus that night. I see the long shadows of the narrow street, the outline of their Nike shorts hung low and loose across their hips, the half-skip they used to carry their happy bodies home.