When I was three years old, my parents and I lived in a small house on West Levee Street in Brownsville, Texas. The house stands still on this, the last block of a dusty street that jams up against a small reservoir and the Rio Grande beyond.
Between our house and the neighbor’s – Mrs. Pacheco, a feisty area native with toasted skin and the sparking emerald eyes of a gypsy – leaned a rusty chain link fence. The barrier was crowned by twisted jutting ends of clipped wire. It was a parent’s safety hazard nightmare, visions of scrapes, gashes, blood and tetanus dancing in my mother’s eyes no doubt.
My father warned me. In Spanish, we’d say, “Me advertió.”
“Son, stay away from that fence. Do not climb the fence. You could get seriously hurt.”
Needless to say, the fence became an endless source of fascination for my curious mind. I recall staring through its crisscross pattern into Mrs. Pacheco’s backyard, brimming with orange and lime trees. I stuck my tiny hand through the cool chain link openings to feel Mrs. Pacheco’s little black dog’s sandpaper tongue scrape lovingly against my skin.
And, yes, one day, I fit my little feet into those same openings and started climbing. Let’s face it, there wasn’t much else to do back then. And the fence, was…to put it simply…there, a constant invitation.
That’s the thing about fences. They are supposed to protect. But they can also hurt. They should deter. But they can also attract. What’s behind that barrier? Must be something worth getting to, right?
While the immigration debate unfolds as endlessly as an industrial-sized coil of barbed wire, securing the border is always the first point any politician from either side makes. “First, we must secure the border. Then…”
And even though President Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants than any of his predecessors, the preemptory caveat is continuously raised. I guess it’s the lip service that must be paid to conservatives and those wary of the impact ongoing immigration might have on the American economy and culture.
It’s hard to argue with the idea of securing a nation’s border. But the reality, from the perspective of one who has lived as close to that border as one possibly can, is that regardless of how many fences are built, people will come. People in search of a better life or trying to reunite with family or conducting commerce have been crossing natural barriers as daunting as the Alps since the beginning of time. They’ve been crossing rivers and mountain passes, spanning canyons and deserts since before history was being recorded. Do we think we’re such wonderful architects that our flimsy fences can stop the tide of human longing?
So, fences will be built. And some people will climb them, go around them, dig under them, or in whatever way possible within the realm of human imagination manage to evade them and get to the other side. Bloodied and bruised. But not defeated. Some people will fight the fences. Others will laud them. Some will be inconvenienced by them. And yet others will profit by them. And the cycle will go. This, in fact, is what inspired the short story, “It’s My Wall Now,” in my book Seven for the Revolution.
All I can really say about this all, aside the fact I think it’s a horrible waste of public funds for a futile purpose, is that people cross for two reasons. One is that when they see a challenge and are told to stay away from it, it is human nature to test that artificial boundary. I suppose that was me as a kid. The other is that unless something happens to make what’s on your side of the fence immensely more appealing than the untold promise that lies on the other side, you’re going to be compelled to cross. I suppose that’s the case in Mexico, and should be a bigger part of the ongoing immigration reform conversation. If you want to secure the border, a fence isn’t the answer. A better Mexico is.
Back on West Levee in 1971, my side of the fence wasn’t all that bad. It was a humble part of town, but my parents loved me. And I was happy little boy. But I was curious. So I tested the boundary. My little hands and feet carried me up that fence, which in my mind towered into the bright blue sky. And when I got to the top I wrestled and clawed and managed to heave myself over the top. The jagged edges of the clipped and rusty wires dug into my shirt and tore through it, catching onto the fabric. And as I struggled to descend onto the promised land of Mrs. Pacheco’s shady, citrus-scented back yard, I found myself trapped, dangling atop the fence, unsure of my future but increasingly certain some sort of trouble lay ahead either at the mercy of the fence, the yipping dog below, or the firm hands of my father’s discipline. Gravity ultimately provided the solution, as the shirt tore and my body shook lose. As I fell to the ground, the tips of the chain link fence clawed ruthlessly into my soft underbelly. I lay on the moist ground, breathing heavily, the overexcited black puppy jumping all around me, licking at my wounds. The kindly Mrs. Pacheco came out to see what all the fuss was about, dashing to my rescue with the maternal fervor of a woman who had long ago finished raising children but still missed it dearly. She delighted in clucking over me like a fastidious hen over an adopted chick. And when she took me home, my parents were quite merciful. To my relief, my dad declared that it appeared the fence had punished me sufficiently.
The next morning – and most days after that until we moved away from West Levee a few years later – I stepped out into the back yard and I stared at that fence. My tussle with the metallic monster had indeed left me bloodied and bruised. But not defeated. I eyed it, wondering when I might give it another go. It was just a matter of time. Maybe next time I could accomplish my goal without shedding precious blood.
The memory of that fence, and the feeling that goes with it, has incessantly dogged me. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t step out into the daylight in search of a figurative fence to climb.