La Frontera

by Jeff Questad

The bridge out of Nuevo Laredo into the United States of Texas is congested and overheating. No matter the temperature, inside the car it's boiling and you inch forward with air off, windows down, conserving gas. Look into the cars of your fellow refugees; children with their mouths open, arms twisted around their heads in disbelief. Their parents silently rehearse the story they will tell about the trivial item they intend to forget to declare. Everyone sneaks something out of Mexico, even if it's something you're allowed to have.

At bridge's end, a gaggle of Mexican police sit on a tank and watch grimly. At the tank, traffic splits into two lone channels through which thousands of humans will pass, their papers and cars reshuffled by guards who work with the deliberateness of furious watchmakers. They clutch your papers. They study your person, your tattoos, your pupils. They smell you.

Years ago, you came to the border to play, to shop, and for dentistry. They say after 9/11 everything changed. You can't cross with a driver's license or library card and a big Heartland smile anymore. Americans leaving Mexico are required to have a passport. Today, all but one know this.

The line they send you to for processing (while they dissect your car) means hours of standing.  You're the only one not Mexican. Some work on the American side and make the return trip this evening. Many do it daily. They carry bags and children. There's a routine. One man carries two fifty-pound sacks of dog food.

In the office where you'll prove your Americanism, a huge poster of the World Trade Center hangs. It says, “Never Forget.” I don't recall attacks on the Texas border, but that's the kind of smart ass remark that will double the agents' contempt for you and your time here. The badges say Homeland Security.

Back in your car, cleared to cross an imaginary line in the desert, the guard asks again why you were in Laredo. “Get away. Shopping. The sights.” But the mercados that once bustled with Americans and their dollars are ghost towns. The hotels and pools are entombed inside concrete walls topped with broken bottles and barbed wire. Restaurants are closed. “There wasn't much there.”

“That's right,” he says. “There's nothing in Nuevo Laredo. Don't come back.”