Crossing Over (Oxford American, Fall 2015)
En route last year from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, once the most dangerous city on earth, Claudia Delfin crossed the border in fear over what she’d find on the other side, but the real trouble was in coming back. After spending a few jittery hours in Mexico, she waited among the throng at customs on the Santa Fe Street Bridge while her Juárez nerves slowly stopped jangling. A uniformed officer called her over to his booth, barely making eye contact. He cut an authoritarian bust behind his desk, just upper torso visible on a boosted chair. She held out her Texas state ID and a tattered birth certificate. Both documents said Ricardo, not Claudia—and the ID, when plugged into the computer, called up a long list of prison stints. Claudia is thin and gangly, five feet seven inches, with dark skin, a broad nose, and deep-set brown eyes. Her smile is a few teeth shy of being pristine—metal caps top her canines, and flash when she talks. Two tattoos in a loopy scrawl spill over the tops of her hands, and another spiders around the nape of her neck.
The questions followed, one after the other, the pace quickening. Where do you work? Do you have drugs? Who were you there to see? There was too much story to get through, and Claudia’s voice snagged and wavered, her answers spilling out in a jumble. She’s transgender, and never changed the name on her ID; the priors were for old offenses (drugs, prostitution, theft); she was visiting friends, and has a godson on the other side. The officer stepped down from his perch and led her into a side room with white cinder-block walls; jack-booted patrolmen clomped in and out. She stood by while they figured out what to do with her. Eventually, they propped Claudia against a wall and two teams, working in pairs, set in on her. The female officers went first, patting her down from the waist up with gloved hands, latex against the skin. They toyed with her bra, tilting it to see if drugs fell out. Then the men took over. They felt from the waist down, holding firm hands to her inner thighs and grazing against her penis for contraband. After fifteen minutes, they returned an uneaten burrito she’d been carrying in her purse, and she was free to go.
It was the first time Claudia had gone to Juárez in more than a decade. She was forty-five, and began crossing into the city in her teens. El Paso and Juárez are sibling cities, joined together in a single metropolitan hub, with families, businesses, and communities enmeshed across both sides. Claudia’s trips used to be routine, practically second nature, but she stopped going around 2000, when the killings picked up. Women had been disappearing in Juárez throughout the Nineties in an epidemic of rapes and murders. Most of the victims belonged to a swelling urban underclass; they were low-wage laborers picked off on their way home from work on secluded patches of desert road. NAFTA had been pushing Mexico’s poorest citizens up from the interior and into the factories along the northern corridor, where they converged on a turf war fought by the cartels. Drug violence took Claudia’s two cities, gutted one and sealed up the other. In 2010, there were more than three thousand murders in Juárez alone, while in El Paso there were all of five. The gore and terror sharpened the dividing line itself. To come home to El Paso from the south raised more questions than could easily be answered, and so for twenty minutes Claudia was marooned on a bridge, in fronteriza limbo.