Alejandra (Ale) Canales
Ale Canales is a sophomore at Yale University from Laredo, TX. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, most likely concentrating on post-colonial Latin America and its diaspora. She has just begun conducting her own research under the Mellon Mays-Bouchet Undergraduate Fellowship program on youth social movements in Mexico and their self-conceptualization within the context of Third World liberation. She enjoys writing and performing spoken word poetry, wearing sweatpants, and those Mexican lollipops that are shaped like little corns. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Almost every Sunday on our way back, back then. I remember her voice as she wandered between the crooked, crowded bridge lanes, her super-wrinkly face scrunching to keep the sun out of her eyes, only about 4 feet above the ground.
¡Semillas de calabaza! ¡Cinco pesos por bolsa!
I was somewhere between 2 and 5 years old. The woman looked like a raisin. My mother would pick at the dirty cupholder in between the two front seats of our white SUV, searching for a gold and silver coin. If she found one--and those were good days, so she usually did--she would roll down the window and call the señora, who would instantly animate and hop to the passenger side. The pumpkin seeds were always fresh and perfectly roasted, a light brown. My mother would crack their hard exterior between her side incisors, releasing the edible core, always perfectly whole.
When I turned 6, I noticed that the woman had no teeth.
There are two bridges.
The first, originally built in 1880, is a four-lane bridge with two pedestrian walkways and is 1050 feet (320m) long and 42 feet (13m) wide. The government websites with the 24-hour webcams call it “The Gateway to the Americas International Bridge,” but to the paleta sellers and domestic workers who walk it every day, it has been and will always be Puente Uno.
The second and more media-popular bridge, thanks to a fake-ass “border hug” ceremony the American city puts on to draw Mexican customers every year, is the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, or Puente Dos. It is an eight-lane bridge that is 1,008 feet (307m) long and 72 feet (22m) wide, always bumper-to-bumper in one direction and unbelievably traffic-free in the other. It was built in 1972 to alleviate tension from Puente Uno and is also the only Laredo-Nuevo Laredo bridge to have a dedicated lane for SENTRI program users (like Disney World’s FastPass, except it’s about your entire life in another country). The Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge is equipped with dope shit like scanners and German shepherds and big white bald border patrol agents and just enough space between cars on the back-to-USA side for dozens of people to hastily make a living, sweating in the in-between.
On the third page of Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua describes the Mexico-US border as una herida abierta where the Third World scrapes against the first and bleeds, and its inhabitants, the prohibited and forbidden, as those who cross over...the confines of the normal (or at least are perceived that way by the white world.) Until I left, however, I did not see the gore. To my childhood self, there was neither a “here” nor a “there.” There was only where my grandparents lived and where I lived, where my favorite McDonald’s was and where they sold my favorite nieve de limón, where there was HEB and where there was Soriana. The bridge was less like a fault line and more like a path; just a thing that existed, a way to get from punto A to punto B. Once, when they still lived across, my grandfather forgot the aguacates he was supposed to bring for the carne asada at my house. He went to go get them as soon as he realized it and was back before the frijoles cooled.
When I left, I realized the wounds are so big that from the ground they can look like roads to those who are lucky.
On October 6th, 1969, my grandmother felt the sudden pain of a creation myth. It was described to me like a novela, like the kind of spiritual journey you read about in Biblias, somehow more dramatic en español. Whether it was because the Mexican healthcare system was famous for accidentally killing people or because she trusted whiter sheets more I will never know, but the aftershocks of her decision would set the stage for my exception. Upon the second contraction, she packed her bag with the bare necessities, calmly yelled at my grandfather to get in the car a la chingada, and slowly slid into the passenger seat. If my mother had been born on the bridge it would have been more poetic, but gracias a Dios, there wasn’t much congestion that day. My mother was born on October 7th, on an American hospital bed, and even though she would live the rest of her childhood and unmarried life on the other side, this was the power move that would spare the rest of her family from forced uprooting. At some point between her flood and her release, my grandmother gave me my life.
Records show that in a given year, about two million pounds of illegal drugs are seized by US Customs and Border Protection, hidden in car door panels, roofs, gas tanks, tires, and engines. The successful transportation of this merchandise over the border is imperative to the success of its producers and distributors, who will go to any lengths to secure profit.
In 2012, the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo fell victim to a series of mass murders and extravagant acts of domestic terror known as the 2012 Nuevo Laredo Massacres, performed by the recently-minted drug cartel Los Zetas, formerly the military branch of the Gulf Cartel. The massacres were a series of attacks between Los Zetas and the now-allied Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, fighting to maintain control of the port city for its connection through Laredo to Interstate 35, one of the most lucrative drug corridors. Deaths included members of all three cartels as well as bloggers, journalists, and social media users who posted inconvenient information. The city bled. The death toll was unknown. For months, every nightly news report was just a list of names. On the American side, those crossing the bridge were denied a guaranteed return. On the Mexican side, those crossing the street were denied a guaranteed return.
On the bridge, traffic remained unchanged.
It’s the last week of summer break in 2017 and my grandmother has to drive me to an appointment on the other side: an ear-nose-and-throat doctor my family trusts to the point of exaltation. She picks me up in her black Prius at 9:23 am. There is no traffic on the way across. Expected. At the opposite end of the bridge and the edge of the first narrow Mexican roads, we wait in front of a light, surrounded by military vehicles and young brown men with semi-automatic assault rifles. As the Prius crosses the checkpoint--green means it ain’t you today--I make eye contact with a skinny boy in loose pants, big gun on his chest. He looks at me like I’m the only one who remembers the way back to his house. Routine. As we recklessly (seamlessly) drive through the unplanned/unstructured streets of Nuevo Laredo, I notice for the first time that people paint signs directly on their walls here. I spend 15 minutes looking for a window without bars on it. None. Still, the roads are clear, and people are walking.
After the appointment, we decide to get breakfast at a place that now also exists on the other side, but whose OG is unquestionably better. I get machacado con huevo. My grandmother gets a biscuit and coffee. She tells me about a group of Cuban youth pastors that she hosted in Monterrey, who were so amazed at the amount of fruit in the grocery stores that they cancelled their flights back. México es un país fuerte, pero está sangrando. I hold her wrinkled hands, their veins green-blue, and think of the different ways she has gotten older since I left. On the way back, I notice the way her foot trembles on the accelerator.
It’s September 16th of my first year in college, two thousand miles from the Rio Grande. In the courtyard of my residential building, I am standing in a circle of mismatched brown faces, a colorful mob among the gray cobblestones. The president of the Latino fraternity holds a giant Mexican flag and shouts proudly, desperately into the night air:
¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria y libertad!
It’s the traditional Grito de Dolores, a call-and-response chant that commemorates Mexico’s independence from France. On that same night, every city in the mother country, as well as any city north of the border with a significant immigrant population, would hold this ceremony in the main square. Laredo and Nuevo Laredo have both held large celebrations every year for generations. This, however, is my first time.
¡Viva la independencia nacional!
I can imagine my great-grandmother, wife of a revolutionary 35 years older than her and mother of 8 children, listening to the same chant. Would she have her hand by her side or in salute, like the male soldiers? Would she ever imagine that her great granddaughter would live on the other side of the river, and that only by moving thousands of miles away from the water she would recognize what that meant?
The evening ends with a performance by a Mexican folk dance group, their colorful skirts igniting the air with joy and pride. As I look at what's left of the crowd, I realize how many have never been back to their motherland, how many were generations away from the wound, how many would be dragged through the dirt and forced to return. I look down at my hands, paler than pumpkin seeds, their veins a greenish-blue more visible after a month under a colder sun.
I am lucky to be able to flow without bleeding.
 There are actually four bridges, but the other two are either for commercial use only (and it’s also the biggest one) or cross into a tiny city in Nuevo Leon.
 HEB is a Texas grocery store chain. Soriana could be considered its Mexican equivalent.