This year, we did a road trip to New Mexico for Spring Break. As everyone (no really, everyone) kept telling us, Texas is big and it takes metaphorically FOR.EV.ER to get out of the state. Well, we’re from Western Australia. It’s more than 3.5 times the size of Texas, so we know a thing or two about driving long distances without crossing a border. It really wasn’t as bad as all the naysayers will tell you.
It took us roughly 12 hours (with frequent stops) to get from Houston to El Paso. Right on the border of both Mexico and New Mexico, it’s a deeply troubling place that I’m glad I saw, but hope devoutly not to visit again. El Paso itself is an interesting town. The areas that are closest to the border of Mexico are blatantly the poorest areas, and most Mexican in their appearance. The buildings are, in the main, mud rendered (similar to the adobe style), white washed, single storey affairs, with colourful decorations or ristra strings of dried chillies hung cheerily around. The streets were empty when we drove through, but I’ve since read that they’re terribly dangerous. That was not our experience. In fact, apart from the eery discomfort of driving through neighbourhoods where there was not a soul to be seen, we never felt under threat.
The palpably sad part of being in El Paso, is the realisation that apart from a fence and the Rio Grande, Juarez City in Mexico is a stone’s throw away. The difference in the standard of living is obvious from the outset. Juarez is clearly not a poor city. But by comparison to the glaring, neon lights of the commercial enterprises in El Paso, it is dingy. I couldn’t help but think of the folk in Juarez, waking every day, looking out of their windows and being confronted with the galling abundance that lies so close across the border. The immense sadness of that thought defined my experience of El Paso — and I’m sorry to the good folk of El Paso for that. I’m sure that’s not the abiding thought in their heads as they go about their daily lives.
Nevertheless, El Paso has some interesting history and some ruggedly beautiful structures. The bridges that span the border between the two countries are vividly decorated with artwork. They are markers of the many and daily crossings, tribute to the folks who work on both sides and in the middle. The churches and missions dotted around El Paso, are equally a testament of the cultural ties between the US and Mexico. We were fortunate enough to visit the Socorro Mission. You know those western movies that were the fodder of a 70s childhood? Remember the classic image of the church where the downtrodden Mexican workers took shelter? That’s what the Socorro Mission looks like. Its simplicity belies its beauty. As my father-in-law said, it looks like it’s part of a movie set, and you really do expect the gun-toting, cigar-smoking, white-hat-wearing cowboy hero to come riding in on his white horse at any minute.