Of the border, on the border: I’m Julián Aguilar, and I cover immigration for The Texas Tribune
It’s not my job to tell people what they should think about the border; their own perspectives, politics and histories should shape their perceptions. But it is my job to tell people what’s happening here, and I’m lucky to have the added context of actually being from here.
EL PASO — A U.S. Border Patrol agent who supports President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and a Texas-based journalist walked into a bar.
What happened next might surprise you: They talked about the Dallas Cowboys and Metallica’s February stop in El Paso. While David Bowie played on the juke, they debated who was the better Mexican crooner (a toss-up between Juan Gabriel or Vicente Fernandez). In short, it was just another day on the border.
So what, exactly, does that mean?
It means that as the two friends unwound on a rare shared day off, millions of dollars in legitimate trade passed through a nearby port of entry, the second-busiest land port in the country, and thousands of U.S. citizens crossed into Mexico to eat, shop or see family.
Meanwhile, parts of the border fence were being replaced or reinforced as hundreds of undocumented immigrants crossed the border into the U.S., adding to the record pace that’s overwhelmed Border Patrol agents in recent months. A load of dope was likely being smuggled through the desert. And a Mexican mother was likely wondering how long the latest spike in violence would last.
These dueling realities can be hard to understand. To some, the border is an overrun war zone where lawlessness prevails. To others, it’s a region as safe and American as any other, unique only in that it shares a river and a culture with another country.
As the Tribune’s border bureau chief, it’s not my job to tell people what they should think about the area; their own perspectives, politics and histories should shape their perceptions. But it is my job to tell people what’s happening here, and I’m lucky that I have the added context of actually being from here.
My home office is in the Chivas Town neighborhood of central El Paso. It’s the same neighborhood where we lived when I was born and where my dad lived after my folks split. It’s less than two miles from my mom’s house, and I can see the Mexican flag in Ciudad Juárez from my front porch.
If I drive a block and take a left, it’ll take less than five minutes to get to Fort Bliss, one of the largest military bases in the country. If I take a right, I’ll be at the Bridge of the Americas and on my way to Ciudad Juárez.
Another advantage to my reporting is that my brother, sister and I are the children of immigrants. My mom was born in Ciudad Juárez, and my dad was born in Chihuahua. They both were later naturalized but never abandoned their Mexican culture.
Since my dad passed away, I’ve found little treasures in the boxes he had tucked away in his closet: his consular ID from 1959, a copy of his birth certificate that doesn’t even show his name as “Aguilar” yet. (That was my grandfather’s maternal name, which wasn’t used until the family moved to the United States.) There was even a receipt for an “Alien Head Tax” my grandfather had to pay.
My mom’s house isn’t too different. My former bedroom is now her home office, where bookcases hold volumes of Mexican history. Near a framed photograph of a teenaged me sits a black-and-white portrait of Emiliano Zapata and a painting of Benito Juárez.
But my folks are also proud U.S. citizens. My dad retired from El Paso public schools after 38 years as a teacher and always thought a good education was just one way to achieve success and independence. He would know — his first stop in America was a converted motel where he, my uncles and grandparents shared a one-bedroom flat. And that bookcase in my mom’s office holds framed awards and recognitions she earned through her 25 years of service as a U.S. Customs agent.
It all means so much more to me now than it ever would have as a kid. That’s not only because I love my parents and miss my father, but because of the issues I cover and the stories I write.
I wonder what people like Eduardo Talamantes would be doing if he didn’t live here. I’m curious what my friends in the Border Patrol would think of El Paso if the city wasn’t ground zero in today’s immigration debate. I’m not sure — and maybe they aren’t either.
What I do know is that my job is to keep Tribune readers informed. I can’t tell you what to think, but I can share the reality of what’s happening here along our southern border. If you’re ever in town, stop by the Pershing Inn and we’ll talk about it. First round is on me.
P.S. Covering the border naturally includes a lot of time on the road. Here’s a sample of some of the tunes that get me through the day. Some are specific to the border, others remind me of my family, but they’re all worth a listen. Hit play and let me know what else I should add to the list in the comments.
Support public-service journalism that gets the context right
Your donations make our reporting possible and keep it free for all to access. Support our nonprofit newsroom by May 11, and your gift will help us unlock $25,000 in matching funds from our partners at Tito's Handmade Vodka, the Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation and the Suzanne Deal Booth Charitable Trust.