This is my first blog entry. Many Kiva Fellow arrival tales involve foreign airports, sweaty travels across long stretches of rural countryside, and the onset of intercontinental jetlag. In contrast, I am probably the first fellow who arrived at his placement by Greyhound bus.
I write you from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, across the border from Laredo, Texas. On one of the local radio stations (local to Texas? local to Mexico? Hard to tell, since radio waves don’t obey borders) they refer to them as “Los Dos Laredos” – the two Laredos. If you just looked at the people, it would be hard to guess where one place starts and the other begins. As I walked through downtown Laredo, Texas I rarely heard English, the majority of the stores announce sales in Spanish only, and nearly everyone looks Mexican. The chile selection in the supermarket is overwhelming, and the only sign of the Texas that I had imagined was a lanky aging cowboy in line at the supermarket. His belt buckle was studded with shiny Texas stars, matching his sunglass holster and his cellphone clip. At least one of my simplistic stereotypes of the Lone Star state was satisfied.
You can’t mistake the border between the two towns. To English speakers it is the Rio Grande (“Big River”), to Spanish speakers the Rio Bravo (“Rough River”, “Angry River” (?)). Putting aside the philosophical questions raised by this difference in names, it should be noted that the river looks neither big nor angry. It seems too small, in fact, to be the demarcation of this, one of the most storied and frequently traversed borders on the planet. Maybe it used to be bigger and angrier before they installed the dams upriver.
Drawn neatly on a map, borders always seem like such an objective but imaginary line, as if you could step across them the way that you could step across a line drawn by a playmate in a childhood game. At this border the asymmetry is clear. Those who enter the U.S. are scrutinized (residents and non-residents both) while walking into Mexico is effortless, not even requiring the flash of a passport. I considered declaring my recently purchased groceries just to right the balance a bit.
Once I stepped into Mexico the environment changed, reminding me of the Latin America I knew from previous travels. The informal businesses (let’s call them entrepreneurs) started at mid-bridge with a squeegee man about a boot’s length over the border, squeezing out his living (sorry :) washing cars heading to the U.S. On the other side of the bridge the streets had a Sunday bustle rarely found in any small American city I’ve ever visited (Correction: any affluent section of an American city). In the crowded town square near the bridge, walking merchants were ready to satisfy your every need, whether it happens be a pack of razors, 3D soccer cards, or a yummy mouth-staining shaved ice. (were any of these Kiva borrowers?) Unless, that is, your immediate need was a map of the city, which took me an hour to find.
A clown entertained children in the middle of the plaza, his bullhorn competing with a group of parents asking for donations for a seven year old girl’s eye operation. Cars strapped with sound equipment announced the latest sales, mingling with a 20 mph chorus of reggaeton. I had forgotten how high the volume is turned up in Latin American cities.
The first night, Sunday, I spent at a budget hotel, where big groups of young Mexican men spilled out of their shared rooms into the parking lot as they relaxed on their day off. (Apparently migration to the border area from poorer southern states is common.) The next day I looked for an apartment, and I found a little place with a fig tree in the back yard, about a 15 minute bus ride from the office of the Kiva field partner. The old ladies across the street already have started to churn the rumor mill about what I am doing here. When I step out my door the blast of dry heat reminds me of that I’m at the edge of a desert extending south. If I walk a block north I suddenly get American cell phone coverage, reminding me how close I am to the U.S. Although this place feels very Mexican, it is also clear that I am living in a place between places, and it is going to be interesting to see how this impacts people here in Nuevo Laredo.
I just started work at the microfinance organization where I will be working for the summer — the Fundacion para la Vivienda Progresiva, or Progressive Housing Foundation. The first day is still sinking in, so I will blog about that later. Stay tuned — it will be a fascinating summer!