By Melissa Bacian and Sophia Carnabuci
For Willivaldo Delgadillo, a writer and professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, growing up as binational citizen in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez region never felt like he was setting foot in another country.
“I always think of certain areas of El Paso not as El Paso but as ‘North Juarez.’ And of course, Juarez is really influenced by El Paso and the United States,” said Delgadillo, 59, who is a U.S. citizen and currently lives in Juarez. “If you cross the bridge, just because it’s another country, you have to show your passport and sometimes there are very long lines to cross, but if you just go, in either direction, it still feels like it’s part of the same city.”
The symbiotic relationship between El Paso and Juarez is one that runs through many Mexican-Americans like Delgadillo.
“(It’s) sort of hard to understand if you’re not from the border where people literally have a piece of the family in each country, and not that they’re communicating to each other through WhatsApp or sending packages on Christmas, or whatever, but literally visiting every weekend,” said Josiah Heyman, an anthropology professor at UTEP who studies border issues.
But the ties have been tested in recent years with the surge of Central American migrants and refugees who have passed through the two cities, the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration and the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. In mid-March, The Trump administration shut down all nonessential crossings on the southern and northern borders, including shoppers, visitors, tourists and migrants, in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus, further scrambling the life of binationals in the El Pass-Juarez region.
With no confirmation on the re-opening of the U.S.-Mexico border, the twin cities are temporarily separated, leaving the future of a long-standing binational culture uncertain.
Together, the two cities form a vibrant urban center spanning the border of western Texas and Mexico. Juarez’s population is more than 1.3 million, making it the eighth largest in Mexico, according to the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Research and Evaluation at UTEP. El Paso has a population of almost 840,000 residents, according to the U.S Census Bureau.
El Paso is located far from other large metropolitan areas – about a nine-hour drive from Dallas and eight hours from San Antonio, making its connection to Juarez even more important.
Before the coronavirus, crossing the border was a part of daily life for many. In 2019, more than 300,000 individuals legally crossed the El Paso Station, one of the sectors linking El Paso and Juarez, according to the Bureau of Transportation.
Friar Stephen Pitts, the religious education director at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in El Paso, described the unique relationship Juarez and El Paso have with one another. “It’s incredible to live in a bilingual place. People here want their kids to speak Spanish. It’s part of their culture they want to carry on,” he said. “People come from across the city to do their first communion or confirmation here because it’s a part of their heritage.”
Juarez and El Paso have a long and storied history dating back to the 1500s when Spanish explorers came across the two mountain ranges rising out of the desert with a deep chasm in between. They named the site El Paso del Norte (the Pass of the North: Modern day Juarez, El Paso and Chihuahua.)
In 1682, five settlements were founded south of the river – El Paso del Norte, San Lorenzo, Senecu, Ysleta and Socorro. The area soon became a trade center for agriculture and eventually became the region we know as Juarez.
But the cross-border nature of the two cities has long posed challenges as well.
Many in the region have been affected by violence in Juarez dating back to the late 1980s and drug trafficking organized by a group called the Juarez Cartel, run by Vincente Carrillo Fuentes. In the early 2000s, rival gang warfare between the Sinola and the Juarez Cartel caused an increase in crime in the city of Juarez. Though drug trafficking has not disappeared, there has been a notable decrease. This in turn, has helped tamp down other crimes; in 2010, 3,500 homicides were reported, while in 2014, it had dropped down to roughly 430 homicides.
Then in 2019, the surge of Central American migrants overwhelmed the social-service sector of El Paso. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection held over 13,400 migrants in custody at the time, including nearly 3,500 in El Paso. “A crisis level is 6,000; 13,000 is unprecedented,” stated border patrol commissioner Kevin McAleenan during a 2019 news conference.
Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric also hit the El Paso-Juarez region particularly hard. When a man armed with an AK-47 walked into an El Paso Walmart and killed 22 people on Aug. 3, 2019, the attack was seen as a direct attack on the twin cities’ binational character.
The store, located in Cielo Vista, is the closest Walmart to the border and it is where many Juarez residents come to shop. Out of the 23 victims, eight of them were Mexican citizens, leading many to believe this was an attack on the Latino people.
For a month after the shooting, Friar Mario L. Serrano, who runs the Catholic Church’s ministry program at UTEP, went to the Walmart and walked through the store, lending help to anyone who needed it. “I often wondered what it was for Martin Luther King Jr. to minister in such a toxic environment,” said Serrano. “Or I don’t think I have to wonder anymore. Because that’s the reality, right? So many of them were just fearful right of saying like, Father Friar this is crazy, how can we address this?”
Now, the coronavirus has further disrupted life in the area. For many individuals, crossing the border is simply a means of getting to school, work or access to adequate health care. Store owners rely on profits from Juarez residents who come to El Paso to shop. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, resulting in the partial closure of the U.S-Mexico border, hundreds of binationals are left with no choice but to put an indefinite pause on their lives.
“More people come to the food pantry now with the pandemic,” said Pitts, noting that the church has moved food distribution to the outdoors. “The elderly that used to volunteer were all sent home and its parish employees doing it now. Some of the landlords are still trying to evict people, which is insane.”
The events of recent years have done much to change life at the border.
“When I was growing up, I remember we would go to Juarez and come back; it was very easy because there was a time when you wouldn’t even show a birth certificate,” recalls Joash Alanis, a student at UTEP, where more than 960 students out of the 25,000 have a permanent Juarez address, according to the university’s website.
Throughout the years, stricter measures have been set in place, making crossing between the intertwined cities a long and agonizing wait, especially for students who often have to wake up before sunrise to get to class on time.
“I tutor at a middle school, and at that middle school there’s usually a lot of them that come from the other side of town,” said Alanis, noting that many of them will be falling asleep in the middle of class. “I’ll talk to the kids and be like, what’s going on? They’ll be like ‘I’m just so tired. I woke up at three in the morning.’”
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, UTEP has transitioned to distance learning. Professor Heyman described the existing efforts the university already had in place, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, to ensure its students would not fall behind. “Professors are aware of the fact that students have to work for a living, and that they’re commuting.”
As UTEP responds to the COVID-19 outbreak, the University has created a Student Emergency Fund to help students in these very uncertain times. Funds can be used for emergency travel, unexpected expenses, and access to resources for remote learning. Visit https://t.co/cBaG2qea3U. pic.twitter.com/xHkR4zZzht
— UTEP (@UTEP) March 24, 2020
Nonetheless, if the partial closure of the border wall becomes a complete closure, he is unsure of what the future might hold for binational individuals. “If they do something like that at the border, it’s going to have a whole bunch of wrenching effects on our students at the university, it’s going to have wrenching effects on binational families. It’s going to have an effect on the economy.”
Amanda Salazar and Anacaona Rodriguez Martinez contributed reporting to this story.