By Sophia Carnabuci and Melissa Bacian
Willivaldo Delgadillo, a journalist, author and activist, was born in Los Angeles , but grew up in Juarez, Mexico. His parents were from Juarez, originally, but had immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Four months after his birth, in 1960, Delgadillo’s parents decided to return to Juarez; Los Angeles was a dangerous city at the time and Juarez was smaller. Having American citizenship, but growing up in Mexico, Delgadillo considers himself binational and bicultural. In this interview, Delgadillo discusses life and identity growing up on the border and his thoughts on Juarez/El Paso.
Delgadillo’s writing is politically driven. He writes mostly in Spanish as a way to view the exploitation of violence through the lens of Juarez, as seen in his novel Garabato, and as a way to connect directly to the people there. Delgadillo lives in Juarez and teaches in the department of language and linguistics at the University of Texas, El Paso. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell us about your experience growing up in Juarez/El Paso and what effect it had on your identity?
People from the United States and Mexico construct their identity in a different way. In the US, generally, it’s constructed around ethnic lines; you’re Mexican-American, Jewish-American, Muslim-American, African-American, etc. But in Mexico, you really are from the state where you were born, or the land; the place of birth really determines your identity.
I went to school in Juarez, elementary and secondary schools, but I was always aware I was an American citizen. Although I didn’t want to be an American citizen. Because I was going to school in Mexico, I felt that I wasn’t Mexican enough. Later on, I found the advantages of having an American passport; back then it was really easy to go back and forth for me. I belonged to both parts of the city. When I was growing up, you didn’t really need to show your passport when you went to the United States. You could just say “American citizen” and that was it.
[The border police] might ask where you live or where you were born, but if you were trained to answer those questions, you could go across even if you weren’t an American citizen. I trained my friends from my neighborhood in Juarez who weren’t American citizens, to go across and say “American” and to answer those key questions.
El Paso had these venues where famous groups like Kiss or Yes came to play. Groups from the 70s. A couple of us were American citizens and the rest of them weren’t. But we all said “American” and we successfully went across [the border.]
Delgadillo recalls vacations he would take with his grandmother at Torreon, a town across the river from Gomez Palacio, connected by a bridge. He and his grandmother would frequently cross the Nazas River, which divides the two towns by bus.
Once I asked my grandmother, how come we weren’t required to show a passport? Because it was like Juarez/El Paso, right?
So, in a way, I thought of bridges and rivers as borders where you had to somehow identify yourself. I saw that Juarez/El Paso were part of the same thing. You just had to say “hello” or make some signs, some gesture to be able to get authorized to get over to the other side. I grew up with that idea of thinking of the border as both a fence but also a bridge.
What were some of the positives and negatives of growing up this way?
After I went to secondary school in Juarez, I went to high school in El Paso, not to Bowie High School, which is right on the border, but to its rival, Jefferson High School. Jefferson and Bowie are rivals in sports. But in both schools, most of their students are Mexican-American. People in Bowie High School were more comfortable with their identity as Mexican or Chicano. They were mainly from working class families and didn’t have any problems with being Mexican, being identified as Mexican, for better or worse.
But people in Jefferson High School, they were a little different. There were all these people who were from Juarez, like me. The mainstream student at Jefferson High School identified himself or herself as Mexican-American not as Mexican not as Chicano but as Mexican-American. Not Hispanic yet, but Mexican-American. That meant that they were more assimilated. But they were also middle class Everyone aspired to be Mexican-American.
That was a struggle for people like me who came from Juarez because we didn’t speak the language that well. It was good in a way because we were challenged to learn the language and to learn high school rituals– sports, homecoming or assemblies. These were things that we didn’t really have in Mexican schools.
For me, this was like being part of a TV show. Back then there was this show called James at 15 and it was about James being in high school. I was 15. When I saw that on TV, I saw lockers and hallways and classrooms. When I started going to Jefferson High, for me it was like the TV set of James at 15. Because now I had my locker, and I had these hallways that looked like regular American high school hallways. And each high school had its library. Like really well-equipped libraries, even with books! I remember going to the librarian and I asked her, “So how many books can I check out?” And she answered, “Well how many can you carry?” And I said, “Really?” You know how now we’re panic-buying toilet paper? I did that with books. I put all these books in my backpack and carried them. So that was the good part.
The bad part was we were referred to as Juarenos; Juarenos was a way of putting you down. There was this whole discourse of people from another country coming to tap resources of Americans–even though [we] were American citizens.
I always defended my Juarez identity. But at the same time, I was interested in learning the language and I was interested in American literature and I was interested in music. So that was part of the border too on both sides and I was happy I was at a place where I could learn that. And also, that I was on the TV set of James at 15.
What changes have you seen since your years in El Paso as a high school student?
Many things have changed. Now people in Jefferson High School are more like people in Bowie High School. They all have a sense of being Mexican because I’ve been back to give talks and stuff.
Delgadillo explains that there are far more students from Juarez going to school in El Paso these days.
The migration from Mexico to the United States really grew in the 90s and then in the 2000s for several reasons. One, because of NAFTA, and later because of the violence. But during these times, people felt compelled to stay in El Paso because of the violence or [for] economic reasons.
Now Mexican-ness in El Paso has grown. My students [at the University of Texas at El Paso] are mostly bilingual and bicultural. They speak Spanish really well. But they’re also really articulate in English. Whereas when I was growing up, if you spoke Spanish mostly, they would be like, “Oh he doesn’t speak English.” Or they would say, “Speak English!” But now, nobody says that. It’s not cool to say that because people don’t even question those things. If you go to a restaurant or a bar or whatever, the waiter is most likely is bilingual. There’s no stigma.
The mainstream is like “You speak Spanish?” “Yeah si que quieres?” and there’s no problem. It’s a more comfortable place to be Mexican in El Paso now. And that’s why I now call it “North Juarez.” Parts of El Paso are North Juarez because if you go there, you feel like you’re not in Mexico or the United States, you feel like you’re in some different place.
There are very conservative pockets and very progressive pockets, but I’m talking about the mainstream.
Another thing that has changed is that the binational population–people like me that go back and forth–that population has grown. Back then, people called me gringo; they knew I went to school in El Paso. I was mocked in Juarez too. But that stuff doesn’t fly. The legitimacy of people calling themselves fronterizo without being in a deficit, an identity deficit, has grown. Now it’s cool, it’s okay to be fronterizo [frontiersman].
When I finished high school and when I went to college and finished college, I was still living in Juarez. Only temporarily did I live in El Paso. So, I was really in Juarez and had my life in Juarez. I’m a Juarense.
How has the community reacted to the hardening of the border and new immigration policies under the Trump administration?
Delgadillo explains the gradual shift in laws and policies as “episodes” in the history of the border. For example, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made it illegal to hire undocumented workers. He references Operation “Hold the Line” in 1993, which brought an influx of border police in concentrated areas along the border as a way to control the area and provide a “show of force.” Finally, he speaks about the 2000s, which were directly affected by 9/11 and the Bush administrations prioritizing of homeland security. First the Bush administration, and then the Obama administration, worked on a border wall.
This has been gradual. Now we have Trump with another wall. This “let’s build a wall” is just the latest episode of a longer story.
That has brought long lines to the bridge, and now we have to show our passports. The way the border is operated is like a military checkpoint. It’s like you’re going to a war zone. They have this thing called concertina wire; it looks like regular fence wire from afar, but it’s really aggressive. If you touch it, it cuts deep. It’s really dangerous. But most of it is symbolic; it’s just to make you feel like you’re entering this place of high security and high scrutiny. The border also has all these technological features like cameras and radars and sound detectors. It’s a policy of fear.
And of course, the excuse or the reason for all of this is drugs, right? The interception of drugs. But drugs keep going across!
I remember back then when I grew up and I was learning how to be a citizen in both countries. There were many things that I really liked in the United States and in the history of the United States. I was learning about how people in the United States fought for civil rights. How people in the United States fought against the Vietnam war. How students protested with these big marches—that was really inspiring to me. I really wanted to be a part of that political heritage.
But gradually, that spirit has been killed–by this instilling of fear. We have as Americans (I’ll speak as an American now), we have given up many of our rights, I think these hardened border policies are against people in the United States. We just thought this is against other people, but this is really against us too; you cannot see them as separate.
Another effect is that it changes the narrative of what Americans are all about. Each nation tells itself a story. In the United States, we’re a country of immigrants. We’re a pluralist society. We’re very respectful of freedom of speech and like I said earlier, our ethnic backgrounds. We’re a country who was always on the right side of human rights and on the right side of environmental justice. We’re no longer that guy. The problem is it’s not just with Trump, it’s just that the narrative of the country is changing.
We’re being led to accept that we don’t have to be the country of immigrants. We don’t have to be for justice in the world. Americans come first.
I’m talking about the narrative of the country and how we grow up and how we feel like we are being good Americans. A good American is someone who respects other people’s points of view, religious freedom, human rights, environmental justice, the vote, etc. That’s all relative now.