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The River Becomes A Line

It’s dark now in McAllen, Texas and for the first time in more than two weeks, we’re sleeping indoors. We’ve cracked the window open and the air slipping through is warm and humid. Tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico just an hour south. It smells so different from the dry air we’ve been surrounded by up to this point many miles away in west Texas. The desert dust under our fingernails and covering all of our clothes and sleeping bags, normal for many days, suddenly seems out of place so near the ocean and so near a city.

The air here seems to represent this moment of transition. To take a breath and realize it feels different. A new, wet heaviness that settles into our cells and the cracks on our dry hands. Parched lines on skin that look just like the cracked earth of the river bank on our five-day canoe trip through the Big Bend.

The air represents something larger, though. A moment in our course where we’re transitioning away from a river and a border that lies deep in the desert, where we technically crossed between the United States and Mexico a hundred times a day as we learned to read the river and steer our canoes into the deepest water, the precise point that marks the contentious boundary between these two countries. Far from border patrol, far from major crossing routes, far from anyone or any place with a name on a map, we asked “what is a border?” and the idea that a border is nothing more than something we make up, a line that doesn’t really exist, feels true and easy to understand. Out there, many miles from cellphone service, as we built campfires and ate rajas poblanos on the riverbank of Coahuila, we were unaware that this place, our next destination, the Rio Grande Valley was surging into the national spotlight as policy shifts led to an influx of migrants crossing this frontera from the neighboring cities of Reynosa and Matamoros. In this place, in the Rio Grande Valley, the idea that borders are a thing that doesn’t really exist is challenged when that historical, imaginary line circumscribes the lives of millions of people on either side. An idea made reality. In Boquillas, we saw the river as border as an idea, now we will see the reality that grows from it.

Here we are the guests of the Moyas, a family who have lived between Texas and Tamaulipas for decades and where they currently run food drives and other projects to support migrant families arriving in McAllen. Today, we went with them to the border wall in downtown McAllen where border patrol, supported by the army, stood positioned every 500ft along the steel and concrete barrier, eating snacks and looking bored and overheated in uniform under the muggy south Texas sun. They asked few questions as we walked up to the wall and looked across no-man’s-land to Reynosa and imagined that we were standing on the other side.

Over the coming ten days, we will support the Moya family with their food drives and projects, even more important now as resources are strained with the influx of migrants making their way across to seek asylum. We will hear their stories and those of their friends and neighbors, see the border as it is in this place in this time, practice our Spanish, and immerse ourselves in the Rio Grande Valley. A place that, for many of us, is unlike anywhere we have otherwise encountered in the United States. We look forward to sharing more with you.