Stories From The U.S.-Mexico Border

Mar 31, 2014
Originally published on March 31, 2014 12:36 pm
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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You might've heard that our colleague, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, and a team of producers traveled along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Along the way, they've brought us stories of the people, the products and the cultural ideas that travel across the border. We had to get a piece of this for ourselves, so we asked Steve Inskeep to come on by. And he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Oh, delighted to be here.

MARTIN: So what started this off?

INSKEEP: I was reading a book, which divided the United States culturally into 11 nations. You know, like Kurdistan would be a nation of sorts within Iraq. And they had all these different cultural zones in the book like the Deep South or Appalachia - places you could recognize. And there was one that was particularly fascinating labeled El Norte, The North. And it was the northern region of Mexico and the southwestern border of the United States, both sides of the border. And it argued in this book that it was one contiguous region that the two sides of the border, for all the security and fear there, are more similar to each other than the country on either side. And I said I want to see that. I want to explore that.

MARTIN: So I got to check that out.

INSKEEP: And I want to get at news issues through it, like immigration and other things, through that lens.

MARTIN: OK. So you - the trip was, like, about a little over two weeks, traveling by car. Hopefully there was air conditioning.

INSKEEP: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: There was air conditioning in the car.


MARTIN: So what stood out for you? I mean, you focused a lot on the people who were trying to cross the border. What stood out for you?

INSKEEP: We were exploring stories of people crossing the border in different ways, not just people trying to migrate to the United States - people going the other direction, people trading. And one of the things that really stands out is that these two countries are interacting with each other every day. And in spite of the border fences or walls or whatever you want to call them and helicopters in the air and security and fear on both sides of the border, these are two countries that are influencing each other all the time.

MARTIN: One of the things that stood out for me, though, you focused on a number of people whose efforts to cross into the U.S. began well before...

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...The borders of Mexico. And this is something that I am not sure a lot of people know. And you found this out when you visited a shelter in San Benito, Texas. And I have a clip from a piece where you sat down with Saraa Zewedi Yilma who is Ethiopian, travelled to Sudan, then flew to Sao Paulo, all the hopes of eventually making it to the U.S. And let me play that clip.


SARAA ZEWEDI YILMA: Brazil, Venezuela - I crossed a lot of countries.

INSKEEP: OK, so we're Brazil here, we're in Sao Paulo...


INSKEEP: How'd you get from Sao Paulo to Venezuela?

YILMA: Venezuela? By car.

INSKEEP: By car?


INSKEEP: So you're going through the Amazon, you're going across the Amazon River...


INSKEEP: ...At some point.

YILMA: Yes, by car.

INSKEEP: And you end up in Caracas, Venezuela?

YILMA: Yes, Caracas in the border of Colombia and Venezuela.

INSKEEP: Then you went across westward to Colombia, OK.

YILMA: Yes, Colombia.

MARTIN: So, you know, it just kind of boggles the mind and I can't even capture, like, the poignancy of all this because she's married, she borrowed thousands of dollars from her sisters to make this trip. She and her husband, you know, are pregnant, but they're separated now because he's in a different shelter. So, I mean, how common a story was that?

INSKEEP: It's more common than you might think. This story started, Michel, because I heard of a story of a taxi driver here in Washington, D.C. who was from Ethiopia and had come up through Mexico. And I wanted to know how often does that happen? And we ended up in this shelter where there were people from around 20 different countries in recent months who had come to the United States. It became apparent there's a whole network of smugglers. I don't know, is it hundreds of people, is it thousands of people? I don't know exactly how many come this way, but there are people from all over the world who find Mexico to be a way station on the way into the United States.

MARTIN: The stories of the people who are trying to come into the United States - was there a common thread?

INSKEEP: There is economic desperation, there is a want of opportunity in the United States and there is a desire to travel freely. Also there's often a desire to connect with your family. We encountered children being stopped as they tried to cross the border. And that seems to be a very common thing, and it's believed a lot of these underage people, who are often traveling unaccompanied or barely accompanied by adults are trying to join family members in the United States. That is one of the most poignant things that's happening right now.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep about his series of reports from the U.S.-Mexico border. He and a team of producers traveled the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, stopping to find out what was going on all along the way. Could you talk a little bit more about the children? I must say that that was one of the things about your pieces that I found really troubling. I mean, there was one story - there was a piece you talked about - the children who were born in the U.S., but whose parents were deported to Mexico. So these children go to school in the U.S., but the school bus drops them off at the border. And you also talked about children who were traveling unaccompanied or, as you said, barely accompanied.


MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about that?

INSKEEP: Unbelievable complexity of human lives. And you start asking a few questions of anybody - whether we're talking about Junior, a high school student outside El Paso on the Texas side whose father was deported, whether we're talking about kids that we saw being stopped as they tried to cross the border, whether we're talking about U.S. citizens who are children living in Mexico who get bussed across to an American school - we would like to think of that border as this very firm demarcation. And if you like law and order, you might just like it if everybody stayed to their side of the border, but you discover how complicated family life is. And when you throw into that the complexities of immigration law and the complexities of the border, that firm line that we see on a map is not firm all. And it's really hard for people to deal with.

MARTIN: You know, you were telling us, though, that there were a lot of people who are from Mexico or from the U.S. who live near there who have never been there.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: You know, why is that?

INSKEEP: Well, there is also a great deal of fear, Michel, of crossing the border because of the tremendous drug violence of recent years. It's not without reason, but maybe the reason has gone beyond the reality, if you understand what I'm saying. The fear has outlasted the reality. You would think perhaps this was an ethnic thing, that it would be Anglos who would be terrified of going to Mexico. But I found, in our reporting, it extended to Mexican-Americans who had gone across the border in the past.

It extended to Mexican nationals who were living in the United States who were terrified of the border region, and it's just - there's a crossing. There's security. There's a fence. There are helicopters. It looks scary, and you stop going for a while because there was some violence. It's hard to start again. And that was a real challenge for people, and that is a reality also, is the present fear of crossing the border because of some present violence. I don't want to say it's totally safe...


INSKEEP: ...But also because of past extreme violence.

MARTIN: Because it's become kind of this place of mythology in a way.

INSKEEP: Absolutely...


INSKEEP: ...And as soon as you stop going, it's hard to start again. It's like crossing any kind of other psychological as well as real barriers.

MARTIN: But as you also pointed out, you know, cultural knows no borders, right? And there's just, like, there's, like, cultural things happening - music and art...

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: ...Of all kinds, back and forth.

INSKEEP: Yeah, let me talk about this one group, Intocable, that we interviewed on the air. And I just want to mention something about the instrumentation of this group. Accordion is the classic sound of this conjunto music, which is a form of music that's heard up and down the border. And think about that. You've got this central European instrument that is now a typical Mexican instrument. You also have this bajo sexto, this guitar. It's kind of a 12-string guitar, but it was developed in southern Mexico. And it's now a border thing. And you have groups from Texas that play this kind of music. And they're absorbing not just those traditional forms of music, but also rock music they heard on the radio in the last 10 or 20 years. And they're mixing it all together in this place where the culture mixes together. The music is a real clue to that.

MARTIN: Well one of the people you interviewed, Ricky Munoz, talked about that. He's the lead singer for this group Intocable. And he talked about how he sees this kind of - these relationships going on in more ways than one. Now wait. Here it is. I'll play that clip.


RICKY MUNOZ: Sometimes we have the run-of-the-mill, you know. There's a white boy in the crowd, you know, sometimes. Like, we play, like, for example, in Nashville. Sometimes there's a white guy, like, standing there and, you know, sticking out there like a sore thumb, you know.

INSKEEP: Looks like me, perhaps.

MUNOZ: Exactly, but - and after the show, they come and somehow, you know, they met probably this Mexicana senorita. And they knew our music, you know. And they say, I don't understand a single word you're singing. But I guess they can relate to their music 'cause it has that rock flavor, that country flavor, and it does speak, like, to the - I guess to the white people, in some weird way.

MARTIN: It speaks to the white people, I guess. I guess it does and others.

INSKEEP: Well, and, you know, all kinds of people can be attracted to this music. Now there is a barrier here which he alludes to a little bit, and that is the language. And that is a barrier for some people. And singing in English, interestingly enough, is a barrier for Ricky Munoz. He grew up in the United States, obviously. He speaks English...

MARTIN: He speaks perfect English...

INSKEEP: ...Perfectly well.

MARTIN: ...But you were saying he does very few interviews in English, you were telling us.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I don't think anybody's asked him ever to do an interview in English, and he's also been reluctant to try singing in English. He's not totally confident that he can pull it off, and he's not totally confident there's a market for his style of music with English lyrics. So there are some barriers that are harder to cross than others.

MARTIN: You know, I want to end our conversation where we started off, which is that there's a lot of - despite the fact that this border looms so large in our public debate and in our kind of consciousness about so many issues, that there's a lot of ignorance about the border and how life is really lived. And so is there something that you really wish people would know when they think about this border?

INSKEEP: I think when you think about the border and issues that have been talked about a lot like immigration or crime or drugs, you can initially be turned off 'cause you think, I know that issue. I've heard about that issue for years. But it's like looking at the surface of the ocean, Michel, and it seems rather flat and placid and dull until you dive in. We wanted to dive in with this series and hear individual stories.

And every one of these stories was more complicated than anybody's ideology that you hear about these issues. Real life is complicated. Border life is perhaps even more complicated. And what we found was several sides of the same political issue reflected in the personal story of any given individual. And it just underlined for me the importance of listening to people's stories, paying attention to reality and making decisions based on that rather than on a very simplified view of it.

MARTIN: I'm sorry that you aren't going to demonstrate a grito for us.

INSKEEP: No, you're not. If I tried to demonstrate, you would be sorry then. You would be sorry.

MARTIN: No. No, I really want to hear it.

INSKEEP: Well, OK, so...

MARTIN: It's a grito. Tell us it's...

INSKEEP: OK. I'll...

MARTIN: Go ahead, tell us briefly.

INSKEEP: OK, we went to this grito contest. It's basically a shouting contest - a Mexican shouting contest, although it was won by an Anglo.

MARTIN: I'm from New York. You cannot scare me.

INSKEEP: The women howled better than the men, but it's about trying to shout as long as you can. (Imitates grito) That'd be a very short grito I just did.

MARTIN: Pretty good.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Pretty good. Excellent.

INSKEEP: But it would have to go much longer in order to win the contest.

MARTIN: Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition. He was kind enough to walk down the hall and join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Steve Inskeep, thanks so much for joining us.

INSKEEP: Invite me back anytime.

MARTIN: If you want to hear more from Steve Inskeep's trip to the borderland, go to This week, NPR will publish a digital magazine. It will have everything about the U.S.-Mexico border - the sights, the sounds, the facts - all in one place. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.