I didn’t get the light-up sneakers. I never do.
Instead, we’re coming out of the shoe store with four pairs of practical shoes. Two for me, two for Valentina. We’re back-to-school shopping en el otro lado because some things are cheaper and better quality when you buy them in the U.S. Our list for today: colored pencils, regular pencils, a binder with a zipper, and the two pairs of shoes.
Everything else on the school’s list we can only find at a specific libreria in Tijuana.
I’m finally joining Vale at the Colegio Bilingüe this year. The dress code requires shiny black shoes for our skirted uniforms on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and plain white sneakers for our PE uniforms on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We’ll be inspected every day and sent home with a note if our shoes are anything less than pristine. My dad is ready, white and black shoe polish on hand in his toolbox by the back door.
I’m excited for the new school, but I’m less excited about the shoes.
My mom checks her watch, a delicate thing with interlocking silver and gold links. “Ya se nos pasó la hora,” she tuts as she straps me into my booster seat.
Vale sits on the other side of the car. She’s tall enough that she doesn’t need a booster anymore.
We’ve been shopping all day, starting at Old Navy where I got boring weekend clothes. Vale is always happy with what my mom chooses because she doesn’t like girly things, but I wanted something twirly, frilly, and pink. You can’t get frilly and pink at Old Navy, and my mom doesn’t take us to the stores where you can. She says the twirly children’s clothes are just mini versions of adult clothes and totalmente inapropiado para los niños. I did find a striped dress at Old Navy, but when I tried it on and gave it a practice twirl, the skirt barely moved.
“Te queda bien,” dijo mamá, and she put it in the basket.
Now we’re in the car heading south toward la frontera and my parents are discussing what we should do. My mom is driving, and my dad pulls the visor to the side window. The sun dips down behind the marine layer that creeps in every afternoon from the Pacific.
“Cruzamos ahora o después?” asks my mom. Should we head home now or later? “No quiero andar esperando,” says my dad. It’s a careful calculation every time we cross to San Diego. How long is it going to take to cross to el otro lado, and will we finish our errands in time to avoid the long line to get back to Tijuana? From the sound of it, we may have spent just a little too much time shopping today.
Vale and I look at each other, excited. This means we’ll get to do something fun to kill time while traffic dies down. She puts a finger to her lips. If we get too alborotadas, mamá y papá may decide to head home right away.
My mom is quiet while she thinks and drives. A plane flies low overhead as it approaches the airport by downtown San Diego. Sometimes it feels like the airplanes are going to land right on the freeway, but it whooshes past. The radio, turned down low, crackles into the filler between songs—transmitiendo con cien mil watts de potencia. Mamá glances at us through the rearview mirror.
“Vamos al Discovery Zone?”
We cheer from the backseat. “Sííí!”
We exit into Chula Vista, the familiar suburb tucked at the southern end of San Diego Bay. It’s less than ten miles from the border, a neat grid of one-story houses, the avenues dotted with strip malls. The freeway at our exit is clear, but if we were to keep going, we’d come to a stop behind hundreds of cars, an endless flood of red brake lights in between us and home, glowing in the encroaching darkness.
We stop at our favorite pizza spot for dinner before heading to Discovery Zone. The smell of garlic and yeast blasts out from the kitchen vents as we walk from the parking lot behind the restaurant to the front entrance. The interior is dimly lit, the tables covered with plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloths. My mom makes me eat a couple of mouthfuls of salad before I dig into my pizza. I drown it in parmesan and take a big bite. It’s too hot still, and I burn the roof of my mouth.
Then, it’s time.
Discovery Zone, a huge indoor playground, a riot of primary colors. We walk in, the smell of plastic and sweaty children permeating the air.
Vale and I tear away from our parents to dive bomb into the ball pit. Our shrieking laughter joins the chorus of children shouting in the enclosed space.
Every time I come out of the roller slide, I see my parents sitting in the plastic chairs. They’re looking at their watches, glancing outside. How many cars are waiting to cross back into Mexico now? Maybe if they don’t see me coming out of the slide, traffic will stay bad and we can play all night.
Vale shoots out of the slide beside me, and I chase her through the foam-covered metal structure. The static electricity in the plastic tunnels makes my arm hairs stand on end. I can never catch Vale. She’s faster than I am because she inherited Abuelo’s long limbs.
Too soon, my parents call for us. It’s time to go home. We beg for five more minutes, and they grant it. It’s enough to clamber through the netting to go down the roller slide just one more time before we head out into the chilly night.
Fog blankets the streets of Chula Vista, the streetlights yellow halos in the mist. My parents are eager to get home. We’ll be there in less than twenty minutes now that the traffic has died down—ten minutes to the border, then ten minutes more to get to our house near El Hipodromo.
It’s darker on this side of the border, less developed. When we cross under the big red, white, and green sign that reads mexico, the darkness will give way to the bright lights illuminating the border crossing. And beyond, Tijuana will shine just as brightly, the city blooming right at the border.
But I don’t see any of that. I’m asleep before we hit the freeway, the droning of the NPR host lulling me to sleep.
We’re on hour two of crossing la linea and, according to the Radio Latina border report, we still have a hundred cars ahead of us and about an hour left to go. We haven’t even gotten to the first of the permanent vendors yet.
We’re on our way back home to Arizona after spending the Thanksgiving break at my grandparents’ house in Tijuana. We had the big family dinner yesterday on Saturday, since most of my tíos and primos still live here and don’t have Thursday and Friday off. That’s what I’ve missed the most since we moved to the U.S. three years ago: Sundays, when the whole family would all gather together for carne asada en la casa de los abuelos. It’s nice to come back whenever we have long weekends, even though my Spanish seems to be getting worse with each trip. My cousins always tease me about it.
I’m almost finished with my third book of the weekend. My parents tell me every time not to bring library books on the trip, but I snuck some in my backpack anyway. I always bring at least two, and I haven’t lost one yet. What do they expect me to do without books on our road trips back to Tijuana anyway? Stare at the desert and compare the shade of the dust on each side of the Colorado River?
Better they reprimand me for bringing the books than for fighting with Vale. Because we will fight over the stupidest things. Like right now. She’s crossing over into my side of the back seat, stretching her legs just a little bit past the line, but I ignore her and pull the book up closer to my face. Vale inherited her motion sickness from mamá, so she can’t read in the car even if she wanted to.
But I can. And in this moment, I’m not sitting in the back seat of a car, one of thousands waiting to cross the border at San Ysidro. I’m not looking out at the familiar scenes of vendors walking around with the thick cobijas de San Marcos draped over their arms or with the tray of bobblehead dogs, or the man with the big knife chopping away at the fruit salad cart. I’m oceans away on the deck of a pirate ship taking on the British Navy.
I pretend I can feel the rolling deck of the ship beneath me instead of the car lurching forward foot by foot. That I can smell the sea spray instead of the car exhaust fumes. That the honks around us are actually the booms of the cannons on a warship.
The book ends on a cliff-hanger. I have the next one in the series in my backpack, but I don’t pick it up just yet. Once we get past the border, we still have six hours of driving before we get home—seven if mom decides to drive—and I need to ration my entertainment.
So I look out the window. We’ve arrived at the block of permanent vendors that divide el lado derecho y el lado izquierdo of la garita de San Ysidro. I try not to look too interested in their wares. If they notice someone looking with even a smidgen of interest, they will approach the car, telling us it’s cheap, it’s cheap, cual les gusta?
They have a baffling assortment of products. Souvenir shirts and jerseys hang from the awnings, and ceramic figures stand in front of the stalls, school-picture style, shortest in front, tallest in back. Bart Simpson and Spiderman stand next to La Virgen de Guadalupe and Jesus on the crucifix. The small ones are piggy banks, and I think the tall ones are meant to be patio decorations, but I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a house—in Mexico or in Estados Unidos—with a two-and-a-half-foot-tall Virgencita in the yard.
And now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen these vendors make a sale. Are people actually buying these statuettes of the man in the sombrero with his head on his knees? I think about all the stuff we have in our trunk. Does anyone actually have the space to buy one of those things?
“Cual le gusta?”
I snap my head back forward. I spaced out and looked at one of the piggy banks for a little too long. The vendor approaches the car, and my mom shakes her head and waves no with a frown on her face. She’s in the passenger seat today, though I wonder how long until the car sickness gets the best of her. She usually takes this portion of the trip, but she hurt her knee on the drive here with the clutch.
The vendor gives up at my mom’s emphatic refusal, quickly moving on to the next victim who looks for a little too long.
We inch forward, and the smell of frying dough and cinnamon seeps in through the vents. Churros. I can see the cart up ahead. The man twists a large wheel, and dough plops into a vat of bubbling oil. One of the guys from the stall has been walking up and down between the cars with a tray full of bags of churros for the last twenty minutes, but my parents never buy from the tray, only freshly made from the cart. How long do you think he’s been out there with the churros? Do you really want to eat car exhaust? they ask. And the cart is right there…
“Mamá, podemos comprar churros?” I ask.
“No. Acabamos de comer,” she says. I pout and sit back in my seat. I always ask, and sometimes, if my parents are also craving something sweet, the four of us split a piping-hot bag of freshly fried churros, passing the grease-stained paper bag between the front and back seats, the excess sugar rattling at the bottom.
A car cuts in front of us, spewing black smoke from the exhaust pipe. My mom coughs and shuts the vents.
This part of la linea always has the most vendors, in permanent booths along the right-hand side and walking up and down between the cars selling anything from car chargers to elotes. My dad rolls down his window and signals to one of the carts. Pesos get handed over in exchange for half a kilo of flour tortillas. We normally only keep corn tortillas at home—menos grasa, says Papá—but these are just too good to pass up. Lardy and delicious. They make for excellent quesadillas.
And then we’re under the pedestrian bridge and the sprawling, boxy, government-brown building comes into view. united states border inspection station says the sign. The last thing between us and the open road toward home.
Cars of all shapes and sizes wait in line in front of two dozen gates. I saw a picture of it once in one of my textbooks at school. It was strange to flip the glossy page of the textbook and see a slice of my old world in my new one. The caption read: “The world’s busiest land border crossing.” I almost couldn’t believe it. My little corner of the universe, important enough to be in a textbook in the U.S. Did this place really matter to people who didn’t live here?
The vendors peter out as we get closer to the gate. Now it’s just cars and families deciding which gate they’re going to choose. This line is going a little faster, but sometimes that’s deceptive. We merge into the lane for gate 21.
There’s the viejito with the guitar. Seeing him means we’re almost to the end. He’s playing “Cielito Lindo,” one of only three songs in his repertoire. My dad always gives him some spare pesos if he has them. I asked why one time. Why this old man and not the guy in the wheelchair holding an empty McDonald’s cup?
“No toca muy bien, pero por lo menos hace el intento,” says my dad. He doesn’t play very well, but at least he’s trying.
We’re six cars away. “Despierta a tu hermana,” says my mom, and I reach across the middle seat to poke Vale. She’s been drooling against the window for the last twenty minutes.
“Ay, ¿que quieres?” she whines.
“Ya nos faltan seis carros,” I tell her.
My mom pulls a small bundle of passports out from her purse and slips her card on top. I giggled the first time I understood what it said. “Mamá, dice que eres alienígena. Extraterrestre.” She didn’t think it was funny, but I still have to suppress a laugh every time I see the card with her face in three-quarters profile.
Now it’s five cars. My parents remove their sunglasses, and my dad takes off the baseball hat he wears every day to cover his balding head. We always have to be on our best behavior when we get close to the gate. Vale and I sit up straight and still. We can’t be fighting or sleeping or doing anything weird in the back seat when we’re about to cross, or the agent might get the wrong idea about our family. This is just the first stage of our journey home and we don’t want to—
“No me digas,” mutters my mom.
I crane my head and I can barely see the gates closing four cars ahead. There’s a beige minivan just beyond the gates being escorted away by two border agents.
My dad puts our car in park and pulls his cap back on. We’re going to be here a while.
I wonder what it was that made the agent send the car a secundaria. Were the kids being too loud in the back? Did they try to bring in too much stuff? I think of our packed trunk. Four suitcases and a load of groceries we can only get in Tijuana. Will that get us sent to secondary inspection too?
It’s happened to us before, and not even because we had any contraband. There was a brand of soy chorizo—Soyrizo!—that we could only get at the grocery store in Tijuana, so we bought a pack to take home last Christmas. That day, the border agent asked to see the trunk and he found the Soyrizo! right at the top of the grocery bags.
“You can’t bring pork in,” he’d said, brandishing the package toward my dad.
“It’s not pork, sir. It’s soy.”
“It says it’s chorizo right here. That’s pork. I’m gonna have to send you to secondary.”
My parents didn’t argue. You don’t argue with the border agents. No one wants to take that risk. I had been curious to see what secondary looked like, and really, it was just a big parking lot behind the gates. Nothing fancy. We waited for an hour while the car got searched, our documents got inspected, and then they just let us go again. And they kept the Soyrizo!. We’ve stuck to the subpar stuff from the grocery store in Arizona ever since. It’s not the same, but good Soyrizo! isn’t worth wasting time in secondary.
The cars behind us are moving into another lane, but we’re just far enough forward that we’re locked in to this one. I sit back in my seat and look out the window. We’re parked right on a metal strip on the ground that cuts diagonally across the lanes. On one side it says: united states of america. On the other: mexico. The actual, geographical border, even though those who enforce it are still a few yards beyond.
Normally I get a little thrill when we cross this metal line, knowing that we’re in the U.S. already without actually being in the U.S. just yet. I wonder if a baby born just on the other side of this metal division would be an American citizen like me. I wonder if anyone has had the guts to try. Today, we’re in limbo, tired of being in the car and not making any progress, stuck halfway between one country and another. Between the country I’m settling into and the country I’m slowly forgetting.
The drug dogs prowl between this line and the gates, pulling their handlers along as they sniff the waiting cars. I sit back in my seat when they approach our car and try not to look too interested in them. The German shepherd gives us a cursory sniff and moves to investigate more interesting scents.
It’s been twenty minutes already and Vale’s head is lolling against the window again. “No te duermas,” comes my mom’s warning from the front seat. We could get moving any second, but what use is it trying to stay awake? There’s nothing to do but wait.
I dig out the next book from my backpack. Now’s a good time as any to start, I guess.
And as soon as I’m getting settled into the world again, transported to an ocean with wind whipping my hair around me, the gates slowly open. Like when you get up to use the restroom at a restaurant and you come back to the table to find the food already served.
I put the book down again and sit up in my seat. There’s a new agent in the booth taking documents. He doesn’t look as angry as they usually do.
My dad puts the tortillas he bought earlier on the dashboard and my mom hands him the stack of documents.
There’s a camera just in front of the booth, and it flashes at the car in front of us. I always wonder where those pictures go, if there’s someone in the offices above the gates reviewing them. Are they studying our faces, trying to see if we’re up to no good? Do they take these pictures before we get to the agent so that the agent can have some warning before we get to him?
We pull up to the camera, and I turn to look at it. I read somewhere that the best way to put a good expression on your face is to think of things that make you happy, so I think of pleasant things about the U.S. to make the smile convincing. I think about the libraries and cacti waiting for us in Arizona. I think about my music classes and our house with the wide windows and the view of the mountains on the horizon. Do I look bizarre, with a small smile on my face? Can they tell I’m pretending? Am I pretending?
The camera flashes, and then it’s our turn to pull up to the agent.
“Pasaportes por favor,” says the agent in badly accented Spanish. My dad hands the documents over. The agent goes back into the booth and swipes the passports through a reader, one at a time.
“A dónde van?”
“Home, sir,” says my dad, his accent in English just as bad as the agent’s in Spanish.
“Algo para declarar?” The words sound like they don’t fit right in the agent’s mouth.
My dad gestures to the tortillas on the dashboard. “Just groceries, sir.”
The border official leans over to look into the back seat, comparing me and Vale to the passport photos. We sit up and I give him a nervous smile.
“Where’s home?” he asks us, now in English. “Arizona,” we say together.
He nods and hands the passports back to my dad. “Have a good day.”
“Thank you, sir.”
My dad pulls away as soon as the passports are in the car, one hand on the steering wheel, the other shoving the passports into my mom’s lap. I hold my breath as we pass by the turnoff to secondary. I hold it still as we go up and over the speed bumps, until we’re past the port of entry complex and then onto the freeway, ten lanes across and empty, empty after the hours we’ve spent crowded between other cars.
We speed north on the ocho-cero-cinco, my parents debating whether or not to drop in on my aunt, or if we need to stop at the money exchange. But we pass all those exits and continue north without stopping. I settle back with my book, the colors outside the window blurring together.
And even though it’s still many hundreds of miles away, we’ll be home soon. The long part is over.