Published: February 23, 2012
A SIMPLE painted sign on a wooden board — “To Mexico” — was propped near the door in the fence, but it was the fence itself that fascinated me. Some masterpieces are unintentional, the result of a freakish accident or an explosive act of sheer weirdness, and the fence that divides Nogales, Ariz., from Nogales, Mexico, is one of them.
In a lifetime of crossing borders I find this pitiless fence the oddest frontier I have ever seen — more formal than the Berlin Wall, more brutal than the Great Wall of China, yet in its way just as much an example of the same folie de grandeur. Built just six months ago, this towering, seemingly endless row of vertical steel beams is so amazing in its conceit you either want to see more of it, or else run in the opposite direction — just the sort of conflicting emotions many people feel when confronted with a peculiar piece of art.
You can, of course, also go through it, which is what I wanted to do. And there was the entryway, just past J. C. Penney and Kory’s clothing shop — a door in the wall at the end of hot, sunlit Morley Avenue.
After leaving my car at a secure parking lot ($4 a day), I showed my passport to the United States border guard, who asked about my plans. Business?
“Just curiosity,” I said. When he made a disapproving squint, I added, “Don’t you go over now and then?”
“Never been there,” he said.
“It’s 10 feet away!”
“I’m staying here,” he said, his squint now suggesting that I should be doing the same.
I pushed the turnstile and stepped through the narrow door — no line, no other formalities — into the state of Sonora, Mexico, where I was instantly, unmistakably in a foreign land. The roads were bumpier, the buildings vaguely distressed; I was breathing in the mingled aromas of bakeries, taco stands and risen dust.
Glancing back a moment later, I could not see Arizona anymore, only the foreground of Mexico — small children kicking a ball, men in sombreros conferring under a striped awning, steaming food carts.
I TREASURE border crossings, and the best of them are the ones where I’ve had to walk from one country to another, savoring the equality of being a pedestrian, stepping over the theoretical line that is shown on maps, from Cambodia into Vietnam, from Pakistan into India, from Turkey into the Republic of Georgia. Usually a frontier is a river — the Mekong, the Rio Grande, the Zambezi; or a mountain range — the Pyrenees, the Rwenzoris. It can also be a sudden alteration in topography, a bewildering landscape transformation — hilly Vermont flattening into Quebec. But just as often a border is a political expedient — irrational yet unremarkable — creating a seamless no man’s land, just a width of earth, bounded by fences.
I am nattering on about this border fence, partly because it is a visual marvel, something like a stockade, and also because, as the guard demonstrated, it calls for a decision. Do you go through, or stay home? It used to be a more casual proposition. Nogalans remember when it was a modest enclosure known as la linea, the line, when the main street between the two towns was more or less contiguous.
“We had a parade every spring,” Nicolas Demetrio Kyriakis told me. Nicolas, from an entrepreneurial family of Greek immigrants to Mexico, is a regidor, a Nogales town counselor and one of the advisors to Nogales’s mayor. “Floats went down the street and into Nogales, Arizona. A coronation was held on a platform on la linea, and the Fiesta de Mayo Queen was crowned. Both towns celebrated.”
That was 30 years ago. Back then Nogales, Mexico, was still a destination for servicemen from big, busy Fort Huachuca, a United States Army post about 25 miles as the crow flies to the northeast. Visitors from Tucson and beyond would pop over for a break from the routine, an opportunity to buy clay pots, sombreros, drink a world-class margarita, and visit a taqueria or sample local food. In the 1940s, cowboy films were made in the area. Hollywood actors crossed the border to eat and raise mild hell in La Caverna, a well-known club run by Nicolas’s cousins.
Such was the bond of the two border towns that when the old elegant Hotel Olivia on the Mexican side caught fire in the 1960s, and the situation became desperate, water hoses were tossed over the fence by the fire brigade in Arizona to help the local bomberos put it out, an act of neighborliness that is still fondly remembered by the Nogalans.
But everyone I spoke to agreed that conditions have changed. They said that when soldiers from Huachuca stopped visiting after 9/11 and guards started asking to see passports, the influx of visitors slowed to a trickle. And there was another theme: since the emphasis across America was on scrutinizing aliens, why would anyone wish to become an alien oneself? The repeated news stories of cartels taking over didn’t help: cross the Mexican border and risk dying like a dog.
“After the bombing of the World Trade Center, things went down,” Juan Cordero, the director of the Department of Economic Development in this part of Sonora, told me. “But it was massage parlors and bars on Canal Street, and curio shops downtown, an old-fashioned business model. Sure, we still had lots of American factories in our industrial area — thousands of people are employed there — but we have just a few tourists.”
And yet, here I was, a tourist, savoring the satisfaction of having eased myself into another country to enjoy the difference, with the tourist’s presumption that I deserved a good time. And I had the instant gringo’s assurance that my country, and my car, were just behind the tall fence at the frontera.
Crossing Into Nogales, Mexico
Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico
Travel Guide: Mexico
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So what can you do with a couple of days in Nogales? Take advantage of its nearness, first of all. Buy cowboy boots, or pots, or folk art. I came away with a hand-carved set of dominoes, some silver coins and cleaner, whiter teeth.
On my first day I had a margarita at the Salon Regis. I asked the bartender about events in town. He thought a moment, then said, “Super Bowl on Sunday.”
Dinner at La Roca, which is just minutes from the fence, was pleasurable for my being in the hands of the sort of knowledgeable dark-suited old waiters that have disappeared from most of the world’s restaurants. Many have worked at La Roca since it opened (its 40th anniversary was celebrated this year). These men were the stalwarts at the restaurant at my hotel too, the Hotel Fray Marcos. At La Roca I had tortilla soup and as an entrée a Mexican mélange of fresh shrimp from Guaymas on the Sonoran coast. Elsewhere in town, even the smaller places such as Leos or Zapatas offered plates of dried shredded beef known as mochomos and delicious tacos.
I found the Nogalans courtly and easy to meet, grateful to have a visitor to the point where one demonstration of neighborliness was an offer of a swig of bacanora, a drink made from agave and Sonora’s gift to the world of drinkable rocket fuel — stronger than tequila.
It is obvious from the empty streets of downtown Nogales that very few visitors stay the night, but I found that overnighting simplified my experience of the place. The Hotel Fray Marcos has mixed reviews but I found it excellent (my suite went for around $80). It was also conveniently near the office of Dr. Jose Saturno, who on successive days worked on my teeth — the full limpieza ($54) y blanquiamento ($250).
There have always been inexpensive dentists in Nogales, but the combination of rising health costs in the United States (and the fact that many retiree health plans don’t include dental) along with the availability of cheap real estate in Nogales has created a dentistry boom here, which is expanding to include spa and other services as well.
At Laser Tech over on Obregon Street, Dr. Francisco Vazquez enlarged his dental practice a year ago to include a dermatology unit, and his wife (and mother of three), Martha Gonzales, opened a spa with treatments that included not only massage and steam baths but also “ancient rituals” inspired by the Aztecs, and for good measure hired Dr. Angel Minjares, whose specialties are theology and psychology, for “assessments.”
Their businesses are among the approximately 60 dental “wellness” practices here, mainly concentrated in a three-block area all within easy walking distance from the border gate. Most of the patients are American retirees nipping over for the day from Tucson or nearby Green Valley.
Gerd Roehrig, an older Tucson resident originally from Germany, was seeing Dr. Ernesto Quiroga about an implant. What would have cost him $4,500 in his hometown of Tucson, he said, was about a third of that in Nogales. Creating a further enticement, Dr. Quiroga recently invested $150,000 in a 3-D scanning machine for CAT scans.
“I guess Canal Street could now be called Root Canal Street,” I said to Juan Cordero, after my treatment.
He sighed. “People are worried, “ he said. “They think Nogales is dangerous. You know the expression poner salsa a los tacos?”
Slather sauce on the tacos — exaggerate.
To try to get a handle on just how dangerous my visit was, I asked to meet the Secretary for Public Safety in Sonora and was introduced to Ernesto Munro Palacio, a 6-foot-3 businessman and former pitcher for the Monterrey Sultans, who, since 2009, has been responsible for security in the state.
“Prior to  there was very little investment in security,” he said. “But within the past two years Sonora had invested $100 million in helicopters, armored cars and surveillance planes, to find the landing strips of organized crime and the marijuana farms.”
Murders are a problem all over Mexico, and they have devastated cities like Ciudad Juárez, which is a cartel battleground. But Secretary Munro said that in Nogales the murder rate has declined from 210 in 2010 to 83 in 2011 and that they are almost exclusively drug related.
“Ask your people if they know the name of one American who’s been killed in Sonora,” he said. “No tourist has ever been killed in Nogales.”
The State Department said that in the two years from Jan. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2011, there were 21 reported homicides of American citizens in Nogales and advises that visitors to Sonora travel on main roads and only during daylight hours. Meanwhile, the Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, who earlier this month said that she should be an “ambassador for Sonora,” enthusiastically promotes tourism in the area. I heard even more robust testimonials about Sonora, and Nogales in particular, from the Americans I met seeking dental care, who remarked on the hospitality of the city.
The Bianchis, a retired couple from Tucson I met in a waiting room, were content. “We come here all the time,” Mr. Bianchi said. “I got bridgework. And, hey, people are nice.”
Crossing Into Nogales, Mexico
Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico
Travel Guide: Mexico
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Nogales is a border town trying to save itself, and I think succeeding. I was struck, walking the city, by the distinct air of foreignness mingled with a pleasing ordinariness — children at play on school playgrounds, shoppers, churchgoers — the pleasures and routines of Mexico. The visible absence of travelers gives the city a greater feel of difference, as do the brightly painted houses that dot hillsides, the result of a scheme by the Nogales mayor, José Ángel Hernández Barajas, who created an Urban Image Department, which provides free paint for any who wish to spruce up their home. He has also created schools and sports programs, as well as teams of street cleaners.
The streets of Nogales are as tidy as any on the American side, and full of surprises. On my way to see the boomtown that lies beyond downtown and the dental clinics, I passed a two-story sculpture of a muscular naked youth spearing a winged reptilian figure sprawled at his feet. Officially known as “The Defeat of Ignorance” (“La Derrota de la Ignorancia”), the statue (designed by the Spanish sculptor Alfredo Just, in the late 1960s) is fondly referred to by Nogalans as mono bichi — “the naked guy” in a local phrase that is partly Yaqui. (Nogalans scatter their speech with Yaqui words that are incomprehensible elsewhere, like buki for child and yori blanco for white man.)
I was to discover that the neighborhoods just across the fence are not representative of the town at large, which is a lesson in how to know another country: stay longer, travel deeper, overcome timidity. Tourists usually stick close to the fence, which accounts for the density of curio shops, and now the density of dental practices. But that downtown of Nogales is misleading.
DRIVING a few miles south with Juan Cordero I saw how Nogales sprawled, with newly built and modern subdivisions near more modest ones, all comprising Nuevo Nogales. “This is the main economic engine driving Nogales,” Juan said. The majority of the 32,000 people employed in Nogales work in the Industrial Area in factories making cellphone components, semiconductors, air ducts for jumbo jets. Most of the names are familiar — Otis Elevator, Black & Decker, Chamberlain garage door openers, Rain Bird Sprinklers, General Electric, Watts Water Technologies, Flextronics, B/E Aerospace. Some companies like Kimberly-Clark and Motorola have been here since the late 1960s. The lives and working conditions of such employees are well described in William T. Vollmann’s “Imperial,” an exhaustive account of an area that encompasses California and Mexico, which in its complexity and conflict resembles the Nogales border.
These are skilled workers. Those without education or manufacturing skills, the so-called campesinos, look elsewhere for work, and often cross the border to find it. Many who end up in the United States without papers are caught, jailed for a period, and bused to the border. This, too, is a revelation from the other side of the high fence.
Nogales is where they are dumped. Peg Bowden, a retired nurse, brought me to El Comedor, a shelter run by American Jesuits near the Mariposa gate just about a mile west of downtown Nogales. Ms. Bowden told me she was so shocked by the savage attack on Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in January 2011 that she decided to do something humane: “I needed to connect with something positive.” She joined a group of Samaritans — “a bunch of renegade senior citizens whose mission is to prevent deaths in the desert,” and she volunteered at El Comedor, working a few days a week, crossing the border from Arizona.
As a trained nurse she is useful, treating bullet wounds and severe hypothermia and the effects of starvation and exposure — common among border crossers. “Last week we had a girl who’d been lost in the desert for three days. She was 14.”
It was another day in Nogales, another revelation for me, and by far the most melancholy. In El Comedor, 160 lost souls, most of them adults, and four small children, were seated on benches, at communal tables, eating breakfast in an open-sided shelter at the side of the road.
Some had been longtime residents in the United States — Alejandro, a restaurant worker in North Carolina for 13 years, Arnulfo a carpenter for 11.
“I spent 20 years in Napa picking strawberries,” Maria, an older woman in a long black dress, told me. “My husband and children are there. I came to Mexico for my father’s funeral.” She was wearing her funeral dress. She couldn’t return to the United States, nor did she have a home in Mexico anymore.
They were soft-spoken, humbled and hopeless. A woman in her 20s, Rosalba, had spent four days in the desert. She had blistered feet, a deep wound from a cactus thorn and a severe infection. Some had been caught making their first crossing. Others had been sent home after years in the United States.
The saddest case to me was a woman from Oaxaca. Abandoned, with no money, no prospects and no hope of making a living in Oaxaca, she left her three children in the care of her mother and crossed the border with four other women, in the hope of finding work. Somehow separated from the other women, she was found in the desert.
“It’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ ” Peg Bowden said.
She accepted her fate, but I will never forget the sight of her alone at the table, a plate of food before her, eyes tightly shut, hands together uplifted in prayer.
I was just a tourist. The fence, which I discovered is less than three miles long, had hidden all of this — the downtown, the factories, the restaurants, the residential subdivisions, the mall, the migrants, sad stories, happy stories.
It’s there for anyone to discover, and so simple. It was as illuminating to me as any foreign travel I have taken anywhere in the world. In some ways, being so near home and taking less effort, it seemed odder, freighted with greater significance, this wider world at the end of Morley Avenue, just behind the fence.
PAUL THEROUX is the author, most recently, of “The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments From Lives on the Road.” His new novel, “The Lower River,” will be published in May by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.