The invader lived in a bright pink house on a street of dust and dreams. He was only 40 when he collapsed in sickness—or was murdered, as his four sisters and mother and brother-in-law believe—just a few thousand metres from his pastel cinder-block castle, yet in another world. He’d been gone from home for just half a day, laden, like a billion emigrants through the centuries before him, with his family’s wants and his own ambitions, only to come home in a box.
It was a windy afternoon in late March, at the precise confluence of nations, races, hopes and hatreds that define the American borderlands this spring and portend the re-election or rejection 19 months from now of President Donald J. Trump. An itinerant plumber named René Pablo López Gordillo, the divorced father of three schoolchildren in a country where not every child goes to school, walked across the dried-up culvert that, long ago when it ran free and wild, was called the Rio Grande. Behind him was the uncollected filth and unremitting violence of Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, once before and now again reputed to be the world’s most dangerous city. Before him, just a few short, sandy, muddy, magical steps away, was El Paso, Texas. So the plumber gave it a try.
Four hours after he touched American soil, López Gordillo was dead.
The cause of his demise, according to the authorities who captured, cuffed and then cared for him as yet another brown-skinned, uninvited ticket-holder in the lottery of sanctuary-seekers probing the limits of the generosity of the United States this spring in their hundreds of thousands, was influenza, complicated by liver and kidney disease. But when the Yanquis shipped his corpse back to Mexico a few days later, the dead man’s relatives thought they saw blood in his nostrils, a slit in his lip and bruises on his cheeks—proof of foul play, they aver. Whether this was wreaked by malevolent border guards or by transnational hoodlums collecting some relict debt, they could not say. When you live in Ciudad Juárez, you spy murder everywhere.
It hardly matters now—René Pablo López Gordillo, clothed reverently in his coffin as San Judas Tadeo, patron of lost causes, is lying in a bare-dirt cemetery in one of the most gang-ravaged barrios in all of Mexico, a country where 33,341 people were murdered last year. There have been a quarter-million killings in the past decade, plus 40,000 more “disappeared”—and only two per cent of those cases were “solved.” Above his burial mound are flowers and palm fronds and a ribbon with his name on it and a tall can of Tecate beer. “We put a bottle of booze there, too, as an offering when we buried him,” says López Gordillo’s brother-in-law, “but somebody stole it.”
“These other graves,” a foreigner wonders, enfolded in the sudden grief and heart-tugging hospitality of the Gordillo clan in the season of the great invasion, “are any of them young men killed by the drug gangs?”
“Lots of them,” answers the brother-in-law. Near us are shallow, rectangular pits, awaiting the boys the mad cartels will assassinate tonight.
Extrapolate one man’s fatal striving and one clan’s lonely sorrow from the Rio Grande to Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala and beyond; mix in the agonizing context of walls and cages and separated families with Mexico’s endemic corruption and failed polity and North America’s sick, insatiable appetite for smuggled drugs; add Donald Trump’s war cry of “Emergency!” and this is the landscape of 2019 along the border.
This, and a young son of this binational metropolis—from the safe side of the river—named Robert Francis O’Rourke, 46, clean-shaven and filthy rich, a perpetual punk and, like the late René Pablo López Gordillo, a father of three, an impassioned shouter and somewhat successful Democratic politician trying to crowd-source his way to the most impossible job in the world. Or the second-hardest, after the presidency of Mexico.
O’Rourke has bounded up onto a small stage—he’s always bounding up onto something, especially restaurant tables—with his wife and their three perfect innocents in downtown El Paso, with two pawn shops on the boulevard in front of him and a pandemonium of two or three thousand electors waving banners with his nickname on it below. Everybody calls him “Beto,” the diminutive of Roberto, as if this Irishman were Hispanic, but that’s not his fault, having been given the nickname when he was a child, here in a city where seven out of eight residents are blood kin to the Mexican soil.
Elsewhere in this favoured land on this first Saturday of spring, some 20 Democratic aspirants are doing the same thing—testing talking points, criticizing the sitting president, telling the crowd that “this is our moment” and then hastening off to the next moment, and the next. Beto O’Rourke is no different from the others. But his El Paso is.
Four blocks from today’s rally sit hundreds of Central Americans, Brazilians, Cubans and Mexicans (and, on other days, some Chinese and Africans). They are one morning’s partial haul from just one turnstile of the 3,000-km frontier, freeze-drying under Mylar blankets in a fenced-off sandbox, awaiting processing, a cursory vetting and either summary deportation—and the chance to try again—or release into a sudden Oz.
These foil-wrapped stragglers have paid Mexican coyotes to safe-house them across Mexico, and they have waded the desiccated riverbed from Juárez to El Paso, exchanging a few weeks of risking rape and robbery and a few days of discomfort in a Texas sandlot for a shot at generations of opportunity and freedom. Some are silent, afraid; others prance and jostle. They’ve made it—maybe—while millions only pray.
A fluke of geography got them here. There already is a wall on the American side, but it is set a few metres north of the waterless channel whose centre marks the actual border, leaving a narrow strip of American earth as a toehold in the promised land. All a migrant must do is set one foot on this scrubland corridor, and the Border Patrol will open a gate in the barrier and welcome him or her to Trumpland, possibly, safely, forever.
Meanwhile: “U.S. & MEXICO BRACE FOR ‘MOTHER OF ALL CARAVANS,’ ” screams Fox & Friends on this same morning.
“They’re coming!” a former border patrol chief warns the hosts.
“The breaking point has arrived this week,” concurs the current head of Border Protection. The arithmetic is staggering—100,000 apprehensions in the month of March alone. So many mothers. So many children. So many López Gordillos.
“We will close the damn border!” thunders The Donald in Grand Rapids, Mich., a safe distance from the hordes. “Look at the hundreds of thousands who are invading our country!”
“There is no more room at the inn,” warns the ex-chief on Fox & Friends.
“I can’t say this to my supervisor,” an active-duty border patrol officer whispers to a reporter back in El Paso, under the international bridge where the morning’s migrants are corralled, “but if I were in their situation, in their country, I would do the same thing they did.”
“What if there were no border at all?” the warden is asked.
“Millions would come,” he says. “Millions.”
Having conceded the George Strait vote entirely, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign theme song is “Clampdown” by The Clash:
In these days of evil presidentes
Working for the clampdown . . .
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers
What are we gonna do now?
Even with their hands over their ears, Americans are listening. On the very first day of Beto’s official presidential campaign, the young believers of the republic texted him more than six million bucks. He has been doing naught but run for office for more than two years now, having left the House of Representatives after three terms to try to blue-eye Ted Cruz, the Senate’s smartest member (just ask him) out of Congress. O’Rourke failed, but he raised so many tens of millions of dollars, and came so close to upsetting a Republican in red, righteous Texas, that many lions of the Left immediately anointed him their Chosen One for 2020.
The problem is, with the first cattle-call debate in Miami still three months away, there is currently more like a Chosen 20. So it is time for Beto O’Rourke to put some policy meat on his angular bones—to play the role of JFK’s putative legatee to his rivals’ lesser pedigrees, to drive cross-country, alone, in a rented Dodge, to Instagram his own dental cleaning and to bound onto the platform in front of the pawn shops and declare: “With Ciudad Juárez we formed the largest binational community in this hemisphere. And for 20 years running, we’ve been one of the safest cities in the United States of America.
“We are safe, not despite the fact that we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers. We are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers. We have learned not to fear our differences, but to respect and embrace them. We see the languages spoken, the traditions and the cultures in this community as a strength for El Paso.
“We understand, we understand that we are, in the words of Dr. King, caught in ‘an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.’ ”
Beto O’Rourke has said, “Absolutely, I’d take the wall down.” He has said, “There is a role for physical barriers in some places.” He has said, “We will find security not through walls, not through militarization.”
On this day, he promises “guaranteed high-quality universal health care,” but not the socialistic “Medicare for All” that the leftiest of the other candidates espouse. He thunders, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren-like, that “this extraordinary, unprecedented concentration of wealth and power and privilege must be broken apart,” having married the daughter of one of the richest and, to some here, most rapacious real-estate developers in West Texas.
(For her part, Amy Sanders O’Rourke—no relation to Bernie, Bernie, Bernie—keeps pouring lukewarm water on her husband’s “I was born to do this” quest. She tells the crowd that the early years of her marriage, when Beto scored a city council seat and she had three babies in four years, “were not especially easy.” When he decided to run for Congress, she was “very concerned.” Reaching the decision to run for the White House “was not an easy one.” Yet off he goes.)
With a straight, handsome face, Beto proclaims that climate change is a “far more existential threat” than Nazi Germany was in the 1930s.
“¡Sí, se puede!” chant the proud bilinguists in the crowd.
Beto is El Paso, El Paso is the border, the border is The Wall, and The Wall is Donald Trump.
“When Trump’s supporters chant ‘Build the Wall,’ ” a correspondent asks members of O’Rourke’s audience, “what are they really saying?”
“They’re saying they don’t want any more brown people,” replies Diana Vasquez Escobedo, who grew up here, a Mexican barber’s granddaughter who is now a health technician at a California elementary school. “They’re not afraid of Irish immigrants. They’re not afraid of immigrants from Eastern Europe. But when they go into a restaurant and hear people speaking Spanish, they get nervous. But we are all part of the same culture. Tacos are as American as hot dogs.”
Beto O’Rourke has just finished knitting his single garment of destiny and has hurried off to Houston, then Austin, then Iowa, then New Hampshire, and on and on and on. On most such jaunts he leaves Amy to raise the three offspring, “occasionally with my help,” he flubbed, standing on a countertop in March. “He’s very inspirational,” Vasquez Escobedo says. “He inspires me. He makes me very hopeful.”
So, of course, did Barack Hussein (“¡Sí, se puede!”) Obama. “But in a different way,” she says. “This is my hometown, and he reflects so much of what this city is about. It’s not just talk. This city with two cultures has always been relevant to the whole country, whether people held a megaphone to it or not. How many trucks go across the border every day? How many billions of dollars in trade cross here? It hasn’t been sexy, but Trump has made it relevant.
“It is easy to see Beto as just a privileged white man,” Vasquez Escobedo reasons. (She has donated to O’Rourke’s campaign this cycle, and to Kamala Harris’s and Elizabeth Warren’s.) “But I don’t reduce people. I want to see more revealed about him. I want more specific policies. How is he going to have health care for everyone? How is he going to pay for it? I’m not a fangirl. I’m politically active. I go online. I read the platforms.”
“Haven’t you already reduced Donald Trump?” she is asked.
“I don’t have to reduce him,” she answers. “I think he has shown us who he really is.”
One of the two pawn shops on the street is owned by a man named Larry Baron; it was Baratz in the old country before the authorities altered it at Ellis Island. Baron is not Latino, but the Jews of the Russian Empire also once weighed the balance of risk and reward and came to America in their multitudes.
“Trump says he would welcome Norwegians—why?” Baron asks. “The only reason must be the colour of their skin.”
“What is the answer to the crisis at the border?” the pawnbroker is asked. “Get rid of Trump,” he snaps. Like O’Rourke, Baron is a lifelong El Pasoan, and has known its especial tolerance. “I never thought we’d have anyone from El Paso run for higher office,” he says. But Baron looks at the Lone Star State and says, “They voted for Ted Cruz and they will vote for Donald Trump and they don’t know what’s good for them. They just go with their party.”
“Have you ever voted for a Republican?
Another of the speakers at the morning rally, four blocks from the chain-link fence and the concertina wire, is Veronica Escobar, who now holds Beto’s old seat in Congress.
“This is the capital of the border!” she screams. “This is the new Ellis Island!”
“America is not a dream,” the young woman is saying. “America is not paradise. My home, my children, that is my paradise.”
She is named Araceli, one of the late René Pablo López Gordillo’s four sisters. We are in the dead man’s living room in Ciudad Juárez. There are candles on the floor, a single bare light bulb, a photo of the luckless emigré. Outside there is music, dogs, trash, commerce, a truck selling gorditas, the empty graves awaiting the pitiless night.
“He was fine when he left here,” the grieving, disbelieving mother, Martha Gordillo, sighs. “He went across three months ago and they caught him and sent him back. They treated him well. They didn’t treat him badly. He wanted to make a better living. Es el sueño de muchos. It is the dream of many.”
It had been her own dream. She had worked in America, legally, with a proper visa. “I had surgeries there. Thanks to my salary, I was able to buy this house.”
The cinder blocks are painted a light green on the inside. There is running water but no heat; chicken and tortillas and Pepsi-Cola and pico de gallo on the table; a bubbling girl in Dora the Explorer pyjamas darting around.
“Why don’t you all go to America?” their fortunate First World visitor wonders.
“Because I have my life here and I am afraid. I am afraid of water. Look at me—I am too fat to run!” a well-fed sister, Antonía, laughs. “The salaries over there are good, but the costs are high,” says Eva María, another of the clan. “When their mother is sick, they can send money, but they cannot come back and hug their mother. Mexico has many beautiful things. Those other countries in Central America, they are different. If we were that poor, we would think differently.”
“I understand why Trump says what he says. Trump only wants security for his country. But if he gave us visas, we would go.”
“Is Trump a racist?” the women are asked.
“I do not want to speak of racismo, because we have racismo in Mexico, too. Against the people from the South. Against the Indians. Against the people with darker skin.”
What if there was no wall?” a humbled mourner wonders. “What if there was no border at all between you and America?”
“Mexico would disappear,” says Eva María. “There would be nobody here.”