Borders and Rivers: On Language, Faith, and Family at the US/Mexico Border

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Generations of mystics and monks have described the desert as the place to find God. The closest I’ve come to finding God is in rivers.

You’ll hear it before you see it: the raucous chatter of birds, the burbling of the river as it rushes past. Follow the noise until you crest a hill, round a corner, and there it is, shocking in its lush emerald after so much dusty, scorched orange and brown. As you get closer, you’ll smell it too—that particular riverine odor of wet mud and green shoots. Flycatchers swoop low over the waters, dragonflies hover and hum in the air, cottonwood leaves flash their pale undersides in the bright sun.

Rivers are life-bringers, life-creators, the deepest point of the map to which all other things flow.

The water of the Rio Grande winds its way down from its headwaters up in Colorado, south through New Mexico, then cuts east across Big Bend National Park. It flows on to the vast, flat scrublands between Texas and Mexico. By the time it finally reaches the sea, only about a fifth of its volume remains to marry the Atlantic. At every point in its winding journey, water is diverted away from the Grande to irrigate American fields and American farms along the way. This siphoning makes the river too shallow for boats, and so the Rio Grande has two functions only: to feed the land and to cut across it as a border.

These two rivers that are the same river—the Rio Grande and the Rio Bravo—are not allowed to meet in the middle.

Even this border river, conceived of as immovable when it was set as one end point of the United States in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, has changed its path dozens of times since then. Artist Nicole Antebi created a meander map for the Rio Grande, showing the ways in which the riverbed has changed and shifted from 1827 to 1960. She charts oxbows and islands of contested territory. These ebbs and floods are not only natural, but political: the volume determined by dams farther up the river, the flow determining whether or not people feel safe in crossing. Antebi’s hypothesis in creating her meander map rings true: “To me, the story of the river of two names has always belied the idea that two neighboring countries can ever really be fully separated—much less that the passage of people in between them can be controlled.”

No one can agree on the Rio Grande’s name. In the United States, its name means “the large river,” sounding it out as an unbridgeable chasm, so far from the rest of the country as to be in an entirely different language. On the Mexican side, the Rio Grande is known as the Rio Bravo. “Bravo,” when applied to a body of water, means white caps, waves, danger. It is the same word you use to describe an angry bull, or someone courageous or, like a bull, so angry they’re brave. Thanks to agriculture, the Rio Bravo is no longer that—but it still represents a danger, the beginning of a wild new land, a possibility to be braved.

These two rivers that are the same river—the Rio Grande and the Rio Bravo—are not allowed to meet in the middle. Instead, they paint a wide, savage line across the brushland, the distance from one shore to another only a fraction of the distance between the countries on either side.


My family on my father’s side has a similar relationship to this river, and thus the border, as a planet does to the sun: We orbit around it in generationally wider circles, crossing and returning to the places we came from, time and again.

My grandmother, Dolores Ann Pue, was born in the border-straddling town of Brownsville at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Dolores was the first-born child to Señora Peggy, a firecracker of a German-Irish lady, and Mr. Wilson, part Welsh-English and part Mexican, from a family that proudly counted itself back to Spanish nobility. Dolores spent her first eight years in Brownsville, on the Texas side, before her family crossed over for an opportunity in Mexico.

Señora Peggy, born Doris Lorrain Agnew in West Virginia to a family with Appalachian roots at least three generations deep, had moved to Texas with her family as a child, following her father’s new job in the Texas oil boom. Mr. Wilson, actually Wilson Henry Pue, came from a family that had been in Texas for generations—his forebears settled in San Antonio when Texas was still a newly minted state, buying up vast tracts of land for cattle ranching. Since then, Mr. Wilson’s family crisscrossed the border, members born in Mexico and dying in Texas, and vice versa, since the Civil War.

And so, I am rivermouthed for generations. My parents born on one side of the river, I on the other, our languages flying back and forth between them.


The border, for those who live near it, is porous in this way. Sometimes you cross for a day job, and sometimes you cross for keeps—love, and life, and work can be found on either side.

Still, there was something different about my great-grandparents, Peggy and Wilson, moving their entire family into Mexico. They struck out further into Mexico than Wilson’s family had for generations, settling not near the border but some 300 miles south of it in San Luis Potosí. Theirs wasn’t the usual immigration story—neither culturally, in terms of direction, nor for my family, in terms of its seeming permanence.

Still, it’s important that in one telling of my family story, Mexico was the promised land. It matters that when she was a girl my grandmother lived in a forest in Mexico she now describes as enchanted, full of deer that would eat from her hand, and caves that were also ballrooms, and dragonflies that could be kept on a string. It’s important that my family’s story has wound across the river both ways, that people I am descended from have stood on both banks of this river and wondered what promise might lie on the other side.

This border river not only runs through the history of my family, but through the history of this country—from the earliest colonizers to the people attempting to cross into safety in the United States today.


I spend the second week of 2019 on the border between the United States and Mexico. Or rather, I spend the nights of that week in San Diego. Then every morning, as the sun rises over parking lots and outlet malls and border fences, I walk across the footbridge at PedWest, the U.S. Customs and Border pedestrian entrance at San Ysidro Port of Entry. 7-Eleven coffee in hand, I flash my American passport at a Mexican border guard and send my backpack through the X-ray machine. By the third day, the guard recognizes me and waves me through without looking up.

San Ysidro is the largest land-border crossing in the world. It is estimated that ninety thousand people pass through this port daily, on foot and in cars. As I navigate the maze of passageways, I pass a steady stream of bleary-eyed commuters—nannies, gardeners, cleaners—on their way to their jobs on the U.S. side of the border. They are part of a whole informal workforce of daily border crossers that have sprung up in cities like Tijuana. We see this daily migration in twinned cities all along our southern border: San Diego/Tijuana, El Paso/Juárez, Brownsville/Matamoros. Entire communities full of people good enough to work in the United States, to provide cheap labor cleaning houses or watching children, but not good enough to be sponsored for visas or to be paid a living wage as defined on the U.S. side of the border.

This border river not only runs through the history of my family, but through the history of this country.

I climb down a maze of concrete ramps that look like a diagram of Dante’s hell, past a security guard with an AK-47 strapped to his front and his head bowed over his phone and exit the turnstile into a plaza. Ahead of me, taxis idle next to a sign with 15-foot-high letters that reads, in red, white, and green: Mexico Tijuana.

Tijuana is some 700 miles west of where the Rio Grande takes on the responsibility of acting as the U.S.-Mexico border. But here too, a line runs through the earth: a visibly rusting behemoth, parallel to the highway, shaped to the contours of the ridge it sits on, stretching all the way out to the shore and then into the sea. I am here as a volunteer, part of a temporary reverse migration of volunteers converging in Tijuana to try to meet the needs of the caravan of Central Americans—mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They have walked northward from their countries of origin and are now awaiting their turn to seek asylum on the U.S. side of the border.

Even though I was in the middle of divinity school at the time, surrounded by people who had God-given purpose, the desire to go to Tijuana was as close as I’d ever felt to a calling. When, after months of obsessively following the news about the caravan, I learned that an organization I had worked with in New York was setting up a temporary center there, the idea of traveling to Tijuana chime through me like a bell. In the following weeks, I talked my way into a reimbursement grant from the divinity school for “experiential learning,” put the plane tickets and my hotel room on a credit card and made sure my dwindling checking account still held enough to cover food and endless cups of 7-Eleven coffee.

Before I arrived, I knew my fluency in Spanish would be an anomaly in our group. The organizers’ excitement when I listed that I was bilingual on my intake survey had tipped me off. But that excitement, in turn, signified something else to me: I would be useful, I would be necessary, I would be able to help.


Excerpted from Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva. Published by Astra House. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

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