This Cheer Squad is Caught Between Two Worlds—Divided by a Border
For Texas high school students who live in Mexico, the border wall debate is more about daily logistics than politics.
Photos by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz
Words by Nina Strochlic
ASHLEY ESQUIVEL’S ALARM goes off at 5:45 a.m. in Juárez, Mexico. It’s a Friday in November, and she’s heading to high school in Texas, which means football. She pulls on blue sweats branded with the frowning bear mascot of her high school, stuffs her cheerleading skirt into her backpack, and gets in the car. Her dad drops her at the U.S. border on his way to work.
Although the days are still warm, dawn in the desert hovers around 30 degrees. A yellow mist settles across a motionless line of cars that seems to stretch from the horizon to the border checkpoint. Vendors hawk newspapers and burritos to commuters bound for El Paso, who can wait three or four hours to cross the bridge each morning. A stream of children with backpacks, earbuds in, hands shoved in pockets, weave between traffic and funnel onto a pedestrian walkway.
Perhaps no other two cities represent the overlap of nations like El Paso and Juárez. By population, it’s the second-largest urban area on the U.S.-Mexico border, after San Diego and Tijuana, but it’s arguably the most tightly connected part of the 2,000-mile boundary. From a bird’s eye view, the two meld together seamlessly. El Paso, with its quiet suburbs, and Juárez, with its lively plazas, have a combined population of 2.5 million people, many of whom lead lives that straddle both sides. At ground level, though, an increasingly militarized border divides them.
The Rio Grande, which marks the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, is only a stream here, but it’s reinforced with an 18-foot metal wall and multi-lane freeway. This combination is passable via four traffic-clogged bridges. One runs right from the vendor-filled sidewalks of Juárez into El Paso’s main shopping street. Another practically empties into Bowie (pronounced Boo-ey) High School. Known to locals as La Bowie, this historic school has deep roots in the debate over immigration.
In the past year, students say, a series of migrant caravans from Central America have clogged the already congested crossing points, leading to wait times reminiscent of the months after Sept. 11, 2001, when crossings slowed to a trickle. For seven of the 21 members of the Bowie cheer team who cross the border from Juárez to El Paso every day, this is just a logistical adjustment. They live in Juárez, but as holders of U.S. passports or long-term visas are able to get an education in Texas. This diploma, their parents hope, will be the stepping stone to a good college, a well-paying job, the American dream. So, they set their alarms a little earlier and spend chilly mornings in line to enter the country.
Ashley, who is 17, was born in El Paso, but her brother, who is 16, was born in Juárez. With her American passport, she goes to school here, while he remains across the border. Ashley, who’s quiet and serious, would rather study in Juárez, where she thinks the academics are more rigorous. (Her little brother is studying the same topics as she is and he’s a junior.) But her parents wanted her to learn English, and Bowie is where her friends are. She shrugs off questions about the border wall. There are more pressing things to think about: that night’s football game and, later, whether she wants to become official with the boy she’s dating. For politicians, journalists, and much of the country, this border is the epicenter of a crisis. For Ashley, it’s a morning commute.
Inside, immigration officers scan their papers, and they put their backpacks through an X-ray machine. Then they’re in America. Ashley pops her American passport card into the back of her phone case, and the two walk across lanes of Mexico-bound traffic, a small park and into the Bowie cafeteria. The sun is bright now, and Bowie is so close to the border that the wall is visible from the back of the school, where students tend to gardens and study in overflow classrooms. In the hallways, Spanish is the lingua franca. English is a second language for nearly two-thirds of Bowie students. Later that Friday afternoon, the school will celebrate Día de los Muertos and then play the last home game of football season.
Ashley and Melanie grab trays and join their friend Jasmine, who’s sitting at a table by the doors with her computer and a heap of books. Jasmine lived in El Paso for a year with a legal guardian, but missed her family. So, now, she wakes up at 4:30 a.m., takes two buses from her parents’ house in Juárez and gets to the border bridge by 7 a.m. After school she does softball, student council, National Honor Society and a handful of other extracurriculars. If she has an away game, she won’t get home until around 1 a.m. “That’s why I look like this,” she says, gesturing to her sweatshirt and the curls falling out of her ponytail. On her screen is an early acceptance application for the University of Texas at Austin, where she hopes to study environmental engineering.
Due in part to the recession of the mid-2000s and an uptick in immigration enforcement, the number of U.S.-born minors living in Mexico doubledbetween 2000 and 2015. Today, an estimated half a million reside south of the border.
Ashley, Melanie, Jasmine, and many other students who cross each day were born in the U.S. to Mexican parents, raised in Mexico, and then sent to El Paso for high school. According to a 2017 study, 81 percent of cross-border students were born in the U.S. Some have mothers who were living in America at the time, others came just to give birth, some were undocumented. In El Paso, their children learn English, receive an education, and see the prospect of well-paying jobs. They visit Juárez regularly, to visit family, get affordable medical care, and also have some fun: from throwing blow-out quinceñera parties to club hopping on their 18th birthday.
“The problems our kids have here are truly different than anywhere else,” says Joel Rodriguez, a social studies teacher at Bowie. He’s in the courtyard, directing the set-up of a Día de los Muertos celebration. On the steps of the sunken amphitheater, altars honor the dead with candles, snacks and drinks, and photographs of family members, pets, celebrities—as well as victims of a massacre that killed nearly 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso three months earlier. The school food truck serves pan de muerto, a sweet bread, and hot chocolate. A mariachi band fiddles with instruments, and the dance team dons colorful costumes paired with striking skeletal face paint.
When Rodriguez was growing up in El Paso, as the undocumented son of agricultural workers, the border wall was a little more than a fence with holes in it. Some of those holes were directly behind Bowie and a nearby middle school. Rodriguez remembers that sometimes a chase would cut through their classrooms if the door was left open. “That’s your uncle!” students would joke to each other as an immigrant raced through. “That’s your other uncle!” they’d yell when an immigration officer followed in hot pursuit. That was life on the border—everyone was connected to both sides.
To catch people sneaking into the country, Border Patrol agents would patrol Bowie and interrogate anyone they deemed suspicious. As a freshman in 1992, Rodriguez watched his classmates get stopped and questioned in the school’s hallways. Later that year, something happened that became a turning point in immigration enforcement: Bowie students sued the federal government for violating their civil rights—and won. Immigration officers were no longer allowed to question anyone about their citizenship status unless they had reason, the judge wrote, “involving more than the mere appearance of the individual being of Hispanic descent.”
Today, the wall still sits directly behind the school, but students seem more focused on their ever-unfolding teenage drama than political turmoil. The border is an inconvenience—one that makes them late for school or prompts sleepovers with family or friends in El Paso on game nights—and, perhaps most importantly, a cause of their sleep deprivation. “Sometimes I’m too tired to wake up at 4 a.m. to cross at five,” says 15-year-old cheerleader Megan Mejía, who usually stays with her sister in El Paso after a late night. “Sometimes I’m so tired at practice.”
One morning, as Megan raced from the border bridge to cheer practice, already five minutes late, she reflected on whether she’d rather go to school in Juárez. “No,” she said, her glasses sliding down her nose as she jogged toward the gym. “Juárez is too much drama.”
The school doesn’t collect data on how many students cross each day—to enroll, they are supposed to live in the district. Some use a relative’s address, rent an apartment or post-office box, or pay tuition. Rodriguez says that half his students are “walkers” who cross the border every morning. Some of them come early so they don’t get stuck in the rush hour line. He gestures to the cafeteria: “We have kids who get here at 6 a.m. and sleep on those tables.” Despite that, he says, his walkers have the best attendance and some of the highest scores in math and sciences. At graduation, they’re often alone—their parents can’t cross.
It wasn’t always like this. Antonia Morales is one of the last residents of Barrio Duranguito, El Paso’s oldest neighborhood, which has been largely empied for a development project. When Morales moved from Juárez in the 1940s or ‘50s—she can’t remember exactly—crossing was easy. She and her husband would go to dinner in Juárez, where the restaurants were full of visitors from around the world and American soldiers on leave from Fort Bliss in Texas. On New Year’s Eve they’d dance, drink, and, on the bridge back to El Paso, crack cascarones—hollow eggs filled with confetti—over immigration officers’ heads.
Over the years, it’s become harder to navigate life on both sides of the border. A rise in undocumented immigrants coming to the U.S. in the 1980s and ‘90s, peaking in 2000, politicized the border. At the start of the 21st century around 4,000 agents patrolled the border, but the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything. Heightened security led to hours-long lines into Texas. A few years later, when cartel violence made Juárez one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, it increased again. Today, more than 21,000 agents work on the southern border, and although the number of people both turned back at the border and apprehended while crossing illegally had been declining over the past decade, in the past year it nearly doubled, from over 500,000 to almost a million.
Morales is 91 now and hasn’t been back to Juárez since the violence started in 2008. “The border was so beautiful when I was young,” she said. “There wasn’t the racism we see now. Everyone was accepting. The longer I live the more I see things I don’t like.”
El Paso is nearly 80 percent Hispanic, and political posturing from Washington D.C. hits home. The immigration debate is an everyday reality: Residents volunteer at migrant shelters and share the road with white U.S. Customs and Border Protection SUVs. In his 2019 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump called El Paso “one of our nation’s most dangerous cities” before the border wall was installed and said the wall’s presence had saved lives. This claim was refuted by the city’s mayor and local leaders on both sides of the aisle.
The emotions stirred by the immigration debate crystallized in El Paso after August’s Walmart shooting. The attacker, who drove nearly 10 hours from his home outside Dallas, is believed to have written an anti-immigrant manifesto and targeted a store frequented by Hispanic shoppers.
Over lunch in Segundo Barrio, El Paso’s oldest immigrant neighborhood, Yolanda Chávez Leyva sketches a history of life on the border. Leyva, the director of the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso, understands what it means to have access to both sides of the border: soon after she was born, as a premature twin in Juárez, she was adopted by her mother’s aunt in El Paso, received medical care, and survived. Her sister was taken by her grandmother in Juárez and died.
In the 1800s, small settlements began to grow along the Rio Grande. In 1846, El Paso, which had belonged to Mexico, was seized by Texas. Then, two years later, the U.S. and Mexico were officially divided along the Rio Grande. There were few restrictions on cross-border movement until 1917. That year, the U.S. Immigration Act was passed to slow refugees fleeing the Mexican revolution. A few years later, the first Border Patrol was formed.
Despite the increasingly fortified physical division, the cities are still so interwoven that shops take both U.S. Dollars and Mexican Pesos, and businesses move between the two countries. “The understanding of how tied together we are crosses political lines,” says Leyva. “Our economic survival depends on working together.”
At the football game on Friday night, the 21 cheerleaders chant and dance energetically even as Bowie gets badly beaten by a rival team. In Texas, cheerleading is practically a higher calling, and other teams are packed with girls who started training as toddlers. Most squads have coaches for stunts and tumbling, but there’s no money for that at Bowie. When they go to competitions, the disadvantage is stark; no one can remember the last time the Bowie cheerleaders won. But they have a new coach, and his goal is to find a sponsor for tumbling classes and make sure every member can do a cartwheel by the school year’s end.
Ana Castañeda—homecoming queen, student council vice president, co-captain of the cheer team, and former border-crosser—watches from near the top of the stands. After a couple of rough days at school, she’s sitting this game out and thinking about what she wants to do after Bowie.
For part of elementary and all of middle school, Ana commuted from Juárez to El Paso. Every morning at 5 a.m., her mother drove her to the bridge. Ana Maria Torres wanted her daughters to have a better life than she’d had growing up in Mexico. “At least I did something well that my kids were born here,” she said, sitting in her living room a few days before the game. Before they moved to El Paso, her older daughter, Elsa, would drive the other siblings over the bridge, drop them at school, and then take herself to Bowie High. Elsa didn’t tell anyone she lived in Juárez. She graduated high school without doing a single extracurricular activity and with few friends.
Ana was luckier—after the peak of cartel violence in Juárez, when the family almost never ventured outside, they moved back to El Paso, where she had been born. The illusion she’d carefully maintained was no longer necessary, and she worked toward her goal: homecoming queen of Bowie High. She was crowned in the queen’s crystal tiara and long blue cape in early October.
“Most girls didn’t know,” Ana says of her days as a border crosser. She flicks her long black hair over a shoulder and shoves her hands in her jacket. “They thought I had a perfect life.”
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
This story was also supported in part by the International Women’s Media Foundation.