We rolled into El Paso just as the sun was rising over the city. For several minutes, the train passed within mere feet of the oversized fence placed between Texas and Juarez, Mexico, on the other side. The two cities were dusty and dry, hot in the morning sun. On both sides of the fence, people dressed in worn slacks and button-up shirts walked to work.
People frequently talk about Mexico with an underlying tone that highlights its diminished financial status in comparison to the United States, as if such poverty doesn’t exist on “our side” of the fence. The fence is a mechanism to keep the haves from the have-nots, to separate us from them.
We were on the Sunset Limited, which had left the day before from Los Angeles and would reach New Orleans the following afternoon. Along the way, we were encouraged to relax and enjoy the view from the large windows in the observation car. Indeed, the countryside in Southern California and across Texas was beautiful, miles away from the closest road and deep into the fields where wildlife roamed. But it was between these expanses of isolated space that proved to be the most eye-opening.
Trains naturally seem to wind their way through industrial areas, inviting people to step beyond the confines of pre-defined city life with large, concrete brick walls ideal for spray painting graffiti. In L.A., beneath the colorful art, people had heaved their full garbage bags, now rotting in the sun. Broken glass glimmered in the dirt. Two lone chairs and a sagging tent sat next to a tiny camp stove. Someone called this place home.
As we passed through Texas, makeshift tent cities constructed against high industrial walls provided shade from the heat and concealment from those who would otherwise call the inhabitants lazy, dirty and drunk. Used tires, discarded couches and broken appliances lay abandoned along the tracks.
In Louisiana, soggy ditches clogged with plastic bags and rusty paint cans followed alongside the train, broken only by bowed roads and small towns. No longer hidden in the derelict part of a larger city, these towns were the very definition of poverty. Houses that should have been condemned supported families that exploded into the yards. Makeshift rooms had been constructed out of sheets and tarps. Laundry hung over rotting fences. Outhouses provided relief where no indoor plumbing existed.
I sipped water from where I sat in the observation car and scribbled notes in my journal. The chicken and egg question popped into my mind. Which came first? The train tracks or these homes? Was this a case of the tracks being built through their backyards or a matter of only being able to afford something that existed next to the train tracks?
We may have built a fence to separate the United States from Mexico but if life along the train tracks is any indication, we have only to look out the window to see how the other half lives.