Crossing the Border to Hang Out With Your Friend

"Going to Nuevo Laredo for lunch or dinner was no big deal. We would do that all the time, without even really realizing we were crossing a border."

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two friends who grew up on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. They both went to high school in Texas and had friends in both cities, meaning they crossed the border regularly—sometimes daily—for parties, for work, or just to eat at their favorite restaurants. They discuss the blended culture that comes from growing up in two countries, how letters kept them close when they were apart, and the familial bond they developed now that they both live on the Texas side.

The Friends

Fernando Baldazo, 51, works in international trade and lives in Laredo, Texas
Elizabeth O'Conor, 49, works in real estate and lives in Laredo, Texas

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: So you two grew up on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. What was that like?

Elizabeth O'Conor: Back then, there really wasn't a border. Some of my friends lived in Nuevo Laredo, like Fernando, and came to the school in Laredo, Texas, and vice versa. Going to Nuevo Laredo for lunch or dinner was no big deal. We would do that all the time, without even really realizing we were crossing a border. In high school, I had friends that lived on that side of the border, so I would go to their houses, go to their parties, and at one of those, somewhere, I met Fernando.

Fernando Baldazo: Yeah, my earliest memories are getting together at different parties. When she was a senior in high school, I was living in Mexico. As soon as I finished high school, I moved back to Nuevo Laredo, but I was working and going to school in the U.S. I was working at an electronics store at the local mall here in Texas. I would make her mixtapes for her graduation or for her parties. I had all these electronics and I loved playing with them, so I would just record a tape for her and her friends. I would spend most of my day on the U.S. side and come back at night to go home or to go out. In the late '80s and early '90s, people mostly hung out on the Mexican side. It was so easy to cross back and forth. You didn't even need any papers. Most of the customs agents also would recognize you.

Elizabeth (left) and Fernando (right) in the 90s. Courtesy of Elizabeth O’Conor.

Beck: After you met at the party, how did you start to get close?

Fernando: Her best friend and my best friend were dating. So we would just happen to go to the same events and places. And the high school where Coocoo was going had all these beautiful, gorgeous girls that were her friends, and we just wanted to go to their parties and hang out with them. And we would bring the beer from Mexico or something else to contribute. So they would contribute the house and the food, and maybe we'll contribute the mixers, and it worked out.

Beck: What are you calling her? What is this nickname?

Fernando: Oh—Coocoo.

Elizabeth: In Laredo, if I say my name is Coocoo, people just think, Okay. Because we have so many nicknames here on the border. I know people that are named Titi and Tata and Tico. It's just very common to have little diminutive names.

Fernando: Like a two-syllable nickname.

Elizabeth: Mine actually does mean “crazy,” because my dad said when I was little, I was a little bit coocoo, so he started calling me Coocoo. It’s been my nickname with all my friends for pretty much my whole life. Everyone calls me that.

Beck: Fernando, do you have a nickname?

Fernando: People mostly call me by my last name. It's an unusual last name. Now I introduce myself as Baldazo. I don't even mention my first name.

Elizabeth: There could be other Fernandos, but there's no Baldazos. He's a unique character, so he has a unique name to go with it.

Beck: After high school, did either of you go off to college in a different town, or move for work? Or have you always stayed in the Laredo area?

Fernando: Coocoo left for college in Boston. I remember writing to you and you sending postcards. Maybe a random call once in a while. Back then, it was really expensive for long-distance calls, like 25 or 50 cents a minute. And when she would come down for Thanksgiving or something like that, we would all meet at somebody's house for a party.

Elizabeth: The conversations in the letters were things like ... I remember when his dog died, and he was really sad about that.

Fernando: When the dog got run over.

Elizabeth: Poor thing. Dusty, right?

Fernando: Dusty, yeah. He died.

Elizabeth: So he'd tell me about Dusty, or he'd tell me about some girl he was dating, or that they'd just recently broken up. Our conversations started getting deeper, instead of being the high-school-fun kind of thing. We started getting into a deeper friendship, the farther that we were apart, through letters and postcards.

I moved to Mexico City after college for a couple of years, and I have letters also from that time. Then I came back to Laredo, when my mom opened up her real-estate company. I was gonna do that temporarily, but I liked it and have been here since.

Since being back here, I see him more than I see any of my other friends. To me, he’s like a close cousin. My extended family knows him so well, they invite him to every wedding, they invite him for Christmas, they invite him for Thanksgiving. He's just always been a member of our family—he’s like a nephew to my mom. If we think family in Laredo, we think Fernando.

Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Conor.

Beck: Fernando, does Elizabeth hang out with your family as well?

Fernando: I don't even hang out with my family. I'm just kidding.

Elizabeth: He does.

Fernando: You visited my niece, right? A couple of months ago?

Elizabeth: Yeah. His niece is in college in San Marcos, Texas, and I was there for a conference, so I called her. I took her and her boyfriend out to dinner. Things like that.

Beck: Going back a bit, you mentioned how you guys started to talk about more real stuff in the letters, which you didn't necessarily do beforehand. Once Elizabeth came back and you started hanging out in person, was that weird because you guys had been exchanging very personal stories through letters? Or was that a benefit?

Fernando: It was a benefit. Now that you’ve opened up a little bit more, you can maybe be able to analyze things, or talk more about the little things you can’t only express on one or two sheets of paper.

Elizabeth: There was no sense of awkwardness or like, Now I feel exposed. It was just a natural progression. With some friends in high school, you grow closer as you get older, or maybe you grow further apart.

When I got diagnosed with cancer, after my freshman year of college, I was away in Boston, so my friends here in Laredo didn't physically see me. They couldn't really tell if I was okay. There was no internet back then, so it was just letters, like, "How are you? How's everything going?" And I would just tell them about school. It was like, "Yeah, I'm getting treatment for cancer, but it's all good. I went to this bar this weekend and I took this class.”

Then as we got older, those conversations just got deeper, and we started thinking about, Wow, you had cancer. And then we would talk about that with more depth.

Fernando: Right before you were diagnosed with cancer, I had a bad accident on the motorcycle. I had broken five bones of my leg. They were about to amputate it, but the doctors were able to save it. And that makes you evaluate life and friendships and everything. For me, that made me a little bit more sensitive about other people's problems and situations. Whereas before, I was 20 years old; I was just enjoying life.

Elizabeth: More carefree. I think later you realized maybe you don't have until eternity, so you choose to spend time with people that you have that connection with.

Beck: That’s terrible, but it's interesting that you both had those tragic experiences around the same time.

Fernando: Within eight months, yeah.

Elizabeth: Looking back on it, those kinds of things that shake your ground, later you recognize that they are the bigger moments.

Beck: I'm getting the impression that there were stages to your friendship. There was the original stage, when you guys were growing up, hanging out in each other's general orbit. And then there's the letter stage, and then you returned home and that's when it really became a great friendship in earnest. Does that seem right?

Elizabeth: Yeah. I think it’s age, too. When you're younger, you hang out with people because you have things in common, or you have friends in common. Later, friendships can't really survive unless there's something deeper. Trust has always been there between the two of us. If he tells me something, he knows I'm gonna go to the grave with it, unless he gives me permission to share. And vice versa. There's just that understanding that we're gonna be there for each other; we just know it's gonna be a lifelong thing.

Courtesy of Elizabeth O’Conor.

Fernando: I was trying to remember—sometimes you don't realize things in your own life until somebody else points them out. So when we were first hanging out, she would listen to our conversations when I was with my Mexican friends and she would just be laughing. And she would mention the word that she thought was funny. And then I would realize, Yeah, that sounds funny. But it was just the Mexican way of saying things. So she made me realize how funny the Mexican slang is.

Beck: Have you both spoken both Spanish and English your entire lives?

Fernando: For me, Spanish was my first language. Until I came to high school in the U.S., I could only probably count to 10, and I knew the colors and maybe the alphabet in English. That was the only English I knew. I started speaking a little bit more probably at the end of my senior year in high school.

Elizabeth: You speak a lot more English now than you did back then. Because then, you would speak to me in Spanish and I would answer in English. We didn't even realize we were doing that. It still happens, and I don't recognize it sometimes. I didn't feel that comfortable with my Spanish.

Fernando: In college, I was taking English classes, and I just became more fluent and maybe more confident about speaking English. But back then, it was more the Spanish, like you say. And it was mostly slang. Mexican slang.

Beck: Do you guys have any phrases that you always say in your friendship?

Fernando: "Qué onda, dude?" “What's going on?”

Elizabeth: He’ll say "Qué onda, dude?" even though I'm a girl.

Fernando: Another one would be "Así es." That's, "That's the way it is," but to me it's like, "Yeah, we're switching topics.”

Elizabeth: We say that one a lot.

Fernando: Coocoo has found the meaning of one other thing that I say a lot, and it's "Vamos a ver que pasa." "Let's see what happens." Which means, "If I don't have better plans, then I'll go with your plan." That's how she interprets that.

Elizabeth: I'll say, "Hey, we're going to this concert, you want to come?" And he'll say, "Pues, a ver que pasa." And that means, "If I find a date, then I'll ditch my friends." But I understand. I'm like, Yeah, he's holding out. Maybe there's someone in the picture he’s waiting to hear from.

Beck: Do you still go back and forth a lot between Mexico and Texas?

Elizabeth: I don't go at all to Nuevo Laredo. The difference between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, it's really night and day. It used to be one fluid border. I would go there all the time. So I really felt like I grew up in two countries. Now, because of the drug violence in Nuevo Laredo, if people don't have to go there for business, then they don't. Laredo, Texas, is incredibly safe. You lock your doors like you would in any other town, but every other person here is a federal law-enforcement agent. All my clients in real estate are all federal law-enforcement agents.

Fernando: I still go across, not as often. I always tell this to people when I'm trying to explain to them about where I live. I say, "There's the Mexican culture, there's the U.S. culture, and then there's the border culture."

Beck: How would you describe the border culture, and how it’s different from both Mexican culture and U.S. culture?

Fernando: It's got its own language, its own slang. In Mexico, there's gun control. But yet, on the Mexican side of the border, they share the view of guns that Texans do. For South Mexicans to understand, it's hard.

And the predominant language will be Spanish. I remember when I was working at the mall in Texas, if you didn't speak English, you could be hired. But if you don't speak Spanish, they don't hire you.

Elizabeth: Even waiters and waitresses at restaurants here, they'll speak in Spanish. I have clients that just speak English, and they'll go through the drive-through and they'll ask them, "Tortillas de harina o maiz?" “Flour or corn tortillas?” And they're like, "Huh?" So that's just our culture here.

Fernando: Yeah, on the Mexican side it's all Spanish. But on the U.S. side there's still some Spanish-only places. On the U.S. side, at any event, you'll see the Mexican influence. The drinks will be agua frescas. You know jamaica? Hibiscus? That’s a predominant drink here.

Elizabeth: If you're living in it, you don't really notice it. I don’t notice it except when I'm looking through the eyes of somebody that's not from here.

Kids in Laredo today won't really grow up in two countries. They're getting the border culture, but not really the Mexican culture. I find it sad because had I not had the experience that I had growing up here, with feet on both sides of the border, I don't even think I would have gone to Boston, or Mexico City, or spent a summer in Madrid. It really opened up my curiosity for different cultures, having such an acceptance of both languages and both cultures every day of my life. So I'm really sad that kids growing up here now can't go to Nuevo Laredo the way I did, can't just walk across the border and meet my friend Baldazo at the marketplace and have a beer.

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