m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

J U N E    1 9 9 2

The Border II
In the second part of a two-part article the author continues his journey along the U.S.-Mexican border, through the unslakable fields of the Imperial Valley and the grim industrial landscapes of Nogales, Juárez, and Matamoros: locales that exemplify the environmental, economic, and social consequences of the fact that Mexico is our neighbor

by William Langewiesche

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

Denying the Desert

THE airplane is no bigger than a car, and it does not require roads. You take off from Lindbergh Field, in San Diego, and climb through the cool overcast, moisture rolling across the windshield. At two thousand feet, with your wing down, you slice into the clear sky and turn east along the border. Outside, the air warms by twenty degrees -- a temperature inversion, which caps the city smoke and concentrates the Pacific moisture into cloud. On top it is a primeval morning. The sun is young but strong. The stratus below forms a brilliant white sea that laps against the mountains ahead. San Diego and Tijuana have vanished. Where the clouds dissolve, you fly across rugged uplands rising to four thousand feet.
Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

See the first installment of this article from the May, 1992, Atlantic Monthly.

Related articles:

  • "Travels into America's Future," by Robert Kaplan (July, 1998)
    The American West offers a view of history on fast-forward, where the forces transforming all of North America are nakedly at work.

  • "History Moving North," by Robert Kaplan (February, 1997)
    As Mexican society fragments, the impact will hit the United States with force -- and U.S. society is likely to fragment in some of the same ways.

  • "In the Strawberry Fields," by Eric Schlosser (November, 1995)
    The management of California's strawberry industry offers a case study of both the dependence on an imported peasantry that characterizes much of American agriculture and the destructive consequences of a deliberate low-wage economy.

  • "Ferocious Differences," by Jorge G. Castañeda (July, 1995)
    The Mexican devaluation apparently caught Wall Street and the Clinton Administration by surprise -- Mexico was opaque even to experts with a huge stake in knowing what was going on. The reason, writes the author, a Mexican intellectual, goes beyond finance to the Mexican national character and how enduringly different the country is from the United States.

  • "A Bold Proposal on Immigration," by Jack Miles (June, 1984)
    Rather than yielding to a sense of helplessness about the permeability of the Mexican-American border and giving in to demands for concessions to illegal immigrants in California, the United States can and should clamp down on points of illegal entry into this country.

  • "Immigration: How It's Affecting Us," by James Fallows (November, 1983)
    Because immigration tends to select for those who are especially resilient, adaptable, and hardworking, immigrants are probably more of a boon to this country than a burden.

  • For more on this subject see the Immigration Index.

  • Taller mountains stand to the north and south. The desert is brown and scruffy: dirt tracks scar the surface, ranch compounds nestle by wells in the shade of planted trees, mine shafts spew their tailings down the stony slopes. In places the U.S.-Mexican border is visible as a three-strand fence line, a line of demarcation between overgrazed pastures. Like opposing images, two highways swing up to the border, turn, and swing away. A railroad in the United States winds through the badlands, ducks through a tunnel, and emerges into Mexico; the rails are rusted and do not glint. Farther east the ground slopes down into a vast, elongated depression. You descend with it into an intensifying desert, until the altimeter reads less than zero and you are flying below sea level. Now the desert vanishes, replaced by miles of crops. Bugs splatter against your windshield. The green is shocking. It is an engineered color, a bit too bright, manufactured with artificial rainfall pumped from manmade streams. The water comes from the Colorado River, which flows by just over the eastern horizon.

    On the U.S. side this fertile lowland is known as the Imperial Valley. Four hundred and sixty thousand acres are irrigated in an average year. The fields are large and flawless, and the population is thin. In the winter, retirees from the Midwest fill the trailer parks. They are known with tentative affection as snowbirds. The Mexican side, called the Mexicali Valley, is about the same size but more densely populated. More than half the land is held by ejidos, communal farms established during the land reforms of the 1930s. The ejidos are poor and inefficient, and many ejidatarios have fled to find work in the United States. Elsewhere in the Mexicali Valley the land is held in small farms and the towns are bursting with people. Tight against the boundary fence stands an unlikely city of a million people, also named Mexicali. A century ago it did not exist. Now it is a state capital and an important industrial center. Like the fields, the city is an implant living by the uncertain grace of a troubled river.

    The Colorado River has so many dams and diversions that by the time it approaches the border it contains barely enough water to meet the obligations of a treaty with Mexico. The last of the flow is diverted into the Mexicali canal system by the Morelos Dam, which lies on the U.S.-Mexican border near Yuma, Arizona. Below the dam the river is dry and the delta is dormant. No water has reached the Gulf in years. On a geologic scale this may prove to be a hiatus, since the reservoirs upstream are silting up. In the meantime, Imperial farmers say, not a drop is wasted. What they mean is, not a drop goes unused.

    In the town of Imperial, I found a pamphlet that boasted of abundant sunshine and mild temperatures in the winter, the rainy season. Here is the other three fourths of the story: The rest of the year is hell. Though the maximum temperature of 119° has been recorded only four times since 1914, almost every afternoon in the summer gets close. The soles of your desert boots melt on hot pavement. The pavement itself melts. They call it dry heat, but "parched" describes it better. The average annual rainfall is under three inches. In 1956 the year's total was 0.016 inch. June is the driest month, in which measurable rain has fallen only twice since 1914: 0.04 inch in 1948, and 0.01 inch in 1988.

    Nonetheless, the soil is rich, and thanks to the legendary Imperial Irrigation District, the land is cultivated year-round. Water from the Colorado is diverted at the Imperial Dam and flows eighty-two miles through the All-American Canal. The All-American is a giant ditch, up to two hundred feet wide and twenty feet deep. It runs so close to the border that Mexican squatters throw hoses in and siphon water for their vegetable plots. The losses are insignificant. The three million acre-feet of river water diverted into the canal annually is roughly a fifth of the Colorado's total flow. (An acre-foot is the volume of water necessary to cover one acre to a depth of one foot, which is the amount necessary to support a family of five in the United States for one year.) Ninety percent of the All-American water goes to the fields, each acre of which receives, on average, five and a half acre-feet every year. That is a lot of water, but evaporation and transpiration rates are high, and at least a foot is needed just to flush the soil and keep it from becoming too salty. The price is about $11.50 per acre-foot, which is cheap compared with the $1,000 per acre-foot that some water-starved California cities are now considering paying. The farmers have made the Imperial Valley one of the great agricultural areas of the world. The desert is never far from view, a reminder of the consequences if the water stopped flowing or became too expensive. The Irrigation District encourages this understanding in publications that juxtapose color photographs of sand dunes and crops. You have to admire the gall of the farmers: their biggest crop is alfalfa, a cow food that is notoriously wasteful of water. They farm in hell and thumb their noses at the devil.

    At the sprawling headquarters of the Imperial Irrigation District, I talked to an official about the problems across the border in Mexicali. He said, "I'm just amazed that the Mexican farmer has to plant his crops on the basis of water availability. Our farmers plant on the basis of the market. Water is a given."

    The Politics of Water

    THE strangest feature of Mexicali City is the way it is lopped off at the boundary. You can walk along the fence near the center of the city and look north into the fields of the Imperial Valley. Mexicali does not feel like a border town; it has wide, shaded avenues, elegant neighborhoods, good schools, a university, and a shopping mall. Still, it is a Third World city. Things often don't quite work -- a telephone, a light switch, an appointment. The poor live in cramped central slums and in looser shantytowns wedged among developments on the outskirts. If they are lucky, they serve the wealthy, or toil in sweatshops, or sit on assembly lines in the new factories. If they are unlucky, they rely on their families, or work the streets. They do not seem resentful. The rich drive by in black cars with smoked windows and air-conditioners. You feel in such a place that you cannot see, that the contrasts blind you and all the middle ground has been obscured.

    In downtown Mexicali, within yards of the fence, a tall, bearded man whose right leg has been amputated stands in the traffic in 110° heat. If you went there today, you would find him. He sets a can on the ground and does not move. Others stand nearby -- a boy without hands, a man without sight, an Indian mother with a sick child. The tall man watches them begging, and beneath his beard his expression never changes. He does not hustle or hope. I walked by him day after day, and finally stepped into the traffic to drop a few coins in his can. He said nothing, and did not look at me.

    There are thousands of Chinese in Mexicali City, descendants of the valley's first farmers. They speak Spanish as well as Chinese, and own the restaurants where middle-class Mexicans eat lunch. I sat in one such restaurant and talked about the free-market reforms of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, with an unreformed agronomist. He was a serious man, maybe fifty-five, weathered at the edges, who had fallen from favor at the federal agricultural office. He worried that I would use his name. He looked around nervously and said, "Mexico is too political -- resistance to the new orthodoxy is unwise."

    In the Mexicali Valley the new free-market orthodoxy means this: the irrigation districts are turned over to the users; water prices go up; crop supports and food subsidies are eliminated; farmers are encouraged to combine, expand, and plant for the market; commercial banking standards are applied to agricultural loans; eventually even the communal ejidos are privatized. The idea of selling ejidos has outraged much of agrarian Mexico, but not the Mexicali Valley. Like most of the north, it admires the U.S. model of undiluted competition.

    The agronomist was different. He said, "We won't wait for a free-trade agreement. California growers are already buying up the best land. They use our soil, use our water, hire a few laborers, and send the crops home. We have been through this before." Then he looked embarrassed and said, "You understand, I have nothing against Americans personally."

    I answered delicately, "I have wondered about sovereignty myself."

    He continued, "Of course, we have an answer. We say, We can compete as equals."

    "You don't agree?"

    "A few farmers can compete, yes, but only a few. Imperial irrigates with three million acre-feet a year of high-quality Colorado water. We get one and a half million at Morelos, and in dry years not a bit more. We pump in another seven hundred and fifty thousand acre-feet from our wells -- water that is often so salty it would kill crops if we didn't mix it with the surface supply."

    Thinking of the waste on the other side of the border, I said, "The fact remains that you have two and a quarter million acre-feet."

    He wagged his finger at me. "This tea we're drinking, it's irrigation water too. Our first priority has to be urban use. Look at the size of this city, and the industry moving in. The farmers get only fifty percent of the allotment."

    I scribbled some calculations on a napkin. "In Imperial they farm the same acreage with two and a half times as much water."

    He slipped on a pair of reading glasses and checked the figures. "You see, we need to conserve water, not imitate the United States."

    I said, "I noticed alfalfa here, too."

    But he was lost in his thoughts. He said, "Now we grow onions, broccoli, carrots, garlic, all the vegetables. Maybe only one crop a year, but enough to live on."

    They also grow cotton, lots of it, which is another thirsty crop, and cannot be eaten. But I didn't want to quibble.

    He said, "Can you imagine what this valley will look like when only the big farmers are left and all they grow is alfalfa? Think of the water use! They will return the valley to desert." At the end of the meal he broke open his fortune cookie and chewed it miserably; then he ate mine.

    TO understand the land, keep your eye on the water. After the Morelos Dam, the last of the Colorado flows through Mexico in a canal called Alimentador Uno. The current is too strong, and the banks are too steep, to make swimming safe. But you can fish it, and the water is clear, cool, and beautiful to see. It shimmers in the sunlight and swirls under bridges. It gurgles through gates. It divides, and divides again, until, after fifty miles and perhaps a day, it gushes into the onion fields of Oscar Sanchez Lopez. Sanchez is a university-trained farmer, tall, balding, and thirty-five. He harvests the onions, crates them up, and ships them north to California. In this form, repackaged, the Colorado comes to Seattle, Chicago, and New York. We eat it with hamburgers raised on alfalfa.

    Sanchez's farm lies close to the dry riverbed, on the best earth in the valley. Sanchez was waiting for me there. He acts and looks more like a diplomat than a farmer. He dresses neatly, carries a calculator in his shirt pocket, drives a Landcruiser, and speaks impeccable English. He spent a year as an exchange student in White Lake, South Dakota. "Nice folks," he said, and answered his car phone. It was his wife, calling from their home in Mexicali City; Sanchez commutes to work.

    He took me for a tour of the farm. By U.S. standards it is a small operation: two hundred acres of well-drained soil, ten employees, nine tractors, three disks, two plows, two chisels, two cultivators, three planters, two sprayers, three pumps, and six hundred acres worth of irrigation piping. Last year it produced 200,000 boxes of green onions, 70,000 boxes of zucchini, and 8,000 boxes of radishes -- all sold to the United States. During the peak winter harvest four hundred laborers come to pick the crops, and to clean, sort, and pack them.

    Sanchez works hard to meet the strict standards of his U.S. buyers. Nonetheless, his boxes get stamped MEXICAN and are worth less for it. He brought it up and then told me he didn't care. "I'm in this for the money and the challenge."

    I asked why he sold exclusively to the United States.

    "Because in Mexico there are always problems collecting. With the United States, business can be done over the telephone. You set a price; they send you a check."

    Sanchez grows crops year-round, because he rents water rights from less energetic landowners; nonetheless, he worries constantly about his supply. He asked, "Did you read Time on the Colorado--how even after the drought ends, there will not be enough to go around?"

    "But there's a treaty. You'll always receive your one and a half million."

    "I don't trust the treaty if the drought continues."

    Even within the treaty he has had problems in the past with the Mexicali Irrigation District. He said, "Last year we were doing a thousand boxes of zucchini a day, until suddenly they cut our water. Our production dropped to four hundred."

    We went to a freshly planted onion field and watched water cascading from rows of sprinklers. Sanchez squinted with an artist's eye and spoke about the wet reflection on the surface: "We'll water until the mirror is uniform."

    The sprinklers were driven by a loud diesel pump, drawing eight gallons a second from a ditch. A muddy, bare-chested man stood next to it, clearing the intake. He watched us warily. Sanchez called him a loner, the pump man, the farm's most important worker. Through the worst summer heat he tends the pump unceasingly: he eats beside it and sleeps beside it, rolled in a blanket. I asked how much he made. Sanchez poked at his calculator and came up with $23 a day.

    The farm is flanked by a large canal, which runs next to train tracks and the paved highway to town. Along its length squatters have built shacks and planted vegetable gardens, which they irrigate illegally by siphoning water. Many of them have tapped into the power lines, and recently some have installed television antennas. Squatters are a common sight along all the Mexicali canals.

    Later, at lunch, I said I had noticed something odd -- that even on the border few people in Mexico speak English. I said, Think of Europe or Africa. Sanchez answered, It's changing now, and everyone wants to learn. There are English-only schools for children in Mexicali.

    Because of the free-trade agreement?

    Because of hope for it.

    I asked him what hope he had.

    He fussed over his calculator. "I hope it saves me ninety-three thousand and five hundred dollars in import fees."

  • Read the first installment of Langewiesche's two-part article on the U.S.-Mexican border, from the May, 1992, issue of The Atlantic.

    The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

    Copyright © 1992 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; June 1992; The Border; Volume 269, No. 6; pages 91 - 108.

  • m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture