Mariana Sierra taps the steering wheel and stares at the line of cars ahead of her Dodge Nitro on the Paso Del Norte International Bridge as she waits for her turn to cross into El Paso from Juárez, Mexico.
She’s been in the express lane for 30 minutes.
Sierra’s favorite musicians, the Mexican Girl group Ha-Ash plays on the radio. With one hand on her mascara and the other on the steering wheel, Sierra slowly inches her car forward as the line moves. She estimates it will take at least another ten minutes before she reaches the point of entry, hand her U.S. Passport to the border patrol officer, and recite the same daily response.
“I am on my way to school, sir,” she says.
The 22-year-old is a junior at the University of Texas at El Paso, studying multimedia journalism. She began her daily commute across the border when she was a high school student at Loretto Academy, an all-girl Catholic school in Central El Paso. During this time she would cross the bridge every day either with her mother, or carpooling with some classmates who also lived in Juárez.
“I wake up two hours in advance to be on time to class or to work. Its something natural to me. However, when I share my experience with others, (they are shocked) but the thing is that its normal to us. Its another struggle we have to face and we are okay with that,” Sierra said.
While some find crossing the border to be a frustrating experience with long wait times and street vendors, it isn’t considered a big deal by fronterizos, people who regularly commute la Frontera, the border, said Hector Padilla a political science lecturer at UTEP and professor at UACJ.
Padilla’s book, Juntos Pero No Revueltos: Estudios Sobre la Frontera Texas-Chihuahua, records the experiences and interactions of his students crossing the border. Padilla defines the bridge as a space that connects fronterizos to a dual cultural identity, an identity that allows them to interact easily on both sides of the border.
According to Padilla, a bridge is not a line but a geographical location that symbolizes the politics of both countries. Fronterizos don’t see the contrast in nations the same way as ocassional travelers do as they wait in line because they are connected to both cultures. The bridge is just another milestone in their commute.
A bridge has its own culture, people and its own form of communication, Padilla said. When students like Sierra crosses the Santa Fe bridge into El Paso, she is aware that she will have to pay about $26 pesos to drive across, vendors will approach her and her wait will be long. And she will repeat the same words to the border patrol:
“United States Citizen.”
“I am going to school.”
“I live in Juárez.”
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 20,000 people pass through the ports of entry from Juárez to El Paso on a daily basis. Customs doesn’t track how many of those are students or how many of them are university students.
UTEP has 373 registered students who live in Juárez, according to Jennifer Krautkremer, International Student and Scholar Advisor from the Office of International Programs. However, the university cannot track students who do not register themselves in the university’s PASE program, The program is an advising service the university provides for Mexican students.