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Even With Border Shutdown, Nogalenses Find Ways To Take Care Of Each Other

SPECIAL SERIES: COVID-19 In Arizona: 6 Months In

Like many who live along the U.S.-Mexico border, longtime Nogales, Arizona, resident Santos Yescas has friends and family on both sides of the line.

On a recent Friday evening, he was out dropping off boxes of donated produce to some of them in Nogales, Sonora.

“I consider Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, as like a specific country, like another country I would say, because we are very attached, one to another one,” he said.

But those connections have been strained over the last six months by heavy northbound border crossing restrictions imposed to slow coronavirus spread. They’ve been extended in month-long increments since late March, most recently through Oct. 21.

During that time, border crossings — the normally commonplace trips that bind the sister cities together, and prop up their economies — have collapsed.

More than 285,000 pedestrians crossed into Nogales, Arizona, in January. In July, the most recent month available, roughly 66,000 did, a fall of nearly 80%. Personal vehicle crossings have fallen by more than 50% over the same period, according to federal data

“We are used to (crossing) like every day, just to (go) shopping, just to hang out with the families,” he said. “And now it's not the same. You can see from the families in Mexico that they need more support from our side and we have to find a way.”

Family, Not Tourists

For Yescas, part of that has been the food drop offs. But he also takes grocery requests from those who can no longer cross as they did before, like retired teacher Alejandra Elías.

“I crossed up to three times a week,” she said. “All the errands and grocery shopping for our house, it’s always been done in the United States.”

She even bought her dog food exclusively in the United States.

“You know, they get used to a food, and you change it, there are repercussions, right?” she said. And she’s grateful to Yescas for bringing her German Shepherd Diego and Labrador Flippy their preferred brand weekly.

Like many in Nogales, Sonora, Elias has a visa for short trips into the United States. But while the restrictions allow for the return of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, as well as cross-border commerce, the regular trips Elias used to take aren’t considered essential travel.

While losing easy access to the stores she’s accustomed to has been hard, Elias says her connections go far beyond the commercial.

“We have ties beyond the commercial,” she said. “We’re not tourists. We’re family.”

She appreciates the seriousness of the coronavirus, and is understanding of the restrictions. But she wishes there was still a way to cross, perhaps once every 15 days, to stock up and see people she hasn’t seen in person for months.

Feeling Of Separation

“I think people really downplay how important it is to cross,” said Estefanía Castañeda Pérez, a lifelong border resident and political science Ph.D. candidate at UCLA. For her research, she’s interviewed border crossers at several major ports, including Nogales.

“It's not just for visiting, it's not just for tourist purposes,” she added. “Families are deeply dependent on being able to cross. So, when the closures were announced, it really made a lot of us panic.”

And as the months have dragged on, frustration has grown. And uncertainty about how they’ll be treated at the border — or sudden shifts in policy - has made even those still allowed to cross anxious to do so, according to Castañeda Pérez.

Historically places of binational connection and mobility, Castañeda Pérez said that border communities are becoming “spaces where only the select few or the privileged few are able to cross.”

“It really generates sort of this constant feeling of separation.” 

On Pause

In Nogales, help to adapt to the new reality goes both ways across the border.

Nidia Muñoz works for the Mexican Consulate in Nogales, Arizona, where her son is also a first-grader. But he, like many students in Arizona, isn’t attending in-person. And Muñoz can’t take him to work, so she drops him off at her parents’ house in Nogales, Sonora, every school day.

“I have to take my son to Mexico so he can go to school in the U.S.,” she said laughing.

"All of your relations are in a pause, or your plans are in a pause." — Nidia Muñoz

But Muñoz lamented the hard times businesses are going through, as well as the cross-border relationships made more difficult by border restrictions and the ongoing coronavirus threat.

“I don’t know, I think everything is in a pause, right now,” she said. “All of your relations are in a pause, or your plans are in a pause.”

Border residents do what they can to maintain connections, talking by phone or text. But it’s not the same, she said.

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Born and raised in the Intermountain West, Murphy Woodhouse has called southern Arizona home for most of the last decade. He’s one of two field correspondents at KJZZ’s Hermosillo bureau, where his reporting focuses on the trade relationship between Arizona, Sonora and the rest of Mexico.Before joining the station, Murphy was a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star and the Nogales International. Prior to his reporting career, he completed a master’s degree at the University of Arizona’s Center for Latin American Studies and did three wildfire seasons with the Snake River Hotshots. He’s a proud graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.When he’s not reporting, Murphy is often out in the woods running or riding singletrack, or swinging in a hammock with a book.