In March of 2015, my friends and I, four tired teachers on spring break, decided that we needed to get as far away from Dallas, our jobs, and our problems as we could: Big Bend National Park on the Mexico/US border. Getting away from it all was only a short eight-hour-turned-into-twelve-hours-with-bathroom-breaks-lunch-and-a-stop-at-the-McDonald-Observatory drive.  We had planned on camping, but the campsites were full, so we opted for a Holiday Inn Express. We agreed that sharing beds and fighting about how the room was both way too hot and way too cold, which made everyone uncomfortable, constituted roughing it. I had just began taking medication a few months beforehand after being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and ADHD in January, and I was in between dosages, that really terrible couple of weeks that my doctor called “an adjustment period,” where I wasn’t feeling better yet. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t feeling much of anything other than annoyance at having left ten minutes later than we had agreed upon the night before when I saw the sign for Big Bend. I felt my heart start racing as my lips started to curl up into a smile.
             I grew up in rural North Carolina, the daughter of two undocumented Salvadoran immigrants. Both of my parents have mental health challenges but neither one sought medical help for these conditions, so even though I began exhibiting symptoms early, it was considered normal. I was a messy, loud, graceless child, which mean that I spent the majority of my time outside, originally at the request of my mother, but later by choice. I wasn’t a loner, mostly due to my extroverted, people-pleasing ways, but I always felt like an outcast. Surrounded by my white, monolingual, middle-class classmates, I was hyper aware of my differences. Nature was my escape. I would get lost in a tree branch, exploring the texture of the bark with my fingers, inhaling the different scents of the leaves, following the journey of an ant with a crumb of food. Nature didn’t judge my lack of knowledge about Salvadoran customs, my secondhand clothes, or my constant fear of everything. Nature was free, and, in nature I was free. This trip could be an opportunity to feel this way again.
             As we made our way through the meandering roads of the park, windows rolled down to allow a soft breeze in, warm sun blanketing the day in sepia tones, I was conflicted. I knew how I wanted to feel in that moment, but I wasn’t there. More often than not, I was struggling with reality and feeling present. I was questioning whether the things I was seeing and thinking were real or not. Was the canyon in front of me really dark with the sadness of others around me, or was it just darkened by a shadow?  Was my friend actually closing her eyes and fake snoring because she was avoiding conversation with me or was she exhausted from our previous hike? Was laugh at that joke too loud and too long, offending the joke teller, or was it ok? For years, I had been putting on a show, faking smiles, laughing at perfectly timed moments, and masking my suffering with humor. I had forgotten what “normal” people did. I watched my friends, mirrored their actions, their words, their moods, hoping I was getting it right. I ended each day exhausted from the physical and mental exertion of my acting. My chance of being free was ending quickly and I couldn’t rein myself in long enough to escape. I was on edge, I was nervous, and it was further exacerbated by the Border Patrol check point we went through every single day as we exited the park.
             I had been driving us out the first day, lost in re-playing the day’s conversations and my responses, when I noticed the sign asking drivers to slow down. We came upon a Border Patrol officer and I rolled my window down nervously.
              “Roll all of the windows down,” he said, peering into the back seat, where my friends were sleeping.
             I did as he asked and looked at him.
              “Is everyone in the car a U.S. citizen?” he asked.
              “Umm, yes?” I responded, unsure of what was happening.
              “Have a nice day,” he said, rushing me away.
             I dreaded this part of the trip each day after that. We were all U.S. citizens, but we were all Latinas. My three friends were tan-skinned, first-generation Mexican-Americans, and we were never questioned, but I got goosebumps every time we approached this check point. They looked at us a little too long each time. They asked us questions a little too harshly.
             On one of our last days there, decided to hike in a mostly unshaded, rocky trail with no water fountains. The sun, normally welcome and comforting in March, was heating up the earth around us, melting our souls, if not our soles. We passed a small collection of hand beaded keychains and figurines, not an unusual find, but this pile caught my eye.  The park was dotted with signs warning hikers not to buy anything from these artisans, and the park’s website warns that purchasing these items will encourage people to continue making “illegal crossings” into the country to set these crafts here, risking arrest, deportation, and death. I thought of my parents and was overwhelmed by a wave of intense sadness.
             These merchants, real people with parents, siblings, spouses, and children, constantly risk their lives, their safety, and their freedom, not the guarantee of success, money, or food, but for the opportunity to have access to these things. I’d heard stories of people crossing the border my whole life. It wasn’t a secret that coyotes helped smuggle people across in packed trailers, that some immigrants were raped, robbed, or murdered, or that the journey was difficult, but being here in the desert, at this crossing point, where people were fording the river every single day, encouraged by tourists’ desire for unique souvenirs, was heartbreaking. This dangerous journey, attempted and failed by many, no positive ending guaranteed, was right in front of me. It no longer felt like I was just walking in West Texas, enjoying my spring break, on vacation. I had made a pilgrimage; I had reached my Jerusalem. I was standing this holy ground where my people had died, cried, fought, and found a new life. I felt heavy with sadness. I felt rage at all of the injustice. I felt grateful for their sacrifices. I felt. I felt. I felt. I was taken aback by this discovery. I wasn’t drafting off of the feelings of others. I smiled to myself, acknowledging these feelings, all mine.
Elizabeth M. Villalta is a first generation Salvadoran-American educator and writer. She grew up in Sanford, North Carolina, two blocks from the library, where she spent every afternoon. Elizabeth holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from North Carolina State University and a Master's degree in Education from Southern Methodist University. In 2013, she moved to Dallas, TX to join the Dallas-Fort Worth Teach for America corps.In her free time, Elizabeth spends time with her family, friends, and dogs, travels, writes, and reads.
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