A cigarette burns in an ashtray

Pig Iron on the Edge: "Do you sleep well at night?"

John Miller is among the UArts/MFA students who traveled to the Southern border in March of 2019 to observe the edges of America and the people that live their lives there. Below, they describe an encounter with a veteran in a beer garden. 

“Whatever you do, don’t make this a fucking college paper. Make this something good.” The words rang in my ear as the old ex army man dabbed out a cigarette. He shook my hand one last time and asked, “What’s my name?”

“I don’t know,” I said, puffing on my first real cigarette. I had smoked a few times in the past but like Bill Clinton, I didn’t inhale. The man called me out for this early in our brief conversation. He could tell I wasn’t from the border. He knew I was an outsider. He asked me to forget his name and never tell anyone in the beer garden what we were going to talk about. Then he warned me: no one would tell me the truth about border and the the communities surrounding it.

“It’s because you look the way you look,” he said.

Oddly, my experience had been the opposite. My time on the border had been spent talking with diverse groups of strangers, all willing to tell their stories. Before I arrived at the beer garden that night, our group had even been invited to dine with three retired teachers who had spent their whole lives on the border. They cooked us a meal. I’m proud to say I know how to barbecue now.

“But here’s the thing, the border wall isn’t gonna do shit, okay?” The man quickly changed the topic. “You can be Hispanic in America, you can serve and die for America but when you get back, you’re not American. I’ve done shit,” he paused. His rough face remained stoic as he searched for the words to say. A silence fell over our conversation. A long beat.

“Do you sleep well at night?” he asked.

“Yes,” I hesitantly muttered, trying to muster enough confidence to speak.  

“I’ve done fucked up shit. And I did it for my country. I don’t sleep well at night. But my family does. And I did what I did so you could too.”

Most of the communities here are defined by the border. The drug cartels loom across the Rio Grande and cast a shadow over the entire stretch of land. But talking to the man, I realized the border is more than just about economics, immigration, and drugs. I now see it as a metaphor for many of the people who live their lives here. Like the man, they are caught in between two states, both dependent on each other but somehow at odds, flickering in and out of two different worlds. The man has given so much of his life to the United States. But when he returns, he’s not welcomed. Like many communities here, he is forced to live in the in-between. Completely American but somehow seen by so many as of an entirely different world.