Coronavirus has shut down everyday life around the globe, but for borderlanders like my friend Grecia Sánchez Blanco, the quarantine has meant more than just a delayed graduation ceremony and working from home.
Grecia lives in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and just completed her last semester at the University of Texas at El Paso (U.T.E.P.), double-majoring in philosophy and multimedia journalism. Before all this, she’d cross the border every single day. Then President Trump closed the U.S.-Mexico border to non-essential workers back in March and extended those restrictions “indefinitely” as of May.
So even though students with the right papers can convince border agents to let them through — the process is a whole lot more uncertain now. Grecia hasn’t even tried to cross. So she’s had to forfeit her final days on campus, her community in the newsrooms of the magazines she edits, the research she’d been doing for her philosophy class at a high school that’s now closed.
The quarantine also brought about uncertainty about the future: whether her graduate program that starts this fall would actually happen. So far it looks like her courses will all be online.
These types of disappointments and anxieties are commonplace for students living through the pandemic. And the border shutdown we’re experiencing has been looming as a threat since long before coronavirus. What’s different for Grecia is that she feels cut off from an entire country she used to come to each day.
Even though I’m living through the lockdown too, as a U.S. student, my experience is so different from my friend’s. I wanted to find out from Grecia how the mostly-closed border has affected her life. We started by remembering her last day on campus.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Grecia Sánchez Blanco: I still remember my last day at U.T.E.P.. I had a regular work schedule from 9 to 2 p.m. And then after that I had lunch. And then I went to do an interview for my philosophy project. And then after I finished my interview, I found out that the president of U.T.E.P. said we were going to have an extra week for spring break, and that the rest of the classes for the semester were going to be remote delivery.
I didn't want to leave. I realized that was going to be my last day as a senior, as an international student. I'm walking between those buildings, just experiencing nature from that day because that's something I really like to do. I really liked — in past tense — to do, on a daily basis.
Antonio Villaseñor-Baca: What has that time you lost meant to you? What runs through your mind, knowing that you don’t have that anymore?
GSB: The way I wanted to remember U.T.E.P. was taken from me, from one day to the next. I wanted to take photos in my cap and gown on the U.T.E.P. grounds, before my graduation, and that’s not going to happen anymore. That’s like a ritual for U.T.E.P. students.
It has been strange. It has been frustrating. I have cried a lot, just because of what all this means.
The reality is also this: I am in Juárez. And you are in El Paso. We won’t even be able to visit each other from one house to the next and the border is closed.
I wanted to know if Grecia remembered a specific moment when her experience of the quarantine was different from classmates like me, who live in El Paso. She told me about a class on French films. Before quarantine, students watched films from the professor’s Amazon account. After the campus closed, they couldn’t do that anymore.
GSB: With the virus, he emailed us saying: you have two options. Tell me if you want to focus on the films and you’d have to buy the films on Amazon, or we can focus on grammar.
My family earns in Mexican pesos. I earn in Mexican pesos. Both jobs I have on campus at U.T.E.P. pay me at the end of the semester, which means I don’t have U.S. dollars right now. And I told the professor, it will be really, really appreciated if you could consider my special situation as a Mexican student whose family earns in Mexican pesos, who can no longer pay for that amount in films. Right now, my expenses are allocated to only pay groceries and meals. Those are my essential expenses. I cannot afford to pay more than that.
Since the virus came to paralyze the whole world, the difference between the peso and the dollar has risen significantly. The peso [is] depreciating and that deeply affects the families that earn in Mexican pesos. Including mine. That’s basically what I told the professor.
He talked to his Chair, and they were able to buy me an Amazon subscription for the rest of the semester. It’s something I appreciate so much. It shows that even under these circumstances, there are people that worry about the well-being of other people and that understand that everybody has different circumstances. Those are the things that are at the top of my mind.
AVB: There have been threats previously from this current U.S. administration to shut down the border. Like had you worried about this prior to [the pandemic]?
Totally. Now I remember, it’s been two years, Trump gave the order to remove people from the bridges and remove to the processing centers, the immigrants because that “wave” of immigrants was coming. I’m talking about when there was this threat of closing this border. All of us that were crossing the border, we had to carry a change of clothes in case we got stuck on the other side. Having to pack your suitcase, for if you get stuck over here or over there. And having to notify your professors who would tell me, if you’re not here, you can’t take my class. And I have had to fight for my place in a lot of ways at U.T.E.P..
What did those experiences mean to you — the fact that you had to pack your bags and just be ready in case the border did get shut down? Like, that's not a normal thing that students have to worry about.
I think it makes you prepared for the unexpected in the best possible way, It has made me embrace uncertainty, whether I want it or not. And it has made me worry about everything. I try to manage. I have a lot of, you know me, llevo un chingo de garabatos. But that's because things are always changing when you're crossing the border. My experience of the border has made me more aware of how everything can suddenly change.
How do the U.S. elections impact you? Why does it matter to you? How does the rhetoric impact you?
I have had harder times to cross whenever President Trump gives a speech that resonates a lot with his constituents. It gets harder for me to cross to study. I get asked more questions. I get inspected more often. I get harassed more often too, and harassment in the way of comments that tend to be hurtful. As a woman and as a philosophy major. And like I said before, I have had to fight for my place at certain classes where professors don't understand that I may be late to a class or that I may not be able to come at all, because I got inspected at the bridge. and those inspections tend to last from half an hour to two hours. It's a really long time for a student when you’re in that line and you're crossing with, ósea aún si te estás llendo de tu casa una hora antes, si te atrasas 15 minutos por el tráfico because of the bridge lines, because of the questions that agents ask.
And just as a follow up question to that, because I feel like it very unfortunately does have to be asked in this political climate: What do you say to people who would say that that's justified? That this isn't your country? That it's in the name of national security? What do you say to those people?
I would invite them to think about their life right now, and how the virus has impacted their life personally. Because chances are, their experience is going to be very similar to the immigrant experience in the sense that, something that is outside of your control happens, and you react the best way that you can for you, for your family, for your loved ones. I would ask them to question themselves. Because they don't seem to question themselves about what they would do if their whole life would be like they're living now.