I started midwifery school when I was 19 years old. It was an astounding, exhausting and utterly hectic experience. I drove myself and the mutt I had rescued from the streets of Mexico in my parent’s old Volkswagon Jetta down through the blistering heat of the Southwest in late August 2000.
I will always remember the highway that enters El Paso. On one side, across the Rio Grande, you can see the shanty-towns of Juarez stretching like a endless sea of corrugated tin roofs and ramshackle wooden and cardboard walls, haphazardly leaned against each other. On the other, the quiet orderly streets of El Paso Texas. There are no lawns except in the richest neighborhoods. No trees either as you are in the deep desert, but the U.S. side is quiet and clean and seems to glimmer innocently in the heat. There is also a billboard that stands off to the right that boasts, informs or cajoles you that Jesus loves you.
That moment, as I sailed down the highway, into the city that I would for some time call home, I had a tiny glimpse into the strangeness of the reality that awaited me. Border towns like this are full of stark dichotomies. You might be walking down the street with your pup on a leash when suddenly a street grate is lifted from below and someone emerges, having just crawled through the sewers across the border to get there. They might look at you with a silent plea, replace the storm grate and then continue on down the street, just like that. So simple. So unexpected. So desperate. So mundane.
But I had come here for a specific reason. I had come to learn the art and science of midwifery. And it was precisely because of this strange reality, this bumping of one culture against another, this slow push of humans across the Rio Grande, that I was able to begin to study a craft that would become a lifelong journey.
There was a small cluster of birth centers in that city, all sprouting up within blocks of each other, all serving the Mexican women who were determined to get citizenship for their children. They were not the Mexicans who lived in the Juarez shantytowns. These women were the middle class. They had work visas or some other means of convincing the border patrol to let them enter. Sometimes they came weeks in advance and stayed with distant relatives waiting for their baby to come. Sometimes they came in labor sitting in the blaring heat in lines of traffic crossing the bridges that led to the border, in labor, wondering if they would make it in time to have their babies on the U.S. side. Sometimes they did not make it at all. It was not entirely uncommon to hear that a client had birthed on the bridge waiting to enter. If they had crossed through to the other side, no matter if they birthed on the side of the road, this baby would have the indelible, significant mark of American citizenship. It was also not uncommon to be working a busy prenatal clinic and to hear someone shout from the front “car birth!” which meant that one lady, having endured the ride over the border and the long lines, was now just arriving, often pushing in the car and needed to be helped out and up the steps, past throngs of other women waiting to have their prenatal visits, into one of the birthing rooms.
It is with the greatest awe that I look back on the boot strap midwives who created those birthing and teaching centers, at the thousands of mothers who made it their journey to birth in them, and also at those of us who came, myself included, naive in so many ways to all of the beautiful, heart wrenching things I would witness there in that desert metropolis of dust and cholla trees, extending their many prickly arms skyward.