At Texas-Mexico border, a running back sees Trump’s America from both sides

Crossing pattern

At the border, football’s grip, a mother’s love and the American ideal come to bear for a teenager

Published on June 2, 2017


He silences the first alarm at 5 a.m., and a minute later he does the same for the 5:01. There’s always the 5:02.

Raúl Flores rises, finally, and after a few minutes and a shower, he makes his way downstairs in a blazer and necktie with the two bags he’ll carry with him from Mexico into the United States, a trip he makes most every day. On this first Monday of May, this 16-year-old has a backpack whose contents include water bottles and an insulated coffee mug, a prayer book for the morning mass at Cathedral High across the border in El Paso and extra coins for the pedestrian toll at the Santa Fe Bridge.

This being the first day of spring football practice at Cathedral, the all-boys Catholic school with 468 students at which Raúl is the starting running back, he is also carrying a duffel bag filled with football equipment: extra shoes and two pairs of shorts, bandages and Icy Hot, a chest protector and shoulder pads.

“Have your passport?” Raúl’s mother, Cirene, asks him in Spanish, and he pats the hip pocket containing his U.S. passport — the most important thing he’ll carry on this day and in the months and years to come.

Raul Flores, 16, is greeted by a local woman while walking toward the Texas-Mexico border on his way to school.

Sixteen years ago, long before President Trump began a campaign for the White House by taking aim at Mexican immigrants, Cirene gave birth to a baby boy while visiting her brother in Oklahoma City. Just like that, Raúl was a U.S. citizen, and one family in Mexico had its best and perhaps last chance — Cirene, at the time living in El Paso, was deported after transporting two illegal immigrants in 2008 — to alter its trajectory and continue moving forward.

As the past two years have echoed with talk of a border wall, Cirene, 37, has imagined Raúl as an engineer or a doctor. But deep down she has even more fanciful ambitions for him: Perhaps someday he will suit up for the New England Patriots, not just Cirene’s favorite team but, to her, a symbol of American success and grandiosity. In the United States, a place that still deeply fascinates Cirene despite her strained history, anything is possible.

“It’s 5:50,” says Raúl, dressed in his school uniform and hurrying upstairs to brush his teeth, collect the last of his things and slide on his 2016 state championship ring. Cirene walks outside, the sky still dark, and Raúl loads his bags into the rear of the family’s white SUV before climbing into the passenger seat.

“Are you sleepy?” she asks, and he nods. “Si?”

The morning

Raul Flores, 16, wakes up at 5 a.m. to begin his trip to school in El Paso, Tx.

The trip to school

Flores hugs his mom, Cirene, after she dropped him off near the border.

A long day

Flores rubs his eyes during his last class of the day at Cathedral High.

Practice, then home

Flores doesn't get home until after 7 p.m. on days he has football practice.

They ride through streets of a city notorious for its history of drug cartels and violence, where some drivers still slow — but don’t always stop — at red lights, and continue not far from the houses painted in bright colors as an act of mild defiance toward the nation on the other side of the 15-foot-high border fence.

A little after 6, Cirene stops near the Santa Fe Bridge, and Raúl steps out among the cantinas and markets. His mother calls toward him: “God bless you,” and he waves before threading his way through the cars waiting to enter the United States.

Raúl reaches the bridge as first light peeks over the horizon, and with his left hand protecting the passport in his pocket, he waits in the queue for U.S. citizens.

Finally a border agent calls him forward and waves him through, and on this morning, the young running back wastes no time moving forward, crossing the line.

America in shoulder pads

Last August, she drove him to the bridge on his first day of school and watched for the first time as he walked out of view. The previous night, she had issued an important directive: Walk quickly.

So that’s what Raúl did, ignoring the peddlers and vagrants as he approached the pedestrian tunnel and inserted four pesos into the aging toll kiosk. From there he waited in line before presenting his passport and pushing through a revolving door and into southwestern Texas, followed by the half-mile walk to the bus terminal, where he boarded the Mesa Outbound for the 12-minute trip to the corner of Oregon and Rio Grande, before covering the remaining three blocks to Cathedral on foot.

Cirene asked God to protect him and worried until her phone rang, Raúl alerting her he’d made it school. It had been an ordeal for both of them, but at least he knew what to do — and what not to do.

The previous night, Cirene had spent two hours grilling her son on scenarios and questions, contingencies and advice.

“Over there [in the United States], you just need to do things right,” she said recently. “I know he’s a good boy. He can commit a mistake, so I want to keep an eye on him.”

Raúl would be following a road map she had outlined for him, an outline shaped by her son’s desire to please and succeed — but perhaps just as much by Cirene’s own failure. More than a decade ago, the family lived in Texas while Cirene studied graphic design at the University of Texas at El Paso. She had been granted a student visa, and she found herself drawn to all things American. Cirene visited Disney World and cooked a turkey on Thanksgiving, though nothing appealed to her like football and the Patriots. Tom Brady wasn’t just New England’s quarterback; he was America in a No. 12 jersey.

In the beginning she knew little about the game but that success depended on progress: The winning side moved forward no matter the opponents in the way. One day she drove her young son to a brown field and pointed toward the boys wearing helmets and pads; Cirene asked Raúl if he wanted to play, and he said he did. From there she committed herself to learning the game, and in time NFL Sundays were family gatherings and the Super Bowl as important as Christmas and Easter — a tradition she saw as part of the American Dream.

Then one day in September 2008, according to court records, Cirene drove outside El Paso and picked up two men who had crossed into the United States illegally. She then drove toward downtown, but border agents had been surveying the pickup spot and followed the vehicle. Cirene was arrested and charged with transporting aliens for financial gain. She was deported, she said, and federal agents would drop her at the Santa Fe Bridge and, carrying nothing more than a purse containing her driver’s license and Mexico identification, she was ordered back to Juarez. The dream died over a gambit meant to earn her $50.

“It’s something I did,” Cirene said, refusing to discuss the case in detail. “We leave the past in the past.”

Years passed, the family settled back in Mexico, and Raúl kept doing what his mother asked him. He continued playing football for a youth team called the Titanes, and Cirene sat in the bleachers and cheered. She hired a dietitian and taped notes to his bedroom door the night before games — “Success is no accident,” she once wrote in English — and prayed for her son to grow taller.

“She is the one who keeps me going forward,” Raúl said, and he grew to love the game as his mother hoped he would.

Last year, his parents — Cirene and Raúl Sr. manage seven properties in Juarez, Cirene says — committed to an experiment: allocate the nearly $8,000 in annual tuition and fees for their son to attend Cathedral and play football. Cirene would rise each morning and have breakfast waiting before driving him to a bridge she could never again cross,a structure that connects Raúl’s current life to the one his mother wants for him.

Each day she worries about the obstacles, packing in his bag extra coins in case the toll kiosk jams and reminding him to keep moving, and waits for him to call. One day last year her phone rang, and Cirene listened to her son tell her about his first game with Cathedral: the locker room, the helmets, the field — all of it was like in the movies, and when the team stood together as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Raúl told her he couldn’t imagine anyone in the stadium singing louder.

Now, months later, a once-intimidating journey has become part of the routine, and Cirene finds herself hoping her son someday will cross into the United States and do what she could not: make it his home.

Raul Flores, 16, center, runs with the ball during Cathedral spring football practice. LEFT: Flores hopes to land a football scholarship at an American university. RIGHT: At school, Flores socializes mainly with other kids from Mexico. (Photos by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Two worlds, one number

It’s lunchtime in El Paso, and Raúl slides on his football jersey and sits with teammates at a mountainside country club.

They’re here on this Monday afternoon for a meet-and-greet with Cathedral boosters, and Irish Coach Hampton Hurt glides around the dining room as players eat pizza.

“Hey, fifty-one, lots of fun,” the 73-year-old coach says as he passes the player wearing that jersey number.

This is Hurt’s thing. Whether the players smile or roll their eyes, the old coach has been entertaining himself this way for decades.

“Twenty-five, it ain’t no jive,” he says.

“Ninety-nine, it’s about time.”

Hurt reaches Raúl.

“Twenty-seven, just like . . . ” and this time the coach stops. Twenty-seven is different.

More than five decades ago, Hurt played at New Mexico State, wearing No. 27. Then his knees failed him, the vision for his future ruined, and he felt adrift until finding purpose in teaching the game. Through work and determination, he found a way to succeed anyway.

Late last summer, a kid from Juarez kept showing up and asking questions. He approached coaches at a get-together meant for parents, but he came himself and told them he wanted to play. . He arrived early for practice and stayed late to help coaches clear the field of equipment.

Coaches learned Raúl not only was among those who cross the border each day — 56 students list a home address in Mexico, though school officials suspect many more make the daily trip from Juarez — but that football and the team, regardless of the long odds of Raúl earning a Division I scholarship or ever playing in the NFL, nonetheless represented a major part of his identity and high expectations.

“Most of the kids are focused on ‘me’ — my stats, my position, my whatever. Raúl is different,” Hurt said, and last year when he was handing out jerseys before the season, his running back requested No. 24 because his favorite NFL player is Marshawn Lynch. But Hurt told Raúl he was afraid he could not oblige, instead handing him No. 27, just like heaven, and never told him why. He just said he’d earned it. He’d given it out only once before.

On this afternoon at Coronado Country Club, players filter outside and wait for boosters to arrive. They gather under a shade tree, and most stand and crack jokes in English. Raúl and Eduardo Reaza, a Cathedral defensive back and the team’s only other player from Juarez, sit on a curb and chat in Spanish about movies and the day’s upcoming football practice.

Raúl still gravitates toward players from Mexico, but lately that circle is shrinking. Most days he sits in the cafeteria with a group of students from Juarez, though they seemingly have less in common each day. Raúl said he rarely speaks of his “American life,” as he calls it, with friends from Mexico; they don’t understand why instead of playing fútbol, the international game and cultural binding agent, he prefers football.

In classes they call him “Rall,” a playful mockery of how some Americans struggle to pronounce his name, and joke that he is gradually becoming one of them.

He smiles through this and does the same when classmates from Texas call Mexicans “beaners” or suggest everyone from Juarez is poor. He speaks good but imperfect English, carrying a thick Mexican accent and occasionally pauses to consider the best way to phrase his thoughts. Otherwise almost none of Raúl’s football teammates know he lives in Mexico or that on the simplest days, after some Cathedral players leave school in their own Land Rover or Jaguar, Raúl slips into a white minivan behind the school for a ride home with his grandfather.

“He can say whatever he wants,” Hurt said, “but he’s not seen on the same social level as the other kids.”

A moment later, the coach added: “I don’t think he’ll ever fit in completely.”

And so he drifts, culturally unmoored, finishing his conversation with Reaza and standing to join the Texas kids. He turns on his charm and his English, wearing the one part of his identity that’s not in flux: his jersey number.

As boosters trickle into the parking lot and up a hill, Raúl waits with his teammates near the manicured greens of a golf course that sits at 4,700 feet, one of the best views in the city.

“Everything that I left when I came here, I don’t want to forget it,” Raúl said, standing in this most American place with the plains of Juarez visible in the distance. “I feel like I forget.”

Flores talks with Eduardo Reza, a defensive back and kicker, while volunteering at a team fundraiser at a country club.

All together, all alone

Three months ago, the week of Trump’s inauguration, Raúl called his mother: He had been detained at the border crossing.

“What did you do?” Cirene asked him, later ashamed that her mind went there.

Raúl told her he had done nothing outside the normal routine. But when he reached passport control, he said recently, the agent accused him of carrying counterfeit documents and of attempting to carry drugs across the border.

They led him from the line to a small room, he said, and one agent searched him and another emptied his bag, rifling through its contents and asking questions. Where are you going? Who gave you the drugs? Is this really you in the passport photo?

“They treat me almost like a criminal,” Raúl said.

Finally, for reasons that remain unclear, he was allowed to leave; neither of the men apologized or explained why Raúl had been flagged.

“For them, it’s not that complicated,” he said. “For me, I was already late to school.”

Raúl was confused, and his mother was relieved. For two hours, she had wondered why he hadn’t called.

In time her relief turned to anger, but what could she do? Raúl’s confusion became curiosity: Why, in a country that hardly felt like home and occasionally seemed to not want him, was he being subjected to this? Cirene encouraged her son to control what he could and forget what he could not; she decided to do the same.

She washed his backpack each week and stashed within it extra coins for the toll kiosk. She reminded him to protect his passport and bags; to waste no time and to never let his guard down. Raúl kept doing what Cirene asked him, declining teammates’ invitations to hang out so he could hurry back to Juarez. Feeling frustrated some time ago, he asked Cirene why she could no longer cross the border to watch him play. She told him to never ask that question, and so no matter how much he wondered, he followed his mother’s instructions.

He occupied his mind with his studies and in football, not only improving his English but also learning the terminology of a complex game. He told no one at Cathedral about being questioned at the border, smiling through the doubts in his mind and revealing only the parts of himself he wanted peers to see. When Hurt, the football coach, ended practices by reminding players of the 2016 season motto — “There’s no guarantees in life,” Hurt repeated often, “there’s only opportunities” — Raúl nodded as if the coach were talking only to him.

He joined Cathedral’s track team to get faster, worked out at a gym in Mexico to get stronger, watched hours of game film to get smarter. If the team held a carwash or players were asked to sell Fruitiki bars to fund travel, Raúl was among the first to sign up.

“You put an obstacle in front of him,” offensive coordinator Ryan Vidales says, “and it’s like he doesn’t see it.”

Last November, Cathedral reached the Texas state championship, and Cirene sent a family portrait to be posted on the stadium wall. But during the final seconds of the team’s victory, Raúl looked toward the bleachers and thought only of who wasn’t there.

“It’s not her fault. It’s no one’s fault, actually,” he would say recently. “It’s okay because I know they’re supporting me. But to see my teammates, and after the game everyone was hugging their parents and . . . ”

The words catch in his throat. He has never told anyone this.

“Those are the moments that it’s hard for me.”

When the game was over, someone handed Raúl a phone and he called his mother. He told her they’d won, that he was a state champion, and they stayed on the phone and cried together for a long time.

Flores and teammates walk back to the team bus after practice.

Waiting at a crossroads

It is morning again on the Santa Fe Bridge, another long day beginning early as he waits to cross the line.

The previous evening, after football practice ended a little before sunset, Raúl returned to Mexico and did homework before eating dinner. He went to bed around midnight, and though his alarms sounded five hours later, this time he and Cirene overslept — a disruption to the routine and Raúl’s disposition. At times such as this, his mind wanders.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said as he waited near the border. “I often ask myself: Why am I doing this? Is it worth it?

His friends in Juarez don’t wear uniforms, and on the weekends they go out and have fun. Raúl is often too tired to join them, and though his teammates in El Paso seem to like him, his schedule makes it difficult to make friends. This bridge itself feels as familiar as anything, though it both connects and separates the two parts of Raúl’s life — leading him to feel a blurring sense of identity, to increasingly wonder whether he’s missing an important part of his life, to ask himself more and more whose aspirations he is pursuing.

“Some days on the bridge I am so tired,” he said, “and I ask myself why I am here.”

A few weeks later, he returned home to Juarez on his 17th birthday and found Cirene waiting for him. Rather than her son learn the details of her past from elsewhere, she explained for the first time why she is no longer allowed to cross the border.

They sat and talked, and Raúl asked questions as the minutes turned to hours. Each answer seemed to spawn more questions — until the young man on the verge of adulthood noticed the time. It was after 9 p.m.

Final exams at Cathedral were underway, Raúl still had studying to do, and in just a few hours he’d need to be awake again and at the bridge, a running back approaching the line again, powerful forces pushing and pulling from both sides.

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