STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
About midway through our road trip along the U.S./Mexico border, my colleagues and I rode up a mountain. Okay. Should we hop in?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hop in.
INSKEEP: We boarded a tram car suspended by a cable.
KAINAZ AMARIA: Are we going that way?
INSKEEP: That's our photographer, Kainaz Amaria, and yes, we were going up the cable to a peak in El Paso, Texas. As the car rose up the slope, we got a wider and wider view of a bi-national metropolis, El Paso in the U.S., and nearby Juarez, Mexico, from a vantage point so high it was like looking at a map. We came here as we reported on people, goods and culture that crossed the border.
From up on this mountain, more than a mile high, it's clearly just one metropolitan area. You can see the downtown skyscrapers of El Paso. You can see the neighborhoods of Juarez which stretch out in the distance, climbing up the sides of mountains several miles away. You have to look for just a moment to notice how the Rio Grande cuts it in two. It feels like a single city, El Paso and Juarez, from up here, but of course it makes a tremendous difference which side of the line you're on.
And today we have a story of a family whose lives changed when they moved a quarter mile across. The Troncoso family crossed from Mexico to El Paso more than 50 years ago. That was hard, but this family made a crossing that is even harder from one social class to another. We drove to their house to talk about it. Hola.
BERTA TRONCOSO: Hola. Buenos tardes.
INSKEEP: Buenos tardes. We found Bertha Troncoso just pulling her car into the driveway and she took us inside to meet her husband, Rudolfo Troncoso. They're in their 70s.
RUDOLFO TRONCOSO: Mi casa tu casa.
INSKEEP: My home is your home, he said. It's the house the Troncosos built after migrating here. The furniture was comfortable, but the rooms were tiny. The ceilings so low my head kept bumping the light fixtures. And the street was just feet out the front door. Each little house in the neighborhood looked different. Some of the roofs were made of Spanish tile, other roofs sagged.
Statues of the Virgin Mary decorated front yards of dirt. People built many of these houses with their own hands out of adobe, concrete blocks or wood.
SERGIO TRONCOSO: This neighborhood is called still barraca, a shack town.
INSKEEP: That's Sergio Troncoso. He's one of the Troncosos four children. He sat on the couch between his parents and talk about the neighborhood where he grew up. It was called a colonia, a term that is common in the Borderland. What is a colonia?
TRONCOSO: Well, a colonia is an unincorporated part in the outskirts, typically on the border of a city, outside city services, outside electricity, water, and typically it is where the new arrivals go to.
INSKEEP: People who have traveled outside of the United States are probably familiar with informal neighborhoods. I think people would be surprised to find them in the United States.
TRONCOSO: They're all over Texas, all over New Mexico. You know, I mean you see what you want to see.
INSKEEP: New arrivals to this colonia included Sergio's father, Rudolfo. He crossed from Mexico in the 1950s because his girlfriend Bertha's family moved here.
TRONCOSO: (Speaking Spanish)
INSKEEP: That's the only reason I came, he said.
TRONCOSO: (Speaking Spanish)
INSKEEP: I've never been happy here and that's why I don't speak English. Having said that, he tried a little English.
TRONCOSO: I'm 100 percent Mexican.
INSKEEP: A hundred percent Mexican.
TRONCOSO: Yes, si, 110 percent.
INSKEEP: Are you a citizen of the United States?
TRONCOSO: Yeah, unfortunately.
INSKEEP: Still, he worked to build a new life in the United States. The Troncosos didn't have much money so they paid $600 for a patch of land. They started building a house of adobe in what was then countryside.
TRONCOSO: Was like a ranch, like cotton fields.
INSKEEP: Cotton fields.
TRONCOSO: Yeah, and le canales.
INSKEEP: Canales, canals.
TRONCOSO: The canals.
INSKEEP: It was irrigated by them.
TRONCOSO: Yeah, we didn't have electricity.
INSKEEP: At the start they had no glass in the windows, which is how someone stole their copper pipes.
TRONCOSO: We had kerosene lamps, verdad? Lampara de la petroleo.
TRONCOSO: Yeah, we start with a kerosene lamp. I had to wash the dishes and throw the water outside and...
TRONCOSO: The boys were all the cheap labor. I mean I grew up doing construction work as kid. I would come back from grade school and then we would be working on a room or we would be painting or we would be doing drywall.
INSKEEP: It's safe to say many people in colonias have trouble finding a better life. Studies show social mobility in the United States is strikingly low. It is harder for the poor in this country to move to a higher social class than it is for people in other developed nations, like those in Europe. But the Troncosos had an advantage others did not: Rudolfo's education. He had been trained in Mexico as an agronomist and later became an engineering technician.
He could draw a plan for a house. Some of his neighbors were carpenters or construction workers and could follow the plans.
TRONCOSO: They would trade work.
TRONCOSO: Trade work.
INSKEEP: Barter. Barter work.
TRONCOSO: Exactly. He - my father would do draft plans for houses and in return this neighbor built this rock wall behind us.
INSKEEP: The stone wall that decorates one side of the living room. In the same way the Troncosos replaced their dirt floor with concrete. How many houses did you design or additions did you design in this neighborhood?
TRONCOSO: Around here, about 40 or 50.
INSKEEP: Forty or fifty. So every direction you go, you look out the window of the car maybe and see your work.
INSKEEP: Eventually, this informal neighborhood ceased to be a colonia. The Troncosos even got regular sewer service.
TRONCOSO: I remember digging the hole to connect our water lines to the main sewer lines outside. And it was a hole that was taller than I was.
INSKEEP: Throughout the neighborhood, people were trying to cross into a middle class life.
TRONCOSO: Absolutely. That was a goal. I mean some of them failed and some of them succeeded.
INSKEEP: We talked a little more with the Troncosos over lunch in the kitchen.
TRONCOSO: These are gorditas. You know, gorditas? You want to have - take one? These are basically all low-cal, no calories.
INSKEEP: A gordita, which translates as chubby, is a thick tortilla stuffed with meat.
TRONCOSO: This is the problem. When I come home, I gain like 10 pounds.
INSKEEP: And as we talked, we sensed some of what helped the Troncoso family to advance, a stable family that understood the value of education, a school where teachers encouraged Sergio to apply to college. He was accepted at Harvard, going on to become a novelist and a professor at Yale.
TRONCOSO: Did it make me a different person? I think it certainly gave me a wider scope of what's around. And I just got used to these border crossings. You know, you cross intellectual, economic borders all the time, every day, and sometimes in the same day. And you know, you just do your best and try to keep a sense of your own self when you're going through these different worlds. And it's hard to do.
I can't say I've always done it successfully or very wisely. You know, sometimes I fall flat on my face.
INSKEEP: Sergio has always had one more advantage as he crossed. Everyone in his immigrant family had legal status, which was easier to obtain half a century ago. Many immigrants today do not have the same advantages, as the Troncoso family knows. Tomorrow we'll follow a member of that family to another part of the border metropolis. It's a school outside El Paso where students from poor families try to imagine how they can cross to a better life.
This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.