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Jose Garcia's whole life has played out in the borderlands, both sides of the divide between the USA and Mexico, a line on a map that carries so much political and emotional meaning.
It is a 21-year-old life dominated by baseball, and it reaches its most critical point next week. The Major League Baseball draft beckons, meaning Garcia faces a tortuous wait that will determine whether he pursues a professional career in Mexico, the land of his birth, or in the USA, where the potential for riches is exponentially greater.
Garcia does not allow his mind to delve too deeply into politics, but his journey has been intertwined with so many of the hot-button issues that dominated last year's election and continue to spark debate.
"There's always issues with the border, but I don't let that affect me," said Garcia, a powerfully built outfielder and part-time catcher who hopes to land in the middle to late rounds. "I always want success in life, so I don't let those things bother me.
"I am shooting, like every player, for the big leagues. Hopefully I get a chance. It's really important."
Garcia's formative years were spent in San Luis Rio Colorado, a city with a population of about 150,000 in Sonora, Mexico, jammed against one of the heavily fortified sections of the border. U.S. authorities are proud of the security in the area south of Yuma, Ariz. Once a heavily trafficked crossing, potential illegal immigrants barely try to enter the USA from there anymore, figuring the 150-mile journey to Tijuana (and then San Diego) is considerably easier than trying to traverse a three-layered fence that is floodlit.
"I lived two or three blocks from the (fence)," Garcia said. "I could see it every day pretty much."
After high school in San Diego, a move facilitated by a U.S.-based uncle becoming his legal guardian, Garcia got busy grinding away, improving his English and working on his hitting. After a junior college stint in Galveston, Texas, he has spent the last two seasons at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), near the bottom of the Lone Star State and close to the Mexican border city of Reynosa.
Keeping hope alive
As he pursues his major league dreams, he is grateful for UTRGV and the possibilities that the institution, combined with his own talent and toil, have afforded him.
"This place gave me a chance," he said. "It gives a lot of people a chance. In sports and in life."
Ninety percent of UTRGV's student body is Hispanic, with virtually all of those being Mexican Americans. There are 951 registered DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students who could face immediate deportation.
Some scholars line up at the border every day and take a half-hour bus ride to class. Life on the other side can be bleak. Reynosa hosted a bloody gun battle in April between Mexican marines and a drug gang whose infamous leader, Juan Manuel Loza — or "El Toro" — was killed in the shootout.
A short drive away, the UTRGV sports program provides opportunities and is a source of pride for the local community.
On a sweltering day in May, junior heptathlete Leslie Luna, exhausted from the efforts of her grueling event and the accompanying conditions in the Western Athletic Conference track and field championships, reflected on what athletics at UTRGV had done for her.
Growing up close to the Edinburg, Texas, campus, she used to work at a Dairy Queen before getting a track scholarship. Her biggest frustration and motivation, she said, is that more is not expected of the Mexican-American community close to the border.
She sees it in athletics and away from it.
"People from our conference come down and see us ... and they don't expect much from us," Luna said. "Definitely we do have to work harder. They look down on us sometimes, as far as our culture, (that) we are not naturally talented like everybody else. So obviously we have to prove ourselves. It's not as easy."
Luna says she is on track to be the first member of her family to receive a college degree and hopes to inspire her younger relatives and girls in the community.
"A lot of us that are setting the standards probably motivate those that feel like they can't," she added. "I feel a lot of them do shy (away) from the opportunity, but hopefully those of us out here trying to make a difference will motivate them in some sort of way."
Mariana Alessandri, an author and assistant professor of philosophy at UTRGV, has a flier displayed on her office door, instructing students on what to do if contacted by an immigration agent. But she also counsels students on how to balance expectations.
"Students say, 'I came to college to better myself,' and I say, 'Better than who?'" Alessandri said. "I want them to see when (they) get out of college (they) may be formally educated and get a better, higher-paying job. But they're not going to be better (people) than their parents."
At the baseball field a short drive away, Garcia's teammate David Becerra, a freshman pitcher, spoke of how he endeavors to remain close to his upbringing. Originally from Mexico City, his family lives in Reynosa, while his existence amid the peaceful confines of campus is far different.
"It is hard in Mexico right now. Everywhere there are problems," Becerra said. "It is different. I like (it here), seeing Mexicans around me, trying to succeed."
Life at the border
The election and the ensuing months have given millions reason to think of the border, yet few have an idea what it looks like. Many forget that for hundreds of miles there is already a barrier. In Hidalgo, Texas, there is a stretch of rusting iron fencing 40 feet high, created by President Bush's Secure Fence Act of 2006.
It is imposing and stark. The fence is a few hundred feet inside U.S. territory -- the actual border is in the middle of the Rio Grande, and you can't build on the water plain. But at one point, in the shadow of the bridge, the fence just stops. There is a gap that is 20 feet wide. You can walk around it and stroll down, all the way to the water's edge, where border patrol agents sit in a vehicle but don't appear too interested in anyone wandering about. With an arm the likes of Becerra's or Garcia's, you could easily throw a stone across the water and into Mexico.
Many of the agents, Alessandri said, went to college at UTRGV before finding government employment.
Back on campus, a multicultural aura persists, especially on the athletic field. It is not just Mexicans or Mexican Americans who have found homes here.
At the track meet, Luna, who was raised locally, chatted with Dominique Ibarra, a Chilean tennis player who grew up in Spain. There are soccer players from Finland, a golfer from Germany, basketball players from Rwanda and Turkey, volleyball players from Brazil, Serbia, Senegal and more.
They come, Ibarra said, "for education and opportunity," just like all the local Mexican-American students with whom they share classrooms, dorms and the whole experience.
The answers for America's issues are not found here, and this is not an especially political place, just somewhere affected by politics.
It is merely one example of how the border and its dilemmas intertwine with life. Sports, like everything else, mixes in with it all somehow. People who attempt to cross borders, even if they are not doing so legally, are generally motivated by the same things athletes are -- the struggle for self-improvement and the search for success.
That is what is on the mind of Garcia as the MLB draft closes in and his future awaits.
"This is my (American) dream," Garcia said. "It is not easy with a different language and a different culture. But you try to make your life better, that's what we do."
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