The camera fades in from black on a sepia-toned arid desert. Miles of scrubland spread before us as, in the distance, a pickup truck tears down the two-lane blacktop, kicking up a cloud of dust in its wake. As it rumbles through the sun-bleached town on the U.S./Mexico border, the residents shut themselves up tight in their homes. This is how film and TV often present life in a U.S./Mexico border town, but is that what it’s really like to live there?
In Coyote, the highly-anticipated drama available to stream on CBS All Access on January 7, Michael Chiklis stars as Ben Clemens, a Border Patrol agent near the Tijuana border, whose entire worldview is turned on its head when he’s forced to act as a Coyote — someone who helps smuggle people across the border surreptitiously — for a powerful criminal. The show’s take on the subject of illegal border crossing, and Chiklis’ portrayal of Ben Clemens, are both much more nuanced POVs on the border situation between the two nations than what TV and film normally portray, and it got us thinking about what it’s actually like to live near a border town.
Mayor Mary Casillas Salas isn’t just the mayor of Chula Vista, a California border town near Tijuana, Mexico — she’s also a lifelong resident and third generation Chula Vistan. “My grandparents moved here in 1919 from Jalisco, Mexico,” Mayor Salas explains. She describes Chula Vista as “a beautiful city, and geographically we’re located right in the center of this huge Cali-Baja region, and we are a community of almost 300,000 people. Tijuana, our neighboring city, was a sleepy little town when I was growing up and now they’ve got a metropolitan area of over 3 Million people.”
When it comes to how film and TV portray the area, Mayor Salas remarks, “I certainly think that they don’t get the whole picture … if you look at the two different cities they’re so dynamic and there’s so many different things happening. They don’t cover, for example, all the different educational institutions in Tijuana nor do they cover the amount of engineers and scientists coming from the area that are actually working all over the world once they’re trained in Mexico.”
“Most films and TV shows depict border towns as the Wild West,” says Jaime Blanco, founder of the El Paso, TX based DoubleScope Films, “that we ride horses and we’re filled with criminals … We like to show the beauty of the city and the beautiful diverse people we have in our community.” For Blanco, whose production company showcases the natural and cultural splendor of the El Paso/Mexico border, the key to proper representation is to focus on the diversity of the area. “We might be primarily Hispanics,” says Blanco, “but there are all kinds of races and breeds around these parts. El Pasoans are humble, hard working, intelligent, and friendly people who welcome anyone as if they were one of their own family members.” In addition to all that, Blanco says the El Paso/Mexico border boasts, “the best sunsets you’ll ever see in your life.”
Roger Guzman grew up a few hours north of the border in San Antonio, TX, and spent time as a truck driver crossing back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico. He offered interesting insight into the attitude of people just a bit further removed from the border. “As you get further away [from the U.S./Mexico border] you get more racism. The people that lived on the border were less racist and more accepting.” He explained that the further north he went, the more people treated “everyone like illegals. Latinos further away from the border had to ‘know their place’.” And what does Guzman think of how film and TV portray the border? “What they get wrong is: it’s not always political, but it’s always cultural.”
Brian Luna, actor and brother to Roger Guzman, also remembers growing up near the border differently from how it’s frequently portrayed on TV. “Closer to the border,” Luna explains, “white people seemed much kinder as well. My dad would tell me stories of ranchers and farmers who would leave jugs of water out for the people crossing the border and some would leave out supplies.” He also explains that, while the media can sometimes portray only white people as feeling “Texas Pride,” in reality that pride is “felt by everyone who calls Texas home. It isn’t an arrogance, but an honest pride that comes from how the state comes together - even when we are at odds.” He describes Texas, including the U.S./Mexico border, as a place of possibilities that “almost feels mystical at times.”
In Coyote, when we first meet Ben Clemens, he’s exactly what you’d expect from a veteran Border Patrol agent. He’s tough, gruff, and doesn’t hold a very nuanced view of border crossing. He believes, above all else, that his job is to protect his side of the line. But as fate and circumstance conspire against him, he’s forced to look closely at the personal toll patrolling the border can take on innocent people in need of help, and he sees, for the first time, just how difficult it can be for people in need of asylum to reach the border.
“It really galls me,” says Mayor Salas, “when I hear people say ‘Well, my family were immigrants but they got here the right way.’ What is the right way? When my grandparents passed through El Paso to come to the United States for the first time in 1919, all they had to do was pay a head tax ... They paid a head tax, they had to be physically fit, and that was all they needed to come over. That’s all it took to do it the so-called ‘right way,’ over time the immigration laws have become more costly and time-consuming.”
To see how Coyote approaches the complicated subject of illegal border crossing, and how Michael Chiklis’ Ben Clemens learns and grows from his ordeals on the U.S./Mexico border, check out the trailer above and stream Coyote on January 7 only on CBS All Access.