WHEN schoolchildren visit City Hall here, Mayor Jonathan Rogers has a favorite way to explain the close relations between El Paso and Ciudad Ju'arez, its Mexican twin to the south. Standing at the window of his modern 10th-floor office, he points out the Ju'arez city hall, an equally modern building hardly a mile away on the south bank of the Rio Grande. He then tells the children that he and his Mexican counterpart make a point of waving to each other once a day.
Apocryphal or not, that wave symbolizes the hundreds of thousands of daily interactions, transactions, and crossings that take place across the 2,000-mile-long United States-Mexico border -- from San Diego on the Pacific Ocean to Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. The mayor's wave also captures the sense of community that is developing between neighbors who are culturally and economically distant, yet in many ways share a common destiny.
``There's a hybrid culture along the border,'' says Oscar Martinez, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. The region's uniqueness, he says, derives from the strong and growing penetration of Mexico's border region by American economic interests, coupled with a long-established and growing Hispanic community on the American side.
``We are interdependent,'' says Mayor Rogers, ``and that interdependence continues to grow.'' It may be an ``asymmetrical interdependence,'' as Mexicans prefer to call it, given the weight of the American economy. But the fretting of American farmers over threats to their cheap labor source, or the drop in retail sales in smaller US border towns after the peso is devalued, makes it clear the dependence is two-way.
Legally and illegally, thousands of Mexicans cross the border every day to work in restaurants and hotels, as domestics, in agriculture, or in construction. Others come to shop, have their children, go to school, or visit a relative or friend.
Americans cross the border to work as well, though in much smaller numbers. Most of them work for the growing number of American-owned assembly plants in Mexican border cities. More than 1,000 Americans work in Ju'arez plants alone. Other Americans cross to shop, have an inexpensive dinner, hit a Latin nightspot, or visit a relative or friend.
``Our population is 85 to 90 percent Hispanic,'' says Perri Brubaker, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Nogales, Ariz. ``And I'd say 85 to 90 percent of them have relatives in Nogales, Sonora,'' the Mexican city just one border check away.
With 366 million legal border crossings a year -- a million a day -- and more than $20 billion in import-export trade passing through the four largest trade centers alone, the border between the US and Mexico is considered the busiest in the world.
In many ways, the border still operates like the unified region it once was. When Mexico ceded the northern third of its territory to the US in 1848, there were perhaps a quarter-million people in the border region.
A pattern of circumvention was soon established for sidestepping federal regulations on dealing with the ``other side.'' As Paul Ganster, director of San Diego State University's border studies institute, notes, ``the region was an isolated backwater on the fringes of civilization . . . removed from the center of power'' and not always well served by decisions made in Washington or Mexico City.
The border region grew slowly at first, not topping the 1 million population mark until the 1930s. That changed abruptly with Mexico's postwar population boom, its border industrialization plan begun in 1965, and economic and demographic shifts in the US that favored the Southwest.
Today 8.5 million people live along the world's longest border between a first-world and a third-world nation. Economic disparities are somewhat mitigated by the fact that the American side of the border contains this country's poorest pockets -- El Paso ranks last in per capita income among the nation's 85 largest metropolitan areas -- while the Mexican border cities are among the country's wealthiest, rivaling Mexico City in per capita income.
Yet it is economic disparity that determines to a large degree the nature of interchange between the two sides, which is also why federal ``interference'' in border tradition, whether from Mexico City or Washington, is so strongly felt. As Dr. Ganster and other border scholars note, the region's long-held estrangement from federal power still characterizes the area today.
``When dealing with Washington mandates, three successive steps are practiced day after day along this border,'' says Ellwyn Stoddard, an anthropology and sociology professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, and founder of the Association of Borderland Scholars. ``Ignore, circumvent, and reinterpret.''
Dr. Stoddard points to the handling of Mexican juveniles caught rifling El Paso residences as an example.``We started unofficially taking the kids to the Juarez juvenile officials, and unofficially they accepted them,'' Stoddard says. ``In order to do that officially, you'd have to go through the State Department, and that would take until 1995.''
The unofficial procedure worked fine, Stoddard says, until complaints about its legality resulted in a judge's ending the practice. ``And the major result,'' he adds, ``is that we're now fair game.''
Outcomes like that often make border residents reticent about discussing ``unofficial'' arrangements -- as when El Paso's Mayor Rogers stopped short in the midst of describing a transborder mosquito abatement program. Any further detail, the mayor said, ``might get someone in trouble on the other side.'' It's just such difficulties that lead Joseph Nalven, associate director of San Diego State's Institute for Regional Studies, to describe the border's workings as ``perverse.''
Other examples of circumvention abound. Many Americans think nothing of hiring Mexicans with 72-hour passes (intended strictly for visiting friends and relatives) as maids, baby sitters, or gardeners. ``For $40 a week you can get wonderful live-in help, and loving care for the children,'' says a businesswoman in El Paso.
Even before Halloween, Mexican shoppers were lined up at the Christmas gift-wrap desks of Laredo, Texas, department stores. By stretching out their purchasing, the cross-border shoppers face less scrutiny of their gift-filled bags by Mexican border agents. (They may also have been doing as much buying as possible before the shaky peso fell further.)
And in Las Cruces, N.M., the city's Memorial General Hospital estimates that nearly 10 percent of its 1,800 annual births are to undocumented aliens. ``When they show up in labor, you don't have time to ask a lot of questions,'' says hospital spokeswoman Terri Read.
That pattern is repeated all along the border. San Diego County has tried unsuccessfully for years to get federal assistance for millions of dollars in medical care for indigent alien mothers. In El Paso, the major community hospital estimates that 20 percent of its indigent patients are illegal aliens, many of them Mexican women with a new American citizen to take home from the hospital.
``For the [Mexican] mothers, it's a practical step,'' says Las Cruces city manager Dana Miller. ``This way their babies are Americans, which they hope will give them a step up in the world.''
Birth in the US is only one step many border Mexicans take to ``link themselves as closely as they can with the American economy,'' adds El Paso's Martinez. With the continuing weakness of the Mexican economy, and particularly the peso, more Mexicans are looking north of the border for economic stability.
Yet what strikes Mr. Miller, who arrived three years ago from New England, is the general lack of tension along the border over issues like health-care costs, immigration, or employment of undocumented aliens.
``Our unemployment rate is above the state average, but you still don't hear folks saying that `illegals are a problem,' '' notes Miller. He says he has come to see the border extending north about 50 or 60 miles, where the Border Patrol has a ``second line of defense'' on major roads. ``They really don't patrol much inside that area, as if they recognize that the border is not sharply defined,'' Miller adds.
There is usually a marked definition in the condition of housing or infrastructure on the two sides of the border. But for Americans accustomed to urban freeways or just plain streets separating poverty from wealth, the two sides of the border in many of its twin cities often resemble different neighborhoods of the same city.
``And when they show on TV how folks make a living carrying people across the river so they won't have to get their feet wet,'' says Miller, ``you realize something: The border is not a true barrier; it's more of a slight inconvenience.''
First of five articles. Tomorrow: Efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.