Flor Urbina and her father Angel Urbina during the UTEP commencement ceremony Saturday, May 15, 2021, at the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Angel, who lives in Juarez, was able to attend Flor's graduation because UTEP reached an agreement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that allowed Mexican parents of graduating students to cross the border from Juarez to attend commencement ceremonies in El Paso. Flor is graduating in the top 10 percent at UTEP and receiving her bachelors in engineering.
By Lauren Villagran/El Paso Times and Veronica Martinez/La Verdad

Heriberto Pérez Lara sat on the bed in his home in Juárez, meticulously lacing his brown dress shoes. His mother, Anayensi Lara Ruíz, smoothed an ironed white button-down shirt on its hanger.

She grabbed his graduation cap and tassel off the bedspread.

“Apart from these, what else do you need to take with you?” she asked. His black gown hung downstairs in the living room, draped with the orange stole of the University of Texas at El Paso.

“That’s everything,” he said, looking up at the mother who raised him on her own.

Anayensi Lara Ruíz, at left, watches as her son, Heriberto Perez, prepares for his college graduation at UTEP at their home in Ciudad Juarez. (Omar Ornelas/El Paso Times)

Like thousands of Mexican nationals, Lara Ruíz had been prohibited from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for more than a year because of restrictions on “non-essential” travel.

But thanks to an agreement between the university and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — repeated on a smaller scale for University of Texas campuses in the Rio Grande Valley — she would get a one-time chance to watch her son, a U.S. citizen, walk across the graduation stage at UTEP.

Lara Ruiz’s eyes kept filling with tears.

Of all the rites of passage into adulthood, she knew this transition from being a student to becoming a professional would mark a finish line between dependence and independence.

Her only son, now 23, dreamed of one day working for ESPN as a sportscaster. He had been inspired by her brother, Reynaldo Lara, a well-known reporter for Mexico’s TV Azteca in Juárez, and had decided to study journalism.

For four years, Pérez Lara had been commuting daily from their two-story home in a neighborhood off Gómez Morín, a bustling boulevard lined with wine bars and cantinas, fine dining and music clubs a few miles from the border. He used a SENTRI fast pass to cross without waiting in what can often be hours-long lines at the international bridges. 

“Hold this,” his mother said, handing Pérez Lara the sleeve of his new shirt while she clipped the tags. “There. It’s important to close one cycle and start another.”

‘Rumors started flying’

The Trump administration squeezed off the crucial arteries between the U.S. and Mexico in March 2020, restricting “non-essential” travel at land ports of entry to reduce traffic between the two countries amid a growing COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands of families in El Paso and Juárez include a mashup of U.S. and Mexican citizenship, while other households span the border with partners and children splitting time between homes in both cities. The Borderland was immediately, profoundly, affected by the restrictions.

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In effect, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents could continue to cross the border, while Mexican nationals, even with valid tourist visas, could not.

The restrictions were extended for a 15th month on Wednesday, to June 22.

UTEP’s more than 24,000 students include more than 900 Mexican nationals who attend the university on student visas; they were also allowed to cross under the restrictions. But the university also hosts students whose citizenship renders them American but whose homes are in Mexico. 

“We’re one of the universities with the most Mexican students in the U.S.,” said Arturo Barrio, UTEP director of collaboration and stakeholder development.

For families in Chihuahua state who can afford it, UTEP represents a doorway to the U.S. economy for their children, especially those born stateside.

“UTEP for us is like a giant swimming pool of opportunities,” said Horacio Estavillo, the 22-year-old president of Visión México, a UTEP group representing students from Mexico. “There are so many people here with their heart open to supporting Mexican students.”

Pérez Lara was born in the United States and raised and educated in Juárez, in public and private schools. His mother, a long-time educator, recently became director of a public elementary school.

In part because he knows a career in sports journalism could take him to new places, he wanted to stay close to home as long as he could, he said. He enrolled in El Paso Community College, then later transferred to UTEP as a junior.

When the border restrictions hit, he realized he could criss-cross the border while his mother couldn’t. 

“At first it was so strange, because you’d never experienced it before — and all the misinformation, that no one was going to be able to cross,” he said.

He kept traveling back and forth, to his job at Dillard’s at Sunland Park Mall; to study, before UTEP canceled in-person classes; or to shop for groceries as his family had been accustomed to doing every quincena, after payday. Suddenly, he found himself making video calls from the Walmart at Cielo Vista, bringing Lara Ruíz along to shop virtually.

“With the border closed already a year, I knew it was going to be really complicated for my family to be there” at graduation, Pérez Lara said. “Then the rumors started flying, that maybe there was a possibility that they would let the parents cross.”

‘Tania y su familia son Mineros’

Bienvenidos a la Universidad de El Paso at Texas, UTEP President Heather Wilson said — pronouncing the state’s name in Spanish, Tejas — in remarks at the May 14 ceremony.

Wilson, who has said she didn’t speak Spanish when she became UTEP president in 2019, peppered her first commencement address with phrases in Spanish.

She spoke to students from the classes of 2020 and 2021, both present since graduation ceremonies last year were canceled, and she specifically addressed the more than 360 graduating students whose families live in Mexico.

Anayensi Lara Ruíz approaches the port of entry on the Paso del Norte Bridge to be present for her son’s graduation. (Omar Ornelas/El Paso Times)

Lara Ruíz listened to Wilson from the upper stands on the east side of the Sun Bowl, watching for her son on the 30-yard line.

By choosing a college education, “All of you have opened the possibility of a better life for you and your family,” Wilson said, switching into Spanish. “Todos vivimos mejor porque vivimos en una comunidad con más educación.”

Students from different colleges, with parents in Mexico, had been appealing to her for weeks in hopes that she would ask U.S. Customs and Border Protection for an exemption to the restrictions; professors had been fielding their pleas, as well.

Another graduating journalism student, Marisol Chávez, emailed Wilson an impassioned letter in April signed by 18 students, including Pérez Lara.

“Of the eight people we are allowed to bring as guests in one of the most important days of our lives, none of them will be the most important people to us,” Chávez wrote, asking her to “be the voice of your students” and amplify their concerns.

UTEP President Heather Wilson (UTEP photo)

Behind the scenes, Wilson had been engaging with CBP in El Paso for weeks.

Wilson underscored the binational ties that bind El Paso, and its flagship university, to Mexico by sharing an anecdote of one of the students who desperately wanted her mother to be present for the ceremony.

Tania Pamela Mariscal Quintana, who earned twin degrees in economics and finance, lost her father to a car crash in 2020. She wanted her mother to be there to see her formally accept her diploma. But her mother lived in Mexico and wouldn’t be able to cross the border under the pandemic restrictions.

Wilson told Mariscal Quintana’s story in her address, how she was the first in her family to seek a college degree in the United States, how she had already “recruited four other students in her hometown in Mexico to be Miners.”

She said: “Tania y su familia son Mineros. Tania and her family represent the best of who we are as Miners.”

If Mariscal Quintana’s and Pérez Lara’s mothers were present at the ceremony, it was because Wilson struck an agreement with Hector Mancha, CBP director of the El Paso Field Office. She wrote him a letter directly.

And Mancha wrote back, in a letter obtained by the El Paso Times and Puente News Collaborative: “Graduations are a milestone that signify a great accomplishment and I appreciate the importance of sharing this celebration with family members.”

He would grant the exception, only to parents of graduates and only to those with valid travel documents such as a tourist visa. 

Lara Ruíz had walked across the Santa Fe bridge hours earlier for the first time in 14 months, wearing a black dress and sneakers, and carrying the letter that CBP had supplied to the parents.

Pérez Lara crossed separately by car in the SENTRI lane at Stanton Street and waited for her outside the Los Limousines bus station a block away — a divide-and-conquer logistical plan that frequent border crossers are accustomed to using to avoid long wait times in the regular vehicle lanes.

He reflected on what it meant for him, to have his mother at his graduation ceremony.

“My parents always wanted me to study in the U.S.,” he said. “It is a big deal that my mother could be there. She has been my biggest support.”

‘Congratulations, my love’

In Juárez, the extended family had gathered at the house since 7 p.m. to watch the ceremony virtually. A blown-up photo of Pérez Lara in his cap, gown and orange stole stood on a tripod.

Lara’s brother, Reynaldo Lara, had set up a projector to stream the event on a wall.

Lara Ruíz’s mother and Pérez Lara’s grandmother, Ana María Ruíz, and family sat around tables rented for the occasion. Two beach balls with “happy graduation” messages floated in a pool tiled in shades of blue.

The livestream cut out mid-ceremony — a glitch in UTEP’s transmission. The family scouted online for other video feeds, but links posted on social media led back to the failed YouTube livestream. As the last names came closer to “Pérez” and the image wasn’t recovered, the family resigned themselves.

They wouldn’t see him walk after all.

“I would have really loved to see him getting to the finish line,” said Ruiz’s grandmother, tears on her cheeks.

Around 11 p.m., Lara Ruíz and Pérez Lara pulled into the driveway. Reynaldo Lara took his shoulder-mounted television camera and rushed to hug his nephew then followed him to capture the moment he was greeted by his friends and the rest of the family. 

Holding his cap and his diploma, Pérez Lara walked across the patio shaking hands and hugging friends and family until he reached his grandmother. She reached out for him and held his hands in hers. 

Felicidades, corazón. Congratulations, my love,” she said, pulling him in for a hug.

“I feel very proud of him,” she said. “He never left his studies behind.”

Two men in aprons dished up tacos de asada and al pastor on throw-away plates. Lara Ruíz greeted her guests, beaming. 

The party would last deep into the night.

Earlier in the day she had worried aloud, “I hope he finds a job that he likes.”

The pandemic had hit Pérez Lara hard. He worried about excelling in virtual classes and about finding a job after graduation, she said.

“He would say to me, mamá, but I need to be a productive person,” she said. “I told him, don’t worry. We will put our hopes in God. Be patient. I tell Heriberto, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ We each have our destiny marked for us.”

“The promise we make as parents,” Lara Ruíz said, “is to teach our children that they can take flight on their own.”

Cover photo: Flor Urbina and her father ,Angel Urbina, during the UTEP commencement ceremony Saturday at the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Angel, who lives in Juárez, was able to attend Flor’s graduation because UTEP reached an agreement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection that allowed Mexican parents of graduating students to cross the border from Juárez to attend commencement ceremonies in El Paso. (Omar Ornelas/El Paso Times)

Veronica Martinez of La Verdad de Juárez can be reached at vmartinezmedia@gmail.com.

Lauren Villagran can be reached at lvillagran@elpasotimes.com.

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.