Have you ever tasted Tostilocos (recipe here)? Or danced to Nortec (listen to a sample)? They are just two examples of the richly hybrid culture of the United Sates-Mexico border. The border, conceived not as a line but as a space of mixtures and exchanges of all types (of goods, people, customs, languages), has attracted the attention of scholars and researchers for a long time.
Social work researchers are no different. For the past two decades, the Addiction Research Institute (ARI) at the School of Social Work has been conducting research on the border, focused on alcohol and drug use.
“The border is fascinating for many reasons,” ARI researcher Lynn Wallisch says. “From our perspective of substance use, we wanted to know if the border was its own place, with its own unique patterns, or if the Rio Grande is actually separating two different places.”
In 1996, at the request of the Texas Commission of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Wallisch and colleagues Richard Spence and Jane Maxwell pioneered a large-scale prevalence survey of alcohol and drug use, abuse, and dependence among adults on the United States border.
The survey included both urban areas and colonias—semi-rural, unincorporated communities characterized by lack of basic public services such as electricity, drinking water, and police protection. Another survey followed in 2003, to track whether the rapid demographic and economic changes in the area had an effect in patterns of substance use. And finally, in 2012, ARI researchers completed a path-breaking survey in collaboration with the Public Health Institute (Oakland, CA) that studied both the Mexican and United States sides of the border, as well as interior cities on each side. They are now in the early stages of analyzing this latest survey’s data, which provides the most comprehensive view of substance use on the United States-Mexico border so far.
What do these surveys say about whether the border is its own unique hybrid place, or two different places, one Mexican and the other American, separated by the Rio Grande?
“The answer so far has been… yes and yes,” Wallisch says as she smiles.
These are some of ARI’s findings about substance use on the border that explain what Wallisch means—and that might surprise you. For more findings, and the survey’s methodology, see this presentation (pdf).
The border is not homogenous
The drugs most used by individuals admitted to treatment and reported to the federal system capture interesting differences along the border. Meth predominates in the western section of the border, and heroin and cocaine in the eastern part.
“This west-east use pattern along the border corresponds to trafficking patterns,” Maxwell explains. “Most of the methamphetamine has historically moved up from Baja California and then spread eastward. Cocaine is much more prevalent on the lower, eastern part of the border, because it is trafficked across the Texas border and from there it moves to the rest of the United States.”
Illicit drug use is lower on the border than on the U.S. as a whole
Since the first study in 1996, the percentage of people who report lifetime illicit drug use has been lower on the border than on the United States as a whole.
“Drug use levels are lower in Mexico than in the United States,” Wallisch explains. “Mexican culture is very strong on the border, and a substantial percentage of the border population comes from Mexico. This might explain the lower levels of illicit drug use on the border that our surveys have found.”
Wallisch adds that the lower levels of drug use in Mexico could be considered a protective factor against substance use on the border. Other protective factors are the presence of strong family and social support systems, religiosity, and the “immigrant advantage”—the fact that immigrants tend to be healthier, more resilient, and have strong work ethics and aspirations.
But misuse of prescription drugs is higher
17 percent of survey respondents on the border had misused prescriptions drugs, as opposed to only 6 percent in the United States as a whole.
“This finding might be explained by the fact that drugs for which you need a prescription in the United States are available without one in Mexico, and at lower prices. In fact, 45 percent of survey respondents said they had crossed to Mexico during the previous year to buy over-the-counter medicines or prescription drugs,” Wallisch says.
The most misused prescription drugs were pain relievers, which include hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, morphine, and other opiates.
Text and illustrations by Andrea Campetella