Inside the neon green and yellow shack on 6th Avenue, a few blocks outside of South Tucson, there are four rows of connected seats facing the entrance and a gray television set broadcasting an episode of Malcolm in the Middle dubbed in Spanish.
A glossy Mexican national flag is painted across the wall behind the rows of seats, and candlelight reflects off of a porcelain figurine of La Virgen de Guadalupe placed on a small stool by the ticket counter.
Luis Alberto Lopez Hernandez, a contracted shuttle driver for the family owned Sahuaro Shuttle service, pulls his 14-passenger van up to the side of the vibrantly colored building and plants a stool in front of its opened double doors.
“Nogales! Quien va para Nogales? (Who’s going to Nogales?),” he announces in front of the shuttle. He jokes with the other drivers before attentively greeting the four passengers, and stores their luggage.
The hour-long ride ends about 100 yards across from the entry point into Mexico, in a narrow alleyway crowded with aged shuttle vans and taxis. Passengers emerge from the van onto a Nogales street lined with multiple shuttle services, currency exchange shops, clothing and liquor stores that approach the tall rust colored wall marking the Mexican-American border.
This is a routine that hundreds of Latino’s experience every week on the Sahuaro Shuttle.
For many, the $12 shuttle is a reasonably priced service that helps connect them to medical care, but most importantly it helps reunite loved ones living on opposite sides of the border. The demand for affordable transportation to and from Nogales is so great that there are two separately owned shuttle services operating next to each other, and directly across the street from the Sahuaro shuttle business.
Both the Premier Shuttle and the Sonora Shuttle moved in across the street about 10 years after the Sahuaro Shuttle opened, and they offer the exact same prices and frequent rider deals.
“We’ve been using it for like 15 years or more,” said Jose Coronado, 76, a regular customer at the Sahuaro Shuttle. Coronado is one of the many who use the service frequently to make their medical appointments. He also says that the shuttle is the only way to visit his son without feeling like he’s a burden.
“This is just easier and cheaper,” he said in Spanish.
Like Coronado, many other people living in Mexico use the shuttle services to visit their families and seek medical care.
“The majority that travel like this in our company are almost always older men that come to visit their kids,” said Jorge Osuna in Spanish, a worker at Premier Shuttle, a competitor of Sahuaro Shuttle. “Or at least that’s what I hear when they talk among themselves.”
Consuelo Rodriguez, a worker at the Sonora Shuttle across the street from Sahuaro, also hears similar reasons for why her customers take the shuttle.
“We’ll transport people to Nogales, Sonora or Nogales Arizona whether it be to bring medicine or to visit family that they have in Mexico. That’s actually why they’re asking for it,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “I see people that come and go to visit their father, or their family more than anything. Whether it’s because the family can’t come over here or vice versa.”
With three companies offering the same service, for the same price, and in nearly the same location, customer service is crucial in the shuttle business.
“Customer satisfaction comes big into play,” said Jonathan Ramirez, son of the Sahuaro Shuttle owner. “It’s very much about loyalty. Ninety percent of customers are regulars, and the other 10 percent are new customers.”
Just the Sahuaro Shuttle service transports about 600 passengers a week, according to Ramirez.
“We get recommended by a lot of Mexican businesses, and in this business specifically we don’t do a lot of marketing,” Ramirez said. “We should probably change that, but its like word of mouth. If you have the need and you like our service your going to keep using our service.”
Here’s a video of the trip to the border:
Julian Cronen and Karen Lizarraga are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at email@example.com.