Like the siblings at the center of their new middle-grade graphic novel, Twin Cities, Jose Pimienta grew up in Mexicali, just south of the U.S./Mexico border. In Pimienta’s follow-up to their debut, Suncatcher, twins Fernando and Teresa differentiate themselves when Teresa chooses to attend middle school in Calexico, on the U.S. side, opening up both opportunities and obstacles. In the book, Pimienta paints a rich border culture and nuanced family life. We spoke with Pimienta about cultural and gender-based double standards, teenage rebellion, and finding a place to call your own.

What were your impressions of life in Mexico vs. the U.S. when you were a kid, and how did you represent them in the book?

The U.S. seemed to be the provider of some cool stuff: music, movies. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, if you had a TV and you were in Mexico, you’d get the Mexican channels, but if you had an antenna, you could get American broadcast channels.

The farther you’d go, the more cultural distinctions there were. My mom told me that Americans had a bigger sense of personal space. Once I got very excited about something and rushed to it, and my mom said, “You’ve gotta slow down.”

Twin Cities seems to take place in the 90s. How have things changed since that time for families whose lives straddle the border?

A few years ago, when I was writing draft after draft, that element was more prominent. I wanted to keep it close to the things I remember. [But] someone suggested that if I set it explicitly in the ’90s, it would feel dated, and that resonated with me a little bit. It’s not super important [to the story].

Crossing the border has gotten more complicated and complex, but the sensations were still there in my time. Keeping that part was very important. [Students like Teresa] develop life hacks around things like being observed by customs officers—how they’re looked at, the kind of pressure they’re under.

Alex is rebellious and insightful and complex. How did you develop his character?

I’ve met a lot of kids like Alex, who have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to border politics, and have a very valid argument to feel the way they feel—wanting to be proud of where you’re from, but having this looming sensation of there’s this other culture across the fence that outright says, “We’re the best country on Earth.”

It’s common for teenagers to come and drink in Mexico. So of course someone like Alex would feel like, “Oh you come over here and do whatever you want.” I wanted to give him a certain amount of anger that felt righteous. Some people feel even more extreme. I wanted to do right by him and validate him, even if I don’t completely agree with him.

The storyline includes drugs and potential police violence, which are obviously both realities in kids’ lives. How was that handled in the editorial process?

We went through multiple drafts and tried to make it realistic. It’s never clear why their car got taken into secondary revision [when Teresa is accidentally carrying Fernando’s marijuana]. But customs officers can behave that way. It can be random.

One person could get a slap on the wrist for holding, vs. someone else putting their entire future at stake. The stakes are different for everybody. You can be told you can’t cross again for 5­–10 years. That’s how families can get separated.

How did you develop the sibling and family dynamics?

There were drafts where it was Fernando who was [waiting for his bedroom to be built instead of Teresa]. And someone said it seemed weird, because boys are treated way better in Mexican culture; they would give the bedroom to the boy and decide the girl can wait. Culturally, gender roles are very distinct, and that influenced Teresa’s arc. That scene where she finally sees her space—I wanted her to relish that moment. [She is finally getting the message that] “You belong here. This is your place.”

I wanted to give each character their own mountain to climb. I wanted to take advantage of it being a printed book and to play with the dualism of what happens on one page vs. what happens on the opposing page, to be fair to those different experiences that are both valid.

Twin Cities by Jose Pimienta. Random House Graphic, $20.99 July 19 ISBN 978-0-593-18062-4