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08 Jul 2020

Know Your Neighbors: Meet Mary Borders, a Woman Who Spent Her Career Confronting Racism—and Is a Dancer Extraordinaire

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Mary Borders, on her decision to move to the desert: "Everything I did turned to gold. Even confronting the racism just made me stronger." Mary Borders, on her decision to move to the desert: "Everything I did turned to gold. Even confronting the racism just made me stronger."

I first met Mary Borders after I saw her dance.

It was at a gathering in Palm Springs in 1997 to honor the 84th birthday of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. To the accompaniment of drums, Borders danced a free-form combination of modern dance and African tribal movements. Her style was lyrical, fluid and emotional. It was mesmerizing.

Borders, now 72, lives in Perris after being a long-time resident of Rancho Mirage and Cathedral City. She was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles and raised by an aunt (“who I think of as my mom”) along with her grandmother, and four cousins who are “like my sisters.”

“My aunt would always tell us that when we grew up, we would go to college and be able to be self-sufficient,” Borders says. “We weren’t to rely on a man for a living. She’d say, ‘You can do it yourself.’ She was there all the time, and she seemed to know everybody and whether they were a good person or not. I also saw my real mother from time to time.

“My dad (uncle) was in the lumber business. He was a strong Black man who laughed easily. He was a solid provider, and although he didn’t talk a lot, he was always friendly and warm. He was every bit my dad as he was with his own kids. He showed me what a man is supposed to be like.

“Our house was like the United Nations, with friends who might be Jewish, Muslim, Okies—lots of people who exposed us to so many other cultures.”

After high school, Borders attended Riverside City College, and later studied business at Ohio State University during her second marriage.

“In my third year, somebody put a cross in our front yard, and the Ku Klux Klan did a march down our street,” Borders says. “We were the only Black family in our neighborhood. We moved to Chicago after that, and then came back to California in 1980.”

Borders’ first job was at March Air Force Base. “It started out just clerical,” she says, “but after three months, they made me a staff accountant. I had studied bookkeeping, so I started working as an accountant and did that all through my career.”

Borders’ daughter, Sherri (“She’s 35 and she still gets carded,” laughs Borders), had asthma and allergies. They used to come to the desert to visit Borders’ half-brother, Tahlib McMicheaux, then a minister in Desert Hot Springs. “Sherri would always feel well in the desert climate,” she says.

Borders sold her house in Los Angeles, and she and her daughter moved to Rancho Mirage in 1994. At first, Borders had trouble finding a job. She contacted a telemarketing company, and after a phone call was asked to come in. “When I got there for the interview, the guy looked at me and said, ‘Uh … I didn’t know you were … uh … a woman.’ I reached across the desk and picked up his business card, turned it over, and said, ‘I’m going to need some information so I can tell the Labor Board.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll hire you, but you have to meet quota, or you’re outta here.’ I not only met quota; I became director of minority affairs. The company marketed themselves as meeting Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting employment discrimination).”

Borders moved on to work as sales director for Desert Woman, a local magazine that targeted Coachella Valley women. “I got a call from the editor saying that Anita Rufus told her she needed to integrate her staff, and that she should call Mary Borders,” she says. “I got a first-class education selling for Desert Woman. While I met a lot of wonderful women and did a lot of networking, there were some local business people who wouldn’t advertise if they thought I owned it: They didn’t want their ad dollars going to support someone who looked like me.

“One woman thought she recognized the designer jacket I was wearing, and asked me outright about it. When I said yes, it was that designer, without asking if I got it on sale or whatever, she said, ‘I can’t afford a jacket like that; how can you? I want to see your car. If you have a new car, which I can’t even afford for myself, I’m not taking out any ads with you.’ You can’t make this stuff up!

“After that, I worked with the SunLine Transit Agency for six years until I decided to retire. They needed someone who could bring the union and non-union workers together, and I also did PR with a focus on creating a positive public image. ”

Is Borders still dancing?

“I’ve danced all my life,” she says. “I once met a guy associated with Three Dog Night who had gone to Africa and participated in a ritual to make a sacred drum. He offered to drum for me, and I studied the moves. I remember that night at Rosa Parks’ birthday so well—we had Native American bird dancers, and a tribute to Mexican Americans. The guest speaker was Ron Karenga,” the civil-rights activist best known as the creator of Kwanzaa.

“It was quite a night. Later, after I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, once I recovered, I went cruising. They had a salsa club onboard. I came back and spent three weeks in New York taking salsa lessons. One year, I was Salsa Queen of the Desert!”

In 2017, Borders’ aunt was recovering from surgery, and Borders had broken an ankle that was not healing well, so she moved to Perris to be closer to her family.

“I’m now taking soul line-dancing classes offered through Riverside County,” Borders says. “Each class includes a party where you get to know everybody, and we’ve all become friends. After the pandemic hit, it was my birthday, and they came in 10 cars, and put gifts on the curb and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ It was a total surprise. Now we do it for everybody—socially distanced and dancing in the street with masks on. We also go to a local park, and everybody brings a chair and food for lunch. Then we dance down the path, all 28 of us!”

How does Borders feel about the current activism regarding racial equality?

“I had a therapist who once said there had been a dark space in me that had come to the surface and erupted, and I had to forgive and move on, and eventually the scab would come off,” Borders says. “We, as a society, have had a sore that has festered and finally erupted, and we have to heal it. I always remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and believe that if there is injustice anywhere, then everybody is in danger, because none of us is safe.

“I feel bad for my white friends, who are being lumped into the racist label. People are striving for something to say or do, but people have become afraid to say anything, because it may be the wrong thing. That’s a shame, because it’s all a teaching opportunity.”

Mary Borders has a positive energy that is infectious. She is who she is, with no pretense. She says her greatest accomplishment in life is her daughter—especially since she was told early on that she couldn’t have children. She also says that the best decision she ever made was moving to the desert: “Everything I did turned to gold. Even confronting the racism just made me stronger,” she says.

That strength comes through whenever you see Mary Borders dance. She is mesmerizing.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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