Tamar Diana Wilson
A Poem and Two Stories
I have seen the best minds of five generations destroyed by poverty
struggling naked moaning sobbing howling in despair
fighting battles often lost infants dying before one year
mothers fathers anemic shrunken crippled haggard hungering
Who dragged themselves through dusty streets at dawn searched for a
way to survive laborers for others who had more lands or capital
sellers servants shiners of shoes bone pickers
great grandfathers who rented clothes from roadside stands
they hadn't even rags or cloth spare walked barefoot
queued up beside construction sites mines railroad lines
begged for a day's employment at any wage
hawked platanos and mangoes tomatoes and onions
while they did without or did with less
offered woven blankets embroidered lengths of cloth supplied by
middlemen work of wives and daughters straw hats and mats and
cane backed chairs serapes rebozos silver rings and broaches
carved statues of dogs cats burros children saints madonnas to people passing by mostly
tourists from nearby far off richer
lands where exploitations had occurred earlier in history but now
were exported mainly not exclusively
Who sowed hoed cut harvested tended sheep cattle
horses goats burros on haciendas from age seven or eight
beside fathers indebted by their fathers at the hacienda store
cross-generational peonage sweated in the sun
drenched in the rains shoeless bootless illiterate
their mothers sisters daughters worked free in the big house
washing ironing grinding corn cooking meals they never shared
emptying slop jars and spitoons sweeping floors and fountain adorned
patios amidst the bourganvilla for the privilege to remain
indebted without lands of their own or any hope of any
until they revolted 80 years ago
Who after 16 years of civil strife after more than a million men had died
after dislocations unrepaired after houses and scant possessions burned
after sons murdered after brothers lost after daughters sisters
mothers wives raped and disappered
some became ejidatarios others pequeno proprietarios
some rural proletarians owning little more than life
most flocked into state capitals in Distrito Federal U.S. border towns
some to sell their labor power in fluorescing factories sweatshops
talleres cantinas on construction sites and brickyards
some to vend manzansas Marlboros contraband radios and relojes
to neighbors better off Mickey Mouse hand puppets ceramic
hamburgers slopping mayonnaise rearing stallions made of stone
mixed with traditional handicrafts woven dyed embroidered
carved painted to visitors from far off nearby richer lands
some to cross the raya to plant and harvest crops in California
Arizona Michigan Oregon Arkansas Texas or on the railroad lines
across the west or in factories foundrys sweatshops in Gary Chicago
Los Angeles Detroit San Antonio until deported when no longer
needed 60 years ago 40 years ago 20 years ago today
Who then joined their urban cousins some to live on lonely brickyards
no electricity no fans no refrigerators no running water
no schools for their children mold bricks to build the malls houses
hotels industrial complexes tourist complexes banks
provide a subsidy wrung from sweat of self and family
to burgeoning urban conglomerations inhabited by the dispossessed
and those parasitic on them
Some to invade unused lands to form squatter settlements
shanty towns colonias paracaidistas colonias perdidas
colonias populares to build shacks of tarpaulin scrapwood
cardboard crushed aluminum cans trashed by Budweiser and Coca Cola
drinkers to tap the holes against the rain
Who arrived in greater numbers after the Green Revolution
Rockefeller inspired chemicals fertilizers monocropping
imported John Deere tractors International Harvesters
the lucky buy land from the luckless those whose crops failed those
with nothing left to mortgage most day laborers deprived of work on farms now mechanized
no lands to sharecrop anymore
machines replaced men machines displace men imported machines
50 years ago and today and more tomorrow now that Salinas has
revised and mangled Article 27 for which the Zapatistas fought
Whose children labored beside them from an early age
in icy mud to mold the bricks to mix the clay
toenails rotted fungus growing on ever damp hands and feet
as ambulant vendors selling tacos fruit vegetables serapes
carved wooden statues carved stone statues white ceramic ducks
quartz pipes and bookends silver earrings hot dogs
as garbage pickers collecting metals cardboard bottles for recycling
as itinerant construction workers washers of windshields on myriad
corners singers on buses jugglers clowns ice pick swallowers
shoeshine boys dotting plazas sometimes selling glue or pingas
newspaper boys amidst the traffic which sometimes grinds them down
anything for a spare coin beggars without eyes without legs
Who malnourished never obtained full growth who poor could not pay
school fees books notebooks pencils crayons
though now there were schools unlike back on the ranchos
at least they learned to read some of them
Who built and build Acapulco Cancun Cabo San Lucas Mazatlan
Puerta Vallarta Cuernavaca tourist hotels the Hyatt the Hilton the
Westin the Lucerna the Continental Plaza the Fiesta Americana
World Trade Centers conference halls for businessmen and academics
shopping malls Plaza Mexicana Plaza del Sol Plaza Cachanilla
La Zona rosa hippodromes country clubs restaurants adorned with
Riviera murals and hanging plants in multi-colored ceramic pots
places they cannot enter and enjoy for lack of funds
lunch for one at the Rosarita Beach Hotel once a favorite haunt
of Hollywood stars costs one day's mininum wage no drink included
two beers at the Westin and they day's pay is gone
they build them then return
to their colonias perdidas their scrapwood dirt floored shacks
sine 40 years or more ago until today
Who recycle metals cardboard newspapers collected in the local
dumps to national multinational companies
who gather dented cans of food thrown out from newly established
supermarket chains tomatoes oranges rotten on only one side
collected in the local dumps fishheads for fishhead soup thrown out by
the fish shop after filleting clothing discarded by those so better off
they have no one to hand the garments down to collected in the local
dumps a fork spoon mattress broken chair anything of human
use found in the local dumps up to now
Who rise early to make tacos burritos fuitades to sell to factory
laborers maquiladora workers who made it through primary school
Who sometimes cross to U.S. cities to work in Taco Bell in Beverly Hills
gardens in L.A. N.Y. Miami garment factories Milwaukee Chicago Pittsburg Detroit
foundries in construction cleanup carwashes
gas stations as janitors busboys waiters gardeners maids
in old folks' homes in rich folks' homes
in the countryside to plant cultivate weed prune harvest lettuce
apples broccoli oranges peaches tomates grapes melons
cabbage onions still
Whose children will secure lots in newer squatter settlements
self-build housing pay one third of infrastructural costs in
installments for electricity running water sewage
buy bricks from the brickmakers still living on lonely isolated
unserviced brickyards their children still the family's labor force
like that of the peasants from which they sprang their children their
only welfare system
Whose growth as those of parents grandparents is still stunted due
to lack of food though not as much as previously the population is
growing taller and more can read
Who will couple with daughters of fathers like their own see a movie
or two Predator Rocky III Robocop Superman Batman
Pretty Woman Deep Throat Fantasia Total Recall
dubbed in Espanol give them circuses if not bread
and the girls tint their hair yellow to look more like some Hollywood star
and spent their maquiladora savings on mini-skirts lipstick Clairol
Whose parents now have second hand television sets electric lights if
they have been extended to the newest squatters local politicians do
that now listen to music from cassette players bought with a
week's wages at the local tianguis or smuggled in when returning
from California fields Wisconsin factories Arkansas show horse
stables dance in someone's lot on Saturday nights to celebrate
quinceaneras baptisms bodas birthdays
Whose mothers gave birth without doctor's care whose wives now go
to the Red Cross free clinic or to the General Hospital erected for
those who have no steady formal sector job the IMSS is overfowing
Who will bring up children less of whom will die before the age of five
Who are the only precious possession they will have of which they
cannot be deprived until later
Who will be unable to go to college but may complete ninth grade now
it became the law in '95 at least those can afford books
cuadernos uniforms shoes cuotas for new desks chairs a roof
a real floor take factory jobs become cashiers nurses aides
mechanics bank tellers if they study long enough paid for the week
what is paid across the border for a day that's why the multinationals
move there from the US from Japan from Germany
Who hope their children will continue the upward movement their past
four generations have described for many except those who dropped died gave up were
killed in strife
along the way
Although now in the cities there are more gangs defending space
some of the muchachos sniff glue smoke that old rancho weed gobble
down acids and pills designed in laboratories on the other side
take a sniff of cocaine on its way to the north
international exchange that keeps those in the barrios
on both sides of the border unorganized quiescent stupified
jobs last a few weeks a few months some cycled out so the company
need pay no benefits and the factory managers and the construction
engineers and the supermarket supervisors comply
And the peso has fallen just this year
multinationals arrive like carpetbaggers
the wage in dollars has been halved prices have doubled
in the countryside the Zapatistas unite
The Cartonero (The Cardboard Collector)
(The original version was first published in Struggle Vol. 9, No. 4, Winter 1993-94, pp. 15-29. It was republished in a collection called Tales from Colonia Popular by Plain View Press in 2009. I knew Martín's family very well during my first two years in Colonia Popular. I accompanied the family, including Martín, his mother Teresa, his stepfather José and sometimes his sisters to the dump many times, and worked alongside them collecting cardboard and other items of interest. I often ate dinner at their house, providing groceries which Teresa, one of her daughters or I turned into the evening meal (and saw Martín dancing with the photographs of his "novias" to amuse the family). I was co-present with his mother, Teresa, at many political rallies and social gatherings and co-present with Martín both on the dump and at numerous colonia dances -- T. Wilson.)
Martín´s mother woke him an hour before dawn. He scratched the mosquito bites on his face and limbs and feet, picked up the faded red t-shirt lying on the end of the narrow cot, used it to wipe the sweat from his forehead and from under his arms. His mother was already dressed. She had slept in her clothes, too. She handed him his coffee in the large chipped grey mug that had brought home yesterday. "Buenos días, hijo" ("Good day, son.) "Your father says we should go in about twenty minutes."
He nodded his assent and thanks, still too sleepy to speak. His stepfather, José, the only father he had ever known, sat on the edge of the large bed, mattress and frame suspended over concrete blocks, across the long rectangular room. His two sisters were still asleep on the other cot, catty-cornered to his own, as were his little brother and youngest sister, who shared a couple of blankets stretched out on the new cement floor.
Martín drank his black sugared coffee fast and went outside to the palacio, the palace as his mother called it, the name of the residence of the President of Mexico, to look for a pair of socks. He had to bend to enter the doorway of the small structure formed of irregular battered planks and slivers of planks, the uneven spaces between them filled in by squares and rectangles of plastic cloth and sections of cardboard. The palacio had been the family's only shelter when they first arrived from the D.F., the Federal District, and for some years afterwards.
They had a new house for little ore than a year, a large windowless room constructed of even palomino colored planks, with no gaps between the floor and the roof. The Church, with its new interest in the poor, had given his mother the wallboards. Padre Patricio drove them over one day in his new turquoise pick-up, and Martín and his mother and father and friends had nailed them together, fabricating one wall at a time. Then they put up the four sides, nailing them to the four corner posts set deep in cement, leaving an opening for an entrance to be covered with a door they had retrieved from the dump some time ago.
This year the priest had given his mother two hundred thousand pesos, more than the family working together earned in two weeks. Martín was unsure how to feel about this gift. His uncertainty troubled him. Should he feel badly because the churchgoers, in the multi-roomed chrch filled with blue-robed statues of saints and a seven-foot Virgén de Guadalupe, knew that they had less money than anyone among the parishioners? Or content because his mother, who went to every church meeting, retreat, and all the important masses, always available to help serve the refreshments and clean up afterwards, had been selected to receive the special collection given away every year? Or proud because his mother knew how to make money wherever she went, even if it was only a little, even if it was from collecting aluminum cans thrown from car windows when she walked along the highway to visit friends in Colonia Santos?
His mother had spent the two hundred thousand pesos on sacks of cement, and last week Martín had gotten his friends Jorge and Chuco to help mix the contents with coarse sand and water carried from the nearby green canal, using short handled shovels each had brought, in a wheelbarrow they borrowed from the man next door. And they had laid down the new floor. At first they fumbled with the trowels-all except Chuco who had done this work before-then became better at it as the work went on. Now if someone dropped something in the house, if a towel fell to the floor, it didn't come up all dusty. It was harder to sleep on, though, his little brother Adrian had complained.
Martín found a pair of socks among the clumps of clothing piled on the upraised pallet, sat on the edge to pull them on, stepped into his shoes, then, bending, exited to the lot and went over to the bundles of irregularly cut plastic ribbon, discarded from a tarpaulin factory, that they had collected the day before. He grabbed an end of orange plastic material in one hand and stretched the irregularly trimmed lengths across his body, arm-lengths away, doing this three times, then cutting off the measured piece with a rusty pocket knife. He cut about twenty of these three-meter lengths of ribbon, working rapidly, then stopped. Today they would get no more than twenty pacas of carton, the cardboard they gleaned from the dump to keep on living. They could hope to get between 600 and 800 kilos.
The dump was open in Mexicali, one of the few open dumps in the Republic of Mexico, his padrastro, José, had told him. That meant you didn't have to belong to a síndicato, or pay off anyone to work in it. His mother would have preferred to live in Ensenada, where it never got so hot or so cold as it did in Mexicali, but where new colonias were being settled all the time too.
But the dump wasn't open there.
Before they came to live in Mexicali, Martín had helped José and his mother in their job on the municipal dump trucks in the D.F. They went around the city collecting garbage from private houses to take to the dump. Martín's stepfather was a driver's helper on a truck owned by the city and got a salary from the government. José could only be a helper. He couldn't get a driver's license because he couldn't read or write. Not even to sign his name. And buying one cost too much. Even then, he'd have to sign his name. Now he drove their pick-up to the dump without a license.
When they worked for the D.F. garbage collection they would take the cartón and metals and put them aside to sell later. Martín's mother also collected clothes for herself and the family, including his sisters and little Adrian. But they couldn't work in any of the capital city's dumps.
In all three dumps you had to pay a percentage of what you collected to the man who had the rights to the garbage. And you had to sell the metal and cardboard you collected to him, too. Pinche caciques, José called them. Damned bossmen. And you had to pay a sum to belong to the síndicato, so as to get permission to enter the dump and pick over the heaps of refuse. His padrasto refused to do this. Garbage should be free, he said.
And it was free in Mexicali. That's one of the reasons they had moved there.
There were some good things about working in the dump. Martín reflected, as he started loading the pick-up, painted in various shades of green, first with a five-gallon bottle of drinking water, then the pile of cut ribbon. He never wanted for clothing, for one thing. He found some every day. Sometimes shoes as well, although it was hard to find a pair together since the bulldozers that leveled the garbage would scatter them. Also the gloves they used while working. His mother had a plastic bag filled with gloves in the yard. And a bag filled with partially used skeins of yarn. And a bag filled with sheets. And a bag of covers. Even an old sleeping bag. The burned-out refrigerator they used to keep the pots and pans and dishes had been found in the dump as well. And the mattresses for the two beds they had build from scrap lumber. Almost everything in the house except the religious pictures of the Last Supper and the Virgin of Guadalupe and the wooden cross with the metal Jesús hanging on it, had come from the dump. Even the posters of flowers and stuffed animals his sister Paula had found and hung up in one corner of the room.
And they could even eat from the dump, for another thing. Sometimes Martín, or his mother Teresa, or his padrastro José found canned foods, the containers slightly bent or the labels removed so they had to play a guessing game about what was inside before opening them for dinner. After bringing the canned goods home, they would look carefully at the ends, press them, to see if they were bulging, even slightly. Because bulging ends meant what someone had called botulism. It could kill you, José had told him.
Sometimes, too, the fish stores dumped the heads of fish they had filleted. The drivers of the trucks bringing the fish heads to the dump would call to the domperos, the garbage pickers, to come and get them, before they got soiled from hitting the ground and the garbage stink. The garbage pickers would surround the truck and stick handfuls of fish heads, still attached to their glistening naked spines, into the plastic bags from grocery stores they found in the refuse, turned inside out so the dirty side, which had been filled with garbage, was now outside.
That was one of Martín's favorite meals-fish-head soup. Another one of his favorite meals was chilaquiles, hardened tortillas that were fried and covered with a red chili sauce. His mother made that more often because they ate tortillas every day, and there were always some old ones around the house. Sometimes they found boxes filled with them, still in their packages, slightly stiff from age, providing another meal from the dump.
Only he, his padrastro and his mother were going to the dump today. Martín's 17-year-old sister Ofelia, two years younger than he, had started high school last year, and his 15-year-old sister Paula was finishing junior high. They would be up about 6 to get ready to go.
Martín almost finished secondary school when they lived in the D.F., but he dropped out in ninth grade to work in a factory making notebooks and other school supplies, to help out the family. While he was still in primary school he earned some money sweeping out city buses. He even learned three Vicente Fernández songs and three Lola Beltrán songs and sometimes he would get on a bus and sing, then pass around an old blue baseball cap with "Raiders" printed on it in English, for tips. Last week one of his honeys, a girl whom he danced with at the parties in Fraccionamiento La Nueva occasionally, had given him a Vicente tape. He didn't have a cassette player to listen to it on, though. Maybe he could borrow one from Chuco's sister. Her madrina had given her one for her birthday, Martín had heard from Chuco.
Martín knew that his mother though schooling was especially important for his sisters. So they could walk out if they married a worthless cabrón, she had said. He had heard her talking about his father. "He preferred dancing to working. And he always found a dancing partner," she recounted. "And he seldom brought money home. Not even for beans and tortillas." Sometimes Martín felt guilty that his father had treated his mother that way, as though it were his fault. On the other hand, he liked to think he was like his father in some ways, that unknown male responsible for his birth. He always found dancing partners, too, at every dance. Sometimes four or five. He wondered sometimes what his father looked like. How he talked. How he danced.
He remembered his mother telling them how she had fed Martín's two eldest brothers, now married and still living in the D.F., by washing and ironing clothes for women in the colonia bordering theirs on the outskirts of Mexico City. When she found she was pregnant with him she left his father, and did the same work until after he was born and she started living with José. José was a friend on one of her uncles, from the workshop where they made shoes together for several years after José arrived in the capital from his rancho in Jalisco, in search of work. Martín's mother had a faded black and white but mostly grey photograph of them sitting at a workbench nailing leather together, with another man who had worked there too. Only four men had worked in the shop, one of them the owner, and he took the photograph according to José, who, when he had a couple of beers, liked to recall those days and how he had met and won Martín's mother.
Martín had heard his mother tell his sisters that if they had enough schooling, even if one of them married a cabrón bastard who drank too much, or hit her, or ran after women, or was a huevón too lazy to work, she could mandarlo a la chingada, tell him to go screw himself, and find a good job to support herself and her children.
Ofelia and Paula still came to the dump when the family worked in the evenings or on weekends. And in another week school vacations would begin, so his sisters would accompany them the four or five days they went each week. Only his thirteen-year old sister Chuey and his nine-year-old brother Adrian were no longer brought to work in the dump. Hopefully they were reading ahead in their school lessons when they were left at home. Probably they were watching the small black-and-white television his mother had won at a church raffle.
In any case his mother did not want them to come. If they weren't seen working in the garbage the kids at school could not tease them about being domperos, as they had Ofelia until she got in a fight and came home too early from the school one day.
Martín remembered only too well the afternoon she had arrived, tears streaming down her cheeks, refusing to talk at first. Finally, she told him and their mother that some kid had started in on her, when they were choosing sides for a volleyball game during the lunch break, saying that she was just a dompera, and asking who would want a dompera, a garbage vulture, on their side?
Martín had walked out of the house, feeling helpless, shaking inside. That night he got in his first fist fight in Mexicali, with a couple of boys from La Nueva. Chuco was constantly asking him to come to that better-off colonia to get some joker who was always making remarks about the piojos (fleas) who lived in Colonia Popular. That evening Martín went. He hoped it was the same guy who had bothered his sister. In any case he and Chuco beat the crap out of the joker and his cuate, neither of whom had even done a day of hard labor in their lives. His mother found out about it a couple of days later. "Don't ever do that again. For any reason," she told him. "Those hijos de sus madres will go and complain and you'll land in jail. Then how do you think I am going to find money to get you out?"
That night too, he met as usual with his cuates from the colonia, who gathered outside Doña Angela's soda pop and candy store to drink sodas and sometimes beer and rap and eye the girls as they passed on their way to Doña Petra's tienda to buy tortillas or on some other errand. But this time, and from now on, he was among those who whistled loudest, and competed most strenuously to think up outrageous comments to hurl at the feminine presences. "Mi vida, when are you coming to dance with me?" "Do you want me to accompany you so no one else gets you first?" "Don't be afraid, I'm only as dangerous as you think I am." "One little kiss will do." The girls would sometimes giggle, behind a modest hand raised to cover mouth, but never answer. As good girls they just hurried along their way. But some seemed to find errands to do almost every night Martín was on the corner with they boys.
He often told his cuates about his adventures, the things he had seen. About dances in the D.F. and around Mexicali in the colonias where they had not been, about the time Super Barrio had come to visit Ciudad Netza while he was living there, about the time his boss in the school supplies factory had taken him and some others to Acapulco where they drank beer on the beach for three days when he was only fifteen, and saw honeys from all over in bikinis, and about the time he went with his friend Jorge, now married so no longer hanging out with them as much, to Ensenada, where they stayed in Jorge's uncle's house, and "Cabrón does he have pretty cousins!"
But now he began telling them about all his honeys, pulling forth photographs guarded in his shirt pocket, showing them the pictures of wavy-haired girls dressed in low-cut evening gowns and matching earrings and necklaces, pictures he had found in the dump, discarded from photographic studios whose names were stamped on the back. He picked one of the photographs and told, to the admiring, half-believing gazes, how he had danced with her at the Plaza Cachanilla when Los Bukis played there two months ago, and how he was thinking of bringing her to the La Nueva dance competition next week, but maybe not because she'd cling to him too much and he wanted to cumbia with Jorge's sister-in-law who had just come from Sinaloa to live in the colonia and looked at him a lot when she came to buy tortillas a couple of days ago when he was standing outside of Doña Petra's store.
Martín had often entertained his mother and sisters with his imaginary honeys too, making the whole family laugh as he danced around the room holding himself and blowing noisy kisses at the photographs and weaving magical stories about the girls and where he had met them and where he had taken them and where they had invited him. Sometimes, too, he told his mother about his real honeys, those who had flung him a glance or cast him a smile or with whom he had danced, embracing them closely, to Los Caminantes or Los Tigres del Norte cassettes played at the colonia quinceañera and birthday parties and weddings. She would smile with pleasure in her light brown eyes, and say, "My handsome son," and tell him he was young and should have all the sweethearts he wanted-until he married.
She didn't want him to marry, he knew. Sometimes she asked, "What could you want that you don't have here. Ofelia and me to cook for you. Chuey to wash for you." Paula didn't like to do household chores, so she was seldom mentioned, but she was most like him, loving to dance, spinning around the room with him, matching him step for step, when La Sonora Dínamita or Los Yonics appeared on a television program.
He always answered, bending down to kiss her on the forehead. "Nothing Mamá. And I have the most beautiful Mamá in the world. My padrastro is jealous every time you leave the house alone." A wife would be another mouth to feed. Neither Martín nor his mother wanted a wife of his to work in the dump. Even if she did, soon more demanding, little mouths would come along. He still had time for these things. Better lots of honeys anyway.
With lots of honeys he'd have more stories to tell his cautes, too.
But Martín wanted to take revenge on the boy who had teased his sister about being a dompera. He got Chuco's sister, who was in school with Ofelia, to find out who he was. He knew Ofelia would not tell him, fearing he would get in a fight. Chuco's sister did find out though. Then, at La Nueva dances, Martín started watching him, this guy named Efren, noted who he was talking to, what girls he was looking at, who he was dancing with, until he found out which girl was Efren's favorite.
One quinceañera party several months later, Martín made his move. He began by asking some of the prettier girls to dance, those he had danced with before, so he knew they would not refuse him. He danced smoothing, effortlessly, as he had learned to dance since the age of fourteen, moving the way he did the two times he had won the dance contests in the D.F. He danced as though he were on camera, making sure Efren's favorite noticed him, showing his partners moves they had never seen before, making they look better than they'd even look with anyone else.
After the break he went over to the bright-eyed shapely girl Efren was always looking at, usually dancing with when he danced, and politely asked her for the next ranchera. Just as politely, she refused. Martín seldom insisted, he felt it discourteous, just walked way with a "Gracías. Maybe next time," if a chosen partner said no. But this time he said, "You have a novio or something? You're afraid he'll be jealous?"
She replied, looking him straight in the eyes, not smiling, "I don't dance with just anyone." Martín turned away, disappointed.
The same night there was a dance contest. Martín asked Chuco's little sister to be his partner, since they had danced a lot together and she could follow him easily. He didn't dance as well as usual, though, so they just came in third. His only satisfaction was that Efren and his honey, the girl who refused to dance with "just anyone" didn't even make it into the last five considered.
His mother came out of the house, went over to the bag of gloves and grabbed a handful of them, counting out a pair for herself, for José, for Martín. Martín jumped into the back of the pick-up. He bound a folded red bandana around his forehead, tying it in the back, to keep his light brown hair, inherited from his French great grandfather his mother had told him, out of his eyes while he was working.
His padrastro and mother got into the cab of the truck, his mother struggling with the door that seldom opened without much pulling and jerking. She finally got the door open and climbed inside, slamming it shut hart so it would not fly open when they bounced over the rutted roads. José backed the pick-up down the small hill, out of the lot, turned right, then left at the corner and headed the few hundred meters toward the dump; the tires brought up small puffs of pulverized clay that expanded and merged to cloud the streets in their wake.
The dump was almost empty of people when they arrived. Only two boys were working, with ganchos, raking the wet remains of fruit and vegetables and opened food containers away to hook open the plastic bags below in the hopes of finding aluminium cans.
Martín yelled over to them, "Qué vole? What's up?" The tallest raised his hand, shouted a greeting back. Martín knew almost everyone on the dump, but one of the boys was new.
He walked over and gave Chon the special handshake the cuates from the colonias knew, then turned to the other muchacho.
"You from here?"
"Now I am. I'm Ramón." They shook hands, though Ramón did not know the whole symbol system yet.
"Where are you from?" Martín asked.
"Ever work in a dump before?"
"We used to live in the dump. In Tijuana," Ramón replied.
Martín hesitated for a moment. His family had never had it that bad. They'd always have some place to go home to. He searched for some commonality. "We used to stay weekends on the dump. When we first came to Mexicali. It was over at the airport then. My . . . ." He hesitated again, as always never knowing what to call José, not liking to broadcast it that his mother had been married before, "father wanted to save gas."
"Where'd you sleep, in the truck?" Ramón asked.
"My mother did. And José. That´s my . . . . my father's name. And my sisters. I used to collect some cartón and spread it out and me and my brother Adrian slept on that. You have mosquitos in Tijuana?"
"No. At least not like here. You can't get away from them. Hijos de sus chingadas madres."
Martín laughed. "Pinches sangudos, he agreed. "Get some lace curtains while you're collecting. They work like a mosquito net. I'm looking for some for my bed too."
He left them then, to rejoin his mother and José.
José had found an old boat motor, taken over to where the truck was parked. He would probably be able to find some working parts to yank out that some junkyard owner would want to buy if he couldn't get it to work and sell the whole thing.
Teresa began flattening the pieces of cartón she and José had accumulated, tearing the few rectangular boxes down their corners and folding the sides in on the base. Martín selected a piece of plastic ribbon and went over to help her. He tied a small loop in one end, then stretched out the three meter length. He gathered the cardboard his mother had flattened, setting it in the middle of the outstretched ribbon, piece on top of piece, unless the pieces were small, then two pieces beside one another. He helped her break up the rest of the boxes and added them to the pile. When the paca was big enough, somewhere between 30 and 40 kilos, Martín bound it, first crosswise, pulling the end of the plastic ribbon through the loop, then lengthwise, like a Christmas package, tying the loose end in the middle, near the top.
He heaved the bulk up onto his back. He weighed only 20 or 30 kilos more than it did. He trotted it over, slightly off balance, to where the truck was parked, starting a pile of pacas beside it. Then he went back to help his mother with the second pack.
By 6:30 they still had only three pacas. But work would pick up later on. José had found some meters of electrical cord, which he stripped to cut out the copper wire. Usually he didn't do this until they got home, but the garbage trucks hadn't begun coming.
A little before 7 more domperos arrived. There were now eighteen. Martín counted them, as they worked through the garbage with their hooks, leisurely, waiting for the first garbage trucks to arrive. A friend of his, also a cartonero, specialized in collecting cardboard, came walking across the dump toward him. They rapped awhile: "How're you doing? Where's you're little brother?"
"He's coming along with the bicycle in a bit," Maxi replied. Maxi and Javier didn't have a pick-up truck only a bicycle built from parts of other bicycles scavanged from the garbage. That meant they had to sell to the buyers who came to the dump. They earned 10 thousand pesos a ton from selling to these buyers.
It was good Maxi's brother was coming. A couple of weeks ago he had slipped and fallen and cut his leg on a piece of broken glass when he was pulling cardboard from under a pile of other garbage. It was a deep cut and he couldn't work for some days and was still limping the last time Martín had seen him. Their widowed mother was dependent on their income from the dump, and there was less income with only one working.
And it was hard for a cartonero to work alone because one person has to grab the cardboard from the mound of garbage if it was dumped from the municipal dump trucks or off the back of a pick-up, throwing it behind him, depending on a partner to keep it in a separate pile. When there were a lot of cartoneros everyone threw their cardboard behind them and if there was no partner to keep it separated no one knew which cardboard belonged to which cartonero. Usually they just separated it into equal piles without much fuss. Sometimes, though, people wanted to claim more cardboard than they had grabbed. Martín didn't mind just dividing it evenly, in the case of a dispute, though he often lost out by doing so. Young and storng, he managed to grab more cardboard than the women cartoneras or the older male cartoneros.
The first municipal garbage truck appeared at the entrance to the dump. Martín ran toward the northern edge of the dump, where the truck was headed, as did the other domperos. The truck disgorged its contents into a large pile. The garbage-pickers swarmed around the mound, some climbing on top of it, working with their hooks, pulling plastic bags filled with garbage toward themselves, tearing them open, grabbing the cans or clothing or shoes or anything else of interest from the, then threw these things into their collection bags. One dompero threw a pile of newspapers he found to the bent, white-haired woman who specialized in newsprint resale. She nodded her thanks, gathered them up.
Martín and Maxi began grabbing cardboard boxes, emptying their contents, if any, on the garbage mound, throwing them back behind them. Teresa looked quickly through the clothing, picked up a couple of pieces, inspected them to see if they were ripped or stained or misshapen, discarded most of them, put a sweater for Chuey into her bag. Then, reaching for some lengths of cardboard, she carried them to where Martín was throwing cardboard boxes behind him. She pulled these to one side, and began breaking the boxes into flat pieces. José came with a length of ribbon, stretched it out, then moved to help Martín, pulling square and rectangular pieces of cardboard from the truckload-full pile of garbage. Martín grabbed for a large piece of flattened cardboard sticking out form under the mound, pulled it out from under the weight of the basura, threw it beside the pile his mother was making on top of the orange binder ribbon.
Another dump truck arrived. Martín and some of the other domperos moved toward this truck, others stayed behind on the first mound, still picking through the garbage. Martín's stepfather came to help him, both throwing the cardboard boxes and pieces of cardboard into a pile. Teresa finished breaking up the cardboard for the pack beside the first hill of garbage, and moved to separate and break up the cardboard being thrown off the second mound by her husband and her son. Soon José turned to help her in this task, and Martín ran to bind up the pile of cardboard at the first disgorgement to get it out of the way of the oncoming bulldozer. He bound it, picked it up, trotted it over to the truck. He grabbed some more lengths of ribbon from the back of the pick-up, sticking some in his pants pocket, getting another ready to bind up the packs his mother and José were working on. More cartoneros had arrived.
Martín began to tie up one of the pacas, then, sighting two private pick-ups entering the dump, left this task to José. He had noted one was filled with cardboard, and the other trash. He whistled to get Maxi's attention. "Vamónos, let's go," he yelled, motioning toward the pick-up.
Martín and Maxi ran, reached the moving pick-up, leapt up on it, began separating the cardboard from the rest of the garbage, Maxi to one side, Martín to the other. When the driver stopped, Martín and Maxi began throwing cardboard off, each to his own side. Maxi's brother arrived and began putting Maxi's into a pile. Teresa came over to help Martín. José joined her after carrying the last bound pack over to their growing pile of packs. Martín found a cardboard box filled with a couple of heads of lettuce with wilted outer leaves, a few tomatoes with one or two rotten spots, and a number of dry-skinned oranges. He whistled to his mother, handed her the box.
Martín turned to the driver: "Want me to clean it for you?" The driver, a close-shaven forty, well-dressed in a white shirt and cowboy boots, nodded his assent. Martín reached for the broom leaning against the back of the cab and began pushing off the garbage, mostly cut grass and tree branches, out of the back of the turquoise pick-up. This done, he swept the pick-up clean. The driver handed him a two thousand peso bill, as Martín leapt off. He had known he would earn something. And this was his to keep, to pay for his sodas.
His mother was eating one of the oranges. Martín bent for one, began to peel it. Ate it quickly. Then he picked up the box containing the oranges and took it over beside José's pick-up truck, leaving José and his mother to break down and bind the cardboard. As he walked back in their direction he tied a loop in another length of ribbon. At least two more pacas had come off the turquoise pick-up. He started running toward them, seeing the bulldozer headed their way. They would have to get the cardboard over to one side before tying it up. The three carried the cardboard away from the bulldozer's route, lost a few smaller pieces.
Garbage trucks were arriving every five or ten minutes now. Martín concentrated on running to the mounds, hauling cardboard from them, breaking it up into flattened pieces, piling them up, binding the cardboard into a paca, carrying it over to José's pick-up. His mother and stepfather sometimes helped him, sometimes worked together, apart. He and José did most of the gathering, and all of the carrying. But his mother did everything except carry the packs. She was too little, scarcely five feet tall, and only weighed about as much as one of the bigger pacas anyway. One woman cartonera did carry, but the friend she worked with would set the pack on her back. Almost only men could lift the weight into place alone.
By 9 a.m. more than a hundred domperos were working. It was summer now, so by noon most would leave, to take a break while the temperatures reached 120 degrees Farenheit. Some would return again after 4 p.m.
It was when Martín was pulling cardboard out of the newest heap of garbage left by a factory cleanup truck that the bulldozer driven by Don Ernesto, flattening down and pushing refuse outwards, forming the ever-expanding plateau, propelling hundreds of kilos of it over into the arroyo, came his way. Martín knew to keep the cardboard out of the way of the two bulldozers, but especially the one with Don Ernesto at the controls. Don Ernesto drove as though there were no domperos. He ran right over the piles of cardboard and plastic bags of stuff the garbage-pickers had collected, began to bulldoze as soon as the garbage was deposited, did not give the pickers even a minute or two to shift through the mound as the other driver did. Teresa had heard him say that he didn't care if he hit one of the domperos since no one could fine him for doing his job and the domperos had no legal right to be in the dump anyway.
Martín leapt out of the way of the bulldozer just in time. But then he noticed Doña Ramona's youngest daughter, trying to pull a doll, one arm missing, out of a plastic bag of garbage, right in the way of the oncoming bulldozer, but too close for Don Ernesto to see her. As she looked up, the hill of garbage, propelled resolutely forward, began moving around her, the lighter pieces flung up into the air, then falling, to be picked up again. She started to move away, still holding on to the one good arm of the amputated doll, but the mound of garbage had trapped one of her legs. She was going to be pushed under, buried beneath the refuse.
Martín moved rapidly toward her, putting up one hand, yelling, "Stop!" to Don Ernesto, who didn't hear him over the roaring of the motor, the clang and trashing of metal and trash. Martín got to her, grabbed her under both arms, pulled her out from the muck now up around her waist. Don Ernesto slowed for a split second upon seeing Martín run in front of him, then continued on, pushing the garbage out and down, tens of meters downward into the gaping arroyo.
As Martín jumped to one side, he slipped, went down on one knee, kept slipping, over broken glass, ripping away at his pant leg, gashing into his shin. Doña Ramona and Martín's mother and Maxi arrived about the same time. Doña Ramona embraced her daughter, then shook her, repeating, "You've got to be careful." As the blood ran down his leg, Martín's mother grabbed a t-shirt protruding from a small heap of garbage and told Maxi: "Bring me a head of lettuce from the box. Over by the pick-up. Quick!"
When she got the head of lettuce she tore off the wilted outer leaves, then handed Martín a few of the inner leaves, told him to put them over his cuts. Martín took the t-shirt from her and bound the lettuce, the only sanitary covering available, in place. "It's not real deep, ma," he said. "It's not half as bad as Javier's was."
Don Ernesto stopped for a moment as he was backing up to begin a new run, shook his head. "You all have got to watch your kids. I'm not a pinche babysitter," he said, for anyone who wanted to hear.
"Chinga tu madre," said Maxi, under his breath. Martín smiled, gave Maxi a thumbs-up in agreement.
"Let me buy you a soda," Doña Ramona said after ascertaining that the wound was not deep. But Martín refused. "No. That's O.K. You don't owe me anything. We all got to look out for each other here." Doña Ramona smiled, patted him on his shoulder, and returned to collecting the clothing she washed and ironed and sold from door-to-door in the poorer colonias. Her daughter, having finally extricated the doll from the plastic bag that she had clasped throughout her adventure, stayed close by her side.
As Martín and his mother walked over toward the side of the dump where the pick-ups were parked, Martín limping slightly, he said, "She doesn't even have enough to buy sodas for her kids." Teresa replied, "Well, let's get one anyway."
They went over to the mobile cart owned by the widow who sold sodas for 500 pesos apiece, along with tortas, to the garbage pickers, coming each day to do so. As they stood drinking their bottles of Coca Cola, Teresa looked up at Martín. "You're a good kid," she smiled. She paused, then touched him lightly on the jaw with her first. "What kid? You're not a kid anymore. You're a man. Worth any two cabrones."
They returned to work, Martín insisting he was all right. That she should have seen Maxi's brother Javier when he cut himself if she wanted to see blood.
By 11 a.m. they had seventeen pacas.
The cautes from the colonia had heard about him saving the little girl. They slapped him on the back, punched him in the arm, asked him to show them his cuts, got him to tell them what happened. He told them of the villainous Don Ernesto, the dangers of working in the dump, for the benefit of those who did not already know, and to the nods of those who already did. Those who did added their own stories. Jorge, Ramona's first cousin, bought him a liter of Tecate.
He felt good.
That Saturday night he won the dance competition in La Nueva, injured leg and all. He even beat the cholo who came in from Tijuana with Doña Florinda's famous daughter. Both of them dressed in expensive black rags, the guy in tight pegged pants and pointed shoes and a leather jacket with zippers everywhere and the honey in a bitty little skirt, showing off her round little tail like she did at the dance halls in T.J., with a French beret tilted to one side of her head and long silver-colored earrings bouncing back and forth. He had won almost single-handed, since his partner for the dance competition, though one of the prettiest honeys in La Nueva, just sort of paced in place while he jived and shook and shimmied around her, copying some of the moves of Emmanuel, the singer who his mother said he resembled. Few could outdance him. He might be a dompero but he was bien chingón.
Efren and his honey did not place.
After the competition the honey he had won with introduced him to her cousin, who lived in Pueblo Nuevo on the other side of Mexicali, but had come over to visit his relatives in La Nueva. Partially to keep an eye on his cousin Julia, whose novio, a friend of his, lived in the same colonia he did. The novio was in San Bernadino for the next few weeks, though.
Martín found out from Julia's cousin that they were hiring packers at the Coca Cola plant on Justo Sierra. "Why don't you come over and fill out a form? You've finished primary, haven't you?"
Martín replied that he had almost finished secondary, asked how much the company paid.
"One hundred and twenty thou a week," the cousin answered. "But after three months you get seguro, so you and your family can get free medical care."
Martín figured that it was more than his work in the dump was paying. With the whole family working they earned more than any two could earn at factory work. But his padrastro, José, was getting old. He was either 53 or 54. No one knew for sure because his birth had never been registered and his mother had died when he was 10 or 11, back on the rancho in Jalisco where he was from.
Martín knew that José would like to become a buyer in the dump now that it was getting hard for him to lift and haul the pacas. But there was never enough money in the house to exchange for all the cardboard even one cartonero collected in a week. And if they couldn't pay for the cardboard when it was offered, the cartoneros would look for someone else to sell to, someone who they were sure could buy all the cardboard they had packed in whenever they had it on hand.
Maybe if he went to work in the factory they could use some of the cash for buying, Martín thought.
He looked at the cousin. "Got many honeys working there?"
"More than half the plant is puras muchachas. Bien bonitas. Pretty ones," the cousin answered, taking a swig of beer, then offering the bottle to Martín.
"Maybe I'll try it out," said Martín, thinking of all the stories he could tell his cuates. And his Mamá and sisters. And his Papá.
The Crossing: 1988
"What damned bad luck," Castulo observed. "We were held up for almost twelve hours."
"And bad luck comes in threes," Mundo repeated the old adage. "Who knows what awaits us in Tecate. Or crossing the border."
"They kept my gold chain with the horse. The one Sara gave me. I forgot to ask for it back," Castulo said as he fingered the neckline of his pearl-buttoned western shirt.
It had been a beautiful gold chain, twisted links pressing into one another, and it held a galloping golden horse. Sara had given it to him two years before, on the occasion of their second anniversary. Sara was his mistress in the United States, a young woman who had escaped the violence in El Salvador to work first in a bar and later in a garment factory in Los Angeles. Small, with curly auburn hair, she had been at a rodeo dance in El Monte when first he met her. She had worked hard to buy him that golden chain and horse, symbol of their union in lieu of a wedding ring.
In any case, he was married to someone else. Married for twelve years and with five children. He had married a girl from a nearby rancho when he was nineteen. Slender and with lovely long chesnut hair, she was the first novia he had ever had. But he was so lonely in the United States, where he had been most of the time for the past six years, returning only every two years to his rancho for scarcely a month at a time, that when he met Sara he had grasped onto her as a way of easing the loneliness.
* * * *
Between Fresnillo, Zacatecas and Tecate, Baja California there were many customs and immigration checkpoints, even for those traveling north. Two young men in shabby, baggy pants and t-shirts from a second-hand clothing stall and dusty baseball caps had boarded the bus outside of Guadalajara, where the bus turned from its first southward haul to the north, carrying small back packs which they placed in the luggage container several rows away from where they sat. When the federales boarded the bus in Hermosillo, Sonora, they did a routine check of the luggage. The back packs were not claimed by any of the passengers and when opened for inspection revealed 10 kilos of marijuana in each. The passengers without luggage were marched into the guard house: the two from outside Guadalajara, Castulo and Mundo, and two others heading for the border.
They were held for twelve hours inside, while the driver was not permitted to move the bus until the carriers were found. The guards applied stomach punches and cattle prods to all six, to see who would admit that the backpacks were theirs. The boys in the baseball caps held out for that long before confessing. The federales had confiscated all valuables, including wallets, identification cards, and jewelry before the questioning began. When released, Castulo had been so happy to be free that he remembered only to collect his wallet. He forgot to ask for his chain and horse, which he never took off, even when showering.
"Are these your backpacks," the short, heavy set, balding federal had asked Castulo. "No official," he had replied.
A stomach punch beating the air out of his stomach and lungs had been the response. "Then where is your luggage, pendejo"
"We have none. My cousin and I are just going to visit my sister in Tecate. We have clothes there." Castulo was lying, but not about having no luggage. He and Mundo had none. He did not want to reveal that the planned to cross the border without documents. The federales were capable of sending them back the twenty-six hours to Zacatecas. They would lose weeks from their journey before they would be able to put together a loan to finance their bus fare back to Tecate, Baja California again. Don Lucas charged ten percent interest a month. It would have to be someone else, someone returning from Los Angeles or Chicago who was bringing money to their families.
* * * * *
They arrived tired and covered with dust that filtered hazily through the open windows of the old bus. They deboarded outside the small bus station, and walked into the waiting room. The room was filled with men in journey-worn clothes, trying to sleep in the worn red plastic chairs or on the floor. "It's good we have money to stay in the hotel," Castulo observed.
They exited the waiting room and walked the three blocks to the Hotel del Norte, where it was only five dollars per night per person, as many to the room as could be housed together.
Castulo met the manager smoking a delicado in the mottled green lobby. "Got a room?" he asked. Mundo looked around him, noting every fly on the wall, every slowly turning ceiling fan. He had never been in a hotel before. He had never been farther than Fresnillo, two hours by bus from his rancho before, except to visit the Niño de Atocha after his son was born. That had been a three-hour walk from Fresnillo.
"Not unless you want to share and they want to share with you," the manager answered.
At that moment Manuel, Castulo's younger brother, stuck his head out a door down the hallway. "You finally fucking got here," he yelled to Castulo and Mundo. "Que padre!"
"What are you still doing here," Mundo demanded. "You left the rancho more than a week ago!" Castulo carefully took a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and handed it to the manager. Mundo and Castulo moved toward the room where Manuel was standing in the doorway.
"We tried to cross three times and had to turn back each time," Manuel answered, opening the door wider so they could pass through to the fly-speckled gray room with three cots and a brown-stained sink.
"Hi there, boys," their uncle Matias waved to them from the cot farthest from the door. He and Manuel had come to Tecate to cross together. Only a fool would try to cross without a compañero. And it was Manuel's first time. Mundo's too.
Castulo and Manuel shook hands with the other two dark, wrinkled men who were sharing the room. From Durango, they had been part of the group that the coyote contracted by Manuel and Matias had formed, and unsuccessfully, tried to cross.
* * * *
It was after 8 p.m. the following day that the coyote came for them. Besides Matias, Manuel, Castulo and Mundo and the two men from Durango a couple with a baby was in their group. Matias grumbled about it a bit because with a woman and a baby they would have to move over the hills more slowly.
They had assembled at the cast iron fence by 9 and with the coyote and his helper pushing them on they went over it one by one. The father carried the child, peacefully sleeping, strapped to his back.
Then the climb onto the rock-strewn hills began. Larger rocks than they had ever seen, and small boulders close together so that it was hard to find a passageway, a foothold on the ground. The woman, Matias and Manuel had worn tennis shoes and had an easier time of it than the men in their western boots. At one point the sole came away from one of Mundo's aged dusty boots. He tied it together with his handkerchief and kept going. Mundo decided that if he ever crossed again he would wear tennis shoes as well.
Suddenly they heard footsteps, many of them, on the rocky clusters over to their right. The coyote motioned for them to stop and remain quiet. It might have been the border patrol, though with their infrared telescopes mounted on pick-ups and jeeps, they seldom got out to scout around. Only if they had spotted them. Eventually they saw in the distance another group of eight making their way over a nearby crest. The coyote motioned them to keep going. He had explained earlier that they were going to a point on route 7 then would drive to the north on route 5. Although this meant something to Matias and Castulo it meant nothing to Manuel and Mundo. "Route 8 goes toward the coast," Castulo explained. "Then route 5 goes north to Los Angeles."
The coyote would let them off before reaching San Clemente, then post his helper as a lookout to see when they closed down the migration checkpoint. They would have to wait in the surrounding hills, until he gave them the signal that all was clear.
Foot-weary, sweating, and anxious they finally made it to the white-paneled truck parked in a rest stop. Castulo, thinking of his own children, had carried the child for a part of the way, putting the harness on his own back. "Gracías, amigo," the father had said.
After they entered the truck the coyote and his helper loaded several rows of used tires, pushed in after them. Then they headed off west on route 8 and all was well until they passed Pinesdale. The baby was crying softly in the back of the truck.
"Shut it up," the coyote ordered as the slowed for the border patrol jeep and were waved down.
An immigration official came over to the truck, driven by the coyote's helper.
"Where are you coming from?" was his first question.
"Yuma, Arizona," the helper answered in almost unaccented English. The immigration officer flashed his flashlight on the plates. Arizona plates.
"Where are you going?"
"San Diego," was the reply.
"What's your business there?"
"We're delivering a load of used tires."
"To Lucky's Automobiles. A used car place."
"At three o'clock in the morning?"
"They open at six. We plan on having breakfast at McDonalds."
"For three hours? Open up and let's see what you have."
The coyote hopped out and opened the back of the truck. The immigration officer moved one of the tires to see what was behind it. More tires.
"O.K.. Get going."
Meanwhile, all ten adults in the back of the truck had kept as silent as possible. The mother of the crying baby had placed her hand over his mouth so that he could emit no sounds that might cause them to be discovered. It was not until the truck began moving again that she took her hand away. The baby didn't cry. Didn't move toward her breast as he usually did. She shook him. There was no response. She handed the baby to her husband, sitting close beside her, an alarmed look on her face. He reached for the child, patted him on the back, holding him close to his shoulder. The baby did not move. The baby's face was red, almost purple, the eyes bulging. But the blood was going slowly out of his inflated cheeks. The baby became paler and paler, his limbs stiffened. The mother grabbed her child and began to wail, loudly, uncontrollably. Wailing like a police siren following them in the night..
* * * *
They were in the safe house in El Monte by 7:30 a.m. The otherwise successful journey had been marred by the dead baby and his distraught parents. There were six others there, four men and two women, each sitting on the floor with back against the wall -- waiting. Waiting for someone, relative or friend, to pay their crossing fees to the coyote and come to pick them up.
Matias and Castulo had left their three hundred dollars each with Chano before they went back to Mexico. Chano would have to borrow to pay for Mundo and Manuel though. He was their only relative. And they would pay him back after they found jobs.
The problem was that Chano had already left for work by the time they got to the safe house. The coyote wouldn't be able to call him until after six that evening. And they hadn't eaten since prior to crossing the border. It could be worse, sometimes crossings took up to three days, Matias told them. They had been lucky that the checkpoint in San Clemente had not been closed at the time they arrived. Sometimes you hid in the fields outside San Clemente for twenty-four hours or more and only if you had money would the coyote go to get you food -- usually something like crackers or cookies and a soda.
Chano knew they were coming of course. Matias had called him collect, the night they planned to leave Tecate the first time. And the coyote, of course, had called as well, to make sure he had the money. But whether the crossing would be successful was an unknown. Matias and Manuel had failed the first three attempts. That Mundo and Castulo had crossed so quickly left
Chano little time to get the money together for his brother Mundo.
The four of them found a wall space and leaned back against the dirty gray wall to sleep.
They woke about 11 a.m. and were hungry. Matias asked one of the women associated with the coyote if there was food and would she sell it to them. "Beans and tortillas," she replied. "Five dollars a plate." Luckily Matias had brought thirty dollars with him. He paid for the four of them, then ordered two plates for the mother and father of the dead baby, buried somewhere near San Clemente while they waited for the coyote to return and tell them when they could pass the checkpoint.
The woman, whose name they knew was Martha, had cried and protested that she wanted the baby to be blessed by a priest before they buried her. "Martha, mi Martha," her husband cried, holding her close, "We must bury her here. I'll make a cross of stone. But we do not know how long it will be to Los Angeles. Or how long it will be until your aunt can come for us." Helplessly, the woman released her grip on the small body, hugged closely to her breast, and her husband took the dead baby from her. He drug a trench, helped by Castulo and one of the men from Durango, and the other men looked for rocks to make a small cross.
Mundo, thinking of his small son, offered a prayer, "May the soul of this little one join the angels in heaven and never fear hunger or cold or suffering again."
As each of them began to throw a handful of earth over the baby's inert body in its shallow grave, the child's mother became hysterical, shouting "I killed my baby. I killed my baby." She moved toward the small grave, tried to pull out the body her child. Her husband moved toward her, gathered her in his arms and forced her to stop her flailing.
"There is nothing to be done," he said.
"Cursed land," she replied.
Her husband thanked Mundo for his heartfelt prayer. He held his wife closely in his arms and murmured to her that she must accept their destiny, that they would have other children, that the baby now would not suffer any more but become an angelito. Tears streamed down both their faces.. And the seven men and one woman sat waiting in a field outside of San Clemente until another truck came to pick them up.
The woman barely touched her beans, brought in the smallest soup bowls any of them had ever seen. Her husband ate, slowly, and as though it were a necessary task he was performing, and wiped his mouth with a tortilla after finishing his meal. After eating, the four men from Zacatecas talked among themselves, quietly. They avoided talking about the dead baby, glimpsing occasionally at the child's parents who sat stunned by life, victims of a false hope. But they only glimpsed, not wishing to meet their eyes and read the pain contained in them. And they tried to talk of happy things.
Castulo told Mundo and Manuel about the rodeo in El Monte, exactly like the rodeos in Zacatecas and followed by a dance. The problem was getting someone with a car who wanted to drive out -- it was almost an hour if you took streets, from the apartment in Santa Monica. But you could go to Santa Monica pier and play electronic games, and that was only fifteen, twenty minutes away by bus. Manuel and Mundo did not know what electronic games were, and even though Castulo tried to explain PacMan, a mouth running through a maze eating up small figures, they just looked at him as though he were talking about another planet, and he gave up. You'll just have to see, he said. But when you go wear a baseball cap not a tejana, and they'll think you're a Chicano and not a Mexican, he advised them.
As six p.m. approached Castulo advised the coyote's helper that Chano would be home, could he call. The found out that Chano hadn't been able to borrow a car, or find someone to come for them. "It's twenty-five dollars a head more if we bring them to Santa Monica," the coyote had told him. It seemed that Chano had the money to pay for Mundo and Miguel. And he had agreed to pay the hundred dollars more as well, if they came after eight p.m.
* * * *
It was only a few hours after they arrived in the apartment Chano was sharing with Matias and his wife's brother Edgar that Mundo broke down. "A baby boy," he told Chano, tears streaming silently down his face. "It could have been my son. My Ernesto."
Manuel stifled a sob. He had two baby girls at home. "I didn't know crossing could be so hard on people," he said.
Castulo commented, "They must have been from El Salvador. They were so afraid of being deported."
Manuel spoke. "She didn't put her hand over the baby's nose. I don't think so anyway. Just over his mouth. The baby had mucus in his nose. He had a cold. That's why he smothered. No mother would kill her baby. Not even if they were from El Salvador. She couldn't have put her hand over the baby's nose and mouth at the same time. It just happened. The baby had a cold. He couldn't breathe. The señora just tried to keep her baby from crying. Just covered up his mouth."
Mundo looked at Manuel and Castulo, then said, in a longer passage that anyone had ever heard him say, "I don't remember the details. The señora was just trying to keep the baby quiet. So they wouldn't be caught and sent back. So we wouldn't get caught and sent back. They must have been from El Salvador because it wouldn't have been such a big thing to be sent back to Mexico and cross again another day. But in El Salvador it is a desmadre, a fucked up mess. I saw about it on the news one night at Don Roberto's house. People killing people in the street. Even kids with great big guns, maybe machine guns."
"They must have been afraid to go back. Return from there all over again, all the way through all of Mexico," Matias observed.
"So why not say they are from Mexico?" Chano asked. If they were deported back to El Salvador the baby might have died there. The whole family. They should just say they are Mexicans." He paused and looked for confirmation.
"Puede ser," said Matias. "Could be."
Castulo nodded. "Some of Sara's friends are learning about who is governor of the state they are going to say they are from and who is president of Mexico and who was president before. And stuff like that the immigration asks some of them who try to say they are Mexicans but are from Guatemala and El Salvador. There is even an organization downtown that teaches them to pass themselves off as Mexicans. So they are not sent all the way back. Thousands of miles back. Three times from Zacatecas back."
Chano looked down at the toes of his boots. Tried to change the subject from the baby. They all had babies. It was too close to home. "Once we lost a viejo on a crossing. Remember the time we crossed together Castulo? He was bit by a snake. He didn't make it to the safe house before he died. Heart failure they said."
"Was it a rattler?" Mundo asked.
"Don't know. We didn't see it. Didn't hear it either, like you would if it had been a rattler. Just saw a body slithering away in the moonlilght," Chano replied.
Edgar didn't say much, as usual. Just looked down at the rug between his outstreched knees, hands folded, light brown hair falling over his forehead. When he had crossed with Chano just a year ago they had been caught and deported after a fourteen-hour stay in the Border Patrol compound at Brownsville air base. No one had given them food in all that time. From Tijuana they made their way back to Tecate, to the coyote they knew, and crossed successfully on the next try. But he hadn't seen anyone die on the way.
A lump in his throat, Edgar wondered that once he married Chano's sister Ofelia, how he would get her across. She must come to join him. He knew he would spend the rest of his working life in the United States. He had no land on the rancho, it had all gone to pay the doctor bills for his father's many heart attacks. He would have to support his widowed mother and younger brother with the wages he earned in the United States, until his younger brother turned 16 and his mother let him cross as well.
That would be two years from now.
It was almost a year now since he had seen Ofelia, shy, plump, sweet girl whom he had promised to return to marry. Neither he nor she knew how to read or write, so they had no contact. He had had to help in the fields too young, she had problems with her eyes and her family couldn't afford glasses for her. So they hadn't gone to school, even the two years offered on the rancho. He was shy about speaking to her on the telephone at Don Roberto's house, and had no right to do so, since they were not yet official novios. He had not yet officially asked her father for permission to marry. He had not had the money for the liquor and presents that had to be given on such an occasion. He would do so when he returned.
Edgar did not mention his love for Ofelia to her brothers. They must have known, having seen him in front of their house, talking to her in low tones, grasping her hands, sometimes being invited inside for a tortilla and beans. There were no secrets on the rancho. No private places to go. Except up into the hills, the monte. But a man did not take a woman there, a woman he wanted to marry. Though there were rumors that Chano had taken Lupe there before they were married. Lupe had gone there to pick nopales and prickly pear several times. But never alone. She always took their younger brother.
If only Lupe, his sister, were here, she would help him send a letter. When his father got sick with the heart trouble, their mother had sent her to live with their Aunt Lidia, in a pueblo and hour away, and Lupe had finished primary school there. But then Ofelia would have to find someone to read it for her -- maybe her sister Cuca who had gone to school for two years, the only schooling they offered on their rancho. Though for some reason Edgar didn't totally trust Cuca to remain silent.
In another year he would return, when he had enough money to pay for their wedding. He wanted her, a middle child who had received little affection, to have her wedding in white. He had hoped originally to return in just one year, but he hadn't found steady work at first, just loading trucks now and then, sometimes painting or gardening or cleaning up a property two or three days a week.
Now he had a job cleaning offices on Pico Boulevard, with his aunt's husband who lived in Inglewood. It was night work, which he didn't like so much, but it was steady work, six nights a week with Saturday off, and it paid the minimum wage -- which some of the short-term jobs he had had did not.
Yes, soon he would marry, one year more. And bring Ofelia across, some safer way than climbing over the rock strewn mountains outside of Tecate. Before they had a baby who could die along the way.
Tamar Diana Wilson, a long-time supporter and contributor to Struggle, lives in Mexico. Tamar's poetry and short stories have appeared in Anthropology & Humanism, Blue Mesa Review, Saturday Afternoon Journal, Thema, and in Struggle.
"I worked helping Mexican immigrants to register for amnesty in 1986-88, after attending many protest marches in favor of that amnesty. When I lived in "Colonia Popular" (1988-1994) I aided people to get their Mexican passports and U.S. border crossing cards. Friends of mine from the colonia and I organized a Christmas party each year, where we gave gifts like coloring books and crayons and a small toy to children whose parents worked in the dump. My present activism is limited to signing petitions pro-immigrant rights and for a new amnesty and passing them on. Most of my activism at age 66, is through my writings and conference presentations. I visited China in 2009 to give a paper about the historical subsidy to American and British capitalism provided by Chinese labor for the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, in Kunming.
"My books, Some from Zacatecas, and Tales from Colonia Popular, can be ordered from Plain View Press, P.O. 42255, Austin, Texas 78704 though their website, plainviewpress.net, or at amazon.com, the latter of which may sell them for less than their list price of $14.95. My Women's Migration Networks in Mexico and Beyond can be ordered from University of New Mexico Press or amazon.com, and my Subsidizing Capitalism: Brickmakers on the U.S.-Mexico Border can be ordered at amazon.com or bn.com, some second hand, and thus less than the list price."
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