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In autumn of 1995 on the US-México border, Álvaro and his mother find themselves caught in the riptide of history and global politics. Like so many other Latin Americans who flock to the Borderland.
This essay changed the course of my life.
“We, Saracens.” was my first piece of published writing and my first successful entry in a contest. Published by what was then known as Educators 4 Fair Consideration, it came with $500 and my mom’s smile when she saw Jorge Ramos had read my dramatized crossing narrative. The website is now defunct after an almost ten year run and I’m sharing it again for the first time since then.
After a local radio host, activist and icon of the High Desert (Lilia Galindo of Café Con Leche in Palmdale, CA) heard a local migrant had won a national contest, she invited me to speak on her show. I then soon found five other undocumented folk in the High Desert, discovered an entire movement in which I was forged, a mentor who taught me all I know now and will ever know (thank you, Xavier) and became a small piece of the history of an entire community I thought I would never belong to, which now defines me, and whose name I carry everywhere I go for as long as I live.
Jorge, you are not a journalist, you know this. But, thank you, too.
It was under the water-stained awning of the Hotel Presidente where we decided to wait for our ride to pick us up.
“Keep an eye out for a blue truck,” my mother told me before she fell asleep the night before, “with a redhead driving.” And so I did, my eyes scanning in all directions to seek it out. I caught it all, every rumbling tractor, every shoelace, every ribboned hem, every blue stripe on every plastic bag from the nearby pharmacy.
All other colors receded by the time I started wearily shifting my weight from one leg to the other. In the wan shade of the surrounding buildings every fading tattoo was an argon lamp and soon the whole of Tijuana was submerged in a dirty blue cast. My mother and I stood waiting, as still as we could, against the bleating wind that threw the gravel in the road into short-lived whorls. The women clung to their skirts, men to their caps. To the food vendors across the street, we must have looked like two dark specks accidentally captured under a thin celadon glaze.
“Here she comes.” I pulled on the sleeves to alert her.
My mother squeezed my hand and urged me towards the edge of the sidewalk. The blue Toyota creaked to a stop, the engine idling in a way that suggested imminent failure. She opened the door, and lifted us both into the back of the cabin. I sat in her lap.
“Ready?” The woman’s voice was smooth and sharp. She did not turn back, not once.
“Yes, we are.” My mother closed the door and we wheezed into motion.
I did not know how long we had been sitting in the car, but I knew we were close when the road gave way to a barely marked trail. The bed of the old truck rattled and tiny pebbles bounced off the windows. My mother didn’t say a word, but I could feel her anxiety throbbing through the warmth of her purple velour sweater. I shut my eyes and hoped we would emerge on the other side at any moment.
Not long after, we had stopped.
“Almost, mijo,” she whispered. I clung to her and she carried me out and placed me back on the ground.
“This is it?” I was dumbfounded.
“No, mijo. This is still México.”
The others were standing and chatting among themselves in a semicircle, which we completed on arriving. I pressed my face deep against my mother’s side.
The terseness of the introductions evaded my interest and I peered out with one eye. I had never seen the desert before and the emptiness gave me chills. The sky against the hills had no color and the sun seemed content to glow monochromatically behind the grey striations. Formless scrub barely clung to the spots where white dust had settled into loosely pressed powder. It was an alien landscape. Not one flower. Not one tree taller than I was, besides a yellowing juniper near the horizon.
A loud, brassy laugh brought back my attention and made my mother smile for the first time in days. The woman was dark-skinned and round in a way that suggested she had given birth to children. She wore her hair tightly coiled around itself and gelled in a bun to display tiny enamel studs in the shape of flowers.
A lifetime of infections from picking and scratching had transformed the warts and skin tags around her neck from a minor blemish into a great stinkhorn wreath. It was nearly impossible to distinguish those which had recently erupted through the discolored patches of skin from the others which had simply never healed properly. The deformity seemed not to weigh on her at all. Her warm voice came from a sincere place and her slim eyes glistened as if on the edge of an epiphany.
“…From Guatemala. I’ve been traveling through México for three months now, on foot for the most part.”
“Three months?” My mother seemed baffled, “That couldn’t have been easy. We’ve only been in Tijuana for two days and we’re ready to change our minds.”
“The poor are migrants throughout all our lives. That’s just the way it is. You jump from one puddle to the next, nothing changes. But, America is different, everyone says so.” Dulce laughed again and my mother granted her a sympathetic smile.
We began walking towards a small shack. Its patchwork roof was kept just watertight enough with the addition of small cardboard lozenges cut from boxes of diapers. The unpainted sheets of drywall that had been placed to cover several holes in the side were simply screwed into the preexisting wall. The whole construction looked as if it would collapse at the first moment when the wind picked up.
We passed a thin wood door and entered into the only room. The jute area rug was deteriorating before our eyes, eating at itself to reveal the scuffed black linoleum. Blue plumes of mildew spread out from behind the crumbling stucco of the farthest wall, where three assault rifles and a pistol hung from brass hooks meant to hold back drapes. Large, black garbage bags and boxes of glossy, black bricks lined that same wall. I did not know what they contained, but my mother scolded me when I stared for too long.
“This is what’s going to happen,” Guillermo, our coyote, spoke a complete sentence for the first time, “you’re going to pass a pair of hours here. Do not move. I will leave and make sure we’re all clear. When I come back you have to be ready. No waiting. Not one minute. We will leave you here. No one will come back for you. There is no water and no restroom. If you’re having second thoughts, I suggest you try to remember the way back into the city and get going now, before dark."
One of the other women began to tremble before she spoke.
“What if you’re not back? What will we do?”
“I’ll be back.” Guillermo bit his lower lip in anger.
“But, if someone sees you,” she insisted, “We’ll be trapped here.
“If someone sees me, this is the only place I can come back to.” He glanced at the wall, “Wait.”
As he walked out and closed the door behind him, the other two women stared at the floor nervously. When one of them let out a whine, Dulce got on her feet and started pacing back and forth.
"We've been through much worse. You can't give up now. It's a walk. Just one walk and you'll be back home with your kids."
"Your kids are already there?" my mother asked.
"My two oldest sons. They left Zacatecas four years ago to look for work. I was with them until…"
"When you went back home," Dulce finished for her.
"Yes, they stayed back with my husband's cousins. I had to go back because my father died of tuberculosis. The first time I came, I walked right across. Can you imagine? Now, this shack, the desert, the cars with no license plates, the caravan of trucks and tractor trailers—this is all as new to me as it is for you," her voice cracked, my mother put her hand on her knee.
"Do you have kids there too?" Dulce asked my mother.
"No, just the one I brought with me."
"He's your only one? Then we better take good care of him." Dulce approached me smiling. "What's your name, mijito?"
I looked at her, without blinking
"Don't be scared. I'm Dulce, this lady's name is Heréndida, this other lady is named Elena."
"Your name is Álvaro! What a nice name. Tell me, mijito, what is the first thing you're going to do when you get to the United States."
"I don't know. Sleep."
The women all laughed. I did not understand why.
"I have a job waiting for me when I get there," the woman Dulce had named Heréndida spoke, "at a day care center. I have a degree, you know, in child psychology.”
"Poor Dida, she hasn't realized that they're going to have her changing pampers and hiding from parents in the laundry room." Dulce's laugh was rather infectious, even Heréndida succumbed.
"Laugh, laugh, laugh, but I'm going to be someone. When I buy my first house, I'll have you hiding in the laundry room."
"I just want to go to New York. Go see a movie, a hotdog maybe. Go see the statue, the green one. The Statue of Liberty. Yes, that's where I'll go soon." Elena said, meekly coming out of a daydream.
"New York? You might as well be dreaming of China."
"What do I know? It's all I know. And the beaches."
"Do you even know where you're going?"
"Oxnard? Ontario? Something like that. My sister lives there. They make good money picking strawberries and selling little things they find and fix here and there. They even have a car. I lived with them in La Joya for a while. Cleaning houses and offices. It's hard work, no lie. We clean our houses every day, but those güeras, their houses… their houses are…"
"Big?" my mother added.
"No, not just big. They're grande. They're something beautiful. The lady I worked for most often, her house was so beautiful. Her living room had a matching set. Not one of those silly wooden ones that break. A real set, beautiful. Bright blue. Pictures of herself and her husband in every room. A pool, a jacuzzi. The house was so big, they even had their own gym. I didn't realize people lived that way and, let me tell you something, they weren't even the richest people I worked. It's incredible how people live there."
"Did they pay you well?"
"Thirty-five dollars a day. It was very hard work. We would wake up at six and finish late at night, but they were nice to me. They even tried to learn a little Spanish so they could talk with me. Though, I never really understood what they meant and they would have to ask their little daughter. She's only four years old and she speaks it as well as any of us. I was so sad when I had to go, but the worst was seeing the girl cry. Poor thing, I didn't know what to do."
"She'll be fine, children are much more resilient than we give them credit for," said Heréndida.
"You needed a degree to know that?" Dulce seemed to laugh heartily after every wisecrack.
"I'm sure she's forgotten all about me. I just hope my children haven't," Elena’s eyes widened, she seemed to lose focus again.
"How long have you gone without seeing them?"
"It's been almost three years. I just worry about them. My husband's family doesn't like me very much. They only helped us because my husband left me for another woman. They feel guilty about how he left things, but they still blame me. I'm certain they've told my sons all sorts of horrible things about their mother."
"Typical," my mother added.
All the women nodded, except Dulce.
"You know, Nita, you can't be sad anymore. So they leave you with children and with debts. They take your money to drink or to gamble. They find new women who are newer, prettier, too simple to know anything. Your work pays for her children too, until he stops coming back. That’s what men are like. And good for them, they have to answer to God and we’ll get our recompense.
“I’m just happy to be alive. When we were going through México, I saw people rot in the streets and in hospices waiting for courage to come. They got sick with cowardice, with nostalgia. They were the ones who got caught. They were the ones who lost legs and arms, the ones who died. You can't cross with a heavy heart, you'll sink. You can't run from an army with the past around your neck, you'll fall. No one stops for you, they leave you behind.
"I've been left behind by more than I care to admit. I had sons. I buried them, one before he even had his second birthday. They were taken from me. The youngest by sickness, the eldest by gangs. But, I'm not bringing them with me. They're with God, they are deep under the soil of Guatemala. I can't bring them with me, no matter how much it stirs up my belly. When my mother vanished during the war, I spent four years in an orphanage crying and hoping that she would come back. But, I won't go bringing her memory to the United States. She's going to rest in peace. They all are, at last, without me bothering their memory any more.
"Guatemala is as far gone as yesterday's dream, for me it's a balloon I let go. I'll likely never see it again and that is fine. It’s worth it. You ladies with families don't know how much of the picture you're missing. You're pushed out because you're poor, because you're a woman, but you think you're going willingly.
"You, the Mexican women, are still in your country even now and so you're still thinking like you would on your ranches, in your barrios, in your pretty plazas. You think you can bring México with you. You think that your children, your husbands, they're what's waiting for you on the other side. You think you'll have extra money to send home and that you'll buy your mother a water heater, the dresses she's never had because, miserably, she had a daughter who couldn’t work like a man. What a joke! That's not what's waiting. What's waiting for us is more suffering, it's work so hard you'll cry. But, I've seen people go back to Guatemala after they make it and they're someone. They all say they suffer, they look broken, they look tired, but they come back with money, with dignity.
"God takes what he sees fit and we mourn because it is beyond retrieving. But, the one thing God never denies us if we want it is our dignity. That's the sin of man, to deny us our due dignity. It's what even rich women suffer silently, too afraid to even say it for fear that they are the only ones.
"Ladies, I have been nobody and sometimes even less than that. Someone's picker, someone's nanny, someone's mule, working arms and a mouth to feed. Sometimes the pay was only broken promises of no beatings that day. I need to know what dignity is. I want to know what it is like to care for myself. I want to know what it's really like to be a woman, not just a mother, not someone's pet.
“I'm warning you ladies, you won't make it across if you don't wake up and I won't go risking my chance at dignity for your husbands and your children, for your mothers back home and their warm baths. Wake up. Your degrees won't matter, how white your skin is won't matter when you see the dogs, when you see the guns. To them, you are nobody too. Wake up and stop pretending you want to cry. What you want is to run, what you want is to be someone. That's why we're here. They say that this place is different, that you will be someone. It has to be true. Why else do so many of us come?”
We all stared as Dulce spoke. When she finished, her silence came over like the last thunderclap in a storm.
Elena looked straight at Dulce, “If we don’t make it, what will you do?”
“Rot in the ground. The only way I won’t make it is if the earth swallows me whole.”
“If that happens, maybe they’ll consider giving back your money.” They all laughed at my mother’s well-timed joke.
“Wouldn’t that be nice!” The other two spoke in near unison.
My mother started, ”What about you Dulce? Do you have anything waiting for you?”
“No, nothing. Well, an older gentleman from my town is a US citizen, can you imagine? I took care of his wife for a long time; she had diabetes and lost a leg. They finally moved her to Los Angeles a few years ago. Poor thing, the gangrene almost killed her once and he’s too good to let her die on her own.
“She was kind enough to invite me to stay with them should I ever make it across. Her husband says there’s plenty of work, all you have to do is show up at a factory or at a field. But, I’ve had enough of that.
“They say people will pay for you to go to school while you work at a dentist’s office or a doctor’s office. They don’t have you doing anything difficult, just sweeping floors and cleaning things at first. The money is supposed to be incredible. I want to save enough to buy myself a new pair of breasts.”
“And where are you going to stuff those?” Heréndida could hardly breathe through her cackles.
“Here and here and here!” Dulce grabbed at her sides, “And one here!”
“Dulce, you’re tremendous! Mother of God, you’re going to traumatize the poor child!” Elena laughed, wiping the tears from her eyes, “Don’t listen to her, mijito, you cover your ears.”
“Which ones?” I put my hands over the ears of my Mickey Mouse beanie.
“Álvaro, tell them about what you had to eat yesterday.” My mother nudged me.
“The torta?” I asked.
“Yes, but tell them what kind of torta you ate.”
“Oh! The Zebra torta?”
“Zebra torta?” Heréndida didn’t understand me.
“Yes, they have Zebras in Tijuana. You can ride them and the güeros take pictures with them. I guess they make them into tacos and tortas too.”
“Do you mean deshebrado?” She asked, trying not to mock me.
“Yes, torta de zebrados.”
“That just means the meat is shredded,” Heréndida looked at me sympathetically, “but it is Tijuana. Maybe it was zebra.”
“Food sounds right, even zebra. We’ve been here forever it seems.” Elena rubbed her legs.
“No, it’s not been more than forty minutes,” my mother said apologetically.
“And if we take the mota and run for it?” Dulce suggested, half-seriously.
“Dulce! You’re going to get us killed, or worse!” Heréndida let out a shriek.
“What’s worse than being killed?” Dulce egged her on.
“Being stuck with a character like you in this hut,” Heréndida leaned far back into the couch and exhaled, “and, well, maybe being stuck with a character like you in this hut and having no one else to talk to.”
“You two are the worst kind of company, always fighting.” Elena leaned over her knees, her face cupped in her hands.
The wind returned to rattle the walls and the roof. Through the rust-chewed siding, sand trickled in; the anxiety we had all suppressed snuck in behind each grain.
The pungent rot of the drywall, the sweetness of zinc, sage, each came and went in moments as we sat waiting for Guillermo to return. The pattern was predictable. As one scent displaced the other I could sense the soft passage of time. When Elena broke the cycle with a bottle of roll-on deodorant, it had been at least fifty minutes.
“Mamá, how much longer do we have to stay here? I don’t like it.”
“Only a bit longer, once we start walking around you won’t be so cold.” She took a small kerchief from her pocket and wiped my nose.
“Heréndida, Dulce, Elena,” I asked “when we get to the United States, will you come visit us?”
They looked at each other before responding, my mother saved them the trouble.
“No, mijo. They’re going to very far away places from where your dad lives.”
“Where does he live?”
Before she could answer, the sound of two vehicles prompted us to stand. Guillermo burst through the door.
“Go outside, into the blue truck. We’re taking you to the drop off site.”
As we walked out, Guillermo checked the guns and the bags and boxes that lined the all. When he was satisfied with his count, we exited into the darkness.
In the time we had waited, the desert had kept only the most residual warmth. It was not Huentitán. In the lashing winds that brought pink clouds to my cheeks there was no trace of horsehide, of guava wood. I transposed the final image of Guadalajara over the vacuum of the desert. That glittering scar in the pine-green mountains could not cover up the ugliness, the fawn. Getting into the truck, I felt afraid for the first time.
“Did you all find it all there?” The lady driving asked Guillermo.
“Please, we just want to get going.” My mother spoke timidly. As she put my hand in hers, I could feel her trembling. Dulce grabbed my other hand and started praying.
“Diosito, you have watched over me, you have saved me on my journey. Please do not desert us now, do not let us fall like so many do. Grant us safe passage. Blind them so they do not see, bind their feet so they cannot run, and give them conscience so they do not harm us.”
“Oh look, we have a Carmelite today.” Guillermo quipped as he got into the passenger’s seat in the cabin. Dulce silenced her prayer, mouthing the words instead.
“Mamá, where’s Heréndida and Elena?” I asked
“They have to ride in the back, mijo, there’s no space here.”
The lady spoke, “We’re going now, keep your head down and don’t look outside.”
Only ten minutes later, we had stopped again. The truck’s lights were off.
“Mamá, where are we?”
“Quiet, mijo, just don’t let go of my hand.”
We began, Guillermo in front of us. The truck pulled away. I couldn’t see very far, the opaque blackness clung to everything. Our eyes struggled to adjust.
Many yards seemed to separate us from the red barrier. We walked along side it, only approaching it to avoid the crags and overgrowth of thorny bushes. The ground was disturbed, turned into itself. Artificial ditches, the mounds covered in glass, iron stakes in the ground, blister packs—these were the words of the border. Over and over they repeated themselves, a language with no grammar and no music. Contraceptives, diapers, grain alcohol, they were a rosary prayer in the vernacular of the desert.
We saw gaps in the wall! We saw the bridges over drain canals! But, we did not stop to ask why we did not go through them, over them. We could not! Immersed in dialect of the border, we had forgotten our own Spanish. A painful aphonia took over us. Even our breath was silent; I was sure we were choking.
I felt like a dumb beast running through the few flat patches. My head shook back and forth, inside I was muttering, practicing, “I am Álvaro. I am Álvaro. Papá, I am Álvaro. I missed you.” I struggled to make out his face. In my mind’s eye he had no eyes, no mouth, no nose. I could only remember the shape of his mustache, but that too melted into the panic of a missed step. My mother dragged me through. I hung on to her hand, but she did not notice or could not notice that my legs had scraped the floor.
Elena fell behind me. Her arms were bleeding and covered in brambles. We slowed down to let her recover. It had become obvious that our pace was unsustainable and we stopped in a small clearing behind a corrugated section of fence.
Scattered all around us were plastic containers for water. With time some had filled out with dirt and brush had taken root. The impromptu planters were too small and the soil too poor to sustain real growth. There was no telling how much time had passed since they had been left or what had become of the accidental gardeners.
I sat beside a small, withered juniper sapling and watched Heréndida tend to Elena’s arm. My mother looked pained as she searched all around for danger.
“Mijo, what have I done to you? God forgive me, I should have waited until you were older.”
“I’m fine, you don’t need to worry.”
“Just a little bit more and we’ll be with your dad. Promise me you'll try.”
“I can do it.”
“What happened to your knee?” She gestured at the large stain on my jeans.
“I slipped and you dragged me. I am fine, it doesn’t hurt.”
“Mijo! You should have told me. You should have screamed or something.”
“I forgot how to.”
She came near me and sat down. When she put my head into her shoulder, I began to cry.
“Keep your kid quiet, we’re too close. If they hear his crying, we’re fucked,” Guillermo looked at me menacingly.
"He’s a kid, leave him alone,” Heréndida spoke up from behind him.
“He’s going to be the kid that gets you thrown into a cell if they find us because of him.”
“Sorry, I’m just tired and I don’t want to be here.” My voice wavered and cracked, I was not sure if I was whimpering or screaming.
“Álvaro, come here.” Dulce gestured towards me. I stood up and stood in front of her.
“Take this, it’s a little coin that a priest gave to me. It will keep you and your mom safe. If you feel afraid, hold it in your hand and say Our Father. You know that prayer right?”
“Good, just say it deep in your heart, no one has to hear you do it. Take this too, it’s a piece of melcocha.” She handed me a small candy from her pocket. I put it in my mouth and tried not to cry again as it melted away.
The reprieve was short and Guillermo put us back on the path with urgency. We had neared the wall and could hear the wheels of patrol cars rolling over grit in the distance. The wall muffled the sounds and it was difficult to know exactly how far away they were.
“We’re almost on the other side now. We just have to make it through a small gulley and we’ll run for it.”
The news filled us with energy. My legs guided themselves; I merely floated over the fissures in the ground. The depressions gave us no difficulty. We were not slowed, not even when we reached the ditch filled with water.
We threw our feet in without second thought. The smell of excrement, of fresh vegetation was a relief. The black stream reflected the faint gilding of the hills. We were close. We pushed ourselves through, our feet sinking in the muck. We clawed at the banks on the opposite side, pulling ourselves up. We made deep scars in the mud, unearthing the young roots of grasses and weeds. My face was caked and my arms were shaking. I was not sure how I made it over.
“I can’t do this any more.” I pulled at my mother’s arm.
“Álvaro, we don’t have a choice, we have to keep going.”
My own feet were the saboteurs, they swung themselves aimlessly in front of me. When they collided I would fall. When their timing failed I would fall. I could not feel my hands, though I felt the rocks that left red marks as I pushed myself up.
I had to slow down. I was exhausted. Angered, they all took turns, lifting me over the deep ditches. They pulled me from my armpits over scrub and the rusted stakes that had become more numerous, more menacing. Guillermo had joined the effort too, his hands hurt as he dug into my shoulders, but I was too afraid of him to protest.
When they had become too tired to help, my mother found the strength to do it alone. Her arms would shake and her eyes would tear from the exertion, but she did not stop. She refused to let us fall behind.
"Mamá, I'm really tired."
"We're so close. A few more minutes and we'll be there, I promise."
"Mamá, but I just want to sleep." I felt the urge to cry.
"Mijo, you have to keep going, okay? You can't stop now."
"Do you need help?" Dulce approached my mother.
"He says he's tired, but I told him we can't stop." Her voice was foundering, her tone guilty and remote.
"Is that true, mijo?" Dulce patted me on the cheek. "What if we play a game? I used to do this with my kids back in Guatemala. I'll lift you over the holes and every time I do you have to count. Do we have a deal?" She looked at my mother, "Give her your right hand and give me your left."
I did, we began walking slightly faster and it had started.
"Very good, keep it up."
"I'm very proud of you, Álvaro, you're doing so well." My mother gripped tighter as we went over several of the smallest holes.
"Fourteen. Fifteen." Our pace had slowed already as we started to go uphill.
"You're so big, mijo." Dulce laughed. "You're going to be such a handsome, tall, young man."
"I'm so tired." I complained.
"Just keep counting and before we get to one hundred we'll be there!" Dulce smiled at me, readjusting her sweaty hand to get a better grip.
"What is that?" Guillermo stopped us. "No one move. Did you hear that?" He was whispering. I could barely hear him.
"Everyone, behind the fence."
As we inched towards the barrier, a truck turned on all its lights. Blinded, we scattered as fast as we could. I ran, losing my mother. I followed her as we darted behind a small segment. Dulce grabbed my hand, jerking me forward. I fell hard to the ground and my mother rolled on top of me, holding on to my torso as tight as she could.
"Do not get up, Álvaro, whatever you do just hold onto me here."
"What is going on?" I was yelling, not sure if she could hear me over the screams of the other women.
"Nothing, just hold on to me. Please, listen!"
"Why won't you tell me?" I started to cry, fighting her weight to see what was happening around us.
In the distance I saw the Guillermo, Elena and Heréndida running out into the desert. One after the other, they fell. Heréndida screamed and kicked as an agent grabbed her by the legs and dragged her behind a section of the fence. She slapped at him. She spit at him.
“Let me go!” She screamed again and again as he tried to get her to stand, beating her against the ground as he struggled to control her contortions.
When one of them spotted Dulce next to us, she launched herself without saying a word. She ran as fast as she could, kicking up dust with a formidable pounding. Every time he would gain, she would sense the pale skin cast a glow against her as he reached out his hand. Dulce would veer or she would jump over the dried bush to avoid his grasp. The nostrils of her broad, brown nose were flared; her mouth wide open. She leaped into the ditches and then back out of them with minimal effort. When he had become desperate, throwing his thin, muscular body headfirst at her in an attempt to knock her down, she drew a small pocketknife from the folded-over hem of her jeans. She slashed at him, only inches from his face. Propelling herself backwards, she made the motion again in the air, warning him to keep his distance. He grabbed for his gun.
My mother tried to cover my eyes, but promptly gave up when I bit her hand.
Dulce froze, drenched, her skin glistening in the high beams. Her bun had come apart, the hairpins all fell out to unleash a great, unwashed mass of soapstone curls. All lenity was gone from her eyes. She was heaving.
Dulce let go of the knife, it fell, and she ran again. The agent, still pointing his gun, took a pause. He put it back in its holster and sprinted after her.
It was inevitable that she would not outlast the twenty year old. He came just close enough to grab her by the ends of her undone coiffure and then by the sleeve of her shirt. With both hands, he pulled. Dulce’s strong Mayan legs had walked a continent, had climbed a cinder cone, and had fought off more than one Mexican soldier, but two miles into the United States, those same legs finally buckled. She was caught; she was forced to the ground.
The young man howled, calling the rest of the border patrol for assistance. He pulled at her brusquely, as if she was a stag or a bear, but she would not lift. The ground itself seemed to cling, not wanting to let her go so close to the end of it all. Another agent came and lent a hand. Dulce was ripped from the basin floor. She sagged and they fought to put her on her feet.
Defiant, even in their custody, her hope and her dreams clung to the air, like a chalk cloud their fluttering hands would not shake away. When they sat her into the back of a Jeep, branches and roots in her hair, I could feel the first of my mother’s sobs.
There, pinned under my mother, behind a rusted section of corrugated fencing, I saw my country on the edge of a prism. I saw its shape, each river and stream in the after image of the bright lights. I saw the Perifrico in its entire asthmatic, sparkling length, circling around us as if we had become the city itself. All I could know seemed to be right before me, ready to be grabbed and finally confronted. I remembered myself less than one month ago in my hospital bed, limp and withering; red carnations in a Tlaquepaque jug. I was indignant. I was crazed. If I could not have understood the forces that had placed us there, I most definitely did understand what we were in the shadow of that man with his disheveled blonde mustache and the gun in his utility belt. He lifted my mother by her shoulders, I hung on and we both started towards a white van. My great brown eyes met those thin blue discs and I felt a murderous urge.
“Don’t touch my mother! Hijo de perra!" I yelled in the most vulgar tone I knew. It was perhaps to my great fortune that he did not speak any Spanish.
"Shut your mouth, Álvaro. Shut your mouth or I'll shut it for you. Just be quiet and we'll be all right. Just be quiet.”
I had no choice in the matter. Cowing under the agent's strong hand, we were moved towards the backseat of a white van. He pushed us in.
“Please don’t hurt us, he’s only seven years old!” My mother’s voice was thin and hoarse, I thought she would break before my eyes.
Elena was thrown in behind us.
“My Christ, my God, why did they have to fight them? They’ll kill them, or worse! My Christ, my Lord! What will happen to us? Please don’t let them hurt us! Where are they taking us?“ Elena’s panic was palpable.
The officer yelled into the truck.
“He wants us to speak English? My Christ, my Lord, what is going to happen to us?”
He tried to communicate, but his words were senseless in our minds. Our blank faces angered him. His mouth gnashed, he bit down on his own words. The veins in his neck flared.
“What are they going to do? Why are we in here?” I screamed.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. Mijo, please forgive me. My God, my God please forgive me.” My mother was shaking uncontrollably as she held on to me.
The agent slammed the door and Elena and my mother cried bitterly. I could not see Dulce or Herendida through the tinted windows.
When two agents got into the truck and it began moving, the image of my father’s face came into my mind’s eye, in full clarity.
The truck turned violently, rolled over the very same ditches we had crawled through. We collided against one another as it made its way onto a path. My chest pounded. Every bump sent my stomach into my throat.
We came to a sudden stop and the doors came open. In front of us was a metal gate, an entryway with armed guards on both sides. They pulled us out and then pushed us through.
“No, no! They’re sending us back." Elena was coming undone before us. "Where do we go? Where do we go? Where can we go?” Over and over she asked the guards. None spoke Spanish, or at least none cared to answer. "You, you look like a Christian. Where do we go? Where do we go?"
A guard looked at her, as if he knew the words, but did not answer.
"My God, you have abandoned us! Why did you not keep us safe?" Elena screamed as the last shove sent her back over to the other side. She bent over herself and vomited.
My mother was silent. She could not walk. I fell to my knees. I felt for the medallion, rubbed my fingers around the edges.
I said Our Father deep in my heart, where no one would have to hear.
As I ended the prayer, the sky over San Diego burst true red. In the faint glow from behind the fence I thought I saw my father, but it was just the silhouette of a guard dissolving into the wetness of my eyes.