Letters from the Border (3) Life in Limbo

For our final piece on the border, Malia Politzer is taking us back to a view of the border in 2005- do you have a letter from the border?  Life in Limbo Crossing the U.S.-Mexican Border by Malia Politzer :: 11/30/2005

April 2005: Monday, Day 1  The entrance to the Colonia of Buenas Aires is the last right off the main drag of Nogales, Mexico after crossing the train tracks. If you miss this turn, you’ll hit the traffic caused by lines of cars waiting to go through the Customs checkpoint. This line can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as four or five hours. Stationary cameras focus on the cars so that locals who cross back and forth regularly can check the line from their home televisions, and determine the best time to cross. It’s easy, for those who have visas. For those without immigration papers, passage to el otro lado (the other side) is long, dangerous and difficult.

I can see the wall dividing the United States from Mexico from my car. It’s made out of old landing mats from the Vietnam and Gulf wars: rusted bits of steel lined with barbed wire. Peeking over the top of the barbed wire are a Burger King sign and the swaying tips of palm trees.

Some long-term residents remember when the Nogales border was marked by no more than a chain link fence, perforated by holes through which they could slip to do their weekly shopping. Eggs, milk, meat. These products are cheaper in the United States, even though minimum wage is much lower in Mexico. The average worker in the maquiladoras—the foreign-owned assembly plants crowding the Mexican side of the border—makes anywhere between three and 10 dollars per day; the same worker could make up to $10 an hour in the United States. In 1999, the Clinton administration greatly expanded and fortified the U.S.-Mexico border fence as part of a border protection program with an annual budget of a few billion dollars. Along with this, the administration installed cameras. More border patrol. High technology movement sensors. Drones. Helicopters.

I turn onto the street leading to the Colonia de Buenos Aires, one of the most dangerous colonias (districts) in Nogales. On the right, there’s a mural depicting prostitutes and cholos with guns. There is a picture of Jesus, but it is covered in graffiti. The streets are narrow and cluttered with beat-up old cars. Though paved, unlike in the majority of neighboring colonias, the streets are scarred by deep potholes. There are shootings here. Muggings, drug lords, murders, rapes.

I drive past the beautiful painting of La Virgen De Guadalupe, the mother of the mestizos, the Virgin Mary of Mexico. She’s a glistening tear-drop of beauty in the most forsaken part of the city. There’s a fresh coat of paint on her smile. While the rest of the colonía is covered in graffiti, she remains somehow untouched.

The migrant shelter Plan Retorno is run by a man named Homero Hernandez. He provides food and shelter, and attempts to help those who want to find jobs in Nogales. He tries to encourage people to go home rather than risk their lives attempting to cross, but many try anyway. Having sold everything to pay a coyote, a human smuggler who might charge anywhere between $1500 and $3000 per person, they have little choice.

The shelter is a dismal looking place. The back room doesn’t get much light. It has drab, gray walls and concrete floors. There are enough beds for probably 50 people. Bunk beds. Not many people are there during the day; the rules say the men have to leave around 9 a.m. in order to go look for work, and cannot come back until 6 p.m. Some do go to look for work, while others hang around outside of the shelter, under the eaves of the Mercado: El Oriente, a small liquor and grocery store across the street. Those who stay are either too sick or hurt to leave. When I visit the shelter, there are two men in the corner of the room, one lying under a thin wool blanket. He is wearing thick hipster glasses, very similar to my own, and a band T-shirt. I’d probably put him at around 25. His name, I find out, is Sergio. The other man is sitting up, staring at the floor. He’s wearing a black polo shirt with the word Durango embroidered on the left breast pocket. His name is Mario.

It is hot. Though only a harbinger of the real summer heat to come, I can feel it pulling moisture through my skin. Already I’ve finished off two water bottles, and it is only 10 a.m. Welcome to the desert. Summer temperatures here can get as high as 120 degrees. I’d put the temperature today around 85, and it’s only April. I remark to Mario about the heat, thinking it a safe topic, and note the slightly panicked expression in his eyes.

I don’t find out until the later that day that Mario’s brother is still out in the desert, somewhere, wandering and possibly lost. The stretch of desert Mario and his brother passed through to enter the United States was directly across from a little town called Altar. They call this stretch the “Death Corridor.” Already this fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 130 bodies have been found. In fiscal year 2004 the final death count was 234 in Arizona alone. Most die of exposure. Dehydration. A few are murdered by muggers, bandits. A few die in rollovers or high-speed Border Patrol cases.

The main murderer is the desert, though many point a finger at the U.S. policies that funnel 52 percent of the migrant crossings into this harsh environment. Since Operation Gatekeeper was enacted in 1994—increasing fencing and enforcement along the border between Tijuana and San Diego—the death rate has risen dramatically. Sources report that hundreds—some claim thousands—of migrants have died crossing. But the migrants keep coming. And the migrants keep dying.

Other people blame the deaths on the economic state of Mexico: if there were sufficiently high-paying jobs, there would be no need for people to migrate. Still others point at the government. At employers who buy billboards and advertising space on radios in the poorest areas of Mexico in order to lure potential workers into the United States, without providing information about how to get there legally. Or at the slow processing rate of family reunification visas, which can take as many as 13 years to receive (visas from 1994 are being processed today). Still others blame the coyotes, who have been known to abandon, rape, mug and murder their charges.

Mario and his brother attempted to cross together, but Mario was caught by a Border Patrol officer. He was in the desert for two days when he agreed to “voluntary deportation,” and another two days have passed since then. He and his brother had each brought two gallons of water. In this heat, a Border Patrol officer tells me later, people should be drinking at least a half-gallon of water every two hours. Now it has now been four days, and still no word from Mario’s brother.      Wednesday, Day 3  Every few minutes, the phone rings and Homero yells, “Mario, the phone’s for you!” An aunt, another relative. Mario’s mother. His brother’s wife. Once he accidentally takes a call on speaker phone, and I can hear the voices of the missing brother’s children laughing in the background. But Mario’s sister-in-law’s voice is shrill and edged with panic. Mario turns off the speaker phone, and says something softly into a receiver. I can see he’s trying to be strong for her, but there’s a naked, vulnerable look in his eyes, even as he whispers comforting words to his brother’s wife. After he says goodbye, he walks over to me and slides down the wall to the floor, briefly putting his head in his hands before flashing me a smile. So macho.

“No word?” I ask. He shakes his head.

“He’s 23,” Mario tells me as we wait for the phone to ring again. My eyebrows shoot up. His brother’s only a year older than I am. “He has a wife and two kids. A two-year-old and a four-year-old.” His mouth quivers into a grin. “They’re troublemakers. He almost turned around and went back after he’d been gone a week. I think if they’d asked him he would have.” He tells me, “I was supposed to take care of him.”      Thursday, Day 4  Still no word from Mario’s brother. I’ve been making a point of coming every day. I stay for a few hours. Three. Five. Six. We talk, joke. Exchange stories. We’re sitting on the front porch. Mario smokes as I sip watery coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. He’s still wearing the same shirt he was wearing the day I met him; I realize it’s probably the only shirt he owns. Sergio sits in a folding chair, tending to the blisters on his feet. They’re slick with ointment. He rips off a piece of dead skin, hanging by a corner to his sole. The exposed flesh is pink and raw.

“You shouldn’t drink coffee.” Mario remarks to me with wide-eyed earnestness, gesturing to the cup with his cigarette. “It’s bad for you.” He takes another drag, and I toss my empty cup at him, looking pointedly at his cigarette. He grins and offers me one. I shake my head. We’ve been sharing stories about home. Mario’s dad runs a fruit stand. His mother sells food and mends clothes for a profit. Mining is the largest economic provider in Durango, but it doesn’t pay well, and there aren’t enough jobs. Mario’s family, like many migrants, used to be in agriculture. I ask him why they can’t farm anymore. He shrugs. “No jobs.”

Sergio wants to know if there is a drug problem where I’m from. Now it’s my turn to shrug. “I know people who use drugs. I know some addicts. It destroys their lives. I guess you could say it’s a problem.” I glance up, curiously. “Is it a problem where you’re from?” Mario and Sergio exchange a knowing look, and I know immediately that it’s a naive question. Mario flicks ash from his cigarette, apparently trying to figure out how to word his next thought.

“I’m going to tell you a story. A couple of years ago, my brother and I went into the hills near our town. It was around December, and we wanted to find a shrub or copal branch for Christmas. We were messing around, and we ended up in a part of the woods we didn’t know.” He takes a final long drag off his cigarette, and tosses it onto the porch. I grind it out with my foot.

“We get to this clearing,” he continues. “No rocks or shrubs or anything. We see this bright piece of cloth on the other side of the clearing. Looks like a jacket; a nice one. Maybe it’ll be a Christmas present.” He smiles as though he is about to tell joke, but it’s a mocking smile. “It was a jacket, but it was attached to a person. A dead person. And recent; not more than a few hours. A few minutes. Who knows. We probably should have left then, but didn’t. I think maybe we were just surprised. Neither of us had ever seen the body of a murdered person before. A man came into the clearing with a gun. He told us to get lost.”

“What did you do?”

“We got the hell out of there.”

“Is there a lot of drug trafficking in Durango?”

Mario hesitates, combing through his hair with his fingers. He sighs. “There isn’t a lot of work. People there usually make less than 40 pesos per day. It isn’t really enough. Eventually, they think, well, if I deal drugs I’ll make a chinga more. And it’s true.”

“Is it easy to get in with?” I ask. Mario laughs.

“Getting in isn’t the problem. It’s getting out. There’s only one way out.”

“They kill you?” Mario gives me a strange sort of half-smile and scratches his head. Sergio chokes back a laugh. Oh, little girl.

“You. Your family. Your in-laws. Your friends. I once knew of a guy who tried to get out, and they killed everyone. The entire family. I think they were 20. Maybe more. Some of them didn’t even know he was involved.”

Mario yawns and stretches. He hasn’t been sleeping much, always waiting for the phone. “That’s why I’d never get into it. Too risky,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”      Friday, Day 5  Mario is beside himself. A stranger might not be able to tell, just looking at him, but we can. He stares at the floor, eyes clouded and unblinking. I hand him a Styrofoam cup of coffee. He takes it, meets my eyes briefly in quick thanks, and goes back to staring at the floor. He seems to have developed a nervous twitch, and the edge of his mouth is pinched, as though permanently pressed into a strange half-smile.

The phone rings. He jerks from his seat and walks into the office with slow, dragging steps. I go out onto the front porch, wondering if this will be “the phone call” we’ve all been expecting. Sergio is outside, smoking a cigarette. He offers me one, and I absently shake my head. He eyes me through his thick, hipster frames.

“So what do you think?” he asks me.

He jerks his chin towards Mario. I turn to look across the street. There’s a thick heat haze over the pavement in front of the shelter, slightly blurring my view of the convenience store across the street. The news predicted that the temperature would top 85. I don’t want to answer Sergio, as though giving our collective thoughts voice would make our fears come true.

“I think his brother’s dead.” Sergio says it matter-of-factly, and takes another drag of his cigarette. He swats at something in the corner of his eye, and I wonder if Sergio has been affected by the wait more than he’s let on. Sergio hasn’t been as open as Mario. I know he is a chulango—from Mexico City. I know he has family living in the United States, had tried to cross through the desert and failed. But that’s about all I know. Sergio looks to me for confirmation. I give a subtle nod. We all think Mario’s brother is dead.

It has simply been too long. Mario and his brother left with a group of 20 a week ago. The coyotes broke them up into two groups. Mario and his brother were separated into different groups; the coyotes often seem to do this. I’m not certain why. They stayed in a casa de huesped (guest house) in Altar on Thursday night. By early Friday morning they were at la ladrillera (the brickyard) and had begun to walk.

That was the last Mario had seen of his brother. Early Sunday morning, Mario began to lag behind the rest of the group. They sat down to rest, and Mario fell asleep. When he woke up, the group had already left; no one had bothered to wake him up. He quickly got lost.

“I was very lucky,” he had told me earnestly. “I was found by Border Patrol, and they brought me back here.”

I had shaken my head, not understanding. “But weren’t you upset about being caught? I mean, you’d already spent all that money ...”

“I was lost, Malia. I can always try again. My aunt is sending more money. I’ll make it next time ...”      Saturday, Day 6  I don’t want to go to the shelter today. It’s embarrassing to admit to myself, and especially to acknowledge that I have the choice. I can escape this reality. Return to my comfortable California home. For Mario, Sergio and countless others, escape is not an option. Steeling myself—and feeling like a coward all the while—I drive to the shelter and park in the dirt lot.

Sergio’s on the porch in a rusted folding chair. Smoking.

“Mario’s brother got in last night,” he says casually as I get to the door. “He’s sleeping.” I try not to stare at the man lying on a bed in the back room. His arms are striped with deep black scratches and dried blood. His T-shirt and jeans are shredded into strips that somehow manage to remain attached to his body. His feet are a bloody mess. Mario’s sitting in a chair next to him and motions for me to come over. His brother opens his eyes as I approach. I don’t want to continue staring, so instead I extend my hand.

“Hi, I’m Malia. I’ve heard a lot about you.” He shakes my hand with a surprisingly firm grip for someone just rescued from death. “It’s good to see you,” I add.

He tells me his story. Like Mario, he had gotten lost. His group left him because he had fallen asleep. They didn’t bother to wake him when they left. Unlike Mario, he did not have the luck of being found by Border Patrol. Not immediately. He ran out of water the third day. For the next four days he wandered through the desert, without water. On day five he was attacked by a group of three animal coyotes. He showed me the deep bite marks on his upper thigh. By day six, he was hallucinating.

“I saw the Pope,” he tells me, grinning. “He’s an interesting guy.” He and Mario laugh.

Mario’s brother shakes his head. “I was lucky. I fell by a road, close enough for someone to see. A guy found me, and brought me to the Border Patrol.” I ask him if he is planning on trying to cross again. He shakes his head vehemently.

“I could have died. I almost died. I’m going home. As soon as I get well enough to travel, I’m going home to my family in Durango.”

He leaves for Durango the next day. We watch him go from the door; Mario gives him a big hug and a clap on the back. Homero drives him to the bus stop. I watch from the porch, already having said my goodbyes. Mario walks back to where I’m sitting, and leans against the wall.

“I’m going to try to cross again tomorrow,” he tells me. I don’t say anything for a moment. Are you crazy? I want to ask him. But I don’t. He obviously knows better than I do what this decision entails.

Instead I ask, “You’ll call me when you get there?” Mario nods. I give him a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. His plan is to leave the next day. If he gets deported he’ll write; if he makes it, he’ll call. I leave the shelter, wondering if I’ll ever see him again.      August 2005  Four months have passed.  I’m still waiting.

Malia Poltizer, a student at Hampshire College, has been living on the U.S.-Mexico border since February of 2005. She is currently in the process of collecting data for her thesis, which is on undocumented migration across the border between Northern Sonora and Southern Arizona.

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