I couldn’t feel my arm. I knew it was folded under me at the bottom of the trunk but I still couldn’t feel it. The car was on a very bumpy road and each bump threw a bolt of electricity shooting through my body. I wanted to scream out but I knew the slightest sound could stop me; could stop all of us. I wondered how this terrible journey could be the start of a better life.
I thought of my village in northern Mexico, so near to the resorts where I never got to go. We would see the cars full of people and suitcases on their way. Bikes were attached to the back or surfboards were roped overhead. Everything about those vehicles signaled a golden trek to pleasure. As the cars whizzed past, we villagers knew that these places were not for our kind.
Our kind gathered firewood and sold it to local bakers. Our kind caught snakes and sold the skins on the roadside. Our kind raised chickens whose eggs we could eat daily but the flesh had to be saved for special occasions. Our kind had no wells or access to drinking water. Our kind made the weekly trek to the market to get the big water bottles for our families’ needs.
My father had died long ago, worn out by scratching at the ground like a rooster, trying to get anything to grow from the dry desert. He left us in one second saying he was tired and lay down never to get up again. My five brothers and my mother and I buried him on the hillside next to the big tree. Shortly after, two of my brothers left for a better life. We never heard from them again.
What did this mean? They were in the States, happy and rich, and no longer wanting to be in touch with the poor relations they sought to escape? Did they have American families now with chubby kids glued to their videogames or their phones? Or did something terrible happen to them, trapped as they were in the hands of the coyotes? Were they tossed on the side of some road like bags of garbage to rot in the sun? Did some redneck vigilante with a rifle from Star Wars come out in the night and pick them off like targets in an arcade game, high-fiving his friends for “gettin’ one of ’em?” Years have passed now so our family will never know. My mother keeps the three remaining men close to home. They have families here and struggle to make enough for the special chicken occasions to be more frequent. Their wives are from here too so they know what life is like.
I am the youngest. Just 20 years old and so wise that I knew Guillermo was the love of my life. I couldn’t take the birth control pill because this would have meant that Guillermo and I were planning to have sex. Catholics who are not married cannot plan to have sex. If it happens, it is just something like a tsunami of the soul which runs at the lovers with waves of passion so intense that nothing can stop it. This is what happened night after night with Guillermo as we planned our life together far away from this place.
My mother carried the face of guilt into the conversations between us as she warned me not to take such a choice at so young an age. She pointed to herself with her first child at fifteen and now buried under the burden of lifelong obligation when not even fifty. Did I want this to happen to me? Did I want to live like this forever? I was smart. I was being educated. I could be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher. I was a very good writer. Didn’t I want to be a writer? I even spoke English. Why throw it away for a moment’s passion? But it was so much more than this. It was like heaven.
Then, as suddenly as he had appeared in my life, he was gone. Collateral damage, it was called. He was in the way when two gangs fought over the rights to kill each other in their efforts to deliver poison to the children of wealthy Americans. When he left, he left a small messenger who swam into me and there he stayed these past weeks, growing our baby.
How could I not go for a better life? How could I bring this baby into the world of scratching the dry earth and watching the rich go to resorts and burying the people who were in the way, while we made our tortillas and prayed for a future that would never arrive? Some looked to the government. Some prayed to Mother Church. No angels arrived from either source to save us. We had to save ourselves.
There was no possibility of my telling my mother. She had already lost a husband and two sons, how could she lose her only daughter? I went to see Antonio, the son of the baker—my only hope. For the love of me, he gave me the money.
The choice had been made and the preparations were as well. The coyotes would be the easy part. They were well known and their tactics were clear. Money was their only concern, not you, not your comfort, not your welfare. You were a package to be delivered and they would do it; or maybe they would not. It was, like everything, a roll of the dice.
I had made a special plastic purse that fit inside of the sole of my shoe. I had to take off the sole and slip in the purse and then re-glue the shoe. I couldn’t think of another place that would be safe to hold cash. There would be rape, so even my own vagina would not serve as a place to safely store funds. Women making the trip usually took birth control for several months before going. We knew what was going to happen.
The shoe was sturdy and had three sets of straps so I knew that it wouldn’t fall off along the road. I took three large pointed pins with me to secure my hair as well as to serve as weapons. I had small packs of water so that I could discard them as I went and everything would get lighter. I made up a protein powder so that food was at a minimum but strength would be at a maximum. I faced the trip with the sense of dread that had been haunting me my whole life. It welled up now with a fierce strength; I shoved it aside, I had to go.
With a note to my mother on the kitchen table, I left the house that night. I had written her telephone number on my stomach in permanent marker. If they found my dead body at least they would know how to return me to my mother. I had a tiny flashlight to lead me out of the village onto the highway to wait for the truck. After twenty minutes, I heard the old engine whining as it pulled into view, its passengers silhouetted against the bright moon. The back looked full, but people re-arranged themselves to give me space. No one spoke.
We drove until the beginning of the new day. Just before sun up, the truck ground to a halt in the middle of the campo. Nothing was visible as far as we could see. The coyotes got out of the cab and came around the back of the truck rousting us from our shallow sleep. They had long poles which they thrust through the slats poking those who had been able to get some floor space on which to stretch out. We groggily climbed down into the dirt.
“Dinero, dinero!” they shouted. We were all confused, as we had had to pay in advance and now the coyotes were shouting for more money.
“Joven, we have already paid,” one middle aged farmer said, addressing the young coyote as a youth. His words were met by a sharp punch to the stomach with the pole. He tumbled over into the dust.
“Dinero, dinero,” they shouted again. No one was making any moves so the coyotes plowed into the crowd. They pulled backpacks off of us and threw our belongings onto the ground, seeking money. They groped the women on their breasts and their pants looking for the tell-tale bulk of hidden funds. They did the same to the men seeking money that had been stashed behind their balls. They grabbed women by their hair and held them while they screamed as their little children were searched in places that should never be touched.
Little by little money started appearing, raining down into a great pile, as everything was ransacked or violated. Through this orgy of greed we cried out against the attacks happening to us. What were we to do? I had put small amounts of money under my breasts and in my pants and when my turn came the coyote took his time examining me for money. He searched, and although he was satisfied with his discovery, he still put his finger up my vagina seeking more. His face carried a lewd smile and his eyes held me in the grip of dominance. I was his puppet.
The attacks continued for many minutes while the children cried and their parents screamed and objected, but no one had the power to stop it. Finally satisfied, the coyotes gathered the money and told us to get our things together. I hoped for a place to wash the filth of that man’s touch from my body but there was none. We put our clothes back into order and picked up our belongings and re-mounted the truck. It was a lesson in power and we knew who the alpha dogs were.
All of us were aware that now we had no money. We had to find some somewhere and I had to pretend to need it as well. The coyotes let us out near the edge of the town and told us we had until dark to replenish the money we had lost. We spread out along the town. At this point begging was the only option and many of the people, proud workers their whole lives, were reduced to beggars with hat in hand. I could not look into the eyes of the townspeople as I asked for money. Most hurried past us horrified by the dust clinging to our clothes and the desperation clouding our eyes. But the women dug into their purses and their bags and shared with me. As always, the women knew. By the end of the day I had enough for a big meal and more to hide in the not-so-secret places all of us used.
We made the connection at the truck, each person hoarding his food, hunching over it to form a protective shield. How could we be Mexicans and not be sharing? Had we so soon become the Americans we wanted to copy? None of us believed we would be getting a meal in the next few days and this one was precious. I ate in silence savoring the three enchiladas filled with meat and cheese, covered in pico de gallo. I mixed the refried beans into the rice and added some chili to make it spicy. I didn’t know when my last meal would arrive so I took my time.
I used this opportunity to study the two coyotes. The first, called El Tamí when the other one yelled at him, was young, maybe my age. He must have named himself because he didn’t look like the Big Tamale. He had one of those deep beards that Mexicans have: black and coarse. His chest hair peeked out of his t-shirt neck. His arms were heavily tattooed. I guess he was in a gang; the symbols meant nothing to me. His face was a perpetual snarl as if this way of behaving would strengthen his power over us. He walked around the camp kicking people‘s meager belongings out of his way. He smoked copious numbers of cigarettes, tossing the butts into the air. Cigarettes were hugely expensive in Mexico and this display of wealth was not lost on us as we sat in the dirt. He wore heavy jeans and a white t-shirt with a bandolier strapped across his chest. Maybe he thought he was Emiliano Zapata, the father of our revolution, instead of a reviled trafficker in human misery. The other coyote called El Gordo, earned the name through what seemed to be years of overindulgence. His t-shirt strained to cover his protruding stomach and low slung jeans. His short stubby legs bowed out like a circus ring and each step left a deep imprint in the dirt with the weight of his stride. His face was swarthy with patches of hair and the same on his head. He stood guard on us while we ate.
El Tamí circled around the back of the pack of us looking for a straggler he could cull from the herd; he found one. Suddenly he grabbed a young girl from the edge of the circle. Her mother leaped up to protect her.
“Joven, joven, please, please leave her. She is no good to you. She is only fourteen.” The girl screamed and struggled in his arms. He continued dragging her across the dirt.
“No! No! Mami, Mami, help me!” She spit the words out into the air. Her face was contorted and her eyes shone with fear. We were all on our feet now. El Gordo pulled his gun and pointed it at us.
“Sit down. All of you. Fuckin’ sit down! I don’t give a shit about any of you. I’ll blow your fuckin’ brains out! I fuckin’ mean it. I’ll fuckin’ blow your brains out. Sit down. Now!” He pointed the gun at us. One by one we sat down. El Tamí continued to pull the girl into the bushes.
“Take me! Take me!” her mother cried. She leaped up and ran after her daughter. The shot rang out and we all ducked farther into the earth. The mother stopped. Bits of dust had leaped from the earth at her feet.
“No mames! No mames! No fuckin’ way! The next one will be at your head. Sit down now!” He pointed the gun at her.
“Mami, Mami, help!” We heard the sound of the slap.
“Shut the fuck up, you little cunt.” The girl stopped yelling now, only crying. We heard the sounds of the scuffle as he threw her to the ground. Next came the piercing scream as he took her virginity in a dust-filled valley out in the middle of the desert with only us as silent witnesses. Shame must have penetrated inside all of us. Her mother cried quietly. El Tamí rejoined El Gordo, the older coyote.
“That’s one of the real benefits of this job.” El Tamí smiled, tucking his shirt around the bandolier and buckling his belt. He slapped the older man on the back.
“Si, joven, for you, an endless supply of virgins! You are a blessed man.” They laughed, enjoying the moment. The mother ran to her daughter and held her in her arms as she cried. We all hunkered down and looked away. The mother and daughter returned to our circle of humanity, which had not provided the protection they might have thought it would. A hand reached up to help them sit in the dust. Mostly we avoided their accusing gaze. The girl wiped away the blood running down her leg and continued to whimper.
“You all shut the fuck up,” El Tamí cried pointing his gun at us. “You too, bitch. It had to happen sometime. You got lucky. Vales verga. You’re worthless.” He leered at the mother. She turned her back on him.
The dirt had already ground itself into our pores and we put out a strong aroma all around the campsite. The ground was a sea of white where pieces of toilet paper had been discarded by the crowds of people who had already made this journey. Their fresh urine smell wafted into the breeze. Individuals and families closed in on themselves setting up an invisible barrier for privacy and safety. I rolled myself into a ball hoping to catch some sleep.
“Andale! Andale!” The coyotes’ shouts woke me with a start as everyone clamored into the truck. A hand reached down to help me inside and I found myself again in the circle of strangers who did not speak and did not share. I wondered how I could still even be in Mexico; there was so little connection among us.
“Andale! Andale!” shouted El Gordo, the Fatty. I got a closer look at my two traffickers then. El Gordo was a short Mexican with a very square head and bushy black eyebrows. He had a square body to match his head. I thought he was probably about fifteen years older than El Tamí. He was much shorter than the younger man, no taller than me. He made up for his height in strength. Bulging muscles showed under his t-shirt and he held the heavy guns and poles like they were matchsticks. He seemed a bit nicer than El Tamí but not by much.
His approaches were more subtle. I felt his hands on my breasts and my ass as he passed or pushed us into the truck over the next hours. I saw him cup the breasts of the older women as they climbed up into the truck and often just brushed against them as they climbed down. He didn’t drag anyone into the bushes as El Tamí did, but he never let a woman pass without getting something.
He especially enjoyed doing this much more openly if a woman was accompanied by a man. He took pleasure in his power. I caught him several times with his hands on a woman’s breasts and his eyes staring directly into the eyes of her man. Once there was an objection.
“Please, Señor.” A gentle man put his hand on the hand of El Gordo. The short man spun around, dropping his hand from the woman’s breast.
“No vale madres! I don’t give a fuck.” His words were strong but his reaction was one of surrender. He walked away kicking at the dirt without looking back as the man encircled his wife tenderly.
The truck rumbled through the night jostling us as it had before, until we reached a place where we could see lights along the horizon. Was this the Promised Land? The truck stopped. We reached a location with ten cars lined up in the desert.
“Afuera, afuera!” screamed El Tamí and we all began to jump down from the truck as he ordered. The coyotes moved us roughly, creating a series of smaller groups of three, four, five people. I think it depended on size as I was a small woman and was connected with three men. I saw a group of five: three children, a man and a woman. It seemed to make sense.
“Dentro! Dentro!” barked El Gordo pointing to the inside of the trunk of the car and indicating that I should get in. My heart sank. I was to be stuffed into the very back of the trunk which had been a bit hollowed out so that we could fit into it. With no choice, I folded myself into as small a package as I could become and climbed into the trunk.
Three sweaty, stinking men then climbed into the trunk on top of me. Four people crammed into the tight trunk were all the car would hold. A piece of wood was put on top of us with tiny holes for breathing and then things were piled in. I guessed these were some obvious souvenirs from Mexico which would likely be in the trunk if it weren’t full of smuggled people. From the outside, all would look normal.
Coming back to the present now, I was on the inside, it was suffocating. I fought down the gag response and concentrated on my breathing, being very slow and being very deliberate. I breathed through my nose and my mouth. I felt my arm go numb. For someone who never did this, I began to pray.
Shadows played inside the trunk. We could hear the sounds of the traffic lining up at the bridge. It moved slowly but at least it was progressing. I felt that we were part of the procession as we crept along. All of a sudden, we stopped. From what I could hear, a car which had been in front of us was moving forward but we were not. We waited for what seemed an eternity and then we drove forward over a tope, a speed bump in the road, and were stopped again. We heard the driver talking to someone and then we moved forward again. Were we through? My heart raced for a minute. No, we were making a turn. We stopped. I heard the door of the car open and close.
It seemed we were in the middle of a burst of activity. All of the doors of the car were being opened. We heard the latch of the trunk click and light streamed into our hiding place, temporarily blinding us. We heard the rummaging around of the souvenirs above our heads. Then a fist pumped hard on the floor of the trunk above us. Now everything was thrown out onto the ground. The tempo was accelerating. I heard the souvenirs being hurled out with fury. Finally there was a scratching around the edges of our false bottom and it sprung open. We were caught. The men above me shifted as we were hauled out of the trunk. Their shoes and elbows and knees dug into me until finally I was lifted out.
“You’re lucky you didn’t suffocate in there,” a border guard said. The driver of our car had his hands behind him and he had handcuffs on them. We were put into a huddle and guards were all around us. They took us through a gate and into a hallway. Everyone was staring at us. Finally, we arrived into the parking lot behind the building and we were put into a van which left immediately.
We bumped along in silence. I thought of the lost dream and brooded to myself. We traveled a ways into the desert and the van left a trail of dust behind it. I could see a building in the distance and figured this would be the detention center, not the hoped-for nirvana.
We stopped at the gate and the guard opened it for us and we drove through. The van came to a halt and the engine was turned off. The guards opened the doors and we got out. They took the driver into another area and motioned for us to wait with a hand up like you do with a dog. We stood around. Waiting. Not talking. Finally a few guards came out and they took the men to one side and me to another. I was brought into a small office and sat across a desk from a woman. She spoke to me in Spanish.
“I am Señora Granados.” She was not smiling. She did not say anything cordial like Mexicans would always say: Mucho gusto, encantado; nice to meet you, enchanted. Instead she barked at me, “What is your name?”
I knew what to do now. The coyotes had instructed us for this. When we made the deal to come to America they told us to prepare a story. A lie really. A story about who we were and where we came from. I had my little story with the wrong name and the wrong town and the wrong reasons for trying to come to the United States. I thought it was a pretty good story and I repeated it for Señora Granados right now. It wouldn’t really matter what I did or didn’t say. It was the end of the story anyway. She typed my story into the computer.
“Come here now and put your face into this machine. Yes. Stand still now.” The machine made a scan of my eyeball. I didn’t like this. It seemed scary to me, like a science fiction movie or something.
After I told my story and she scanned my eye, she fingerprinted me and Señora Granados printed it out and gave it to me to sign. Another guard took me into a bathroom and gave me a towel and let me take a shower. The water felt so wonderful and washed off all of the grime from the road. There were so many girls speaking Spanish that I could forget where I was and think I was still in Mexico. Mexicanas were everywhere: in the center, in the yard, in small cells, in the bathrooms. After my shower, Señora Granados came and took me to a cell where there were already two other girls. She told me I would be deported tomorrow.
“Where you from, chica?” a tiny little señorita asked me. She had the deep brown chiseled face of a Central American, not the soft mocha color of Mexicans.
“The North.” I didn’t want anyone to know my business.
“Oh, Miss Uppity Mexicana,” the little one said. “Culera.” Asshole was not a usual greeting for Mexicans.
“Leave her alone, Elvira. You sure look tired honey. How’d they get you?” said a smiling, middle-aged woman. “I’m Lupita.” Her eyes were kind.
“We were in a false trunk under some packages,” I said, moving across the room near Lupita. I sat on an empty top bunk closer to her and farther away from Elvira.
“Dumb idea,” Elvira said, admiring herself in the mirror while she experimented with different hairstyles. “The border guards can tell by the weight of the car that something’s not right.”
I moved to the lower bunk next to Lupita. She put her arm around me. She reminded me of my mom.
“You paid a coyote for that idea?” Elvira faced me with a snarl of disgust on her face.
“Don’t pay her no mind. She’s going back just like the rest of us.” Lupita tightened her arm around me.
“Did you both get picked up today?” I looked around at the two of them.
“No. We got picked up at different times. We are waiting to be sent back. Sometimes it takes a while for paperwork. Nobody explains it to us. We just wait. What did the guard say to you?” She smoothed my hair.
“She said I would be sent back tomorrow.”
“You’re so lucky. You can come right back.” Elvira pinned her braid to the top of her head and looked like a Mexican Dutch girl.
“Maybe not so lucky. I didn’t get in, did I?”
“No, but you didn’t get killed neither.” She pointed her finger at me.
“Well, that’s something, I guess.”
“Let’s go get some food. It isn’t too bad really.” Lupita took me by the hand.“Anything would taste good right now. Thanks so much, I’m Rosita.” I was amazed how easily the lie came to my lips.
I supposed this is what it feels like to go to college and live in a dormitory with other girls. Lots of chatting: some nice girls, some mean girls. We washed our faces and brushed our teeth in long sinks in a huge bathroom with about twenty cubicles. It was the biggest bathroom I had ever seen. The toilets flushed and the girls could put the toilet paper directly in the toilet. I couldn’t believe how clean it was. Under different circumstances, it would have been nice to be here.
The beds were flat and hard but they were clean and everything worked. There was a little light near each bed so we could read. I was in the upper bunk and the light was in the wall over my head. I took a few minutes to look at my mother’s picture before I went to sleep. I thought I would be sad but like the lady in the bunk below had said, I wasn’t dead. I knew what I had to do.
They woke me early, first light. Señora Granados was already on the job and came to get me.
“Get up, Rosita,” she called. For a second I forgot that I was Rosita. I jumped out of bed. “You’ve got thirty minutes to get something to eat and get ready. I will come for you here.” She stomped away before she was finished with the sentence and it trailed after her.
“A la verga. Oh shit!” Elvira woke in a foul humor. Probably every day, I thought. “Can’t get no sleep here.”
Lupita waved at me from her bed as I was leaving the cell. I waved back, grateful for her kindness.
After breakfast I was waiting near the door to the cafeteria when Señora Granados came along.
“Let’s go, Rosita,” she took my arm. Where was I going to run?