An exciting excerpt from Illegals

Chapters 7 & 8

Chapter 7

Ana and Manuel followed a dirt road beside el rió Suchiate—the river that separates Guatemala from México. They and a handful of other Salvadorean refugees had traveled there by bus from San Salvador, arriving at the border town of Tecúm Umán where they hired a coyote to smuggle them into the United States.

Their faces were apricot-colored, bathed by the final blazes of the setting sun. And though they appeared to be out for an evening stroll, their eyes were riveted on the coyote. When the time was right, he would wave them into the thicket that grew beside the river. There, they would wait. Then, with the cover of darkness, they would secretly cross the river into México.

Tecúm Umán was a way station for poor Central Americans who wanted to emigrate to the United States. If one had the money, one could buy anything there. But the hottest commodity was the smuggler—especially los coyotes. They stood on the corners and hustled would-be immigrants like drug dealers in a big city.

As the Salvadoreans walked the streets of Tecúm Umán, there were many sights that were strange to them and many familiar: musicians and thieves, preachers and soldiers. Mayans dressed in native fabrics sold handicrafts, homemade cheese and mangos in the streets. Young lovers sat beside each other on the roots of la ceiba, shaped like giant gnarled hands, while parrots bickered above them in the tree’s broad branches. And in the distance, there was el puente—the bridge. Whether they reached the United States or not, that would be what the refugees would remember best. They would remember the bridge because it was guarded by soldiers armed for battle, and because they could not cross it.

El río Suchiate rolled under the bridge that joined México and Guatemala. Upstream, hidden in the jungles, were great pyramids and pitted stone carvings, relics of the once great Mayan nation. Vines and wildflowers covered the ruins now. Monkeys and tourists climbed the ancient temples in the gaps between torrential rains and intermittent war.

It was not long before the refugees drew the attention of a patrol of National Guardsmen, who ordered them to raise their hands above their heads—which they did so obligingly one might have thought it was a greeting in that part of the world. The soldiers asked their names, birthdates and destination, poking the men with machine guns as though they were syringes that injected truth serum. They searched everyone until satisfied they weren’t armed with weapons or revolutionary literature. A pamphlet even mildly critical of the government would have spelled doom for them all.

Though they found nothing, the guardsmen were still suspicious. One thought he spotted a hint of anger in Manuel’s eyes—a definite sign of subversive tendencies. He launched into an interrogation, asking questions for which there were no acceptable answers: “Why are you in Guatemala? What kind of problems did you have in El Salvador?” Watching the relentless questioning, Ana’s legs began to buckle. The soldiers held a conference, Manuel’s eyes the subject of debate. Things did not look good for the refugees as the guardsmen’s expressions hardened and their eyes flashed with accusations.

An old woman began to cough violently. She grasped her chest and fell to her knees, gasping, “My heart! My heart!”

The soldiers began to laugh. “Some guerrillas they would make!” one chortled. “They’re just another bunch of guanacos trying to get to the United States. Let the stupid bastards go.”

The refugees were handed their papers, informed that the bridge to México was closed to all but official traffic. Then they were dismissed. As they walked down the road, heads bowed, the coyote appeared to be angry.

Soon it grew dark. The coyote kept glancing about, observing with night vision the eyes of faceless men leaning against almond trees—men who worked for him. One gave the signal he awaited and the coyote motioned to the refugees. Instantly they plunged into the thicket beside the river. As they scurried for cover, a man hidden in the brush herded them into a small enclave secretly prepared for them that morning. Huddling together, the refugees watched the coyote as he cocked his head toward the road.

It was not long before they became accustomed to the dark. The clamor of day settled as the river slipped behind them toward the sea. The refugees listened to the night. An owl hooted in a ceiba tree, its shadows etching a portrait of a woman in mourning. In the distance, raccoons ate crabs and wept. Leaves of almond trees danced in the cool breeze and a gentleman bird rushed up to them crying, “Caballero! Caballero!” warning them of danger ahead.

The coyote climbed back toward the road, pausing motionless at the edge of the thicket. As the moon rose over the forest, he avoided its light.

Across the road, someone lit a cigarette. Instantly the coyote bounded back into the brush and ordered everyone to strip and tie their clothing and other belongings into tight bundles. He herded them into the river, instructing them to stay close together in a single-file line and to move directly to the bank on the opposite side. The old woman pleaded with him, explaining she could not swim, a disadvantage shared by many others who remained silent. “Don’t worry!” he told her impatiently “It’s low enough to wade across.” Then, with a snap of his fingers, he said, “Move!”

Into the river they went, one by one plopping into the rushing water, their clothes held over their heads with one hand, the other groping toward the next person in line. They squinted and struggled to spot the riverbank in the moonlight. But all they could see was a luminous spray as it rose to the sky, the darkness below them, and the bare back of the person they followed.

Ana felt the current pulling her downstream, sucking at her waist. And it seemed to her the river was alive—that a spirit lived there, throbbing and breathing, driven by an insatiable hunger, its misty breath rising up to the heavens. Yes, she knew there was a spirit there just as surely as one can feel another’s presence when being watched. And she was scared. From the beginning of time the river had conquered everything in its path, rock polished smooth as it raced past pyramids and through the jungle, bearing gold and bloated bodies, washing clothes and blood clean. As Ana crossed el río Suchiate, she felt it reach for her breasts—and she felt strange and somehow guilty. Then, in the darkness, the river laughed.

I must hurry! Ana thought. God, please, help me! I must hurry! The night belongs to the river . . . and it is alive!

Suddenly, there was a hollow splash. A young man who had lost his balance was instantly towed downstream by the current. Ana and Manuel turned toward him, interrupting the refugees’ movement forward. An old woman behind them was confused by the change of pace, slipped and was swallowed by the river. Manuel quickly reached for her flailing hand and yanked her back into line. She sputtered and coughed, struggling to remain as quiet as possible, though terrified by her ordeal. The young man scooped away by the current managed to fight his way back against the onslaught of the river, using precious time to search for his belongings as he battled to rejoin the others. The delay angered the coyote boss, who waved his arms frantically until everyone was back in line and moving again. The coyote and his partners pushed and pulled and prodded the refugees until everyone reached the bank on the Mexican side of the river.

There, the refugees struggled to get dressed, though their clothes were wet and stiff. But the boss forced them to move along, regardless of how little progress they had made. They fumbled down a path in the dark, pulling up pant legs and hopping on one foot as they tried to slip on shoes. The young man who had been swept away by the current walked barefoot, having lost his shoes in the rushing water. Days later, children would discover them on the riverbank and assume they belonged to a dead man.

Into the night they marched, the forest gradually thinning, the earth no longer soft and pliant beneath their feet, their hair blown dry by a breeze now too tenuous to carry the moisture and scent of the river. In the light of the moon they marched, climbing rocky hillsides, their footsteps setting loose streams of stones that poured into the caves of iguanas and interrupted their sleep. The hours passed and still they marched, through groves of mangos and jocotes, not able to pause and quench their thirst or satisfy their hunger. They plodded ahead toward an unknown destination in a land where they had never been.

In time they reached a battered wood-frame building—a bus depot. The coyote signaled everyone to gather around. “We’re going to take a bus now. Don’t talk to anyone! Nobody! If they notice your accent, they might turn you in to immigration.”

“Why would they do that?” the old woman asked.

“Vieja! Don’t you know nothing? You’ll find out soon enough.” An hour passed, during which the immigrants struggled to remain awake. Finally, a bus arrived, an hour behind schedule. It was a machine built of iron and wood back when the old woman was young. In the daytime, this contraption would be so crowded that men and boys would ride on the luggage rack on top. But the hour and location presented many empty seats to the refugees, wooden benches as comfortable as beds to the weary travelers. Following instructions from the coyote, they sat apart from one another like strangers—except Ana and Manuel. Manuel dared not leave Ana alone.

They rode the bus for two hours, the Mexican passengers holding chickens and children on their laps as they snored. Occasionally, a particularly violent jolt would awaken them as the bus bounded over a gaping hole in the road overlooked by the drowsy driver.

Soon the bus arrived at another desolate station. Responding to a signal from the coyote, the refugees jumped down from the bus to a dusty dirt road, then followed him for more than a mile until they reached the outskirts of a small town. In the moonlight they stopped and stared at what would have appeared to be a parcel of overused land were it not for a hand-painted sign that declared in Spanish: “Place of Recreation for the People—Gift of the Benevolent Government of the People of México.”

Empty bottles of tequila and beer cans lay scattered about in the tall grass. Dogs prowled the park, searching through garbage and eyeing the refugees with suspicion, as if to warn them they were trespassing on their turf. Three derelicts sharing a bottle of cheap brandy attempted to focus their eyes on the refugees, then laughed bitterly, their heads drooping in exhaustion.

“We’ll be spending the rest of the night here,” the coyote announced. “Stay close together and try to get some sleep. We’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”

Having gone without sleep for two days, the immigrants lost little time searching for plots to spend the night. Ana and Manuel camped where they stood, though the earth was parched and hard as adobe. They lay on the ground in the park and gazed at the moon. As tired as they were, they felt as though they were still moving, waiting for a signal from the coyote.

“I wonder how my mother is doing,” Ana sighed.

“She is fine. I am sure she is fine. She is sound asleep, probably dreaming about you,” Manuel whispered.

Ana tried to smile. She tried to take comfort in what her cousin said. But she knew him too well. He would always find something good to say, no matter how difficult things were. When the government of El Salvador unleashed The Terror, he said it was because they were at el fin de el camino—at the end of the road. He said it was just a matter of time before the people would stand up and change things. That is what he said, even back then when there were screams in the night. And the next morning, when they found the bodies burned and mutilated in the street, he would still insist: It is the beginning of the end, my cousin. Watch and see. Something better will come.

Ana wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe things would change. She smiled and shook her head. Este hombre! He is so wonderful and so foolish! How he loves to dream! Such a typical man, thinking about football games and revolutions! Going to the United States . . . that is the most practical thing he has ever done.

Ana gazed at the sky and thought about her mother and her brothers and the way they lived. Hay Dios miyo. Help us to find work so we can send money back home to our families. Please God! It has been so hard. What have we done to deserve this life? Being born a poor Latin American—is that a crime? Dios! Por favor! Help us to make it to Los Angeles where at least we can find work!

An icy ring circled the moon; crickets sang to each other, joined in song by the drunken men.

As Ana prayed, Manuel lay on his back, hands cradling his head. Soon his thoughts drifted to his wife and son. Ah, mi familia. How much you have suffered. Now your suffering has grown ten times! Are you sleeping now, my son? Did your mother kiss you goodnight for me? Did she say: Mi niño—que tenga dúlces sueños de menta y chocolate, mi amor. Did she whisper those words to you and kiss your cheek? And did you reach for your mother and hold her close to you? Did you tell her how much you love her, my son? I am sorry I cannot be there to say goodnight to you. I am sorry you were born in a country where the people have to suffer so. Oh, but things will change, my son. I promise you! Things will change. But you are just a boy, just a child. You cannot wait to eat. When I find a job in North America, I will send money to your mother so she can buy you shoes and books. And on Christmas you will have presents to open. I promise you! You have waited long enough, mi hijo. You will never go hungry again. And though I am far away from you now, do you know how much your Papá loves you? Do you know I left you and your mother so you can live a better life? Oh God! Please! Let my son know that I left because I love him!

Before long Ana and Manuel slipped away, lulled to sleep by the songs of crickets and mumbling of drunken men. They slept side by side in the light of the moon—two cousins, far away from home.

In the distance, a dog howled. The coyote instinctively propped himself up on one arm and listened. As he lay back down, he thought: Tomorrow I am going to sleep in a hotel. This shit is for winos and wetbacks.

Chapter 8

Their shoulders were brown and bare and beautiful, and when they smiled, their eyes sparkled with a modesty so sincere it was breathtaking. “Buenas noches. Welcome to Don Ramón’s Restaurant,” one of the hostesses said as she greeted a customer. It was Silvino, a worker from the Mersola factory, there to attend the union meeting. For a moment, he stood speechless, smiling nervously, doing his best to conceal his beer belly. And though Silvino prided himself on being a ladies’ man, he was bashful and confused, totally enamored by the black-haired woman in her bleached-white peasant blouse. “Habla español?” he asked. “Do you speak Spanish?”

“Sí, como no!” she assured him. “Le puedo ayudar en algo? Can I help you?”

“Pues . . .” Silvino wanted desperately to say something clever—something he could share with his friends later. But the hostess at Don Ramón’s Mexican Restaurant was simply too young and too beautiful. “I was told there is a meeting here tonight—a union meeting.”

“Oh, you must be here to meet with Antonio,” the hostess said, smiling mysteriously. “Come right this way.”

The hostess led Silvino through the restaurant, past a Spanish-style fountain where a veil of phosphorescent water danced. Young couples sat close together in plush booths. As they sipped frosty margaritas and gazed into each other’s eyes, they spoke enthusiastically about the future, conjuring up wonderful lies.

Meeting in the back room of the restaurant were a hundred people from the Mersola factory. Workers sat at a conference table usually reserved for business meetings, their animated discussions rising to a fever pitch. As the hostess opened the double doors for Silvino, everyone turned to see who had arrived. Silvino was greeted warmly, as were all the workers before him. But they were waiting for Antonio.

They did not have to wait long. Within a few minutes he bounded into the conference room through the back door, as confident as a first-rate boxer entering the ring.

Antonio was greeted by an enthusiastic ovation, and his eyes sparkled. He nodded his head in recognition and worked the room, shaking the hands of those he knew, making a point to introduce himself to those he did not.

Antonio stepped up to the podium at the head of the long table, and all conversations came to an abrupt end. Workers twisted napkins around their fingers, sat on the edge of their chairs and smiled at each other nervously.

“It’s great to see so many of you here tonight,” he began, speaking in Spanish. “It’s not easy to get away from the house and kids on a weeknight. This should show everyone that there is a lot of support for the union at Mersola’s.

“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Antonio Rodriguez. I’m the organizer for the Shoeworkers Union, Local 305. I know you don’t have much time, so I’ll get right down to business. But first I want to thank the owner of Don Ramón’s Mexican Restaurant for letting us use this room tonight. He’s not charging us anything. Usually, a room like this costs at least a hundred dollars to rent. So, if any of you are hungry, there will be a waitress coming in soon. The food is very good and reasonably priced—so if you can afford it, I’d encourage you to buy something so we can use this room again.”

“Bueno, Antonio,” Javier said from across the room, holding a beer bottle by its neck at his side. “I hope they serve beans and tortillas. That’s all I can afford.”

The workers laughed, and Javier enjoyed the attention.

“I can see that,” Antonio replied, eyeing Javier’s beer. Javier smiled impishly, attempting to hide it under the table.

“Seriously, we all know that with what Mersola pays you, it is hard to eat much more than beans and tortillas. We all grew up on that and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is good food. But sometimes we want to have something more. When the weekend comes, we all want to be able to have carne asada and guacamole. And we want our children to have things we didn’t have.”

As Antonio spoke, he established a rhythm, his sentences tied together and punctuated by the movement of his hands. Watching him, many of the workers were mesmerized by his movements, as though they revealed more than his words.

“There is a man here who has worked at Mersola’s for twelve years. For twelve years he has worked hard, never missing a day, never late. And what does he get for all his effort?” Snapping his wrist sharply, he answered, “Nada! He’s still getting the minimum. Mersola has two time cards for him. Two cards with two names and two social security numbers. When he works overtime, he punches out on one card and in on the other. Why? So Mersola won’t have to pay him overtime pay. Last year, his wife got sick and had to go to the hospital. She was there three days and had to have surgery. It cost nine thousand dollars. If he had been covered by union benefits, he would have only had to pay a few hundred dollars. But he wasn’t. Mersola has no health plan. He has no retirement plan. No vacation plan, either. The only plan Mersola has is how to make himself richer. Now, the old man who has worked hard for Mersola for twelve years has to pay nine thousand dollars. Why? Because if his wife went to the county hospital, she might get deported. Because they are what the newspapers and television call ‘illegal aliens.’ Legally, they do not qualify for Medi-Cal. This is the thanks the old man gets for working hard, for paying taxes and trying to make a living for his family.”

The workers nodded their heads. “Claro,” they agreed. Javier stood back and watched Antonio in awe.

“If you form a union at Mersola—if you get organized—you won’t have to suffer as you do now. You can win the dignity and self-respect you all deserve. But, again, to do that, you have only one weapon. Only one . . . and that is organization.”

An older man stood up. “Antonio, I’m all for the union. But what about la migra?” A nervous murmur arose. “There’s already been one immigration raid at Mersola’s, about a year ago. It’s been pretty quiet since then. You know, my brother—he goes downtown every morning at six a.m. He waits around on Mariposa Street with around sixty other guys, waiting for a contractor to come. The contractor gets there and asks,‘Who wants to work?’ And everyone shouts, ‘I do!’ Then the contractor says, ‘Well, I need someone for the whole day, and I’ll pay twenty dollars.’ He gets them bidding. Someone says, ‘I’ll work for fifteen!’ and then someone else shouts, ‘I’ll do it for twelve!’ So they end up working from six in the morning until five at night for twelve dollars. Then, some of the contractors take away four dollars for lunch! Well, it’s bad at Mersola’s, Iknow. But at least I’ve got a steady job. If we try to bring in the union, maybe he is going to call in the immigration. Then we’ll have nothing.” Several other workers agreed, turning to each other and shaking their heads.

Antonio listened, then he raised his hands to quiet the crowd. “You know, the kind of thing you are talking about, with bidding and so on, used to be true for almost everyone in this country. ¿Saben qué? People came here from Europe, from all around the world. They didn’t have rights, either. Neither did the workers who had families here for generations. They worked themselves to death, working twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, with no overtime pay, no benefits, nothing. If they got hurt on the job, it was their tough luck. The company or the government didn’t do a damn thing to help them or their families. That’s when they started to organize. The first unions in this country were organized by immigrants! Irish, Russian, Italian, Polish, German—most of them didn’t even speak English. And they didn’t have papers or any rights. They were a lot like you. Miren . . . I’m not going to tell you it is going to be easy. Nothing changes without effort. It took years for the unions to grow strong, and even today, a lot of them are in trouble. They are still under attack. But look, the main thing to remember is that together we are strong!

“You all have rights, the same as anyone else in this country—or any other country, for that matter. These are God-given rights—human rights. Just because right now they are not on paper does not mean they are not due to you. And, as far as that goes, you should always remember—this all used to be part of México.

“You have the God-given right to be here and to work here. If you run and hide from la migra—if you let Mersola frighten you with the immigration—you are always going to be behind in the rent, you are always going to make the minimum. Or, you can stand up and fight for your rights!”

There was a loud, passionate ovation. Even the old man who had brought up the specter of la migra was applauding enthusiastically.

As the applause died down, another worker stood up to be heard. Young and well dressed, he glanced around the room and waited for everyone to quiet down before starting to speak. But before he said a word, Antonio wondered: Who is this guy? He knows something. It’s the way he’s waiting for everyone to quiet down. He knows what he’s doing.

The young man began to speak to the people, though his remarks were aimed at Antonio.

“It is a beautiful idea, having a union,” he began, gesturing smoothly. “Antonio—I admire you for coming here and talking to us about our problems. You’re an effective speaker and you’ve obviously gone to college, or had some education. I, too, went to the university. In México. But almost everyone else here can’t read or write that well in Spanish, much less in English. And most of us, unlike you, don’t have our papers.

“You know, I was one of the first in the factory to talk about people getting together, to support the union…”

That’s who it is, Antonio thought. David. He was one of the people who came to the union about starting an organizing drive. But what is he doing?

“I lost my job because of it. I got fired for going to the union. Just a week before you filed the petition for an election. After having seen how things work, now I think differently. You all are taking a big chance of losing what little you have!”

Turning to Antonio, David asked, “Who will take care of our families if we are fired or deported? What good would the union be then?”

Many of the workers were troubled by David’s question.

“What’s protecting you from being fired or deported now?” Antonio said.

David glanced down at the table, smiled and shook his head as though Antonio had asked a silly question.

“Antonio, Antonio, you have papers. You were born here, have an education, speak English. You have a car and probably own your own home. I think you are well intentioned. But you don’t understand theproblems we face.” He turned away from Antonio and faced the crowd. “We have got to do something about the way things are for us. But we have got to be realistic. We should make a petition to Mersola asking for a raise. I can take it to him since I’ve already been fired and have nothing to lose.”

David watched the expressions of the people, prepared to shape his words to their response. When many of them nodded in agreement, he turned back to Antonio. “We have to be realistic. We all know you would look really good if you won the union election. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to move up in the world. That’s what we all want. But we have to be realistic. We have to do what is best for us. Mersola would probably give us all fifty cents an hour more just to keep the union out. That would be a lot of money in our pockets.

“We can handle things ourselves,” David said, turning again toward the workers. “Some of us have an education and know what to do. I went to the labor board when I got fired and I have an appeal there now. But we shouldn’t antagonize Mersola by trying to bring in the union. It just might make him call in la migra. Like I said, we have to be realistic. We have to think about how we’re going to get by today. Tomorrow never comes.”

Many of even the staunchest supporters of the union were stunned by David’s words. But Javier did not trust him. He flitted about like a bird leaping from perch to perch—he wanted to say something, but he just could not come up with the words.

As David sat down, there was a great commotion. Antonio knew he had lost control. There was nothing he could say—David had cast doubt upon his intentions. Antonio scanned the room and noticed Javier pacing about nervously. Say something! Antonio thought. Say something or all is lost!

An old man stood up and braced himself against the table. As he glanced around the room, he appeared to be weary. He shook his head in resignation as the drone of a dozen conversations continued around him.

“Let him speak!” Javier cried. “Don José has something to say!” The room grew silent. The old man cleared his throat and took a moment to gather his thoughts. Then, slowly, he began. “I don’t have any education. I went to school for three years and that is all. I’m embarrassed to admit that I cannot read or write very well. I’m not much of a speaker, either. I hope you will forgive me.

“I grew up in Chihuahua—in México—working on my father’s ranch. Life was good for a while. Then my father died, and it was not long before we lost our land. I went to work when I was nine years old. My life has been difficult, just like it has for most of us in this room. Only working and working. And still, I have nothing. But I think I learned one thing after working all these years. And that is, if you don’t have hope—if you don’t plant the seeds for harvest—then, it is true: Tomorrow never comes.

“You must turn the soil and plant the seeds. Then you must water and nurture the seeds until they sprout, and care for them until they are tall and strong. Isn’t that the way life is?

“But what happens if you don’t tend the crops? What will you have for your children when it is time for the harvest? You will have nothing!” José took a deep, troubled breath. He cleared his throat and arched his eyebrows as if he were exhausted.

“There is one other thing I have learned. Don’t ever beg.” He shook his head slowly. “No, my friends,  only then have you lost everything. And let me tell you something from my heart: I would go hungry first, and I would let my children go hungry. It sounds hard, but it is true. I would never get down on my knees. Why? Because I love my family, and there are some things that are more important than food. Would you want your family to see you on your knees?

“I am an old man. And I am tired. But I can tell you something. I would rather go to my grave like a man than live like a beggar. It is time for us to stand up and be men!” José clutched his fist and pounded it against his chest. “We have nothing to lose! We have got to think of our children! We must have our dignity!”

José paused again and gazed down at the table. “It will not be easy fighting a rich man. He has money and power and just about everything is on his side. Except one thing. And that is justice. Justice is on our side. We must fight for what is right. We must do it for our children. Otherwise, what will they learn? What hope will they have? What kind of a world will we leave for them?

“Antonio. This is a difficult thing you ask us to do. It will not be easy. But—win or lose—I can assure you—you can count me in!”

The meeting erupted into wild applause, workers standing on their chairs and shouting, “Viva la unión! Huelga! Long live the union! Strike!”

Javier clapped his hands, danced and carried on, savoring the moment, thrilled by the chanting. Men shook hands and slapped each other on the back, and women embraced.

David watched and took it all in. Like an actor at an audition, he slipped into character, his face undergoing a transformation as radical as any accomplished by trick photography. A sly grin took form and as the workers hooted and clapped their hands, David thrust his fist into the air and cried, “Viva la unión!”

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