When I got to work on Monday morning, my co-worker, Kate, approached my desk and asked with a sense of urgency if I knew anyone in Texas.
‘Texas. Do you have friends there?’
‘Yeah, I think so. Why?’
She told me her husband’s friend and younger brother were caught last night crossing the border in a town called Brownsville, and not by border patrol, but by someone pretending to be a coyote.
‘He says if they pay him money he’ll let them go.’
‘Jesus. How much?’
‘Five hundred bucks.’
‘And what if they don’t pay?’
‘I don’t know. He’ll turn them in to the authorities, probably.’
‘Can’t they just get out of there?’
‘He has guns.’
We googled Brownsville. It was a small town located right on the border of Texas and Mexico. I sent Facebook messages and text messages asking for help. I googled ‘Immigrant Amnesty in Brownsville, Texas.’ I found some resources in San Antonio.
‘We need to get them to San Antonio.’
‘Do they have any money?’
‘They had to spend most of it getting people to let them cross the Rio Grande.’
‘We should start a Kickstarter.’
That night I went to Kate’s house in Grove City, Ohio, to offer something like moral support and to talk to her husband, Leo. Grove City is all farmland and a Wal-Mart Supercenter. They live on a twenty-two acre farm that her deceased ex-husband left after his mistress ran him over with a car in a coke-fueled meltdown. The farm is set back from the road on a hidden drive and there are rows and rows of tomatoes, zucchini, corn, and chickens and horses moving lethargically in the summer heat. I park and walk into a house of children–four from Kate’s former marriage, and one with Leo. They are all beautiful. Leo makes us micheladas and shows me his boxing jerseys and shorts thumbtacked on the basement wall. There are newspaper clippings of his past championships. He crossed the border in 2001 with aspirations of professional boxing that are still very much in his blood but now he works as a hardscaper, building patios and sidewalks and outdoor fireplaces for rich Ohioans. He’s worked in too many kitchens to count. He tells me that his brother and his brother’s friend are now on a bus from San Antonio to Columbus and that Kate had wired the $500 to Brownsville. I ask if he feels relieved.
‘Not really. They’ll get caught again and sent back. It happened to me, and it’ll happen to them.’
With border patrol and immigration being the fucked nightmare that it is, and the recent border crisis involving tens of thousands of child immigrants making national headlines, I was anxious to hear a first-person account of what it’s like to cross. I sat down with Leo and asked him some questions.
LL: When did you first think about coming to the U.S. and how did you make it happen?
LEO: I was around seventeen years old when I started asking my uncle in Columbus, Ohio to help me cross. He crossed years ago, and he said he could hire me a coyote for 16,000 pesos, which was about $1,600. His sister, my aunt, lived in Mexico, and I could give the money to her and he would take care of it. Of course I didn’t have that kind of money at seventeen, and I had just run away from my other uncle’s house because he was a drunk. My father died when I was nine years old, and my mother died when I was fourteen, so I was raised by an uncle in Mexico City. We sold stuff to tourists in the Zocalo, the city center, but I didn’t make enough so I got a job at a chicken factory. Then I met this guy from Israel, who traveled around the malls and boutiques selling jewelry. He hired me and paid me pretty well. I saved this money until I could give it to my uncle’s sister. And then I was able to cross. I had just turned twenty.
LL: How did you get to the border?
LEO: I flew with two friends from Mexico City to Sonora, which is where we crossed. I had to buy the plane ticket myself; it wasn’t included in the 16,000 pesos. My uncle gave me the number of the coyotes we were supposed to call when we landed in Sonora. We called them and they told us to take a taxi to a hotel. We waited in the room for two nights. The coyotes came to the hotel on the third day and we had to wait until the sun went down before we could leave. The coyotes brought two other men with them, other Mexicans who would cross with us. When it was dark outside, we drove for about three hours to a small town where we crossed over.
LL: Were you scared?
LEO: No. I was young. I was excited. I was ready.
LL: What was crossing like?
LEO: The coyotes dropped us off and said, ‘You’re going to walk two days and one night. Goodbye.’ And so we walked about two hours to the border. Back then it was just a wire fence. There was the United States and then there was Mexico. So simple. I turned around and said, Goodbye, Mexico, and picked up some Mexican sand and put it in my pocket. And then we walked. And kept walking. The light of the moon was the light that we had, and that was it. We whispered a little to each other, and some of the guys stopped because they were tired, but we walked continuously for about eight hours. Then we took a break and slept in the desert for a couple of hours. We woke up and kept walking. Always walking. I had only two gallons of water and a little food, but I wasn’t worried about it because the coyotes told us, ‘Two days, one night.’ And you know what? We ended up walking for five days and four nights.
LL: What did you think about while you walked?
LEO: I thought about my brothers and my sister. And I sang songs. I realized I never wanted to go back. It was okay to think of my life as chapters and this was another one, another step, another foot, walking until I stopped walking. I thought about my mother a lot when I looked at the sky and the moon. I thought about my father. I couldn’t turn back. I thought about getting caught and I was always ready to hide. I was like a machine: eating, sleeping, walking.
LL: How did you handle the physical endurance of so much walking? How did the others handle it?
LEO: I was in good shape because I’m an athlete. It was very hard but not impossible. The others struggled. One guy was really fat and his foot was completely swollen inside his boot from all the walking. He took off his boot and the bottom of his foot was one big blister. We got rid of his boots and I gave him my extra sandals. I said, ‘You need these more than me, man.’ We also cut his jeans open like a skirt because they were rubbing and chafing his legs so bad you could see blood under the skin. I felt bad for him. He drank his water too fast and I gave him whatever extra I had. We had to help each other, you know? At night it was very cold, so we used our body heat to stay warm, and some plastic bags that we had. Sometimes I carried their book bags because they were too tired. I tried to help them as much as I could. We were in it together.
LL: So did you meet another coyote? What was your next destination?
LEO: Yeah, we were told to meet another coyote in Arizona. He would be there with a vehicle to take us to a house to sleep, shower, eat. They advised us to erase our tracks, so one guy was always behind, kicking the sand to make our footprints disappear. The coyote was waiting for us in a van. We got in the van and the driver made it about twenty minutes before he ran out of gas. He told us to hide in the bush while he went in search of gas, so we left our things in the van and sat in a dry bush. We waited there for a couple of hours until we saw police cars approach the van. ‘No mames,’ I said, which basically means ‘No fucking way.’ The police inspected the van, and then a tow truck came to tow the van with all of our stuff inside. We couldn’t do anything except sit there in this fucking dry bush with spiders and snakes crawling around us for four or five hours. Finally, around eleven o’clock at night, a new van arrived to take us to the house. There were maybe ten or fifteen other immigrants in the house, sleeping, eating, hiding. Some women, no children. I drank some soda and tried to take a shower but I had no idea how to make the hot water work. I never asked how to use it because, for Mexicans, if you ask, you’re stupid. So I took cold showers for the few days we stayed there. And then the pollero arrived.
LL: What’s a pollero?
LEO: A pollero is the Chicken Man. He is the one who transports Mexicans in a car, or trailer, or boxcar. A coyote is the one who actually walks and brings people through the desert at night. Like a real coyote, sneaky. But the pollero has a vehicle. And we, the Mexicans riding in his car, are the pollos.
LL: Where did the pollero take you?
LEO: The pollero was supposed to take us all the way to our final destinations, but we got caught by highway patrol near Albuquerque.
Leo’s son, Quauhtlis, comes downstairs and brings us Corona. Leo plays some music and sits back and drinks his beer. We are silent for a few minutes, listening to the footsteps of the children running around upstairs. A tiny spider crawls up my leg and I flick it to the basement floor. It’s cold and damp down here, but feels comfortable, closed off from the world. I look at Leo’s face and the crease between his eyebrows, a line as deep as the lines on his palms. He wears a blue bandana and a muscle shirt and gym shorts. There is an intensity to him that doesn’t quit. He’s always on guard. Quauhtlis touches my iPhone that is recording his father’s story, and Leo tells him softly in Spanish to leave it alone. Quauhtlis puts his arms around his father and says, ‘Papita.’ Kate comes downstairs and tells us she’s making chili.
LL: What was your experience with border patrol like?
LEO: Fucking racist and terrible. I didn’t speak any English, but I knew ‘wetbacks’ and ‘beaners’ and they said those things a lot. They were sort of cruel. They took us to a station to get our information. No translator, nothing, we had no clue what was going on. They took our fingerprints and told us to sign some form that would keep us out of trouble if we got caught crossing again. It was a voluntary deportation form, I think. I gave them a fake name and signed the thing. Then they threw us in a cell. We spent the night there and the next day they handcuffed us and put us on a bus to Juarez.
LL: And after Juarez?
LEO: We got on a bus from Juarez and went back to where we started in Sonora. The coyote from before, the one who forgot to put gas in the van, met us in Sonora and walked us over the border again. This time, he owed us, so he had a car waiting as soon as we crossed over to drive us to our final stops. He smoked crack sometimes to stay awake. He would say some crazy shit about the animals in the desert and I just laughed. But he was a good guy, he had to stay awake to drive us all the way across the country, and he wanted to do a good job. The car was so small, it was like a Ford Focus, and there were seven of us in the car, and we drove from Arizona to Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Columbus. We slept in the car when we could, and ate McDonald’s hamburgers almost every day. We never had hamburgers back in Mexico so they tasted good. We made it to Atlanta and we dropped off our friend with the bad blister. We said, ‘God bless you.’ And that was it. Never saw him again. Then we continued on to the other cities, and I finally made it to my uncle’s house in Columbus. I got a job at Baja Fresh. And now here I am.
LL: How do you think you’d handle crossing over now? Are you worried about your brother?
LEO: I’m not sure I could make it now. It’s very violent and guarded and people are out for blood. Now the cartel runs the crossings and you have to pay a lot of money just to swim across the Rio Grande. So not only are you up against the American border patrol, but it’s also Mexican against Mexican. Everyone is trying to make money. I am worried about my brother because he is not prepared for this. There are so many checkpoints in Ohio and he will have to be very careful. I hear stories all the time about border patrol beating up immigrants before sending them back. I am glad I did it before September 11th. I am glad I did it before all of this border mess. Now I have to work on getting my papers and paying all the money for that, which will take years. But there is always more time and there is always work. I will never stop working. I live, I work. One day I will write a book about all of this.
Two weeks later we found out that the police stopped Leo’s brother at a random checkpoint in Columbus. When he failed to produce any papers, the police said, ‘You’re going to see the boss’ and took him to be detained at ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement). He refused to be fingerprinted and sign deportation papers, and said, ‘I want to stay.’ ICE officials used physical force to hold his hands down for fingerprinting and hit him in the stomach before locking him in a cell. He was detained until a plane flew him back to Texas and border patrol walked him across to Mexico. He told Leo that he will try to cross again next year.