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A Border Story

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This is our last day. Mentally we’ve already left Mexico. Our heads are filled with check-in times and boarding passes for various flights home to Copenhagen. But it doesn’t end quite like that. There is still one more story we must have with us from this land’s fantastic people: a story we will not forget.

Our taxi driver to the airport is a small, slim man about 50 years old, a man who knows people. He cools us off by talking about the streets we drive through. This is his childhood city, and a picture of how it once was unfolds.

“School and I quickly found out that we didn’t get along. I didn’t spend much time there. I learned my first English words on the street. It was then, you know, that American artists came here to settle down. There were no busses or cars so they walked home with their groceries from the market.

“Can I help you?” I learned to say. So, I carried their goods up the steep streets and got tips, and ran back to find another customer.

“The other boys kept asking me: what is it you say to them. ‘Nothing’, I answered. That was my business secret.”

Now, the chauffeur speaks English almost without a Mexican accent. So it is obvious to ask if he has worked up north.

”Thirteen times have I been over the border. I was arrested four times on the way and sent back. Finally, they said they had my fingerprints and photo so I mustn’t come again. Americans, you know, have only one first name and surname. I have five names so I could give various combinations each time they captured me, but I didn’t lie.

“’OK,’” I told them, “’so I won’t come this way again.’”

“The first many years, I worked as a cowboy in Texas. I didn’t learn any English there as all the workers on the ranches spoke Spanish. It was much later when I came to California that I learned the language.

“It was about to go really bad two times crossing. First time was on the way to Texas. The trip was to take seven days but it took 15. We got lost at one point. It was bad weather and our compass didn’t work properly. It showed north regardless of which way we went. So we went about in circles for some days and became exhausted.

“I was strong then. I was only 14 but never was afraid. My father and his friend were with me.

”When we ran out of food, we lived on rattle snakes. Man, do they ever get big in Texas. Your hand can’t get halfway round on them. We knew their rattling sound so we jumped aside before they attacked. They rattle, you know, to warn you not to get closer. So we caught them with a stick, broke their necks and swung them over our shoulders. In the evening, my father would make a bonfire and fry them. First, they would be cut lengthwise and the guts cleaned out. The skin would be left on for frying best.

“Some say rattle snakes taste like chicken, but they don’t. The meat and bones are similar to fish, but they taste of nothing. We had no salt, no chile, nothing to spice them with. But they kept us alive.

“Sometimes we ate armadillos. My father’s friend was clever at killing them. Their eyes sit on the sides of their heads, you know, so they can’t see you just before them. He struck them with a stone on the forehead. My father had an old-fashioned double-edged razor so he could cut the meat out of them. We stuck the meat on a stick and roasted them over the fire. But they have so much fat that they easily catch fire. So, it takes a long time to get the meat tender, because you have to take them in and out of the fire so much. One evening, we only had damp firewood so finally my father said, ‘Enough! They are ready.’ Man, were they ever juicy, so much so that the juice ran down our faces and hands. Next morning in the daylight we could see that it looked like we had had a vampire party. We had eaten raw meat full of blood.

“We got water from a nearby windmill that scoops water up for cattle. Those that don’t know better take the shortest routes, but they don’t make it if there is no water to be found. My father had taken the trip many times and he knew how to go.

“So it was later on that I took to California to find work. First I worked for a few months as a dishwasher, then as a bellboy. That brought in good tips. I did alright. Most people are OK, but sometimes you run into mean types. The worst were, in fact, Mexican immigrants and their offspring, who had gotten legal papers.

“’Why do you come here without papers, without a bank account, without property and a place to live’, they’d ask all the time. Man, if I had all that I would never have left my Mexico. But you have to watch out what you say to people.

”One day, I got onto a construction crew. They were all Americans: Nick, Brian, O’Conner. They knew no Spanish and I knew almost no English. Bill, the company owner, pointed to some boards on the roof so I figured he wanted me to carry them down to him. Next day he showed me a big stack of boards and he pointed to where they should be moved. I ran back and forth with boards like a little ant. I had figured out how they should be stacked.

“After three hours, I walked over to the others and shouted: ’finished’. They didn’t believe me. ’Bill’, they shouted, ’the Mexican says he’s finished’. ‘That’s a lie’, shouted Bill, and he came down from the roof to see.

“’Man, the big guys take more than a day for that. You are hired as a lumber boy.’”

“In the beginning, Bill was always shouting, ‘Idiot, come here’ whenever I should do something. I didn’t understand what it meant. Maybe it was a nick-name. So, I came whenever he called, ’Idiot’. But Brian said I shouldn’t be called that. ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter’, I said. But Brian insisted. So finally, I went up to Bill when he shouted ’Idiot’, and I said, ’My name is Martin’, and I turned around and went back. After that I was called Martin.

“You always get nick-names at construction sites. Later, they tried using, ‘Bean, come here’. ’No, if you want to hurt me you’ll have to find something better, because I’m proud to eat so many beans,’ I answered.

“Bill and I ended up being real good friends. I was with him 11 years, and after a few months I moved into his house. ‘You are like a son,’ he said. ‘Who else will work seven days a week. You never say no.’ ’Naw’, I said, ’I haven’t much else to do here other than work.’”

“I learned the language by watching and listening to what they called things. Bill shouted from the roof: ‘Get me four times 20 inches and 10 times 20 inches’.  I only heard him say XYZ, but I carried different sizes of boards and that way I learned what he meant.

“During lunch breaks, I practiced using the nailer like the others used. Bill saw me, and realized that I used my free time to learn more, so he showed me how to use various tools. I learned more and more and no longer was a lumber boy on the crew but worked on equal footing. The others got $120 a day. When I started I got $60 but ended up with $100 a day.

“I became real good at hammering nails. The big guys got back pains from bending over hour after hour. But I was just half as big and my back could take it. When Bill asked them, ‘Why is Martin double so quick as you all?’ They answered, ‘Why can’t Martin reach the nails at the top?’”

“We were some hard nuts. We let our hair grow long down our backs. We had big muscles from carrying so much; we were dirty; and the others were full of tattoos. They looked like Hells Angels. They called me Hawaiian Boy what with my long black hair and brown skin. We liked that life. The others road motorcycles and partied on the weekends, but they were all good workers. If you weren’t a good worker on Bill’s crew you were chucked out.

“September 11, 2001, construction stopped. Nobody dared build anything. People were unemployed. Society changed. Racism became hard.

”’Martin, it’s time for you to take home to Mexico’, Bill told me.”

The story is interrupted by a strange sight appearing outside the taxi windows. Hundreds of cyclists ride the country road in the baking sun. Trucks pass by once in a while with scores of cyclists resting in the truck bed. Cars are decorated with alters made of colorful paper materials and pictures of the mother of life: The Virgin of Guadeloupe.

“They are pilgrims,” Martin explains. “This is the annual pilgrimage to San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco state. The come from many states cycling for days, from sunup to sundown. They take money with them, which they collect from family and friends for the church. This is Mexico’s second largest pilgrim attraction.”

”Did you ever come back to Bill and his crew?” We ask Martin.

“Yes,” he answered, and drove on a bit in silence before he continued his story.

“But it was 2004 that I took off for the last time. Bill called me to say he needed me. Usually when he rang and I asked when he could use me he said, ‘come in a week.’ So I left my taxi to my son and had time to train with treks in the mountains with backpack before I should take off. This time Bill told me he needed me tomorrow. I should have said, ‘Bill, you must give me time to prepare for the trip.’ But I wanted to show him that I could come in a day. So, I took off immediately.

“We were a group of ten, and two smugglers (coyotes) who should take us across. As we were to leave with our backpacks with water and food, the contact man said, ‘No backpacks. The trip will only take three hours and we must run so you can’t take anything heavy.’”

“OK, so we took off. We walked three hours. We walked six hours. It got dark. We must continue to walk, said the coyotes. But we knew that they had become lost and couldn’t find the way. They were cloudy in the head, high on drugs. So, we said we must sleep now. ‘If you can’t find the way in daylight you certainly can’t in the dark.’”

“We walked the entire next day. No water. No food. I could already feel that I was the one in the worst shape. Years driving a cab had made me fat and slappy. I was in worse shape than the two young girls with us. But I didn’t know that my poor condition would be my salvation. I just thought that if I slip too far behind I’d be left alone in the desert. The third day, I got worse and worse and then I collapsed. When I awoke, I was alone. You must understand that the others struggled for their lives and they had to leave me, the weakest, behind. Man, I had never been so afraid in my life.

“I began to go after their footsteps. With 11 people there were  many prints in the sand to follow. At a gravel road, I could see that they crossed it and went farther into the desert. I couldn’t go any farther. I thought that the road was the best chance. Either will someone come along so that I could live, or someone will find me dead and then my family and Bill could get the message of why I didn’t come.

“I don’t know how long I sat there before a little truck came along with two young Mexican-looking men. They didn’t understand Spanish, they said. ‘Wait’, I said, ‘I speak English. You must help me. I am dying. No water in three days. Take me with you.’”

“They didn’t dare.”

”’We’ll be arrested as smugglers and deported if anyone sees you in our car. You can have our water and a sandwich. Go 40 minutes back this way and you’ll come to a motorway. Someone will help you there.’”

”I begged for my life. I thought of my grandchild, my son, my wife. I will not leave them. I love them. I begged, crying shamefully before these two young men. No matter that they were younger than me, a 39 year-old grown man, I cried before them.”

“Finally, they said: ‘We’ll drive you back to the motorway and set you off there.’”

“I climbed into the truck bed with their water and sandwich. I threw the water up immediately. I couldn’t hold it down. The worst was that I was dehydrated. My body held up functioning partially. I couldn’t even hold my mouth open enough to prop a piece of sandwich in. And I definitely could not chew for the pain it caused. Man, I understood then that I could not have survived 40 minutes more.

“Half an hour later, I was let off at the motorway and quickly was picked up by an immigration patrol. These guys knew how to handle dehydration. One must have sugar water so they got a cola in me. When we got to the station they said: ‘So, you are the 12th man.’ ‘Where are the others’, I asked. ‘In coffins. You were the only one to survive,’ they said.”

”Some days later, I got to speak with my wife. ’Come home and be with us’, she said. And then I got hold of Bill. ‘Bill, I was about to die like a dog because you wanted me to come so quickly,’ I told him.”

“’No, Martin, it was you who wanted to take off without being in shape. But I would rather have you as a living friend than a dead friend. Go home and I will not call for you to come again.’”

“Bill was like a second father to me. You know, I didn’t pay rent for those 11 years I worked with him. ‘Instead of rent, Martin,’ he told me, ‘we’ll put $400 of your monthly wage in savings.’ That is why I have my own house today, and Bill and I still ring to one another to this day.”

”Many years passed before I could tell my story without tears running down my cheeks. Man, that border is dangerous country. One knows that the illegals have money with them to pay the smugglers. You can be killed just for 200 or 500 pesos [$15 to $35]. Back then one paid before coming across, but many were left to die in the desert after they had paid. Nowadays, you pay when you get to the destination. But it matters that the smugglers don’t know who has the money on them.”

And in the next sentence, Martin continued:

“I want you to pay me for the trip before we come to the airport. That way no one will see that there is money between us.”

We hadn’t even noticed that we were so near the airport. As we got out of the taxi, we gave one another a hearty handshake.

“Thanks for your story, Martin.”

“I am glad that you like my country,” he answered as he drove away.

Dorte Grenaa is a Danish journalist and political activist.

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