I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Translated by Ellen Jones
Everything is pinkish stone and bald mountains—some with rocky peaks, others rounded off by a strong, relentless wind. It’s always windy in La Rumorosa, a desert 1,232 meters above sea level that stretches between Mexicali and Tecate.
The crowd that set off from Mexicali has become more dispersed, because that’s how this caravan advances: chaotically. Each person covers what ground they can. There’s only a handful of us in the hut at the top of the mountain, only a few of the dozens of journalists who covered the last stretch of this first great migrant caravan, which began in Central America and arrived in northern Mexico, at the United States border, in November of 2018.
The road twists and turns and twists and turns, steep drops around every corner. It’s dangerous, narrow, and very windy. Some families pass us on foot, but the majority hitch a ride up here, to the highest part of the desert. Two boys show up, alone: one of them sits in a wheelchair with bags, sacks, and backpacks hanging off it, and the other is pushing him up the hill. How does a boy in a wheelchair manage to travel thousands of kilometers on a journey that involves leaping onto buses and cars, crossing rivers, sleeping in parks, going weeks without washing, and negotiating hostile cities? How is it that another boy can have pushed him all this way? It’s all I can do to take a photo, thinking to myself that they must be brothers or very close friends.
It’s a steep climb, but the skinny boy is pushing hard. It’s not long before they’re out of sight. The Honduran family we’re filming—twelve people—manages to clamber into a bus that will take them to Tijuana. My colleagues go with them; it’s my turn to follow in an empty car.
Only a couple of kilometers ahead I catch up with the two boys and the wheelchair. I slow down to offer them a lift, and in only a minute or so we’ve crammed everything in—I don’t want to lose my group.
The boy in the wheelchair is called Rafael Peralta Aguilar, and he’s from Honduras; the one pushing him is called Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, and he’s from Guatemala. They’re not brothers, nor are they childhood friends; even though they only met a few days ago, Miguel decided to assume the task of pushing his new friend and travel companion. The bags aren’t all theirs either—some belong to another migrant, a man who was cycling but had a breakdown near Mexicali. They offered to take his things to Tijuana, this pair who are pushing and wheeling the entire way.
Rafael and Miguel are short, dark skinned, and thin—very thin. Friendly, soft spoken, and always smiling. They’re in their twenties but have the leathery skin of regular fieldworkers. From Rafael’s hands, which seem to want to curl into fists, it’s clear he suffers from some sort of bone condition. As they’re getting into the car, he manages with great difficulty to take a couple of slow steps, battling legs that want to knock together, not strong enough to support him. He explains that he’s not completely paralyzed, though he finds it very difficult to walk. He began the journey on crutches but couldn’t keep up with the pace; along the way, someone gave him the wheelchair.
Rafael has worked his whole life, ever since he was a child. His physical problems began in his teenage years, when he started to gradually lose mobility. He never stopped working, though, almost always in the fields near San Pedro Sula, where he was born and raised.
His most recent job, just a couple of months ago, before setting off on this journey, was installing wire fences. Just talking about it, a smile spreads over his face: the memory takes him back to the lush green of his beloved Honduras. He might be running away, but he still talks longingly of his home country. He earned a pittance there, not enough to live on, and was lonely. His mother died, and with his health getting more complicated he started to feel like a burden on his family—on his brothers, who had their own children—so he decided to leave and look for somewhere else. He isn’t just trying to find a way of making money; Rafael is also traveling in the hope of finding a cure for the disease that threatens to debilitate him.
“What disease is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did the doctors say? What was the diagnosis?”
“I never saw a doctor. No doctor ever examined me in Honduras.”
There was no doctor or hospital in his community, nor did he have the money to travel somewhere else to get checked over. No care was available. In twenty-one years, Rafael was never diagnosed.
He says this without resentment, his voice still gentle, as though the situation were inevitable or divine. I can’t hide my angry surprise, so he adds that it’s different now, that when they were offered temporary shelter in Mexico City a doctor came to check him over. They said he was suffering from a degenerative disease, but that was pretty much all.
Rafael also says that he’s been here before. He migrated for the first time a couple of months ago and got as far as Guanajuato. The Mexican border agents caught and deported him. Once he was back in his old town, he realized there was nothing left for him there. He didn’t even have anywhere to stay, because in order to pay for the journey he’d sold his mattress and his only piece of furniture, which was all he owned. He learned then about the caravan, waited for it to pass through, and joined it. He had traveled almost the entire route, crossing Honduras, part of El Salvador, Guatemala, and the whole of Mexico—he’s finally only a stone’s throw from the US border, which can be glimpsed every now and then from the road.
The day comes to an end on Federal Motorway Number 2. The light disappears in a spectacular sunset. Rafael gestures at the last scrap of sun, the colors in the sky, the pinkish glow of the stones in the evening light. He smiles, excited. He talks about how beautiful this place is, how lucky he feels to be part of the caravan, how happy he is to be seeing such beautiful places.
Rober, some people call him. To others, he’s Xicali.
Roberto Márquez has lived for more than ten years by the Tijuana canal, a thin, sewage-clogged waterway right on the border with the United States, hailing distance from San Ysidro and San Diego.
He sleeps under a bridge, on cardboard boxes that he later folds up and hides in a corner. He covers himself with a blanket that he also tucks away each morning, and he washes in the water from an outdoor tap on a street with cars racing by. He walks along the bank of the canal, where dozens of men—most of them are men—are emerging from their own shelters, shelters that are nothing more than different kinds of outdoors. Some sleep under bridges or settle themselves down between bushes, while others spend the night inside the sewers, because even though a stream of diluted shit might flow along their length, they at least provide a roof over your head and some form of protection.
These men are deportees—neglected, lonely beings who exist on the margins of the city of Tijuana. Some are recently arrived, having just been thrown out of the United States, some are looking to get to the other side of the border, and some, like Roberto, can’t quite remember how that first day of abandonment somehow became years, a whole decade.
Every morning, the deportees head to the Padre Chava Salesian Canteen, where more than a thousand free breakfasts are served up. The space is a migrant support center set up by the Salesian Society in 1999 and manages to survive thanks to help of various kinds—cash donations, food, volunteers.
“What’s happening to deportees is especially cruel because they’ve already gone and given the best years of their working life over there, only to be thrown out like they’re trash—it’s like, we’re washing our hands of you,” says Margarita Padilla, who has been in charge of the canteen for a number of years.
As they move through Mexico, migrants are offered help mainly from a range of religious organizations. But that solidarity doesn’t come from the Curia, archbishops, or prelates: it’s always members of dissident, anti-traditional movements, such as those who follow Liberation theology, Indian or Latin American theologies, and forward-thinking factions within congregations. There’s Fray Tomás and the La 72 migrant shelter in Tabasco (southern Mexico), Father Pedro Pantoja and Bishop Raúl Vera in Coahuila (northern Mexico), and the Hermanos en el Camino shelter, founded by the priest Alejandro Solalinde, in Oaxaca (southern Mexico).
After breakfast, Roberto goes back to the canal. He walks a lot, his steps weary but firm. His body is tough, visibly muscled. He is about fifty and still strong. Sometimes he finds temporary work, though it doesn’t come easy, because there aren’t many who’ll employ someone like him, someone who lives on the street. He earns little, lives almost entirely without money, and when he does have a few pesos he almost always spends them on a fix—a powder that when heated up becomes a liquid, which he injects. It’s sold down by the canal, everyone knows where. They say it’s heroin, but it costs twenty Mexican pesos—about one dollar. Many deportees use it to pass the afternoon.
When he shoots up, Roberto loses his implacable look, and his stringy, muscled body relaxes, allowing him some respite. When he shoots up, Roberto talks. He talks about how he was born on the border but on this side, in Mexicali. How his father was a coyote whom he accompanied to the United States in 1964, when he was a child. How he lived there for more than forty-eight years. He had a pretty stable life, a wife, children, work, and a house, but one day a relative of his was killed. He knew who had done it and couldn’t stop himself: he went to avenge the insult. He killed a man with a knife, and so they locked him up.
In prison, death came knocking for him again. He killed two other men because that’s what it’s like inside, he says, kill or be killed. I got these tattoos in there, he says, showing his back covered with a virgin and the faces of a baby and two adults. The designs are black, a bit messy, fading here and there. They were done with baby oil, he says. He repeats the words firmly, in English: baby oil. He tells me how prisoners fiddled with a discman motor so it would work as a tattoo machine and scraped his skin until the dye-mixed-with-oil sunk in. Inside for almost twenty years, his skin was the least of his worries.
His final conviction got him deported—the US authorities get rid of thousands of people that way, preferring to throw them out of the country than spend whatever it costs to keep them locked up. And when he arrived in Mexico, Roberto didn’t know where to go. He didn’t know any family there, not a single relative, nor did he know the name of the town he’d originally come from. Everyone he cared about was in the United States. That’s why he stayed on the canal, that filthy river right up against the border.
When he shoots up, Roberto stares at the wall with all its barbed wire, electrified fencing, cameras, sensors, Border Patrol officers on duty night and day. He looks at the wall and says, one of these days he’ll cross it. The day after tomorrow, this weekend, soon.
When he shoots up, Roberto doesn’t look like a man who knows how to kill. A tear escapes him as he’s overcome with nostalgia. He tells me he has grandchildren he’s never met. They’re only little. He’d like to see them one day.
In Mexico there are ghost towns, empty because their inhabitants fled for their lives when a criminal group seized control of the area. But there are also halfway towns, nameless limbos. How else would you describe a neighborhood where half the houses are lived in and the other half abandoned? What should we call a place where some people have fled and the rest stay only because they have no alternative?
On the edge of Ciudad Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua, is Riberas del Bravo. Riberas del Bravo is a social housing development with 12,062 homes of fifty square meters each, built to house maquiladora workers. The city is badly planned and prone to flooding, with barely a handful of schools and thousands of empty houses. According to the Municipal Institute for Research and Planning, there are almost 100,000 empty houses in Ciudad Juárez, 27,000 of which are in Riberas del Bravo and four other neighborhoods in the southeast. There are thousands of houses whose doors and windows have been stolen. No light fittings or wiring, skeleton homes with whole chunks taken out of them. Houses full of trash tossed out by people taking advantage of their neglect, or overflowing with the litter left behind by those who use them as squat-cum-drug dens. Houses where people dump bodies.
Three young girls and a man were murdered in their own home, shot with more than one-hundred bullets in the Riberas del Bravo neighborhood of Ciudad Juárez, state of Chihuahua. According to the Chihuahua Attorney General, the three girls were aged four, thirteen, and fourteen, and the adult with them, their uncle, was aged twenty-five. (El Heraldo, August 26, 2019)
Small houses with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Four walls that once were a vision of progress and now bear the marks of violence. They came to kill the old man who lived in that house there; in this one, some kids saw their older brother get murdered; that one’s got a security guard outside because the man who lives there reported some other guys who were bad news. Each house has its own story, though some of them have already been forgotten.
Art collectives have made proposals to brighten the houses up, various authorities have promised to restore them, and cars drive around honking their horns, their drivers offering to sort out people’s documents for a decent price. Still, not much changes in these neighborhoods, half-alive, half-abandoned, a mere stone’s throw from the United States. Because from the windows in Riberas del Bravo you can see the neighborhoods of Angie, Aldama, and Alameda. You can see them through the wall, which here is made of an ochre-colored wire mesh.
On this side: streets with assaults, shootouts, and murders just waiting to happen. On the other side: El Paso, the second-safest city in the United States. On this side, houses with barred doors and boarded-up windows; on the other side, homes with front gardens and no security in sight.
Adrián Hernández was born in the cotton fields of Valle de Juárez. He first moved to the city to work in the maquiladoras and then emigrated with his girlfriend, Gabriela Castaneda. They went to the other side, the safe side. They had three children there. They were happy. The parents worked and the children grew. The youngest, Abraham, was born with a medical condition, but the US health system always guaranteed him the care he needed.
In 2016, a day like any other, they were in la trailer, their mobile home, the most comfortable affordable living arrangements for many migrants, when immigration agents showed up and took Adrián away. They deported him. The family was separated: his wife and children in El Paso, he in Ciudad Juárez. Gabriela is still in the United States, the sole caretaker of their three children. Adrián lives in Riberas del Bravo, that half-alive, half-abandoned neighborhood. He found himself a little house near his parents and nieces and nephews. He painted it a light, soft green, bought a television and a bed. That’s where he spends his days, alone, battling the sadness that comes and goes, and comes again.
He works in construction from Monday to Friday and sometimes Saturday mornings. At noon on Saturdays he runs to pick up his kids at a border bridge. They are US citizens, so can come and see him. Adrián hugs them, takes them home, and makes the most of the hours they have. They chat, tell each other about their week, meet up with the rest of the family that’s still in Mexico. They watch TV, go for a walk, or buy an elote, a corn on the cob. The next evening, Adrián takes them back to the port of entry, and the kids return to the United States, where their mother is waiting for them. They could all move to Ciudad Juárez—they’ve thought about it—but they choose to stay where the kids have access to education and medical attention, where they can live more safely. Adrián could cross undocumented, but if they caught him he’d go to prison. From the pavement outside his little green house, Adrián can just about see El Paso, where he has a wife he never sees and children he can only hug on the weekend. Thirty hours a week.
This excerpt appeared in Let’s Talk About Your Wall, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
Paula Mónaco Felipe is a journalist based in Mexico City. She is the author of the book Ayotzinapa, horas eternas and co-author of Palabras como golpes, como balas (Rayuela, 2019). She has written for the New York Times, Revista Gatopardo, Newsweek en español, and Periodistas de Pie, and helped produce the Netflix docuseries Los días de Ayotzinapa.
Ellen Jones has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and is the Reviews Editor at Hispanic Research Journal. Her translation of Rodrigo Fuentes’s Trout, Belly Up (Charco Press, 2019) was shortlisted for the Translators Association First Translation Prize.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee