The Reality for Mexicans Who Cross the Border
Dreams Fuel Thousands Who Work in the United States
By Bertha Rodríguez Santos
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign Reporting from the Other Side
February 21, 2006
POUGHKEEPSIE, NY: The whole city is covered in snow. Houses and businesses are white; the streets and forests have transformed into white blotches provoking a chill that pierces to the bone. In the middle of this harsh winter, the absence of friends and relatives, and the helplessness that comes with being indocumentados (undocumented workers) thousands of Mexicans use their own dreams as their main source of strength to continue in the United States despite adversity.
Dreams of building a house, starting a business or allowing their children to study energize thousands of Mexican immigrants that work in this country. Dreams help them to endure long days of work in exchange for little pay, and, many times, to cope with experiences they have faced throughout their whole lives. At the end of the day, some immigrants believe that their experiences in this country are like a dream from which they will some day awaken.
The Crossing: Gambling with Life and Death
The stories are as numerous as the undocumented immigrants from all over the world that live in this country. According to unofficial statistics they have reached 12 million, most of them Mexicans and Central Americans.
Alberto Cruz Aguirre, 38 years old and a native of Oaxaca City, has traveled six times to el Norte, but it was on the last trip that he almost lost his life. On June 17, 2005, after several attempts to cross the border near Tijuana in a single week, he and two companions decided to separate themselves from the group of 20 people with whom they were traveling. With some luck, they found a guide who offered to bring them to the other side for $1,800.
After walking in the darkness of night for an hour, having passed Mexicali and very close to the city of Calexico, they ran into a sewage canal.
“Know how to swim?” asked the guide.
Beto was frozen with fear, for, as his friends know well, he had never in his life crossed a river swimming.
“We had no choice but to keep going, we couldn’t turn back now,” he remembers, as he reflects that once someone heads off for the United States, his mind is made up to cross the border or die trying. “It’s like carrying a pistol that could go off at any moment,” he says.
The four men jumped into the water. Only two of them knew how to swim but they all had to move quickly through the fetid canal. At first, the men were in a shallow area but as they went on they lost contact with the bottom. Suddenly, Beto felt a strong current grab him as he struggled desperately to stay afloat and swallowed filthy water. Like a movie that only lasted a few minutes, he saw his life pass by: he thought he saw his mother, his wife, his children… his whole life flashed in front of him. He felt sure he was dying and focused on he memory of his mother. One of the other indocumentados, a Salvadoran man, realized what was happening and called their guide back, who rescued him, carrying him on his back.
After this episode, sadness overwhelmed Beto and he just wanted to go home, but his companions cheered him up and convinced him to continue the journey. He had no choice but to keep moving, but he did so with great difficulty. His muscles were now cramped, forcing him to stop, and he frequently required his friends’ help.
And so they continued until they finally reached New York state after four days of traveling hidden and only eating sporadically. “I feel like I was born again,” says don Beto, who plans to visit the virgin of Juquila when he returns to Oaxaca in two years.
His traveling partner, Ulises Torres, acknowledges that it keeps getting harder to cross the border. He comments that before that occasion, he had already tried to cross twice. For him, a previous experience was more difficult; he remembers that after three hours of walking through an area known as Algodones, after climbing up and down a hill they were intercepted by two border patrol agents.
The immigrants had the hope that after they came down from the hills they would be picked up by their contacts among the “coyotes” and taken to their final destination. But the indocumentados had to submit to the “migra” agents, who proceeded to round up about 20 people they had found in the area.
One of the patrolmen drove off and the operation was carried out by just one of the agents. While the officer was distracted interrogating some of the men, others seized the chance to escape and ran off as fast as they could.
Ulises was one of them. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him, until fatigue overtook him and he gave in to the fear provoked by the noise of the patrol bikes combing the area in search of the fugitives.
When he could run no longer, he dove into a trench where he waited motionless for the agents to leave. For a half hour he remained quiet, but then a young boy arrived who had also escaped; that was probably what led the agents to his hiding place. The sound of the motorcycles got closer and closer, and Ulises decided to pray to make sure his supplications were heard before he got picked up.
The first things he saw when he opened his eyes were the boots of the border patrolman, who ordered him to stand up. Once he got to his feet, Ulises was roughly pushed to the ground, where he received several kicks to his chest.
“Quiero poner mi bota en tu boca” – “I want to put my boot in your mouth,” the agent shouted in Spanish with a strong accent.
The victim’s terror rose as the officer put a foot on his neck. Then the migra put a gun to his head. Fear overcame the other boy, who was only a few feet away; he thought they were both going to be killed and began to cry. The agents put them both in handcuffs to be taken to a detention center in Phoenix, and they were later deported to their places of origin.
These kinds of aggressions seem to happen daily on the border.
César Gutiérrez, of Veracruz state, is one of the few people who can be seen smiling all the time despite the difficulties he faces. During a break at the soup packaging plant where he works, César tells his compañeros how difficult his journey here was.
While eating a chicken sandwich, Gutiérrez recalls that he was attacked by border patrol agents as he crossed the Arizona desert.
With a strong complexion, César has dark skin and curly hair. His face stops smiling for just an instant as he talks of the moment when he was aggressively pushed by the immigration agent.
It was 9 o’clock at night in the middle of the desert. Everyone was quiet, so as not to catch the attention of the migra, the agents who patrol the border 24 hours a day. Suddenly, the indocumentados realized that all their efforts to pass through the danger zone without being noticed had failed as they were caught by the patrols.
An intense burning in the face was the sensation that César felt as he hit the sandy desert ground face first. Immediately after this he felt dry shooting pains in his back as an agent kicked him, screaming at him, insulting him. The group was taken to a detention center on the Mexican side, where they arrived early the next morning surprised by a cold rain.
Among those detained were men, women and children. The fatigue, hunger, and odor that came from having gone entire weeks without bathing brought them feelings of desperation and impotence, leading more than one to cry in silence.
Another time when Ulises Benítez crossed the desert with a group of people from Oaxaca, the indocumentados passed the bodies of two men. One of them was leaning against a tree. The position they found him in made it look like he had been praying; his eyes were gone and his body was starting to show signs of decomposition. The other man was found lying a few yards away.
“Our intention is not to disturb them. You know we have to keep moving forward,” said the guide, speaking toward the corpses as if he were embarrassed and the lifeless bodies could hear him.
Jorge Abarca, 36 years old and a native of Puebla, speaks of his experience crossing: “I came with a group of 40 people, half of them women. We had to walk fast and it was nighttime.” He adds that after crossing the border, two armed coyotes spoke to the group, began to gather all of them together and ordered them to turn over any valuable objects, threatening to kill them if they found that anyone had not turned over all the money he or she had.
All of them lost all their belongings except for Jorge, who stuffed his money into a jug of water. After the robbery, Jorge and his companions faced more difficulties during the month it took them to travel to Poughkeepsie, where he has worked for four years and still “longs to return soon to Mexico.”
Javier López was just 11 years old when he had to cross the border. His great desire was to live with his mother Graciela Pérez, from whom he had been separated four years ago when she left Atlixco, Puebla in search of work. His mother, Chela, as he calls her, told him of the dangers he would face if he came to the United States; to begin, she told him that it would be a very long and tiring journey, as his destination would be another small city in the state of New York.
At nightfall on November 28, 2004, a group of 18 people – men, women, and children – prepared to cross the border from the Sonora desert. After seven hours of waling on a path full of brambles and cactus, Javier’s feet were swollen and throbbing from all the thorns that had stuck into them.
Worried for her small children – with them was also Gustavo, only 7 years old – Chela doubted that she could go on.
In the darkness of night, the howls of the real coyotes kept them awake. In fact, this helped keep Gustavo, tired from walking, from succumbing to his fatigue. “If you fall asleep, the coyotes are going to eat you,” his mother told him, trying to keep him alert.
At the same time, the guides were warning them not to make noise, because the migra and the coyotes could come for them. They also had to avoid stepping on rattlesnakes, turning the walk into a true ordeal in which at times they had to creep slowly and other times run in a stampede to avoid the attention of the migra.
After hiding in a safehouse for a week, the whole family was taken to their final destination, where they now live, always thinking of returning home.
The experiences of those who cross the desert and the mountains are awful. Invariably, there are robberies, rapes, attacks by dogs trained to kill and deaths from the hostile climate… but not even these risks can deter the human exodus.
Despite the pain and the risk of death in crossing the border, thousands of migrants are waiting for the right moment to jump the fence that separates the two countries. The wait could be for days, weeks, or even months.
This situation is getting worse due to the U.S. government’s various proposals.
The immigration reform proposed by Republican Senador Chuck Hagel seeks to criminalize, imprison and deport undocumented immigrants.
Another facet of this initiative is to build a great wall along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, and/or to militarize the border.
A second proposal would convert the Department of Labor and social service agencies into police organizations with powers to arrest and deport those without permission to work in this country.
Another proposal is to enact a temporary worker program like the Bracero Program of the 1940s, which would allow recruitment of cheap labor for a short time period, especially in harvest and high production times.
Loneliness and Abuse: The American Dream of the Indocumentados
According to don Beto, who was nearly about to die after crossing the border, the change that the immigrant suffers when he comes to live in the United States is drastic. Here one faces the loneliness of being far from one’s family; above all, Beto says he misses his children. He also feels that the conditions one endures in this country are very hard. Since he arrived in Poughkeepsie, Beto has worked in restaurants as a dishwasher and prep chef. According to his experience, there is much mistreatment by bosses, who are often “yelling types who want everything fast and done well.” There must be some reason that all the workers seem to refer to their bosses as “the dog.”
And it is not only in the restaurants where the work moves at a blinding pace – in most factories, workers must finish working on their product in a few minutes or sometimes even seconds (in some fast food restaurants employees are asked to finish a sandwich in 15 seconds). This situation generates a huge spirit of competition between employees, who fight to stand out as the most efficient, the most intelligent and the fastest in the boss’ eyes… though this is almost never recognized with a pay raise, but rather with a simple “thanks” if the employee is lucky.
In the eyes of the newly arrived these workers look like supermen and superwomen capable of performing the hardest tasks at work, but with time it becomes clear that aside from those undeniable qualities there is a large dose of deceit at work.
Only those who have already had previous experiences as migrant workers in this country know that jobs here are not all about “raking in the dollars,” as is commonly thought. Most jobs for the indocumentados consist of cleaning houses, buildings, hotels, schools, etc. In the restaurant industry the undocumented work as dishwashers, busboys, cooks or waiters; they also end up working in factories, the construction industry, as gardeners and other temporary jobs, depending on the time of year and part of the country (due to different harvests and needs for packers of different products).
In addition to working the hardest jobs for days often longer than 8 hours, an inducomentado suffers from hunger, loneliness, racial discrimination and, in the case of the women, often sexual harassment from managers.
Cesar Gutiérrez laments the high cost of living the undocumented face. He that he first arrived in Long Island, where there are many factories but where on average one earns only six dollars per hour while the rent for a studio apartment is $200 per month. That is why Gutiérrez decided to move to Poughkeepsie, where one can find higher salaries and lower rents.
The investment one must make to reach this country is also very high. The coyotes charge an average of $3,000 per person. In Judith Reyes’ case, she and her husband had to pay $9,000 to cross with their young son. The family hopes to return to their native Anenecuilco, Morelos in a few months after working without rest for four years.
Difficulties Between Countrymen
All these experiences turn immigrants into emotionally vulnerable beings, obviously affected by their living conditions. Some try to make their existence a little less unpleasant by partying at nightclubs; others find refuge in alcohol or drugs.
In any event, immigrants find themselves in extreme situations that, while very trying, help them to appreciate the positive things that happen to them. In these circumstances, human virtues and defects are only skin-deep. It is not uncommon to hear of friendships cut off because of envy created by the competition to save one’s job or get a better wage.
In the workplace, it is common to find cliques united by family links, friendship or a common hometown. These groups are hostile toward new workers, looking for personal advantage and to satisfy their egos. This often leads to violent confrontations, even requiring the police to intervene at times.
Nevertheless, one can also find expressions of solidarity and mutual recognition, as if the workers’ condition as migrants made them into brothers and sisters.
The Chimpas Invade Poughkeepsie
Poughkeepsie is a small city on the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York, north of the Big Apple. Mexican immigrants consider it a better place to find work than New York City, an hour and a half away.
This has led to the town becoming the favorite destination for people coming in from many of Mexico’s states, but especially Oaxaca, Puebla and Veracruz. Seven years ago it was rare to see many Mexican immigrants on the streets of Poughkeepsie, but now their presence is so obvious that more and more stores are opening selling Mexican food and products.
Since the Mexican presence in this area started to increase, the indocumentados have begun to call each other chimpas – “chimps.” It is said half-jokingly, but also with a tint of an inferiority complex in calling themselves chimpanzees, “for being short and ugly.”
Despite being thousands of miles from their towns and communities, thanks to shipping companies – which charge high fees for their services – the Oaxacan immigrants can enjoy all the products that used to be part of their diet: chapulines (fried grasshoppers), tlayudas (a sort of Oaxacan pizza), Oaxaca cheese, mole sauce, egg yolk bread, and others.
However things go, there are those who believe the risks of living in this country “are worth it if you put your mind to it and work hard,” but there are others who find it harder to assimilate. Sitting in front of a television watching a Mexican soap opera, Beto says, referring to all he has lived through, “this is a dream.”
A friend once told Beto that when he returned to Oaxaca he fell asleep on the couch, just like he had done in el gabacho, in the U.S. When he awoke the next morning and realized how late it was, he became furious with himself, thinking he would be late for work. His mother told him, “you’re home now.” Rubbing his eyes, the boy wondered if that bad life in el Norte had all been a dream from which he had just woken up.
Note: This article was prepared weeks before Bertha Rodríguez Santos joined the Other Journalism in the state of Tlaxcala.
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