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Authors: José Orduña

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BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
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At the very least we all thought something referred to as “the three ten bar”—introduced as a section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1996—would disappear. It didn't.

Purely a punitive tool, this legal category of “unlawful presence” was entirely new to immigration law. Individuals who accumulated six to twelve months of “unlawful presence” would be barred from the country for three years, while those here for more than a year would be barred for ten. So in order to adjust his immigration status when marrying his fiancée, Octavio would have to leave the country for up to ten years, which would mean losing the home he's paid a mortgage on for longer than a decade. The modest home his mother was having built in Mexico wouldn't be finished. Instead, she would have to share a one-room structure, made of cinderblock and corrugated tin, with Octavio's sister and his two nephews. As for his sweetheart in the United States, they might try to stay together while living in different countries, visit each other as often as possible, but the distance would become too great. They would begin to fight about any little thing, and then they would avoid talking for days at a time. For both of them, a day would come when they would quietly realize they no longer felt that pleasant attachment to the other—the intimacy of being together—and, soon after, their fifteen-year relationship would dissolve like sugar in warm milk.

We agree to meet at the bar next door after work. Octavio gets off an hour after I do, so I get started alone. El Conejo, having escaped his dish pit to join me, is leaning over the bar, rubbing his hands together, picking at dead skin, wincing. The right one is swollen and red, while the left one has thick,
white scales that are raised at the edges. My dad has the same condition, several decades after being a dishwasher—hazards of one's hands spending twelve hours a day submerged in hot water and industrial-strength soap. I walk up behind him and swat him on the back.

“No mames, guey,” he protests.

“First round's on me.” He doesn't speak English but understands it comprehensively.

At the far end of the bar, one of the cooks leans his five-foot-three body across the pool table. He's about to sink the eight ball on our sous chef. There's a whole goat at stake for weekend birria. All the regulars are there, each slumped forward in a severe curve that renders even the tallest (six and a half feet when standing) diminutive on his stool. No one's fed the jukebox yet, so their cigarette-gnarled greetings rise above the sounds of clanking glass. I take my place at the end.

A Cuba libre seems the thing to have right now. It's Octavio's favorite, and once he shows up he won't let me drink anything else anyway. If I order bourbon he calls me Yankee, pronounced
. I try to tell him bourbon is from the South, but he just cuts me off:
The bartender is on the other side of the bar, telling one of the regulars how his girlfriend broke up with him a week after he paid for her breast implants.

“Nice return on the investment, huh?”

My phone buzzes against my thigh for the second time. This means what it always means: my voicemail is full. To delete messages I press seven repeatedly. I don't even listen to them anymore. I know what they say. They'll all be from my mom. Hijo mío, she says by way of opening, not mi hijo, her very syntax re-creating the process of a mother embracing her son. Placing the word for
first, she then grabs urgently with what follows:
of mine
. The interplay of these words evokes the rush of possession, the physical pull of a
mother who hasn't seen her son in a long, long time. And then, following this, always a question or statement about eating:
Have you eaten yet? What did you eat today? I hope you've eaten. Have you been eating good? I just deposited money into your account so please eat something good
. Since moving out of my parents' home it's become easier to forget that the question of where meals were to come from wasn't always so readily answered, easy to forget the evenings when, telling me they'd already eaten at work, they would simply sit and watch

I press seven and seven and seven again because I don't even need to listen to know how, in a lowered voice, as if someone were listening, she will end by saying, “Cuidado—I love you,” and know that one of the things she wants me to be careful about is la migra.

Each long Monday afternoon, her day off, my mother sits in her kitchen drinking black coffee, watching sparrows dart by the feeder outside the window. She'll turn on Noticiero Telemundo on the small television under the cereal cabinet and watch Pedro Sevcec while she dunks Marías in her coffee, trying to get them to her mouth before they liquefy and plop into her cup. It would be easy to attribute her news preference to language, but as soon as the reports are done she changes the channel to watch US sitcoms. Years ago it was
Family Matters
Silver Spoons
, and
. I have no idea what she's watching now.

If she chooses Telemundo over the English news broadcasts, it's mainly to avoid the US media's endlessly broadcast images of Latinos hopping fences, depicting us as a unified deluge without end. On April 14, 2005, for instance, had she been watching CNN, a network that purports to be “the most trusted name in news,” she would have caught an episode of
Lou Dobbs Tonight
titled “Border Insecurity; Criminal Illegal Aliens; Deadly Imports; Illegal Alien Amnesty.” Within the first minute she would have heard host Lou Dobbs assert,
“The invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans.” A few moments later she would have heard CNN correspondent Casey Wian follow by asserting that “almost a half-million fugitive illegal aliens are loose in the United States today” before relaying ICE's plan to outfit low-risk “illegal aliens” with electronic monitoring devices.

“Hijos de su puta madre,” my mother would have said, the María stopping halfway to her mouth, the portion she'd already dunked plopping back into her cup of coffee and spraying the front of her shirt.

Looking up at her screen she would have read “BROKEN BORDERS” and “DEADLY IMPORTS” across the bottom. She would have taken in the great Lou Dobbs sitting in front of his own large screen that also read “DEADLY IMPORTS” amid a foreboding blue smoke and a slanted caduceus—the staff carried by Hermes into the underworld, a staff entwined by two serpents, topped with open wings. This was a mistake, probably on the part of a production designer, and yet it's apt enough: the caduceus, often erroneously used in place of the rod of Asclepius, the symbol of medicine and healing, is in fact a symbol of commerce, theft, deception, and death.

Dobbs—US flag pinned to his lapel—introduced his segment by reminding us that he'd “already reported here on the tremendous burden that illegal aliens put upon our national health care system,” before segueing into talk of the country's “rising fears that once-eradicated diseases are now returning to this country though our open borders.” He warned portentously, “Those diseases are threatening the health of nearly every American, as well as illegal aliens themselves.”

Dr. Madeline Cosman, introduced by CNN as a medical lawyer (although according to her later obituary she was a “medieval expert”), went on to say that there are “some enormous problems with horrendous diseases that are being brought into America by illegal aliens.” The diseases
mentioned by Cosman: tuberculosis, chagas disease, malaria, and leprosy.

CNN correspondent Christine Romans, sitting before the same screen—“DEADLY IMPORTS” and a slanted caduceus—explained to a baffled Dobbs how “suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than seven thousand cases of leprosy.”

She nodded emphatically as she repeated: “Leprosy.” After a solemn pause, she said with rehearsed lament: “In

The camera cut to Dobbs sitting stoically appalled, brow furrowed, mouth ever so slightly agape. He took a moment to gather himself.


As it turns out, the figures provided by Romans, based on Cosman's expertise, were flagrantly wrong. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, there have been 7,124 new cases of leprosy reported in the United States, but this number corresponds to a thirty-year period, not a three-year period. In 2010, the number of new cases reported in the United States was only 294. And according to Health and Human Services, “Most [95 percent] of the human population is not susceptible to infection with M. leprae.”

These are the moments, I imagine, when my mom grabs her phone to call me, because even though we're not “illegals,” she feels that these reports refer to us too because in this cultural moment,
used as a noun—and the phrases
illegal alien
illegal immigrant
don't conjure a white face of European descent but a brown face much like mine. And it is very hard to hide your face.

By the time Octavio walks into the bar, I'm two drinks in but ready to keep going. We order another round.

“You're late.”

“Así trabaja el indio.” That is how the Indian works. A colloquialism.

We clink glasses.

One Friday night after a particularly grueling workweek, we're hanging out at Octavio's place, and he tells me how he crossed the border, something he's referred to often but never told me about in detail. We start the evening with music and some black market Havana Club with plenty of ice. He grabs his jarana, a small guitar-shaped instrument with eight strings. The body is made of cedar; the strings are stretched guts. Nuzzling it, placing his fingers on the fretted neck, he strums it hard, almost violently. I remember meeting him in Mexico, when I was eleven. He was playing with a twelve-man band that included a man-sized harp, the first I'd ever seen up close, several percussion instruments I didn't even know existed, like an ass's jaw, and four or five different instruments that resembled a guitar.

Octavio takes a nip of his rum and messes with the tuning pegs, turning each one slightly back and forth. He strums a few chords while angling his ear down toward the instrument. Getting the sound he's looking for, he smiles, takes one more nip from his cup, and then launches into “La Guacamaya,” a classic Son Jarocho that takes two people to call and respond and is usually accompanied by a harp or jarana. The song, one I learned as a child in Chicago, is from my birthplace.

He starts by plucking the strings in a delicate and complicated melody that rises and falls for a few bars before a forceful strum marks the beginning of the driving rhythm characteristic of Son Jarocho. The sound is transformed from something one would expect from an Ibero-influenced string instrument to a percussive African drive, and, abetted by the porcupine quill Octavio uses to pick, it arrives at the sound
particular to Veracruz.

He starts, and we alternate verses, singing about an unfortunate macaw that has to fly away when all his dragon fruit is gone. Midway through, Octavio's fiancée pounds on the wall from her bedroom, so we shut up.

He asks me if I ever miss Veracruz. “Not exactly,” I tell him. The truth is I don't remember living there, but it does maintain a vague and powerful grip on me. Octavio says he misses it. It's been more than fifteen years since he saw his mother, and although he doesn't overtly say it, it's clear that he's scared he won't ever get to see her again.

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own,” according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But when Octavio left, he wasn't accepted anywhere. People are free to go but not arrive, making this declaration another example of the hollow rhetoric of human rights in international law. He was given a note card with a Tijuana address scribbled on it, two thousand miles from his home in Veracruz, and told to be there two days later.

“Pues le dije adiós a todos.”

Putting down the jarana, Octavio pours us another drink. They're getting stronger, the ice cubes reduced to slivers floating in pale rum that tastes more and more like salted caramel.

A man opened the door, he recounted: “El tipo se veía de mala calaña.”

He noticed the man's nostrils were raw, and he seemed strung out. He had scabs on his face and kept scratching a small area of his jeans, the denim there looking lighter and thinner than the rest of his pants. The man showed him to a small room with a stained mattress on the floor. They told him to stay in there and that they would get him when it was time. Every two days they brought him a liter of water and several containers of leftover carryout. Six days went by.

“Nos metieron como a seis en una cajuela.”

Six adult men were packed into the trunk of a small vehicle, a Corolla or something, and then a stranger drove them for hours on dark highways toward an unknown destination. They had been told to carry as little as possible and told that if they were at any point spotted, they were on their own. At one point, one of the men in the trunk got a calf cramp, but there wasn't enough room for him to extend his leg, or even reach it, so another man kneaded it for him.

And then, sometime later, the car just stopped. Someone opened the trunk, and led them into total darkness. Each step for miles was taken in complete uncertainty, and each footfall landed with violent shifting. After several hours they came to an embankment with a steep gravel drop. In the distance, lights snaked down a highway and bled into the ditch on their side. They could hear the rushing sound of traffic beyond them but couldn't pick their heads up to see the cars. It sounded like a river to Octavio, or like the sound of wind moving through the dry cornstalks he used to listen to as a child.

They hid in a thicket. One of the men put a cigarette in his mouth and struck a lighter once before the
slapped it away. A few moments later, one of the other men noticed someone from the group was missing. They discussed having seen him at the last stop they had made, about half an hour back.

BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
11.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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