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Authors: José Orduña

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“El pollero quería seguir, pero lo mandamos a la chingada.”

One man decided to go back, while the others waited in silence in the brush. When the man returned, he just shook his head. “Ya no,” he said.

They ran across a twelve-lane highway, and when they reached the other side, a squadron of border patrol agents popped out from underneath a pile of garbage bags where they'd been hiding. Octavio and the other men were confronted with a wall of men in dark tactical gear and assault

A boot pressed down on the side of Octavio's head, crushing his ear. The men were placed in the dog cage mounted on the back of the border patrol vehicle and then were taken to a booking station. Octavio could hear the
vomiting in the next cell, while another man attempted to tell the officers that their friend's body was somewhere in the desert. One of the agents gave Octavio a Coca-Cola and smiled at him—told him in broken Spanish that things would turn out okay. Hours later they scanned his fingertips and had him sign some papers, most likely a voluntary departure form. He was loaded on a bus and driven for hours to a Mexican port of entry far from where he had attempted to cross. He was unloaded. An officer removed his cuffs and pointed toward the entrance of a building. It was not yet dawn, but the structures in the distance started to gain the vaguest of contours.

After my final night of work at the restaurant, after a meal of sliced duck breast in mole negro, and after several glasses of snuck tequila that retails at about fifty dollars a shot, I remembered only three things: dancing with two very tall, very attractive Russian women to a Cuban bolero, taking a deep and caustic drag of an American Spirit lit at the wrong end, and Octavio shaking my hand with a folded hundred-dollar bill in his: a hard-earned contribution toward my citizenship. “Qué esperas, cabrón?”

Martín y Yoli

Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.

—Ronald Reagan

When Martín became my father, he was skinny. He isn't fat now, but there's a photo of him from that time in which he's bathing a black puppy in a washbasin, and in it he looks like a lanky kid. Somehow, even though he was about to have a child himself, he looks placid. His arms look relaxed, and he's holding the wet puppy very gently. He looks present in that moment, like his mind is occupied with nothing other than kneading suds into a puppy's back with his thumbs.

The person taking the photo, maybe Martín's mother Estela, may have captured a moment of genuine calm, or it may just seem that way to me because I'd like to imagine they weren't devastated by the news that they'd soon be parents; I know how I would have felt about it at his age, twenty. Or maybe the photo was taken just before anyone knew.

The puppies—two white, two black—were only a few weeks old, and they lived in a cardboard box lined with
blankets. The box was in an entryway that led to the courtyard of the family home in Fortín. I remember seeing the photo for the first time when I was eight and being really drawn to three large metal tanks nestled between pots of young anthuriums. They looked like helium tanks for balloons, and my mom explained that they were filled with gas for the house, that in Fortín there was a truck that rode around town delivering them door to door, with a guy on the back shouting “Gas!” My mom said it was the same gas that came through the pipes in our place in Chicago and heated the oven, and I wondered whether those pipes were connected to tanks of gas somewhere in the basement of our apartment building. My mom said the gas came from the utility company, that there was a whole world of pipes and wires underneath the city, and that she didn't really know exactly how it all worked, but it didn't work like it worked in Mexico.

They always referred to Mexico. How this was different in Mexico or how that was oddly similar in Mexico, and I got some idea but never really a complete picture of what it meant. I had no recollection of it at all, just the sense that being from there affected almost every aspect of how we lived in Chicago. It had to do with why we didn't answer the phone sometimes and why my dad wouldn't say anything when they shorted him some hours at work, even though we really needed that money. It had to do with why they worked him thirty days in a row or more, why some people whose names I knew called themselves something different when they went to work, and why my grandparents, like most of my extended family, were complete strangers to me.

Yoli had been majoring in agronomy, with one semester left, when she found out she was pregnant and had to quit school. Her father kicked her out, and she went to live with Martín's family. Before this she'd been interested in soil science, in how land can become depleted and lose its ability to produce food. She knew how to graft plants. There was a tree
near her home that had been pink, and she added a branch of white blossoms that took. She never told anyone about it so it could be her secret to look at every time she passed. She was also athletic and got along better with her two brothers than with her three sisters. She'd grown to love basketball because her brother loved basketball, and her mother rarely let her out of the house except to play with him and to run errands. She had a broad back and muscular shoulders because in high school she'd been a swimmer, and she could do six wide-grip pull-ups in a row.

Yolanda's mother, María, beat Yoli but none of her siblings. I didn't know about this until well into my teens. María died young, of lung cancer, and Yoli had been the one to empty her bedpan, and she was the one who was there in her mother's last moments of agony. Somehow I'd always known things had not been good for her. I think it was that we never really talked about my grandparents. When we did it was brief, and we would always reach a point where my mother would become agitated and clam up. We talked about María and my grandfather, Pablo, so infrequently that sometimes, embarrassed, I'd have to be reminded what their names were. There weren't any pictures of them in our home.

By all accounts, Martín had a drinking problem. He wasn't the type of guy who woke up shaking, reaching for a drink, but when he drank it sometimes went on for days. We're similar in this way, and people say he was similar to his father in the same way. He had been in accounting, but by his own admission he wasn't any good at school, probably because he liked drinking so much. His father had only been around for a brief period at the beginning of Martín's life. He only saw him one time after that. His mother was Estela, and he called his uncle Roméo his father. He referred to him most frequently as Pa. Estela owned a restaurant, VicMar, which was a combination of her sons' names, Victor and Martín. They started working there when they were seven and five, and
before they moved into their house in Fortín, they lived in a vecindad, a kind of housing arrangement for poor families where private rooms surround a shared courtyard, kitchen, and bath. Martín was friends with Pablo, the brother with whom Yoli played basketball, and that's how they met. But really they'd always sort of known each other, and then one day things were just different. Neither of them can say what it was really, but they started hanging out alone, without telling anyone. They listened to Silvio Rodriguez on Martín's record player, and Yoli enjoyed being away from her family.

Martín was Yoli's first real boyfriend.

Her nipples itched. Martín noticed that she'd been scratching them a lot lately. They were on a day trip with Victor and his girlfriend, Marta, on the coast. They all noticed that Yoli was fidgeting with her flannel shirt but thought, at first, that it was the wool. It wasn't the wool. After she changed into a cotton T-shirt but kept fidgeting, Martín asked Yoli if she had been regular.


They said when they found out, it was clear what they needed to do.

Martín's aunt, Hilda, had moved to Chicago a few years before. A friend of hers from Fortín lived in Chicago and worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. When one of their other housekeepers quit, they asked the friend if she knew anyone who wanted to fill the spot. “Someone like you,” they'd said, meaning a Mexican, rather than a black person, not understanding that there are black Mexicans, so they sponsored Hilda's arrival and got her a green card just like that.

We would always have a complicated relationship with Chicago, but it's where I first remember coming into consciousness. Martín had gone to the United States before us,
to get a job and save some money. He got here in the winter, and the coat he imagined would be enough wasn't. The first steps he took outside of the airport were into negative-ten-degree cold. Before that, the coldest he'd ever experienced was around forty degrees, when he climbed with Yoli's brothers to the peak of Citlaltépetl, where he saw snow for the first time. He didn't know that cold could hurt inside, and he could feel on that first Chicago night that cold could very easily stop him from living. It was nighttime, and before his aunt Hilda arrived to pick him up, he felt alone in a strangely familiar way. It was a feeling he associated with Manuel, his biological father. He didn't know when he would see his wife and baby again. When he thought about this something turned between his ribs and his heart. A man outside the airport asked him something in English, he just shook his head,

Martín arrived in the United States on the cusp of shifting sentiment, a flux that was consistent with history. In 1921, the US Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which restricted the flow of southern and eastern European immigrants, and in 1924 the Immigration Act restricted the flow of eastern and southern Asians. Mexicans, however, were excluded from these and weren't really considered immigrants but laborers. The agriculture lobby had been successful in insuring that Mexicans were allowed to come and go with the seasons because they were cheap and pliant, so many of them did. Others settled. When the Great Depression hit, between four hundred thousand and two million Mexicans and Mexican Americans, many of whom were US citizens, “left” the United States. This period, known as the Mexican Repatriation, isn't widely known by the general public. Repatriation usually referred to the official process by which the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) returned
someone to his or her country of origin or citizenship, but a relatively low number of the people expelled during this period were expelled through INS-directed removal. The administrative process of deportation was not as fully developed and institutionalized as it is today. Instead, the lives of many Mexicans and Mexican Americans were made untenable when the federal government provided support for, and turned a blind eye to, draconian state and local government initiatives like conducting arbitrary raids on Latino communities, wrongfully removing US citizens, and securing “transportation arrangements with railroads, automobiles, ships, and airlines to effectuate wholesale removal of persons out of the United States to Mexico.” Mexican and Mexican American communities were “forced to abandon, or were defrauded of, personal and real property, which often was sold by local authorities as ‘payment' for the transportation” to Mexico.

Mexicans and other people perceived as foreigners were blamed for taking jobs from white people in the United States during the period after World War I. This accelerated during the Great Depression even though many of the areas where the blame occurred had been Mexican territory less than a century before, and Mexican labor had been a boon to the economy there. State and local law enforcement officials also turned a blind eye to systemic racist violence aimed at purging foreigners. Most Mexicans' departures were officially categorized as voluntary, but in reality they left under threat of violence. Methods of coercion existed on a spectrum ranging from formal (increased official deportation by the INS during the 1930s) to informal (Mexican laborers dragged from fields by angry mobs, tortured, and killed). V. Wayne Kenaston Jr., a San Diegan whose parents were members of their local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan during this period, remembered that “years ago east of 55th Street and El Cajon Boulevard, past College Avenue, there were lemon orchards.” The bodies of murdered Mexicans would occasionally be discovered among the trees, “sometimes disfigured by torture.”

The context in which the Mexican Repatriation happened was already one steeped in racist terror. As historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb point out in their research on lynching,

Statistics alone can never explain lynching in the United States. More than other Americans, blacks and Mexicans lived with the threat of lynching throughout the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The story of Mexican lynching is not a footnote in history but rather a critical chapter in the history of Anglo western expansion and conquest.

In their research, Carrigan and Webb note that numbers for Mexican victims of lynching are extremely difficult to collect because most were never recorded, and the victims that were recorded were often racially misclassified. The definition of lynching itself has shifted over time, and in their count Carrigan and Webb call lynching “a retributive act of murder for which those responsible claim to be serving the interests of justice, tradition, or community good.” According to Carrigan and Webb, the rate of black Americans lynched from 1880 to 1930 was 37.1 per 100,000. The rate of Mexican lynching during the same period was 27.4 per 100,000.

Mexico's history has always been inextricably linked to that of the United States. Yoli says that growing up she often heard her father repeat a saying: “¡Pobre México! Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.” The quote is popularly attributed to Porfirio Díaz, which is dubious but possible since Díaz would have been eighteen years old in 1848 at the conclusion of the US invasion of Mexico, which ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which the United States took about half of Mexico's landmass, including all of California. With the signing of the treaty, Mexicans living on the wrong side of the newly established boundary
lost property rights along with any semblance of civic power; they were segregated, and their culture deemed worthless and deviant.

BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
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