Read The Weight of Shadows Online
Authors: José Orduña
I don't think I was fully conscious of it at the time, or maybe I did my best to ignore it, but moving into those spaces early in the morning, and staying in them for most of the waking day, wasn't without its effects. I'd never felt as poor or as brown as I did against that “stark white background.” At the time, we were living in a $700-a-month apartment. I slept on a mattress on the floor of a room slightly bigger than a closet. The floor in the kitchen was so warped that when one of us dropped a round fruit or vegetable it would roll in several directions before settling in a divot or ending up in a corner. There was a stretch when we had to take showers at the local park because we didn't have gas to heat water.
That period was of discomfortingly high contrast. I made friends with a Ukrainian transfer student named Alexy, who lived in a Gold Coast high-rise that overlooked the Chicago River and Navy Pier. I remember the first time we
rode up the elevator to his place. The attendant who opened the door for us, two fifteen-year-old boys, called us “sirs.” He was a middle-aged Mexican man whose accent was as thick as MartÃn's. It was a short ride, but inside the elevator time crept. Beads of sweat gathered on my skin, and I felt as though I was being observed, not by my friend, who was rather oblivious, but by the building itself and by the employees, who seemed to look at me a moment longer than at Al. It was a similar feeling I had walking through the halls of Ignatius, except there it seemed more diffuse. At school I felt the general obliviousness that comes with being a teenager, and I'd made friends with SimÃ³n and SebastiÃ¡n, the two Mexican custodians at Ignatius. Saying hello and joking with them in the halls made me feel slightly less alienated because they felt less foreign to me than some of my affluent Mexican classmates.
That evening Al and I took rips from his plastic bong while sitting cross-legged on his balcony overlooking the river. In his building's indoor pool we bobbed up and down in lukewarm water watching the sun disappear behind a geometry of glass and metal. The skyline went red for a few minutes, and the marijuana helped shut down the part of my mind that was conscious of myself in this space. That kind of awarenessâof my circumstances, of my parentsâsloughed off, and I transitioned into a purely sensual few hours: my body feeling itself floating and my mind capable only of feeling the movements of water. My mind was temporarily evacuated of a caustic memory, desire, and awareness of being.
Later that evening, Al's dad came home from work with a paper bag full of “goodies” as he called them and insisted that I stay for dinner. He reached into the brown bag and placed several items on the kitchen counter. A block of tan butcher paper was unwrapped, and he sliced into a white slab of cured fatback called salo. A small golden jar with Russian characters and the image of a large sturgeon on the label was placed in the middle of an iridescent dish. Al retrieved
a small mother-of-pearl spoon from a cupboard and slid it into the shiny black spheres in the open jar. His father poured us shots of vodka and told us to drink and eat, while he boiled dumplings.
“Mom, I don't know what's going to happen with us in the next few days, if I can fix my papers well there's hope in being here, but if I don't fix anything, I don't know what I'm going to do.” This is in a Mother's Day letter that MartÃn wrote to Estela on May 5, 1988. He was twenty-five years old. “Anyway,” he continues, “I think we'll be seeing each other really soon, whatever happens, I'll call to let you know.” Throughout the letter he tells his mom things had become very hard and apologizes for giving her nothing but bad news. “Telling you really helps.”
Yoli sees me reading the letter, and without looking very closely she knows which one it is. She's still grouping pictures on the floor and hands me one of Estela taken at a bit of a distance as she walks down a hill with her back to the camera. I don't immediately think anything of it and put it down on the couch next to which I'm sitting. Yoli says that OrduÃ±a, as she calls him, never sent the letter.
“Why not?” I ask.
I pick up the photo again and when I do, it strikes me that when I'd seen it moments earlier I'd immediately and casually known who it was. Looking at it again, I wonder how since the picture is so small, a four-by-five, and Estela is even smaller in it, with her back to the camera. The hill isn't the one in front of her houseâthe one that leads to the parkâit's just an asphalt street with white gates and foliage on both sides, and there's nothing recognizable about the location, nothing indicating that it was taken in FortÃn. I look closely at the woman in the picture, and I can't even tell how old she may be. She's wearing a long navy skirt and
a cardigan, so the only part of her body that's really visible is the skin on the back of her lower calves. The more I look at it, the more I begin to doubt it's her.
“Who is this?” I ask Yoli.
“Ay, come on,” she says.
I ask her again why he never sent the letter, and she says things were very difficult then, and that he probably intended to but just forgot. It was written on letterhead from the Bismarck Hotel, where he worked as a dishwasher. Yoli says they had him working like “dos paisas,” two country-men, two Mexicans, and that still he had holes in his shoes. She says that's when he started to get “that thing,” and she scratches and picks at the palm of her right hand, mimicking something I've seen him do so many times I don't notice it anymore. His right hand is white and has terrible scales that he picks until his palm has hollowed craters that look like the strata in a quarry. He's been to several doctors who ran tests and told him different things. When I was twelve he went to one who gave him pills that might fix his hand but also damage his liver, so he didn't take them. Whatever it is, Yoli says it started then, when his hands would be submerged in hot water and industrial cleaners for twelve or thirteen hours a day. She said when he got home they'd be white and swollen, like the skin under a bandage, damp for too long, except it was his whole hand up to the wrist. Then they would dry and turn bright red and scale, and she says she could tell they really hurt him at first but that after a while the pain no longer fazed him.
Yoli starts to get up from sitting cross-legged on the floor. She manages to get to one knee, and then she pauses for a moment. She's not even fifty, and she's in good health, but about a decade ago I'd seen her jump into a full-court pickup game of basketball with teenagers and guys from the neighborhood half her age. Brief pauses in movement like the one she just took remind me that my parents are aging, and they
haven't been able to amass anything secure or permanent. They're back in this apartment, and the most valuable thing they own is their car, and it's not even that valuable. This specific thought, the realization they have nothingâa thought I have often, even more so as
become olderâproduces a very particular feeling. It's like a long crochet needle is being inserted under my ribs until it reaches my lung and then whomever is holding the needle begins to torque, using my bottom rib for leverage. And even though I know they experience much more than just pain, the way they still exist in the world pains me.
She walks back into the living room holding two cups of black coffee and a concha with the white, not the yellow, paste on top. She motions to the window where she's placed an array of small glass bottles I'd collected as a young boy. She always reminds me that for some reason I was obsessed with small glass bottles, and if we saw one somewhere it was impossible to get me out of the store without buying it. I remember the feeling of being drawn to them, and when I see them on the sill, I feel the remnant of that original sensation. It was something about the smoothness of the glass in my hand, but also about the novelty of their smallness. She's filled them all with water and there are cuttings from some of her plants growing and snaking up the window frame toward the sun.
“What was Pop talking about?” I ask, referring to the trouble MartÃn wrote about in the letter.
He'd written Estela, worried about his papers, not knowing what to do. Much later, when I was old enough to understand, he told me it was disorienting to have a few sheets of off-white paper be so determinant in our lives. “I might be seeing you really soon,” he'd written.
To “have papers” or “not have papers” was something frequently discussed and central in my household. From the
time I was very young, thinking about our situation as one of papers helped me understand something of the arbitrariness of the whole thing. I remember asking a young blonde girl I had a crush on early in elementary school about her papers, and she not knowing what I was talking about. It was the first time I realized some people didn't even know they had papers, and that absence of knowledge for people like her was something new I learned about
Not having these documents but needing them reveals a quality of contemporary American life that many people don't have to see. Things as banal as paperwork, based on arbitrarily selected dates, are used to administer suffering. To not have papers is to be marked as someone who is banned. And to be banned in this way is to be made the walking, breathing expression of sovereignty. You prove that “America” exists. You prove that a quality called “American” exists by being made to represent what it is not. To some, we are the chiseled-away material in relief.
Once after a shift at the restaurant I asked Octavio to describe the feeling of driving his green Geo without a driver's license. He said he tried not to think about it but that it doesn't work that way. He told me there's always something in the back of his head that understands the precariousness of each passing moment, that sometimes it's not something one actively thinks about, but it's still there, like a pain “en el pinche culo.” I felt guilty whenever he drove me home. I even tried to avoid him when we had shifts together so he wouldn't, but he always insisted. That night, when we were nearing my apartment, he took a right when he was supposed to make a left. He explained that this was because his left blinker wasn't working so he was trying to only turn right. He knew if he got pulled over he would be at the mercy of the individual police officer. “Chicago es okay,” he said. He explained he even got pulled over once and was let go with a warning, but one of his friends, a guy who used to collect scrap metal in a
pickup truck, got caught up while he was out collecting one day. He was in an alley and he T-boned a woman in a white BMW pulling out of her garage. They took him in, and his wife and kids didn't know what happened until a few days later when he was already in the process of being removed.
“Are you a US citizen?”
The question can result in being taken away on the spot. No going home, even if you have something slow-cooking on the stove, a cat, or even children. If you have kids and you're taken in, the ACLU recommends that you “call a friend or family member as soon as possible so that a responsible adult will be able to take care of them,” because otherwise their fates are open-ended questions with only a horrible range of possibilities. But sometimes people aren't permitted a phone call, and what if you have no one to call? Despite federal assertions that immigration enforcement prioritizes serious threats to public safety and national security, the
New York Times
reported in April 2014 that “since President Obama took office, two-thirds of the nearly two million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.” In fact, the article shows not only that the largest increases were in deportations of undocumented immigrants, often whose most serious offense was a traffic violation, but that the cases more than quadrupled from 43,000 during George W. Bush's last half-decade in office to 193,000 during a five-year span in the Obama administration.
Yoli couldn't sleep on the night of May 4, 1988. She says she didn't sleep the previous evening, the night of my third birthday, either. Her mind was fixed on a drip coming from a faucet, maybe in the kitchen, maybe in the bathroom, and she spent the night between the evenly spaced intervals of sound until the sun came up. At the same time, MartÃn lay
next to her perfectly still, his eyes closed, also unable to rest. Each thought the other was sleeping, or perhaps they didn't care what the other was doing. Both spent the night turning an impossible question over and over in their minds:
What are we going to do?
Midnight on May 4 was the deadline for the major phase of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), and in order to qualify for relief one had to be able to prove continuous residence in the United States since January 1, 1982. We had no way of doing that. Midnight came and went, and Yoli says when she got out of bed the following morning, everything felt pointless in a way that made her feel light. She wanted to smoke a cigarette, something she hadn't done since she was a girl when she would steal butts from her father's ashtray and smoke the remainder when they sent her to the store. MartÃn said he felt like he had failed us, and he doesn't think he would have been able to get out of bed if not for the fact that he had to go to work or we wouldn't eat.
Under this main provision, 1.7 million people received temporary residence if they paid a $185 fee and were of “good moral character.” Some would then be able to apply for permanent residence after eighteen months, if they spoke English. The bill included provisions for tightening border security with new technology, and penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers, but by the time it became law, business interests (like California fruit and vegetable growers, who were the biggest exploiters of undocumented migrant labor) had effectively lobbied to declaw employer sanctions. Not surprising, since Reagan was the former Republican governor of California.