There were too many people smoking in too small a space. Alejandro sat on the floor trying to get through to Guatemala on his cellular, three of us reclined on the bed, and a cousin from down the street sat in one of the dining room chairs placed around the room. The small apartment holds two full sets of dining room chairs, a testament to the social function of the place. Every evening the chairs fill with brothers and cousins who gather to watch the Spanish language cable channels, listen to music - bachata, norteño, romantica, duranguense - and to talk, from 10 p.m. to about 2 a.m. A nearly empty Aquafina bottle circulated around the room, swallowing the ashes from each cigarette.
In the next room, three vatos crowded at one end of the couch, intently exploring the internet on their new laptop for everything relevant to them. My preguntita, "¿Quieren café?" was met with a fantastic silver grin from Rudi, who I can always count on to drink (coffee) with me. It's his only vice. One of us always makes the coffee; last time he did it, and under our informal telepathic agreement, tonight it was my turn. I brewed a pot and prepared each cup according to the preference of each man: some sugar, lots of sugar, milk and tons of sugar. After distributing the cups, I eventually settled back cross-legged on the bed, cradling the hot mug and trying to get the gist of the conversation. The talk swayed and wove above my head for a long time, and I divided my attention between trying to translate and watching "latin" music videos. After a while one cousin stood up, yawned, and exited with a drowsy "Hablamos mañana." Soon another cousin followed, disappearing into the misty night with his hood pulled over his head to disguise his hispanidad from the always roving pinche policía.
That left Alejandro still on the floor sending a barrage of text messages to his fed-up, neglected, estranged wife, alternately begging forgiveness and threatening to forget her forever. Young Milton remained in one of the chairs, and I on the bed with mi amorcito's cabeza in my lap. The conversation centered on plans to open a Mexican restaurant upon their return to Guatemala. Alejandro was asking his brother how he planned to carry thousands of dollars in cash back with him. He spoke of the danger of being robbed, especially at the southern border of Mexico and Guatemala. Jaime occasionally raised his head off my lap to argue. What I was wondering, but did not interrupt to ask, was why he didn't just stash the money little-by-little in a bank account in Guatemala.
Neither brother has a Guatemalan passport, and they plan to return to their country in the same clandestine way they left: by sneaking across borders. In a way, it is more dangerous to go back than it was to leave. Mexico remains dangerous to them, as the authorities there show no mercy to Central American migrants. Coming north, they risked being caught by la migra crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but would not have been subjected to the abuses that faced them at the hands of Mexican police. I remembered one quiet night in the summertime when Jaime whispered to me the story of his journey across Mexico, of being arrested three times along the way. He did not say how he was released, but he did say they took everything he had.
To make his point, Alejandro told scary stories about the thieves who work near the Guatemala-Mexico border. This led to each telling part of his own border story. Milton described his crossing of the Rio Bravo (they never call it the Rio Grande), and how he laid low on the American bank while lights passed above his head. Jaime spoke for nearly an hour about his journey. He began by saying the river crossing from Guate into Mexico was fairly easy, but at the Rio Bravo, his guía asked who in his group knew how to swim, and none did. The "guide" then took each one across holding onto an inner tube, with their clothes in a bag on top.
His walk through the desert took 24 hours, during which time he became separated from his group and from his guía. In the middle of the night, while he was walking alone, he encountered a woman crawling, who begged him not to leave her alone. She was an older woman, he said, divorced with two children left behind in El Salvador. Together they eluded la migra, running hand in hand, and somehow reunited with part of his group. By following the red lights of a tower, they made it to a meeting place where they piled into a SUV and rode 4 hours to Houston. There they were met by a salvadoreña at a house, who gave them clean clothes, pizza and soda. There was an old gringo there, too, who yelled at them and said they each owed a thousand dollars for the ride to Houston, and that they could not leave until they paid up. Jaime was apparently not expecting this extra expense on top of the thousands he had already paid for his trip through Mexico in the cargo compartment of a bus. He remained in the house for 9 days until his brother wired the money from New York.
The next morning, after having spent the previous evening hearing about their crossings, I saw a post on La Bloga reviewing a book called First Crossing: Stories About Teen Immigrants by Donald R. Gallo. Other compelling reading on the same subject is Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario, and of course, Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea.