California Or Bust
As the night closes in on the border town of Tijuana, the tourists head home to San Diego and Los Angeles, bellyfull with cheap Mexican beer, their cars and trucks loaded up with garish trinkets.
Up in the hills, in the colonias and barrios, another ritual begins. On the bare ground outside San Ysidro, US border patrol agents manoeuvre their Dodge trucks into position, spacing them every four hundred yards along the fence. Two agents in each truck, one with the night glasses, the other on the radio to base and the helicopter back-up,
And on the other side a thousand eyes look out across the border from the bars, pool halls and hotels of the Colonia Libertad. And behind those eyes the fears and frustrations of the men and women who hope that tonight they will be lucky enough to evade the patrols and reach ‘el otro lado’ - the other side.
In the Hotel Fenix, one of many that tine the unpaved streets of the colonia, a group of Mexicans are sitting, drinking beer and waiting for the man who will be their guide. One of the men is younger than the others but like them, his appearance distinguishes his purpose. He wears a hat but his clothes are dirty from the long journey from his home to the border. He holds a bag that contains a few clothes and personal possessions. He wears the huarache sandals of simple country folk. His name is Alonso Garcia Hernandez, son of a poor Michoacan farmer, brother of four younger sisters. Tonight is the most important of his life.
A man comes into the room. He introduces himself as Jose their guide. Alonso listens attentively and nervously while he speaks to them. Jose tells the men that they leave tonight because it is Sunday and there are many tourists in town so crossing the border will be easier. Later, he says, they will go to a friend’s house on the Calle Louis Moya. From there they can see La Linen, the fence.
‘We cross at La Libertad (a hill near the border station). It takes two or three hours. We will find a spot where we want to cross and then wait for the border patrol to go away. Then we all pass at the same time.
From the border Jose says that he will take them to a motel in (‘hula Vista where they will rent a room. shower and change their clothes. ‘That way we won’t be wearing anything dirty, so we wont seem suspicious and are less likely to be questioned by the police.’
Jose leaves the room. In the silence that follows, Alonso’s thoughts return a thousand miles, to the small town of Uruapan and to the tiny farm where his family lives.
It had been a bad summer. For months there had been no rain, and without the rain there would be no work and no food for the family. Alonso remembers the worried, tearful face of his father saying he could not afford to pay for his son’s books so that he could go to escuela superior. ‘El campo se ca a dar nada,’ he had said. The land won’t give anything.
And how only the next morning, his sixteenth birthday, he had gone into town with his sister to sell two chickens in the market. He noticed the growing crowd of young children climbing over the big car with the California number plates parked outside the Cafe Central. ‘Alonsito’, the proud owner had shouted to him, ‘come over, come and see the car,’ It was Manuel, his cousin, who had been gone since last summer. Now he was back. He had been the scrawny youth who had courted his sister Maria and whom she had refused to marry because she thought he didn’t have a future. Now here he was standing there almost unrecognisable with his fat face, his new Levis and the finest pair of boots Alonso had ever seen.
And later at his family’s house Alonso had listened wide-eyed as Manuel told how he had found work at a boatyard in Costa Mesa near Los Angeles. It was dirty work and dangerous too for the Mexicans had the job of moulding the glass fibre hulls and their bodies would be covered with the itchy splinters which you could only wash off with acetone that burned your skin and eyes. And sometimes the police would come to the factory and all the Mexicans without papers would run and try to jump over the fence before they were caught and sent home. But the money was good; three dollars an hour, sometimes as much as 150 dollars a week. One hundred and fifty dollars a week! With that kind of money, Alonso could save enough for his family and for his books. he could get married and buy some land. He would be rich. He had made up his mind. He would go - he would cross to the other side.
At first his parents would not listen to him. It was too dangerous, they said. There were bandits who hide in the trees near the border who rob you and who rape the women and sometimes they leave you to die of thirst in the desert, Remember your uncle, they told him. He had crossed the border once but he hadn’t the money to pay the guide so they locked him up and threatened to take away his clothes and abandon him on the freeway.
And the next day they called the immigration officials who took him to the detention centre and sent him back to Mexico.
And who would look after his sisters, they asked him, and Clara the girl he loved and wanted to marry? Who would work the land when his father was sick, and who would help his grandmother to church? But if I don’t go, he had told them, ‘sin trabajo no hay futuro’, there is no hope for the family. They must not be afraid, he would send them money when he started working and then they would know that he was safe. And when he returned he would have enough money to buy a pump that would bring water from the lake to their land. Only this way was a decent life possible.
But now as Alonso waits, fear has taken the place of those brave words spoken to his family. It is almost midnight and Jose the guide has returned. ‘Vamos,’ he tells them, ‘vamos al otro lado.’ And the group of men Jose, Alonso and the others walk out of the Hotel Fenix and up the street to the border. In eight hours with God’s blessing they will be in Los Angeles.
Adrian Pennink lived and worked in Los Angeles for many years as a television
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