This is the last piece in my mini-series of other people’s writing about immigration. It’s by Melissa Ureña, a student of mine at UCSB sixteen years ago. The assignment was: interview someone and edit the interview into a narrative. She interviewed her father. I guess I should add that this piece was published in Spectrum in 2001.
Why did I come here? I wanted to make some money so I could go back to Mexico and build a home. You know, marry somebody someday, have a place to live, some money to spend. And I was young, twenty-one, tired of seeing the same town, the same people, going to the same places. It was 1969. Time for some adventure. Time to go north.
I went to San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico. I was told that I could find family there to help me get here. All I found was a job that put buckets of cement on my head. I had to carry them upstairs, a hard and tiring thing to have to do. I couldn’t afford to go out because I was saving money to get to the United States. I worked and I killed time at a pool hall where I never played pool. Hope grows dim. I didn’t see any hope of coming here through there so I went back to Manzanillo.
A cousin named Nico called me one day, “Hey, I heard you tried to go to the States but didn’t have much luck.” “Yeah, I couldn’t find anyone,” I said. “Well, I’m going there. I know the way. I go back and forth all the time. If you want, let’s go.” It was nighttime when we jumped the border. There was a rusty green Valliant waiting for us on the other side that Nico had put there. We jumped over the fence, ran into the car and were off. We swam across the American Canal, holding our clothes in a plastic bag over our heads. We swam with one arm and held our clothes with the other. Both grew sore.
We got a job in Newcastle picking pears, prunes and peaches. The locals said the place was safe. When you got to a new place you always asked if it was safe. Word was that immigration never went there, so we stayed and we worked. We were cooking beans after work one day without shirts or shoes, just our jeans, all of us at ease except Nico. “I have a feeling,” he said. “Maybe we should leave.” “You heard the people. It’s safe. Don’t worry.” He left, later he told me that he had gone to the fields to pray. The door of our house was facing West toward the setting sun. Against its escaping light we saw silhouettes. We couldn’t make out the details of the figures, but we knew they weren’t our people because we saw belts and we saw guns.
Nico had returned by then and we tried to run away but there was nowhere to go. There was a single hill ahead and flat ground after. We would have been running in the open air. There was a river behind our house that was mostly mud. There were bushes around it and I hid in one of them. My feet were bare. I was feeling the gravel, rocks and dry sticks on my soles when I ran. The bottoms of my feet got so irritated that I didn’t feel the broken bottle that made a gash about this big on the side of my foot. I still have the scar. It is thirty years later.
Our house had a single door. When we ran out of it, the police officers were already on the path that led to it. They saw where we went. One of them stood over the bush I was in, pointing his finger and yelling at me to come out. At first I didn’t come out, but he got angry and there was nowhere to go. When I stepped out, he yanked me and handcuffed me. “¿Donde están los otros?” he asked. They knew two or three phrases in Spanish. “Where are the others?” was one of them. I said there were no others. “¡Dos Mas! ¡Dos Mas!” he yelled while shaking two fingers in front of my face. I saw my cousin Nico some feet ahead. I stared at him, not being able to talk, but trying to tell him to get away. I pointed toward the free air with my eyes and head. He just turned his back to show me his hands. They were cuffed. They had caught him too.
The ground behind me became red like a royal carpet as they walked us away. One of the cops told me I was bleeding. It wasn’t till then that I looked at my foot and saw a cut on its side, generously spilling out the redness of the carpet I left behind. We were up to our knees in mud and still without shirts or shoes, so they took us back home to change. We knew we were going to need extra clothing where we were going. We put on two shirts, two pairs of jeans, and our one pair of tennis shoes. I bandaged the cut as best I could, but when I walked I felt it bleed and I knew the bandage wasn’t enough.
The officers were young, about twenty years old, happy because they had just caught themselves two Mexicans. We heard them behind us singing La Cucaracha through obnoxious laughter. We stopped at a fruit stand along the road. They bought us fruit drinks and told us to drink up because they would be our last. They weren’t our last.
When we arrived at Lincoln City Hall, they handcuffed one of our hands to the metal screen that separates them from the backseat and went inside. Nico turned to me and said, “I have a feeling we can get out of this.” “What? You’re crazy. How? You know that once you’re in the car, there is no getting out.” “Well, I don’t know. I have a feeling. Do you have your handkerchiefs with you?” I used to carry two handkerchiefs with me then. When you’re working your nose gets runny and you need them. I gave him one. He tightened it into the form of a rope and wrapped it around the stump where the handle for the window used to be. They took those off of the doors. All that was left was a short piece of metal with teeth around it. Nico wrapped the handkerchief around the teeth and began to turn it. The window went down. “There! You see!” “Yes, but what about the handcuffs?” “I don’t know, but at least we know that the window goes down.” The cops appeared in the rearview mirror. They were coming back. I quickly put the handkerchief away and we did our best not to look excited. We sat pretending nothing had changed since they left.
We made one a last stop at Marysville to pick up another guy. It was Sacramento from there, then jail, then deportation. The cops parked the car in front of a house. One of them went inside and the other sat on the windshield facing away from us. He turned around routinely to eyeball us. The handcuffs were off by then. Our hands were free. Nico said hurriedly, “Give me the handkerchief. This is it, our chance.” He rolled the window down and stuck his arm out to open the door from the outside. He left it open, but close enough to the car that it appeared closed at a glance. “Come on! Let’s go!” he said. I was trembling. I can’t tell you if it was fear, excitement, or fever. The cut had made feverish by then. Nico yelled, “Let’s go! This is it. From here it’s Sacramento and then jail. There won’t be another way out. We have to go NOW!” “No, my foot hurts. I can’t run. Leave. You leave. I’ll stay.” “If I go and you stay, they’ll hurt you. They’re animals. I am not leaving if you don’t come.” I saw the cop sitting so close to us and I saw Nico so excited, so ready to go, but I felt my foot, it was aching, I felt my state of mind, it was aching too. “I can’t.” Time was running out and we were both very tense. Nico was pleading with me. “It’s now or never. We have to go.” I was trembling but I knew what I had to do. We waited until the cop eyeballed us one last time. As soon as his face disappeared, we jumped out of the car.
We pushed the door back close to the car, being careful not to make any noise. We squatted real close to the ground, and using the parked cars as cover, we walked away. When we were no longer in his line of sight, we sprang to our feet and ran. I swear I felt them behind us. I ran with my body arched forward because I felt their hands reaching for me, their fingers almost touching me. I forgot about my fever. The adrenaline cured my cut. We came across eucalyptus trees. We tried to climb them to hide between the branches, but no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t. We kept sliding off. They were too smooth and we were too anxious.
“Look,” I said, “We can’t make the same mistake we made last time. We can’t hide, we have to run. We’ll run until we fall, until we can’t run anymore.” So we began to run. We ran from nine at night until one the next morning. We walked the rest of the dark way. There was an ocean of blood in my shoe. Every time my foot crashed on the ground, I felt warm squirts of it between my toes. We came upon a river that we couldn’t cross. We had been running for too long, we were hot, sweaty, and heaving. The cold water would have killed us. If we had gotten a cramp, that would have been it for us. We walked along its side for a while. My mind began to trick me. “Shh, listen,” I said, straining my ear. “Do you hear dogs?” I swear I heard hounds barking. They were after us. I knew they were coming. The river was winding back to Marysville. We couldn’t keep following it. “We’re gonna have to swim,” I said. The moon was full above us. We squatted to catch its light against the tide. It wasn’t as long as the first part we saw, so we jumped in and swam across.
When we came out we saw long rows of trees. By the time we reached them, we were both very thirsty. We climbed the fence around the trees and were in farming lands. Big wooden crates slouched between the trees. I made one of them my bed while Nico looked for water. The moist ground dense with vegetation was mosquito heaven. A thick blanket of them buzzed around my head, intensifying the exhaustion vertigo I was in. When we were running in the dark, I fell headfirst into a piece of barbed wire and cut my head. It was bleeding too. I was a feast for the critters. Nico took off his shirt and put it over my face to keep them away. I don’t remember anything from then on.
It was about five in the morning when I regained consciousness. Nico’s face was close to me, shaking me, telling me to wake up. He had found water. It was dark, murky, in puddles on the ground because someone over-watered the grass. That is what we drank. The sky wasn’t dark anymore. The sun was spreading its light, giving form to things. We saw men coming out, getting ready to work the fields. We approached a white fellow who was in a tractor. Nico and I knew very little English. He said one word and I said the other, but we managed to get this story across: We were out with some buddies last night and we got very drunk. Our friends got mad at us and left us here. We don’t know where we are but we need a ride to Newcastle. The man said he couldn’t help us because he couldn’t leave work. We should talk to the man standing by the shed.
We did and we gave him the same story, but he couldn’t help either. He offered to call a cab for us. There was a phone next to him in the shed but he went inside to make the phone call. I told Nico, “This doesn’t look right. We’re both dirty, muddy, our hair looks like we just got struck by lightning. They didn’t buy our story. If he was going to call a cab he could have done it with the phone next to him.” We left, disappeared into the trees and out of the farm. We couldn’t afford to take any chances.
Through the greenery we found a highway. “Wait,” I said, “What are we going to do? We can’t keep walking without direction. We have two choices. We can go back to Marysville and take our chances with the police, or we can stand here and hope that someone will give us a ride.” We couldn’t go back. We saw car after car zoom by for hours. Finally one stopped on the road ahead and reversed. They were two Latino men. “Hey,” they said, “What is going on?” We gave them the story and asked them for a ride to Newcastle where we worked for a Japanese man. They were hesitant. The driver said he was looking for work for his friend. We offered them twenty dollars and a job at Newcastle. They accepted and we left.
We entered the nerve-wracking terrain of Marysville. Nico and I slouched into our seats trying to conceal ourselves from enemy eyes that could be lurking outside. The car began to circle the area, to slow down. It was about nine in the morning and the guys were getting hungry. They wanted to stop and eat. “We’re really in a hurry to get to where we’re going,” we said. “Well, we’re hungry,” they said. “Look, I will give you four dollars right now. I’ll fix you something to eat when we get to Newcastle, and we’ll get your friend a job, but we have to leave now. We can’t stop.” After glances amongst each other and some time of careful consideration, the guys put the car on the road out of Marysville. Nico and I wiped the sweat off of our foreheads.
When we arrived at Newcastle our boss didn’t want to give us our jobs back. He thought that the law had let us go in return for other immigrants. He didn’t want to lose his workers. The guys that picked us up explained how they had found us, but it was hard to convince him that we had gotten away. We were caught at six in the afternoon and we were back by ten the next morning. No one ever comes back that quickly. No one could believe it. After hearing how the guys had found us, he gave us all jobs. He sent Nico and me to his brother’s farm in case immigration went back. Word spread that we had gotten away from la migra. On Saturday everyone came to our place with thick slabs of meat to grill and six-packs of beer to drink. They all wanted to know how we did it. It was legendary.
After that time we came back and forth a lot and mostly without trouble. The first time I was scared because I had never been here. I didn’t know anything. After that it was fun and games. We were young and we didn’t have families, so we didn’t take it seriously. We laughed at the trouble we got into. Immigration officers were power icons. If we got away from them, our reputation grew, along with our egos.
Despite that, we were always worried. One day some utility people drove by in an official-looking car. They were wearing green suits and belts with tools that we perceived as guns. Four workers were there illegally. We ran. A young white guy named Mark worked there after school. He ran too. We were pumping our knees and elbows trying to get away as fast as we could, when all of a sudden we see him running in front of us. He ran faster than all of us put together. We jumped a barbed wire fence. Once on the other side, we stopped and looked around with heaving chests. “Hey, Mark, why are you running?” “Well, why are you running?” “We saw immigration.” “No, that was the utility man. I was just running because I saw you guys running.” We fell to the ground with tears in our eyes, laughing so hard that our bellies began to ache. Mark didn’t think it was funny. He told us not to laugh, but we couldn’t help it. I have not forgotten his name to this day.
Work in the fields wasn’t always funny. It was hard. I remember picking grapes because they were the hardest. The vines were at waist level. We were on our knees the whole time. They pay you for the amount of grapes you pick. We woke up at four in the morning and gave it our all until about one in the afternoon when it got too hot to work. Actually, at twelve it was already too hot to work. The sun really began to beat down on us, to hit us with its inferno. Your back hurts, it is suffocating, you see miles of fields in front of you. It makes you delirious. When you pulled the bundles of grapes some of them popped and spilled their juice on your face. It dries into syrup. When you shake the vines the dirt and dust falls on your face and is glued there by the syrup. When it’s all over, you can take your nail and scrape layer after layer of the day’s work from your face. You get thirsty but you don’t want to go get a drink of water. It is too far. The lost time will cost you at the end of the week. You take a handful of grapes and squeeze their drilling sweetness into your mouth. I got so tired of it that I couldn’t eat grapes for a long time after.
Behind the harsh curtain of the fields, there was beauty and untouchable peace. I had no worries or frustrations about bills, violence, traffic jams. What I did have were Sundays, my days off, when I could wake up late to watch the fruit in bloom. Beds of colors stretched out as far as my eyes could see. It was hypnotizing. February and April mornings were my favorite. Their coldness was the best excuse to prepare a hot cup of coffee and light a cigarette to smoke while watching the bees and smelling the flowers.