Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ando bien pedo

Coming out of the desert is usually thrilling. Air conditioning makes you feel halfway clean. A shower is an amazing luxury. Realizing that you have to pee and do not have to look for a bush is a delight. Your bed feels wonderful. I realized I wasn't feeling how I normally felt when returning to civilization. I liked my shower and the variety of food available, but struggled to shake the numbness that seemed to be broken only by crying fits. I had hoped that going to the desert would shake off the sadness I felt about leaving Tijuana, and left on vacation hoping to shake off the numbness that followed me back from the desert.

I wish I could tell you more about the desert, I really do. I want to. But we'd have to be somewhere private and you'd have to buy me a couple of beers.

So I flew to Chihuahua. Before leaving Mexico, I wanted to blow it out, have some pinche awesome trip and go to some places I haven't been before. I hunted around on line trying to find a cheap ticket, which painfully, does not exist. I found a ticket with just a short layover and bought it . Where the hell was that plane going? After the purchase, I hunted down the mysterious initials of the layover. Oh. Ciudad Juárez. No wonder they were so sneaky about it. Chihuahua suits my aesthetic in every way. Pretty, colonial buildings line a functioning, non-museum like city and there are rows and rows of cowboy boots and hats in every store window. Liked it, definitely would say I liked it.

I got to ride the Chepe. We hung around Chihuahua for a couple of days and then boarded Mexico's last passenger railway to Arepo. We hiked around the canyon and later even rode horses to see a different view. I have ridden both an elephant and a camel, but never a horse. I haven't been to Paris or Rome either, but I have been to Hanoi. A kid named Alfredo guided us. I liked him. He looked about sixteen, and wore a cowboy hat and boots and mirrored sunglasses. He seemed happy, but I couldn't help but wonder what his educational opportunities might be in a rural area like that. Telesecundaria? We rode our horses with a French / Spanish couple. As I watched the Spaniard actually control the horse as opposed to my freestyle, you can do whatever you want attitude with Macho, my horse, I wondered if it was in their blood to gallop around Mexico on horses.

Their faces were starting to disappear. When I would try to conjure the faces of Leo, Rogelio, even Alfredo after leaving Arepo, I would see Jesus, Roberto and Oscar, kids I taught in Tijuana. I couldn't see the real faces, only the faces I had come to know over the year. Everything was disappearing and becoming dream-like. The weird desert mountains that surround the school, the strange normalcy of walking in there everyday, not dream-like as in fantasy, dream-like as in not real.

Poor Sinaloa, such a strange place. We stopped in El Fuerte, a heavily touristed, colonial town. It's pretty, but hotter than hell. We got a really nice looking room that unfortunately had a sewage issue and reeked of cooking human shit, especially early in the morning after being contained in a closed off bathroom all night. We trotted around the hot, pretty town and were surprised to see outright suspicion and unsmiling stares on the faces of the locals. Odd. Even odder was to enter the OXXO and see not one, but two machine gun armed guards in a store the size of my bathroom. Yeah, I knew it was Sinaloa, but, um, is everything cool here? I still liked it. It's pretty. I saw rattlesnake skeletons sitting between watermelons and oranges in the market; the only local that would talk to me told me that the meat of the snakes tastes good. We got some burned Norteño CDs for the road and I saw a six inch plastic Malverde sitting next to a Jesus statue in the same market, all in a city that looked like a Spanish pueblo.

So we got to the shore and boarded a boat to La Paz. After letting the Mexican military off, they allowed folks to board their cars on the ferry. All I could see was a sea of white cowboy hats surrounding pick up trucks. Ah, Mexico. How I love you. Alec and I entered the nightclub to have some Modelos and watch a waitress engage the crowd with a karaoke machine. Three campo type guys caught my eye. They wore cowboy hats and had carried gallons of water into the bar and put them on the table while eyeing the waitress a little longer than they should have. I don't think they bought anything. I couldn't stop looking at the gallons, my eyes kept going over there, over to the gallons of water sitting on the table. "¡¡¡Ando, bien pedo!!!!" she screamed with the karaoke, I noticed multiple people sleeping on the floor of the bar, a kid walked through carrying a pillow in a Spiderman case. "Yo si, te necesitooooo!!!"

Have I mentioned that I love La Paz? I do. And on we went to Cabo Pulmo and Los Cabos and back to La Paz again. I carried a gallon of water out to a deserted beach by La Paz and realized I can't carry a gallon of anything anywhere without thinking about hauling it through the desert. We saw this kid, this crazy kid, standing on an island off of La Paz, next to three fisherman's shanties, throwing rocks into the ocean. "Does he go to school?" someone asked. "No! He learns to fish!" came the answer. He looked bored. Who wouldn't be. I thought of Alfredo and of that kid in the old mariachi costume that practiced his song in the school by a highway in the middle of nowhere and felt my head exploding and clouding over.

And back, back, back again to TJ and back at Lourdes' table, just like we were a year ago, having just arrived in Tijuana, but now we are leaving.

A huge, full moon hung in the sky tonight, just like it did a month ago when I drove to Arizona. It has been a fast month. Too fast.

Movement, furtive activity, all barely beneath the surface, I can feel it on those full moon nights.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Heliotropic ángeles

"¡Chicharitoooooo!!!!!!" the commentator screamed from the radio. While the rest of the volunteers received a tour of the desert aid camp, I retreated to the only location available to listen to the Mexico-Argentina game: my car, which sat in full sun on a 104 degree day in southern Arizona.

I began my third summer volunteering with a group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the Sonoran desert in Arizona. It is the deadliest migration corridor in the United States.

I liked the group of people we were working with. Every summer is different and this appeared to be an especially friendly and cooperative group. The first week, we faced extreme heat both in the camp and while hiking migrant trails and were literally not encountering any migrants. Speculation swirled. Were folks waiting for World Cup to end? Had the U.S. economy slowed immigration? Were they out there in that heat, wilting, withering, dying...and we weren't finding them? To the contrary of the seriousness of our mission in the desert, things were getting slap happy in camp. I like it that way. It is difficult to be around morose people that speak of nothing but the plight of migrants and the disaster of U.S. border policy. I prefer working with people that know when to play and know when to work.

"Waaaaake UPPPPPPPPP!!!!!" a shrill voice howled in an eighties, hair band falsetto while rapidly playing a Neil Young song on an acoustic guitar. I laid in my sleeping bag in the open air under the 5AM sun shuttering with giggles as I watched a sandy haired young man lean over a sleeping volunteer, screaming his song until she sat up. Coyotes began howling in the distance.

Melissa saddled herself into a fanny pack in order to hold up her sagging jeans as we began our morning hike. "Dude, I hope there's no cuties in the wash. I have no game with this fanny pack on". I had never heard this preoccupation at the prospect of encountering migrants before and it absolutely killed me. "Man, this tastes as good as he looks" she continued, taking a sip of water laced with an electrolyte powder gifted from a male admirer as we trudged out on to the trail.

"God, it even smells like shit" I commented, eyeing a road side Border Patrol station. "Um, sorry, that was me" my co-pilot stated as we promptly rolled down all of the windows.

A story was circulating about a group of migrants someone had encountered the previous week. Members of the migrant group had asked the volunteers a series of questions: #1 "Do you have water?", #2 "Do you have food?", #3 "Who won the Mexico-France game?".

We kept finding these insane black water bottles in the trails. I have encountered gallon bottles painted black during previous desert visits; apparently clear gallons reflect the light of the moon and attract Border Patrol to night walkers. It appears someone got smart in Altar and started marketing black ones. Some of us began referring to them as "Model 2010".

The mood shifted when we found Leonardo the Saturday after the one week volunteers had returned to Tucson. He was young. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten and estimated that he had been walking nine days. He had been left by his group and had been walking alone for two days without water. I stared at his lonely, scared, crestfallen face. My eyes attached to his Jack Skellington bracelet, a popular symbol with my students in Tijuana. I knew he was a prepa kid. He couldn't walk anymore. I couldn't watch him touch his toes for Border Patrol, put his hands behind his back, the frisking and shoving and eventual boarding into the back of their dog catcher trucks. I would not be able to watch one of my students being loaded into a BP truck. I couldn't watch Leo.

I remember Julio from Chiapas who returned to Mexico to bury his son. I remember Pedro from D.F. that would whisper water requests. I remember Juan from Sinaloa that had been robbed and left to die by his group. Hector and Eduardo from Sonora, the feral and gaunt looking men who approached us, yelled "México!", asked for water and said they were going back, the men of Puebla, of Vera Cruz, the men who made the sign of the cross when given water, reminding me of my students that made the sign of the cross when I gave them their final exam, I remember the men that exchanged few words and the others that told me everything. And I remember Rogelio.

He was heavy set and limping. He wanted to return to his parents, wife and children in the United States. After nearly ten years in the U.S., he seemed to identify more with the American city in which he lived than the Mexican city he came from. More than anything, I remember the fear and desperation in his eyes when I left him.

I felt numb, but guarded. Someone got us a treat one day, ice cream that was still frozen for lunch. I put my spoon into the dish I had been handed, thought of Rogelio and wanted to cry. I got control of myself, but triggers would puncture my numbness at unexpected times. Like finding Rogelio's discarded water bottle from Altar, something he didn't think he needed anymore wherever he was going.

There are people in the desert called angels, but there really aren't any angels out there. Well, there's one, but you will have to ask my friend Lupe about that. I'm no angel and most of the migrants aren't sprouting wings either. Contrary to popular belief, poverty does not bring out the best in people, it often brings out the basest forms of barbarism. There are some devils out there, some acts of courage and selflessness and a lot of contradictions.

After two weeks in the desert, I returned to TJ, flocked by passing border patrol trucks throughout Arizona and California. I cried when I left the desert, like I always do, somewhat relieved to leave but with a profound sense of sadness. Hours later, as I drove down a deserted southern California road, I suddenly saw a sea of twinkling lights.

I have never felt so relieved to see Tijuana.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Adelante, pues

"Teachercita ¿ahora vamos a tener pura party en su casa? ¿Smoke weed, traigo un kilo de crack?" one of my favorite, truly buck wild students asked me during the last week of school. "Sure, studentcito, let's smoke some crack" I answered, knowing it would probably be our last interaction and finding it oddly fitting.

"Profe, did I pass?" Clara asked me, her arm in a sling and finger splinted and bandaged from a injury she suffered while riding the electric bull at the Day of the Student party at our school. "Yeah, you made it, what exactly ended up happening with your finger?" I asked. "Part of it is gone now. From here to here.." she indicated, showing me the last digit of her ring finger. "They couldn't put it back on".

"Some of my students tried to bribe me today" Profe Hector informed me, as Profe Julio sailed through the room stating "Bailo hermoso, Hilary, HERMOSO" while sauntering to the banda music playing on his laptop. "Really? What did they say?" I asked Profe Hector. "They said that they could just pay me to pass instead of paying the school for the remediation class. I told them I liked my job and I wouldn't do it." he stated. "What did they say?" I said, laughing. "Somos muchos, Profe. Muchos".

I hid in the teacher's workroom for the majority of the last day of school. I hate goodbyes. My students gave me cards, gifts, balloons. There was an assembly in my honor. At the end of it, my students mobbed me and picked me up off of the ground in a group hug that I thought was going to kill me. The school threw me a little dinner party near the end of the day. I cut out a little early and nearly burst into tears while thanking my principal and hugging everyone goodbye. I went to my house, threw my clothes and camping gear in the back of my car and drove to the Otay border crossing.

It was an eerie scene on the border, late on a Friday night. Children cut through the multiple lanes of waiting cars, begging for change. Men with amputated legs rolled by, seated on skateboards. World Cup jerseys and Mexican flags rolled by on carts. "¿Tienes basura?" a man wearing a sign that read "Your tips are my salary" in both Spanish and English asked me through my open window while opening a large black garbage bag. "Ah, you're American!" he said in English upon seeing me face. "I live there for a while, I don't have papers no more..." he said in the lovely, accented English that I adore. "Maybe I try to get some again..." he said after I gave him a tip but no garbage.

I rode through the California desert in the middle of the night, alternating between singing wildly with my radio and crying fits. I was fighting an incredible feeling of sadness that stemmed from driving away from Tijuana. A full moon hung in the sky, bathing the sloping dunes of the Imperial Desert in white light. I almost felt like I could have turned off my headlights and continued driving. I wondered about the people that were surely scurrying through the night, jumping walls and searching for pre-arranged rides. On the deserted highway, I sensed a buzzing activity just below my level of perception.

The cool air in my car was replaced with a hot stillness that made me wonder if I had accidentally turned the heat on. As I drove past the sign painted with yellow and red sunbeams that marks the Arizona state line, I felt a heavy and dark weight settle over my pre-dawn drive.

I had entered the police state.