Totally Wasted
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Exodus: Border-Crossers Forge a New America

Coyotes, pollos, and the promised van.

I load my truck up with trash and head out to the main gate. A pair of Border Patrol trucks sit empty, the agents off on ATVs hunting Mexicans. Two kids sit nearby. The girl is 22; her brother, 16. They've been trying to flag down Border Patrol units that roar by, but no one will stop. They came up from Oaxaca City. They're Zapotec Indians, but because they haven't been raised in an Indian pueblo, they see themselves as city kids, as Mexicans. For 16 days, they've been on the road.

First they took the bus up to the border. Then they paid a coyote $800 to guide them across. The first time, they got caught and deported. This time, they got separated from their group and they say they have now wandered the desert for four days. I don't believe them about the four days—they look too clean—but clearly they are broken in spirit.

They're headed toward friends in Madera, California, a spot outside Fresno. But for now, they want to go back to the border. They need to reconnect with the smuggler (coyotes usually include three attempts in their price) and make a call to their people in California. And they need to eat and drink. The boy, despite my warnings about the trash I've collected off the migrant trails, grabs from this garbage a bottle with some pop left in it and guzzles.

He weighs maybe 110 pounds, and she not more than 85. They are small–boned and their skin is dark and shines with life. Both move with the light tread of cats. An hour ago, I found a shawl out in the desert of a pattern and style made only in Yucatán. Everyone is moving.

More than 40 years ago, when I was a boy starting to notice the way girls moved when they walked, I camped on a street in Durango, Mexico, with my old man in a bread van he'd converted into some notion of a camper –– a slab for him to sleep atop cases of beer, a Coleman stove, and the floor for my bunk. It was hot and he opened the back doors and tossed a canned chicken into a pot for his idea of a meal. Soon a gaggle of kids gathered with hungry eyes. The old man stood there with his hand–rolled cigarette and then started giving out cans of food –– potatoes, chickens, corn, beans, Spam, hash, all the staples of his menu. When he was done and all our food was gone, I asked him why. He said nothing but opened a quart of lukewarm beer from the reserve he slept on. I knew he'd come up hard, but it was years before I understood what he taught me that night.

I give the girl $40 and tell her to hide the money because Sásabe is not an easy place. They climb in and I take them to the border crossing and wish them good luck. The agents manning the U.S. station watch them climb out and walk into Mexico.

They ask me if the pair worked for me, and I say no, that they are two kids from Oaxaca sneaking into the United States, that they said they'd wandered in the desert for four days and were very thirsty and hungry.

They tell me what I have just done is illegal and could cost me a lot of money and put me in jail.

I say I know that fact.

They look at me with sad eyes and wave me on.

It's not easy for anyone in the future.


In phoenix, 200 miles to the northwest, Mexicans have always been present but not accounted for. Fifteen years ago, I was talking to the publisher of the city's major lifestyle magazine, and when I mentioned Mexican Americans as an element of the city absent from his slick rag, he looked puzzled and suggested there were a few around doing gardening. Recently, the metropolitan area has been growing like a weed, choking out the desert with subdivisions. And a large part of the growth has been illegal migrants. Home invasions have exploded as rival gangs steal migrants from stash houses, which now number more than 1,000 in Phoenix alone.

In mid–March, the local Spanish–language radio stations promoted a protest at U.S. Senator Jon Kyl's Phoenix office. The senator had tossed some tough provisions into an immigration bill. Twenty thousand people showed up. Until then, Phoenix had feasted on golf, traffic jams, and sun and remained largely oblivious of a secret city within the city. Now, after the massive protests in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas, Phoenix joins a national network of marches on April 10. The city simply waits, silent, a bit worried and at the same time curious: Just how big will a gran marcha be?

The parade route sleeps in the early morning light as men unload cases of water at aid stations along Grand Avenue. Inside Mel's, a hash house decorated with American flags and slogans ("Let Freedom Ring"), the manager talks in Spanish with three young illegal guys about some remodeling; each wears big decals with the march slogan, "Somos America" (We Are America). The back room is wall–to–wall cops chowing down and plotting how to handle the marchers. The customers, buzzing about the event, are black, white, and brown, and one black guy pretty much sums up their attitude: "As long as they do it right, it's okay." Frank, 47, who's Mexican American, sounds the only dissent. He's pissed by the display of Mexican flags in the earlier march on Kyl's office.

He's got huge tattoos on each arm and a quick mouth that says, "They got more rights than we do. They got cars, cell phones. I was born here, worked all my life, I can't get no car. They talk about how wonderful Mexico is, well, kick their ass back there then. I take the day off, I lose my job. They ain't gonna pay my rent."

He rolls on about how his mom's neighborhood is overrun with illegals living 7 to 10 to a house. Then he turns to a customer and instantly shifts into Spanish.

Around 10 a.m. at the march's origin point, the state fairgrounds, bands and speakers entertain maybe 10,000 people. They are all ages and they are all brown. It is difficult to give simple categories such as legal and illegal. Take the Garcia family.

Sandro's been here 14 years, was brought north by his farmworker dad. He has some kind of papers. Next to him is his wife, and she's illegal. She holds their child, a girl Sandro calls Pretty Girl, who is a U.S. citizen by birth. Technically, this family has one illegal, but as a state of mind, they are all migrants, all living and working in a kind of shadow world. And they all are festooned with small American flags.

Police and media choppers hover overhead. The crowd chants, "Sí Se Puede" (Yes, It Can Be Done). A burly young guy has an American flag sprouting out of his hat and a huge tattoo on one arm that reads "Hecho en Mexico" (Made in Mexico). All this is watched by Pete Rosales. He did Nam in '64 and '65 and has a big scar on one leg as a keepsake of that frolic. He's been watching the crowd since 7:30 a.m. "to make sure they get it right." And getting it right for him means no more of those damned Mexican flags and lots of people so that the gringos will stop treating Mexicans like second–class human beings. He needn't worry –– those few who arrive at the fairgrounds with Mexican flags are pounced on by march organizers.

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