The earliest parts of our story are fuzzy, a pointillist painting made of memories borrowed from others. Rosa and I did our best to hold onto our family lore, but over time, details shook themselves loose, or morphed so slowly that we never saw it happening. Even the story I remember, I’m not sure I remember right.
My father, José Luis, grew up in a village outside of Oaxaca. On Google Earth, it’s all high hills and desert vistas and mountain air. It’s beautiful.
What did it look like to him, and to my uncle and my grandparents? I can’t imagine. When you grow up in such beauty, you must think that every place in the world is like that. That must make it all the crueler to discover that it isn’t.
Felipe, his older brother, left as a teenager, looking for work. He started in cities, little ones and then big ones, and then border factories, and finally across the border, where he worked in fields and followed the seasons, south to north and north to south.
As hard as it was for Felipe to go, it must have been just as hard for José Luis to stay. It left him competing, always, with the shadow of a perfect brother, on whose labor he ate and drank and, later, slept in a newly constructed second floor of the house. So it isn’t hard to imagine why, when José Luis became a teenager himself, he begged his parents to let him join Felipe. But it would break their hearts to have both children in an alien land. They told him that he could go to D.F., and no farther.
My father worked odd jobs in homes of the capital’s middle class. There he met Paula, my mother, who was working as a maid in a home where he was hired to repair pipes. She gave him lemonade. He fell in love.
It took six months of courting before she agreed to go out with him, and another two before she let him kiss her.
“If I was going in, it was with my eyes wide open,” Mamá used to say. “A woman has to be sure.”
We understood the story for the caution that it was. A man who makes a woman his whole world risks heartbreak. A woman who makes a man her whole world risks ruin, not only in the Victorian sense, but real and total. If she casts everything in with him and things go sour, she risks it all, for herself and for her children.
“A woman has to have a plan B,” Mamá said. “Always.”
Rosa told me once, when we were older, that it’s harder for women today because we don’t have real fairy tales. Once upon a time, fairy tales were meant to prepare young women for how horrible the world would be. Cinderella shaves off her heel and runs, a trail of crimson droplets in her wake. Ariel dissolves into sea foam, becoming nothing, for a man. But now, all we have are the Disney versions, which teach that if we are just virtuous and pure and strong enough, everything will work out in the end.
That’s no way to prepare children for life.
But my mother was prepared. She grew up on the stories of the women around her, and so she knew the risks. When she finally kissed my father, she did it with her eyes wide open.
The only time I heard my mother boast was to say how much my father loved her cooking.
“Back home,” she would say, “I used to make the best mole.”
No matter where we were, “back home” meant only one thing: the room that she and my father shared for a few short, precious years as newlyweds in D.F.
Like Felipe and José Luis, Paula grew up high in the mountains outside of Oaxaca. She learned her mole recipe from her mother, who had learned it from her mother before her. But Paula never tried to teach us, or to make it in Oregon. She said that she couldn’t get the right ingredients.
We never believed that, and I don’t think she expected us to. With all the entrepreneurial hustle and tiendas in Woodburn, you could get just about anything. It must have been too painful to cook, the fragrances too full of nostalgia.
My parents’ mole-scented honeymoon years were over long before I was born. A little over a year after they got married, Rosa arrived. It was impossible to support a family. Rosa was just over a year old when José Luis decided to join Felipe. Paula moved as well, to Tijuana. It was too dangerous to cross with an infant, but she wanted to be as close to her husband as possible, even if the kilometers that separated them didn’t really make a difference. There was only one real measure of distance, and that was whether you were on the same side of the border or divided by it.
Felipe promised that he would support them, but Paula still took a job in the maquiladoras. She was stacking up her back-up plans, even then.
You know how hard it is to cross, south to north? Burning hot days and freezing cold nights, dehydration so bad it gives you visions, coyotes and vultures circling, just waiting for their chance. And yet, they want us, or at least, and at most, our bodies. They just want those bodies to pay a price first. Crossing the border is a sick and twisted income tax on the work you’re expecting. That’s why a lot of men do it just once, and stay for a decade or more, the way that my uncle Felipe did. They know that a human being is not meant to do a thing like that, over and over and over again. A human being isn’t even meant to do it once.
But a human being also isn’t meant to live apart from his family. I don’t know what my father’s plan was, but he must have meant to stay longer than he did. He came back just two years later, when Rosa was three, going on four. He missed them too much. Even though he was with his brother, José Luis woke up sick with loneliness and went to bed sicker. He longed, every day, for his wife and his child.
So he came back. Mamá got pregnant with me, and they worked together in the maquiladoras. With his savings, it was enough, barely.
And then the factories started failing. A butterfly bursts a bubble in Thailand, and suddenly nobody wants to make cell phones in Mexico. Everything’s connected, even if the how is hidden from those of us whose lives are on the line.
The few jobs left almost always went to women. It must have been so hard for my father, after all he had done for us, to rely on my mother for everything. He always thought that he had at least two options—the maquiladoras or the United States—and that two was one more than he needed. Unlike my mother, he had never thought to have back-up plans piled upon back-up plans.
So my father crossed again.
My memories start somewhere after he crossed the second time. Somewhere in those years, “Paula” became “Mamá.” I know it isn’t fair, and that she still had an interior life of her own, but that’s the only way I know to describe the person I remember: the edge of my world, at once frustrating barrier and protective cocoon.
There are two things that I remember about that time, not because they were special, but because they happened over and over and over again, and so even though I was just a child, they burrowed themselves into the folds of my memory.
The first is standing on a stool next to Rosa while she cooked. Rosa was our mother’s confidant, and even though I know now that Rosa was just a child herself, it seemed like she knew all of our mother’s secrets, shared in hushed tones late at night after I was supposed to be asleep. Rosa understood all of the things that I ached to: the reasons for the neighbors’ fights, and why our mother sometimes arrived from work with tear tracks dried on her face, and why she sometimes turned away the food that Rosa had prepared, even when there was enough. But when I couldn’t understand their grown-up secrets, which was most of the time, the next-best thing was when Rosa let me play at being an adult in other ways. When she let me lean over the big pot of black beans and stir, I felt like the most important person in the world.
The other thing I remember is watching TV. We obsessed over scenes of the United States. Rosa especially was fascinated, and she would scoot close to the TV and put her hand up to shush me if I spoke.
This was the land of our father, she said, and of our glamorous older cousin, Araceli, born in Oregon, who we had only met over the phone and in photographs. It was the land of blond high schoolers with ocean-view lockers, and tidy white houses with attics and basements and roofs that never leaked, and supermarkets stocked with seventeen kinds of cereal.
“We have those things in Mexico, too,” Mamá would say, when she saw us watching. “Aquí o allá, they just belong to the rich.”
But, perversely, the world of rich estadounidenses on TV felt more accessible. The barrier between us and them was physical, and so it seemed all we had to do was cross it. The barrier between us and the sort of rich people who had employed my parents in D.F. was inexplicable, and therefore unbridgeable.
So when Mamá said that we were going to cross the border, my heart danced. We were going to the land of my father, of ski-slope Januaries and swimming-pool Julys. The world would be good, and I would understand all of its grown-up secrets.
I was too young to know that it was also the land of strawberries that cost too little and apartments that cost too much, of lustful men who controlled whether you went to bed hungry or full, of the fear that settled in your belly, a low and persistent stone, that someone you loved might never come home.
Just like the fairytales, the scenes that we got of the United States were Disneyfied. What we should have looked for were the real stories. But the people who came back were stoic and taciturn. They knew that no one wanted to hear about men sleeping eight-to-a-room so that they could send every penny home. And would we have listened, anyway? We wanted fantasy. We needed fantasy. And we consumed it voraciously. We dreamed about going up there. Perhaps that was our first mistake.
We crossed from Tecate, near San Diego. The journey was more mountainous and more dangerous than it would have been along the Texas border, but in those days, crossing at Tecate cost thousands of dollars less, and there was less of a risk of getting caught.
There were twenty people, more or less, in our party. We gathered at night in a small, one-room house near the border. Without being told, people took a seat along one of the walls and waited for the guides to speak. Rosa and I sat on either side of our mother. She put one arm around each of us and clutched us tightly. Later, as we walked, I felt four small bruises from her fingertips, oddly reassuring on my right shoulder.
The man who was going to lead us smiled a lot, but his eyes were hard and flat. There was a low light in the room, and occasionally, as he spoke, its reflection flashed off his gold teeth. He said his name was Jesús. It almost certainly wasn’t. Two helpers, stone-faced and silent, flanked him while he spoke.
Afterward, Jesús asked if anyone had questions.
Jesús and his two helpers went outside. Alone, people began to talk. In hushed tones, they asked each other the questions they had been too afraid to ask Jesús. On the other side of Rosa, a gregarious man in his forties—older than most of the rest of us—told us his name was Diego, and that he had crossed five times before.
“There are three mortal enemies,” Diego said. “Animal, man, and thirst.”
He told us about a man killed by a poisonous snake, for which the only antidote was the same snake’s own milk. But the snake had slithered away before they could catch it. He spoke of others left behind to wither slowly in the hot sun. He meant these things kindly. He warned us not to share our water.
Mamá thanked him but said nothing else. She had been cautioned that the more that people knew about us, the more likely it was someone would try to hold us for ransom after we crossed. So we were to be watchful, to listen and obey, and to volunteer nothing.
A while later, Jesús and his helpers reappeared and announced that it was time to leave. We started on a pebbly path that slipped underfoot and grew too steep too quickly. My calves and lungs ached almost immediately.
Mamá held each of us by one hand. I wanted to be in the middle, but I knew better than to speak. The air was silent and still.
Half an hour in, I thought to look up. I’ve never seen a sky that dark, before or since. The far-off stars shone hot and bright. The thought of their heat in the cold made me shiver. Rosa swears that there was a half-moon when we crossed, all white luminescence, but I don’t remember it. With every step, I thought about the poisonous snakes. Whenever a branch brushed my ankle, an ice-cold spine of fear shot through me, and I wondered whether this would be the end.
Later, Rosa told me that our mother had to pay extra—a lot extra—to bring us. I was not yet five; just a baby. Rosa, who seemed to me like the most grown-up girl in the world, was only nine. As we narrowed into a single-file line and I saw the shape of Rosa’s body ahead of mine, I realized that she was so much closer to me than to all of the adults who surrounded us. It was a lesson that I would forget, and have to keep re-learning, over and over and over again in the years to come, after it was just the two of us: Rosa was only a child too.
I tried so hard to be good and brave and strong. As we walked, I tried to remember my mother’s instructions to have hope and keep faith. But the pace was relentless. Once, I stumbled, and one of Jesús’s assistants snapped his eyes to me so fast—he a hungry owl and I his prey. Then he looked to Jesús, as if for permission, and Jesús shook his head very slightly.
But I knew that he wasn’t saying, “Don’t leave her.”
He was saying only, “Not yet.”
We were supposed to reach one landmark before midnight, and then another before daybreak. I thought that at the second, we would rest, but then there was another, and another, and the bone-chilling cold gave way to scorching heat, and the landscape turned from inky black to dusty yellow, and my head began to pound. The striated colors of twilight replaced the starry night, and the first rays of sunlight burned too bright when they hit my eyes. Somewhere I began to feel the thirst that Diego had talked about, and I understood why he still remembered it, because it was the sort of thirst that, once known, would stay with you forever, somewhere deep in your cells. And still my vision was narrowing, and all I could do was look ahead, and the coyote looked at me with his predator eyes, and something brushed my ankle but I no longer cared, and finally everything narrowed to a pinpoint and then went black.
And as the darkness came, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t scared, but only grateful.
I awoke with a jolt. A body stumbled beneath me, but it wasn’t mine. Voices chorused around us.
“¡La niña! ¡Cuidado con la niña!”
I was being carried on somebody’s back. We were out of the mountains now, on a flat, dusty country road. In the distance was little yellow clapboard church. I felt a tiny thrill of hope at the sight. It looked like something out of a TV western. I realized that people were speaking for the first time, apart from the coyotes’ sotto voce orders, since we had left the dark little house with Jesús. I thought that we must be someplace safe, or safer.
“Me desperté.” My voice sounded scratchy and alien, as if coming in on a radio with bad reception. “Ya puedo caminar.”
I wasn’t, but I knew that I was a heavy burden. I felt guilty for the distance he must have carried me already.
“Sí. Quiero caminar un poco.”
He called to Mamá. She rushed over to grab me from his back, Rosa right behind her. For an instant I was scared. Their eyes were strangers’ eyes, hollow and sunken deep into the creased and burned flesh of their faces. But as they came closer I saw that they were only the people I had always loved. There were tears in Mamá’s eyes and in Rosa’s, and my mother kissed the teenage boy on the face as if he were her own brother. I knew then, watching them, that I would have been dead if not for him, and that he had put his own life at risk for a stranger, and I started to cry too, some combination of exhaustion and gratitude, not only for him and his mercy, but for my mother and my sister, and for every undeserved kindness in the world.
At the church, we rested. A white lady with long gray hair, a yellow sundress, and a floppy hat gave us big glasses of water. I had forgotten how thirsty I was until I took the first gulp. I almost spat it out.
“There’s something wrong with the water here,” I whispered to Rosa.
“It tastes like swamp water,” she agreed. “But we have to drink it to be polite.”
The white lady with the floppy hat laughed. It hadn’t occurred to me that she would speak Spanish.
“You do have to drink it,” she said, “but not to be polite. You have to drink it because it will make you healthy. It’s full of salt and sugar to put back what you lost on the walk. That’s why it tastes funny.”
Rosa and I looked at each other for a second, unsure whether to be embarrassed, and then burst out laughing.
Once we started, we couldn’t stop. Mamá reached over as if to hush us, and we both tried to quiet ourselves, but the more we tried, the harder we laughed. And then our mother started laughing too, and then the people next to us and the people next to them, and soon the whole room had broken out into hysterics, even though nobody knew why, not even us.
From the little yellow church, our fellow travelers began to separate. Every hour or two, the woman in the floppy hat would tell someone that a passing truck was headed in their direction. In the meantime, we rested on inflatable olive-green camping mats spread out on the church pews.
The lady with the floppy hat left, and two men arrived. One had gray hair, almost as long as the lady’s, and the other had a bright yellow beard, the biggest I had ever seen. While Mamá rested, the man with the beard pulled funny faces, trying to make us laugh. But I didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
On neighboring pews, Rosa and I whispered to each other. I practiced the name of our new town on my tongue: Woodburn.
“That means ‘la quemadura de la madera,’” the man with the beard said.
I gave him a big smile to seem grateful. He and his friend were in charge, and I didn’t want to make him angry. But I wished he would leave us alone.
Another group arrived, and the older white man said that we would have to share pews. Mamá told me to give up my mat and share with Rosa. I could tell that Rosa was upset, so I pretended that I was, too. But secretly I was relieved. I wanted to cling tight to the people I loved. I was tired of strangers telling me where to sleep, what swamp water to drink, and what strange words meant. I wanted Mamá and Rosa to tell me those things, and no one else.
“What do you think our father will be like?” I asked Rosa as we lay on her mat.
I had never asked before. I had never dared to believe he might be made real.
My sister’s chest rose and fell. I could tell that she was trying to imagine him, too.
“You know when Mrs. Rodriguez has some new ice cream for sale? While you’re saving your pennies, you fantasize about what it will taste like. And then you finally get it, and it’s delicious, but it isn’t what you imagined.”
“Yes,” I said, although I had only ever had ice cream twice, and never with my own money or from Mrs. Rodriguez, who ran a shop from the window of her house on the street we left behind.
“Whatever we imagine, it’s going to be different. And I think that means there might be times when we disappoint each other a little.”
She squeezed my hand. I thought Rosa must be the wisest person I knew, wiser even than Mamá, who had been a grown-up for too long to remember what my fears were like.
“We’ll have to be patient with him,” Rosa said. “But it’s going to be so worth it, I promise. Having a real father is going to be better than having the idea of a father.”
I thought about what she had said.
“Will he be patient with us?”
“I’m certain of it,” she said. “To go far away and work for a family you won’t see again for years—I think he must be the most patient man in the world.”
Our truck came in the middle of the night. I was disappointed; I wanted to see the landscape passing as we raced north. But it wouldn’t have mattered, because we rode in the windowless trailer, thick with the smell of fumes.
Inside, big boxes went “thump” whenever the truck hit a bump. I was half-glad that it was too dark to see, because I imagined it would be scary to see them bouncing around beside us. But I also wanted to watch Mamá. Somewhere in our journey, she had gone quiet, like she was holding her breath. I wanted to know that she was okay. If only I could know that, I could believe that we were all going to make it.
Soon, though, I grew drowsy. After so much time walking and waiting, the rhythm of the truck was soothing. Even the loud noises had a sort of syncopated logic to them, and I drifted off to the sounds of boxes bouncing against the truck walls and horns honking in the distance.
In dreams, perhaps for the first time then but certainly for years after, fragments of our dusty walk would return to me: Jesús and the coyotes, those far-away stars, the wild hope and desperate fear that thrummed together in my chest, the mercy of the young man who carried me. The sinister and the beautiful were intertwined, our journey a poisonous snake whose bite might kill or save us all. And all of it was to labor beside a father I did not know in fields we had never seen. In my dreams, Mamá and Rosa and I walked through the desert over and over again, safe house to church to fields to safe house, in a great Sisyphean circle. Each time, the bodies around us were different, but the rhythm was the same: Jesús, estrellas, esperanza, merced.
The truck left us at a gas station. After hours in the dark trailer, the light outside was too bright. My eyes watered and stung.
Mamá sat me and Rosa on a bench outside the gas station convenience store. Rosa’s legs just touched the ground. I scooched all the way forward so that mine would touch too, but even at the edge, I couldn’t quite reach. The space between the metal slats pinched the skin of my legs.
I wanted to stand up, stretch, run, move, anything, but Mamá made us promise not to go anywhere. A few minutes later, she returned and took us into a dimly lit cement bathroom. The mirror inside was covered in words and drawings that I knew were filthy, even if I didn’t quite understand why. There was no hand soap in the dispenser, and Mamá told us to wait once again. She instructed Rosa to lock the door and open it only when we heard Mamá’s voice.
She came back with a little bag from the convenience store. Mamá scrubbed us with bar soap and lotioned our hands and faces and brushed our teeth with the smallest toothbrush I had ever seen. She washed our hair in the sink. Mine was so matted and tangled that it hurt, even with her gentle fingers, but I didn’t let my eyes tear up. I knew it would make my mother too sad.
After Mamá washed Rosa’s hair; she said she had a treat for us. She pulled a tube of cherry ChapStick from her bag. It smelled like candy. But when I licked my lips, they didn’t taste good at all. Mamá laughed for the first time since our hysterics at the little yellow church. It was the best sound in the world.
Even where the mirror wasn’t covered by graffiti, it was filthy, but Rosa wiped it down with a paper towel and some of the bar soap, and then Mamá held me up to see myself. I must have looked a mess, even after all her work, but all I saw were my pink chapsticked lips. I smacked them vainly. This time, Mamá and Rosa both laughed. I wanted to make them keep laughing, and so I did it again and again and again for as long as it worked.
After Rosa and I were squared away, Mamá did something complicated to her own hair with bobby pins and then dotted concealer on her face, making dissatisfied huffs and clicks as she rubbed it in.
“Cosa barata,” she said. Cheap thing.
I could tell that she wasn’t really upset about the makeup, though. The concealer was just the unlucky scapegoat for sins of the world too numerous to name.
We went back outside and sat on the bench again. I got in between them this time. Mamá gave us each a long, thin packet of peanuts and a Coke. I offered her some of my peanuts, but she shook her head. She didn’t seem sad, though, the way that she used to when she refused food after a bad day in the maquiladora. Her lips, pressed together, kept quirking up into a tiny, secret smile, and her eyes, bright and wet, looked to a far-off spot that Rosa and I couldn’t see. We sat there together, watching the trucks come and go, and, once more, we waited.