The Crossing

A two-week journey toward hope and home

This essay, adapted from a longer unpublished work, chronicles the fifth border crossing to the United States by Vicente Martinez (a pseudonym). Oregon Humanities magazine editorial advisory board member Camela Raymond worked with Martinez on editing this essay for publication. Some names and details have been changed.

On Wednesday, February 4, 2009, I said goodbye to my family. I didn't want to leave, but the thought of getting sick was often on my mind.

I'd been looking for work since arriving in Las Calandrias in October. But the economy was in terrible shape, and I wasn't an ideal job candidate. I couldn't do hard labor with my health condition, and I was too old to be considered for most jobs; the cut-off was typically forty, and I was forty-one. I hoped my English language skills might help me find a job with a company that needed bilingual people in Guadalajara—the capital of Jalisco state, where my family lives—but my application was turned down. Ironically, it was far easier for me to find work as an undocumented worker in Portland than as a legal citizen in Mexico.

To control my HIV, I needed a regular supply of medicine and periodic blood tests. I could get these for free at a clinic in Portland, but here in Mexico, although I could get my medicine free of charge at a local hospital, I had to pay for my own lab work—500 pesos every three months. Even if I found a full-time job, which seemed increasingly unlikely, this would be difficult to afford. Minimum wage was 700 pesos a week, barely enough to get by.

That Wednesday around noon, I found my mother sitting on her bed. I told her I was going to leave, and she began to cry. The sight of her tears broke my heart. We'd last seen each other almost eighteen years ago, and this recent reunion had lasted only three and a half months. I couldn't tell her the real reason I was leaving. I'd never told my parents I had HIV. I didn't want them to worry. If they knew, they would assume I was suffering; they wouldn't understand that the medicine I was taking would keep me healthy for some time.

I kissed my mother, and she kissed me. I assured her that my trip across the border would be easier than it was the first time, when I was twenty-four and walked for days without food. Then I said goodbye to my eighty-one-year-old father, who was also very close to crying. It hurt me to leave him, alone and sad.

To pay the coyote, I'd sold the truck I'd driven from Portland (I'd hoped to give it to my parents, who were one of the few families in Las Calandrias that didn't have a car). So my younger brother Andres drove me to the bus stop about ten miles away in Santa Cruz in our brother Manuel's old car, which broke down all the time. Also with us was Felipe, a young guy in his late twenties, also from Las Calandrias, who was going to cross with me. On the highway at the edge of Santa Cruz, I said goodbye to Andres and told him to behave.

Friday morning, after nearly two days on the road, Felipe and I arrived at the Tijuana bus station. I found a pay phone and called Pedro, the coyote I'd met in Las Calandrias. About thirty minutes later Pedro pulled up in a white van and took us to his house, which was in a different part of town, on a hill near some railroad tracks. Three dogs guarded the front door from inside a small, walled patio.

The house was old, but in decent shape. One guy was sleeping on the living room sofa, another in one of the two bedrooms. Counting Felipe and me, that made four pollos—chickens waiting for the coyote to take us across.

I called my cousin Luis in Escondido, California. His wife, Sofia, a U.S. citizen, agreed to drive down to Tijuana and meet me later that night. She'd take the $2,500 I'd set aside to pay the coyote, along with my Oregon driver's license and some other important documents, and hold everything in Escondido until I was safely across.

Pedro left for a couple of hours and came back loaded with food. He had to attend a funeral in his hometown, he said, and would be gone for two days. Meantime, the four of us would have plenty to eat and were free to do whatever we wanted. This was unfortunate news, but I wasn't too worried; it felt safe at Pedro's house, and I trusted he'd be back.

Pedro was supposed to be back on Sunday. On Monday, he still hadn't returned. On Tuesday evening, an associate of Pedro's in his early fifties arrived at the house. He didn't introduce himself, but the dogs knew him; later I found out he was Pedro's stepfather. He told us to get our things. It was time to cross over.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at a residential street, not far from the main gate. Pedro's stepfather led us to an inconspicuous spot between two houses. The plan was to cross the border through an underground sewer tunnel; the entrance to the tunnel was being guarded by several border control cars, visible in the near distance. We were to wait here until they moved.

Hours went by, and the cars didn't move—unsurprising, I thought. Finally, at about ten-thirty at night, Pedro's stepfather let us have a break. He led us to an abandoned house a few blocks away, gave us a blanket (one for all four of us), and said he'd be back the following morning with food. He left a dog guarding the entrance.

I slept for a few hours. It was cold, and there was no working toilet or any running water in the house. In the morning, before Pedro's stepfather returned, I convinced the others to leave. Using some pieces of metal and wood lying in the yard, I trapped the dog against the house. We walked a few blocks to a commercial area, hailed a taxi, and drove back to Pedro's house. His stepfather showed up later, surprised we'd escaped.

By Thursday, we had been at Pedro's house for almost a week. Though it felt safe there, it was becoming apparent we were wasting our time. Reluctantly, we decided to go downtown and look for another coyote. Within a couple of hours, we found one near the main gate—a tall, chubby guy who called himself Sonora, after the Mexican state. His price was US$1,800, cheaper than Pedro.

Sonora's operation moved quickly. Once we got to his house, the coyotes (there were two, including Sonora, who appeared to be the big bosses) immediately asked for the phone numbers of our contacts in the United States and verified they'd pick us up and pay our crossing fees. A little later they brought us three blankets to share, roasted chicken for lunch, and more food to take on the road: for each person, two cans of tuna, a loaf of bread, some refried beans, and two bottles of water.

That night, we were taken in a pickup truck to a street corner in Tijuana, where five more pollos joined us. An hour or so later, a first-class bus, with a sign that read “Bienvenidos” and flashing lights, arrived. All nine of us, plus a guide, boarded. Soon we arrived at an isolated stretch of highway just east of the city of Tecate, where the driver pulled over.

The guide led us across the highway. We walked in single file, carrying no flashlights, which would attract attention, just knapsacks holding our food and blankets. We passed a small village, went through some bushes, and climbed over a five-foot chicken-wire fence. Mostly, though, the terrain was flat and empty. After about four hours, the guide stopped, and we all lay down on the ground and attempted to sleep.

Moments later it got very cold, and before long, we were all shaking. Four of us shared three blankets, but the remaining guys had nothing to keep them warm. One of them asked if we'd share ours, but I said no. Though I felt bad refusing him, he was young and healthy; I was older and more vulnerable to getting sick.

My body became so cold that night that I thought I wouldn't make it to morning. I spent the hours praying to God, telling Him that if it was my turn to go, He should go ahead and take me. But at the same time, I asked Him to spare me: I had promised my mother I would survive the trip without harm, and the thought that I might die that night filled me with sadness.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the guide stood up and said it was time to get moving again. Before we started walking, though, he asked us to hand over our blankets. With a knife, he cut the three blankets into nine pieces, handing one to each of us.

It felt better once we started walking and my body grew warm again. The going was quite easy for a while, with flat ground dotted sparsely with tall bushes. But soon we came to a sign warning of an approaching decline, and we descended into a canyon. At the bottom, the guide told us to wait while he climbed the slope on the other side. He stood at the top of the canyon for at least a half hour, scanning the hills ahead for signs of border patrol—and, perhaps, for bajadores, the Mexican bandits who often rob border crossers. Beyond the hills, in the far distance, I could see vehicle lights flashing.

After crossing the canyon, we came to a dirt road. The guide asked for our blankets and laid them down on the road so that we wouldn't leave footprints. Then we continued on unmarked terrain, traversing a hill and another canyon. When dawn broke, the guide pointed to some large boulders atop a nearby hill. He was going to go on some unexplained mission. We were to hide among the boulders until he returned.

Some hours later the wind began to blow, and I started to shiver again. I pulled a big plastic garbage bag, which the guide had given me, over my entire body, but the wind kept seeping through. Morning passed, then afternoon, and we didn't move except in order to urinate near the edge of the rocks. Some of the others were able to fall asleep, but I couldn't.

The guide had given us a code word, and at dusk, we heard him yelling it, and we swiftly packed up our things. Then we continued to walk. We passed over a couple of hills, heading toward the lights of a small town. Suddenly the guide stopped, turned around, and led us back to the top of the nearest hill. We hunched down. I could see people with flashlights, INS agents, combing an area below us. Moments later it started to rain, and we all got inside our plastic bags. After a while the agents left, and we started walking again.

We passed straight through the town, avoiding the streets and walking instead through people's yards, climbing over several fences, until we reached a highway marked State Route 94. This indicated not only that we were in U.S. territory, but also that we were nearing the road, Highway 8, where we'd be picked up and delivered to safety.

We continued climbing the hills, very high hills this time. My legs almost gave out, but I kept moving. At dawn of the second day we stopped near another large rock. Thankfully, on this day the sun came out. We spent the whole warm, bright day in the shade of the big rock, dozing fitfully, drying out our socks, and eating a little of the remaining food we'd brought.

At dusk we started walking again. About four hours later, in the middle of the night, we finally reached Highway 8. We crossed beneath the above-grade roadway through a large drainage tunnel, and as we headed for a grassy shoulder on the other side, the guide ordered the guy at the back of the line to use his piece of blanket to erase the footprints we were leaving in the dirt. Then we proceeded west alongside the freeway, crouching down every time a car passed, until we reached a road sign that marked the place the coyotes were supposed to pick us up.

The guide had already called them on his cell phone. Within moments, a pickup truck arrived. Instead of taking us away in his truck, however, the driver only dropped off some food. We wouldn't be picked up until it rained, our guide explained. According to him, there was an INS checkpoint on the freeway that we had to pass through, and it would probably shut down in inclement weather.

We spent the night very close to the freeway. Since the road was built on a high concrete foundation, we weren't visible to the passing cars. Still, there was nothing, not even a rock or a tree, to provide shelter from the cold, and the temperature dropped so low that, once again, all of us shivered badly. The cold made me extremely thirsty, but I had less than a medium-size bottle of water left, and the pickup driver had dropped off only one additional gallon of water for all us. Sometime in the middle of the night, I took a sip from my bottle, and pieces of ice hit my tongue. I thought I might die from cold again that night; I even planned out how I'd run to the freeway and ask for help if things became truly dire.

Before dawn, we moved slightly away from the freeway and lay down under a big tree. Later we moved farther away, hiding in some bushes. There we spent the day, eating a bit of the food left over from what the driver had dropped.

Night came, and still we were stranded. Once the rain started, the driver would come, the guide repeated.

We were all becoming angry. “What if it doesn't rain for a week?” we said to each other. “Are we going to be stuck here in the cold the whole time, with no food and water?”

The coyotes had initially told us the entire trip would require only six hours of walking. This estimate wasn't ridiculously far off—we'd spent no more than about ten hours on our feet—but it didn't account for the fact that we'd be walking over a period of three days, and that during that time we wouldn't have enough food, water, and warm clothing. If we died of hypothermia, the coyotes wouldn't care, though. They'd just be out a few cans of tuna. The guide was the only one working for his money, and he was clueless; in fact, he was smoking weed day and night.

The following day, just before dawn, the guide took our empty bottles and asked one of the other pollos to help him fetch some water. When they returned, we drank greedily. We weren't sure where the water came from—presumably some nearby stream—or whether it was potable, but at least it quenched our thirst.

Suddenly, a light rain began to fall, and within moments, the guide received a call alerting us that we'd soon be picked up. Once a second call came through, we moved right up beside the freeway, a tall cyclone fence between us and the pavement. When the pickup truck arrived, the same one that had dropped the food the night before, we all jumped the fence and scrambled in. A couple of guys took seats in the cab, and the rest of us lay flat in the open bed. The driver took off speeding.

Within about thirty minutes, we arrived at a house in San Diego. The house was full of people—a group of ten additional border crossers had just arrived; they'd used a route farther east, braving tall hills and snow to avoid the INS checkpoint. The nine from our group were put in the garage. The coyotes brought us plates of warm food—rice, beans, eggs, and tortillas—and immediately began calling our contacts to make arrangements to drop us off. Meantime, they made sure we didn't escape before paying; whenever we used the bathroom, we had to remove our shoes, so as not to be tempted to leave the house through the small bathroom window.

It was agreed that instead of wiring my payment, my cousin Luis would pay the coyotes in cash once they dropped me at his apartment in Escondido thirty minutes away; I wanted to make sure the coyotes really got me all the way there. Before long only four other guys and I were left, and the pickup truck returned for us. Since it was dark, we were allowed to sit upright in the truck bed, but we had to cover our heads with a blanket until we reached the freeway; this, I think, was to prevent us from learning precisely where the coyotes lived.

We arrived in Escondido, Luis handed over my $1,800, and I was free. Sofia made us a nice, big dinner. It felt good to be with them; Luis was the son of my father's departed sister, and Sofia and I had always been naturally fond of each other.

That was Monday night, and I needed to be in Huron, about three hundred miles away, by Wednesday. From there, another cousin would drive me to the Sacramento bus station, where I'd catch a Greyhound to Portland.

Tuesday night, Luis and I started out for Huron. The INS checkpoint on Highway 15 didn't ordinarily inspect vehicles, but the traffic started slowing down as we approached the station. We had already passed a couple of INS cars stopped by the side of the road, and Luis, not wishing to take any chances, turned back home. But we immediately returned to the same route, this time with Sofia driving about a mile ahead. Once she passed the checkpoint, she called and reported that it was clear, and Luis and I drove on.

That night I stayed with Luis's sister in Huron, and the following evening, my nineteen-year-old nephew Marcos drove me to Sacramento, where yet another cousin gave me a ride to the bus station.

The ticket clerks were checking everyone's ID, but when I got to the front of the line, the woman behind the counter noted my Mexican appearance and turned to another female employee. “Do I sell him a ticket?” she asked. “Go ahead,” the other woman replied. It was a kind favor, though I had a valid Oregon driver's license in my wallet.

I arrived in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon, on Thursday afternoon, February 19, 2009. I felt like I was home.


Health, Immigration, Place, Global and Local


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Also in this Issue

Seeking and Finding

The Guilty Traveler


The Crossing

Far from Home

Here, Not There

Distance as an Illusion

Irreconcilable Dissonance