Tag Archives: undocumented

It all began with the Los Angeles Dodgers

29 Sep

My dad was an unpaid pollero, a coyote, an illegal boarder crosser. He was a young restless man, unfit to lay still in the small town he grew up in, he ventured North to the United States.

Prompted by the throbbing earth underneath, he’d jump up from his crouching position and run like a madman in pitch darkness alongside the iron monster that was his ticket out. Timing the passage of the passenger cars he’d jump and toss his body towards the train as he clambered up the side steps until he was in relative safety of the rooftop of the humming machinery that kept on going on no matter what new passengers were now clinging on to their new life.

Sunsets would set and mornings would rise with a promise of new territory, a new land that welcomed exploring.

Being a resourceful, hardworking and possessing a well-liked disposition, or so he claimed, my father would survey a new town (one on the good ol’ USA) and jump off the train several hundred feet before the train came to a stop to seek out employment while he felt out his new surroundings. He usually found work in the fields, picking fruit or in the cattle ranches as a skilled ranch hand.

On one of his trips to the North, my father led a couple of town mates to seek out their own versions of a fortune in the land of riches: the land of Hollywood telenovelas, shiny new cars and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

They followed the trains as they snaked their way out of Mexico to the U.S. with little consequence except their light frames from days of hunger. They stopped in the outer fields of Phoenix, Arizona along the way and crawled along the fields to scope out the reception immigrants received. This being the late 60’s, you could never be too safe but they were welcome as laborers. My father quickly befriended a ranch owner and secured jobs for all four in his party in the horse slaughter house.

“It was the easiest and most well paid job I ever had. All I had to do was push a button as the stunned horses came through to pass them through a chute that led to the slaughter house, I never had to see the blood or worry about handling the tools that actually killed and tore those animals apart.”

My father’s young town mate quickly grew restless from the Arizona ranch life. His dream to see the Dodgers play in Los Angeles’ Dodger stadium was what drove him North and he begged my father to lead him there. My father had no desire to leave this secure and warm receptive place but he felt an obligation to deliver his paisano to his relatives in Los Angeles so he promptly spoke to the owner and told him he would be leaving in short time.

The owner dropped them off near the train depot and the two of them, my father and his friend, slept near the train tracks so they could catch the 1 AM train that would lead them to Los Angeles.
Their eyes wide awake with anticipation and anxiety from missing the iron monster kept them awake.

Before the rumbling from the ground would rustle a squirrel from its tree, they were up on all fours ready to run and jump onto their ride.

The air whipped his face with the arid cold wind that the dessert howled around these parts but he kept running, even after he heard an odd thumping sound, he ran until he was on the train. He climbed the side stairs and waited for his friend to answer his call but nothing came but the unforgiving cold. He called out again and again as he started towards his friend, running as quickly as he could from train car to train car until he knew that he wasn’t aboard. The train had picked up speed and only a madman or idiot would think about jumping on or off to their death but without much of a second thought, my father wrapped his coat over his face and hurled his body off the train and onto the unknown darkness underneath.

It seemed like an eternity before he stopped rolling and when he finally felt the ground still below him, he tried to stand and hoped that he was in functioning order. He ran for hours until he thought he was deliriously imagining that his friend had not made it aboard and worried that he’d let him go along guideless. By noon, he finally made it back to see the tree where he’d slept near in the horizon and as he neared he saw a figure on the ground unmoving. As he crept closer he saw the light rise and fall of his friend’s breathing mangled body and gently flipped his body to see his face.

“Hmmmaaaaaaooooo!!!” His friend cried out as my father saw the wide gash across his skull, he had to press down the flapping skin to hide the whiteness of either bone or fresh flesh underneath. He took his bandana and tied it tightly across his friend’s head to prevent some of the bleeding.

“Estoy mal?” “No, estas bien pero deja voy por ayuda para que te limpien la mazeta.”

He dragged him to the shade to protect him from the scorching Arizona sun and went for help. He arrived at a gas station and could not find anyone that spoke Spanish but a crowd quickly huddled close and jabbed fingers, shoved his chest back and demanded something he could not comprehend.

Words cascaded all around him, cutting in deep but failing to penetrate his comprehension.

A young boy was missing in the town, his mother had not seen him for hours after he’d gone for a bike ride. My father – Mexican, brown, dirty and his shirt full of blood stumbled in amongst the frantic search.

In desperation he grabbed on to the nearest stranger’s shirt and dragged him towards the direction he’d come from pointing insistently to follow him. The wild despair in his eyes was tempered by his focused determination as he dragged the crowd a few miles to where his friend lay, covered in blood.

“What happened? What were you two doing?” When he shaked his head, they repeated, “Que hacian you dos?” in broken Spanish and a dance of flying hand motions. He motioned that his friend was running and tripped, carefully avoiding the train subject altogether.

The ambulance came and my father quickly slid into the back with his friend to avoid the local police hauling his Mexican ass back to some unknown area of Mexico.

His friend spent a year in the hospital. My father got his old job back and would visit his friend regularly. He was eventually released to a local nuns convent for further recovery and it was then that my father bid his friend goodbye as the local police was growing unreceptive to outside labor.

The trains beckoned once more and he rode them all the way to Los Angeles where he notified his friend’s family members of the convent and where they could find him. Years later, he ran into his friend again, a reformed, religious and nondrinking man.

His friend never did see the Dodgers but my father found something in Los Angeles that caged his restless spirit and tied his roots to the land of the baseball team he traveled hundreds of miles for a friend to see.

Lost in Translation

28 Jan

I was 15 and missing class for the day as I walked along my dad to an immigration one stop shop to renew his green card. By then, our relationship was distant, making for awkward conversation as we waited, mostly in silence, for his number to be called.

He had walked into my room the previous evening, looking slightly nervous, to ask me if I could take the day off school and help him with paperwork and translating questions. He didn’t mention what kind of paperwork and I didn’t ask. I simply said, “Claro que si papi!” And he walked back out, his shoulders noticeably relaxed.

The following morning we got up early and briskly walked to the bus stop. As we waited, he asked if I would miss much school work. I shook my head and we rode in silence, using the noisy backdrop of multiple conversations, music, arguments, and laughter from our fellow bus riders as noise filler.

“Numero 143!” The loudspeaker was all base and garbled sound that you had to strain to hear it, followed by multiple questions of, “Que dijo? Cual numero?!” I looked down at our number, #257…

I looked around and saw the snaking line in front of us, and even longer mess of a wait behind us. I had the large manila folder close to my chest, its contents all neatly filled out and in the appropriate order. We went through the questions: Color of Hair -, “Negro no?”, Color of Eyes -, “Cafe”, Height -…and so on. What year did you enter the US? Have you ever illegally done this, that, and other idiotic questions that were meant to trick you into losing your green card.

“Numero 257!” We hurried up to the window, my father a step behind me, and I beamed brightly at the zombie-esque employee behind the window. I pushed the paperwork toward him and he rattled off a litany of questions, each to which my father would look to me before responding in the affirmative or negative. He looked so serious, that face that I came to know every time he was in front of a figure of authority, that face that thinly masked the knots of nervous terror that threatened to snake through his pores. His yellow pallor and slight suffle from his left to right foot reflected his fear, this precarious arrangement by the US government that allowed him to be in the North side of the Mexican/US border with his family – his wife and kids that is. I was standing next to him so I did the only thing I thought to do, I reached for his hand and held it in mine and gave it a slight squeeze. To my surprise, he squeezed back and released a pent up breath. Those long heavy breathes that you release when you forget to breathe.

Thump. The stamp of approval came down on my father’s paperwork and the zombie gave me the proof of renewal as well as intructions of things to watch out for in the mail.

As we stepped away I saw hundred of people just like my dad, a yellow tint betraying their fear, their unsteady stance on slippery ice of the INS.

As we left that dimly lit and dingy building and walked out into the bright sunshine of Olympic/Soto, he cheerfully asked me if I wanted to grab a bite. “Quieres una Hamburguesa?” I didn’t. I wanted to go home and rid myself of the depressing images of hope and broken dreams that the building had left behind in my mind. I wanted to stop the awkward company of my father and lock myself up in my room to listen to music and read a book. But his smile was so rare, it seemed out of place in his usual solemn face, and I remembered how he had returned the squeeze when we held hands that I nodded my head and smiled so he could remember his five year old Chuchi that had always quickly done anything he requested.

Instead of hopping on the bus we walked to Tom’s Burgers on 4th/Soto and ordered burgers, fries, and a shake for me. I told him about how my swimming was going, about my history class, about all of the subjects that I enjoyed. That afternoon I had my father back; the one that used to help me with homework art projects, read to me and protect me when I was in pre-school.

It dawned on me then how hard and embarassing it must have been for him to ask me for help for a matter that I would never have to face since I won the lottery at birth and was born in this country.

My mother always came to me when she needed translating, documents filled out, appointments for me to attend with her, but my father… He had never asked for my help before then and I was happy that I had quickly assented, that I had agreed energetically to having lunch with him.

He told me about his adventures as a young man; stories about crossing the border, the comedy he peppered in didn’t quite hide the perils and unfortunate events that crossing illegally with a pollero invited. The fry scratched my throat as I chewed and tried to swallow the mouthful along with my sense of shame of not having wanted to prolong my stay with my dad. But the shame was nothing compared to the ache that I felt for the millions of unfortunate undocumented fathers out there whose standing on the North side of the border was even more precarious than my father’s.

President Obama will release his immigration reform plan tomorrow and I have a seed of hope hesitantly sprouting that his plan includes a major upheaval of our class system: the third class that suffers in silence and moves noiselessly from unwanted job to job without any right to vote or voice their injustice, the second class that holds green cards but are not yet citizens and do not have the right to vote, and the rest of us – US Citizens (via birth or naturalization) that are free to enjoy 100 % of our rights, as disparate in education and economic mobility opportunity as they may be, there is still a door for us that grants us 100% of the right to seek those opportunities. And with shame I acknowledge that I have often forgotten how fortunate I am for having a US birth certificate, that sacred paper that allows me to live the life I have led…

I hope that President Obama pushes his immigration plan forward and doesn’t allow for the stories of suffering undocumented millions to be lost in translation.

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