Ana and Manuel followed a dirt road beside el rió Suchiate—the river that separates Guatemala from México. They and a handful of other Salvadorean refugees had traveled there by bus from San Salvador, arriving at the border town of Tecúm Umán where they hired a coyote to smuggle them into the United States.
Their faces were apricot-colored, bathed by the final blazes of the setting sun. And though they appeared to be out for an evening stroll, their eyes were riveted on the coyote. When the time was right, he would wave them into the thicket that grew beside the river. There, they would wait. Then, with the cover of darkness, they would secretly cross the river into México.
Tecúm Umán was a way station for poor Central Americans who wanted to emigrate to the United States. If one had the money, one could buy anything there. But the hottest commodity was the smuggler, especially los coyotes. They stood on the corners and hustled would-be immigrants like drug dealers in a big city.
As the Salvadoreans walked the streets of Tecúm Umán, there were many sights that were strange to them and many familiar: musicians and thieves, preachers and soldiers. Mayans dressed in native fabrics sold handicrafts, homemade cheese and mangos in the streets. Young lovers sat beside each other on the roots of la ceiba, shaped like giant gnarled hands, while parrots bickered above them in the tree’s broad branches. And in the distance, there was el puente—the bridge. Whether they reached the United States or not, that would be what the refugees would remember best. They would remember the bridge because it was guarded by soldiers armed for battle, and because they could not cross it.
El río Suchiate rolled under the bridge that joined México and Guatemala. Upstream, hidden in the jungles, were great pyramids and pitted stone carvings, relics of the once great Mayan nation. Vines and wildflowers covered the ruins now. Monkeys and tourists climbed the ancient temples in the gaps between torrential rains and intermittent war.
It was not long before the refugees drew the attention of a patrol of National Guardsmen, who ordered them to raise their hands above their heads—which they did so obligingly one might have thought it was a greeting in that part of the world. The soldiers asked their names, birthdates and destination, poking the men with automatic rifles as though they were syringes that injected truth serum. They searched everyone until satisfied they weren’t armed with weapons or revolutionary literature. A pamphlet even mildly critical of the government would have spelled doom for them all.
Though they found nothing, the guardsmen were still suspicious. One thought he spotted a hint of anger in Manuel’s eyes—a definite sign of subversive tendencies. He launched into an interrogation, asking questions for which there were no acceptable answers: “Why are you in Guatemala? What kind of problems did you have in El Salvador?” Watching the relentless questioning, Ana’s legs began to buckle. The soldiers held a conference, Manuel’s eyes the subject of debate. Things did not look good for the refugees as the guardsmen’s expressions hardened and their eyes flashed with accusations.
An old woman began to cough violently. She grasped her chest and fell to her knees, gasping, “My heart! My heart!”
The soldiers began to laugh. “Some guerrillas they would make!” one chortled. “They’re just another bunch of guanacos trying to get to the United States. Let the stupid bastards go.”
The refugees were handed their papers, informed that the bridge to México was closed to all but official traffic. Then they were dismissed. As they walked down the road, heads bowed, the coyote appeared to be angry.
Soon it grew dark. The coyote kept glancing about, observing with night vision the eyes of faceless men leaning against almond trees—men who worked for him. One gave the signal he awaited and the coyote motioned to the refugees. Instantly they plunged into the thicket beside the river. As they scurried for cover, a man hidden in the brush herded them into a small enclave secretly prepared for them that morning. Huddling together, the refugees watched the coyote as he cocked his head toward the road.
It was not long before they became accustomed to the dark. The clamor of day settled as the river slipped behind them toward the sea. The refugees listened to the night. An owl hooted in a ceiba tree, its shadows etching a portrait of a woman in mourning. In the distance, raccoons ate crabs and wept. Leaves of almond trees danced in the cool breeze and a gentleman bird rushed up to them crying, “Caballero! Caballero!” warning them of danger ahead.
The coyote climbed back toward the road, pausing motionless at the edge of the thicket. As the moon rose over the forest, he avoided its light.
Across the road, someone lit a cigarette. Instantly the coyote bounded back into the brush and ordered everyone to strip and tie their clothing and other belongings into tight bundles. He herded them into the river, instructing them to stay close together in a single-file line and to move directly to the bank on the opposite side. The old woman pleaded with him, explaining she could not swim, a disadvantage shared by many others who remained silent. “Don’t worry!” he told her impatiently. “It’s low enough to wade across.” Then, with a snap of his fingers, he said, “Move!”
Into the river they went, one by one plopping into the rushing water, their clothes held over their heads with one hand, the other groping toward the next person in line. They squinted and struggled to spot the riverbank in the moonlight. But all they could see was a luminous spray as it rose to the sky, the darkness below them, and the bare back of the person they followed.
Ana felt the current pulling her downstream, sucking at her waist. And it seemed to her the river was alive—that a spirit lived there, throbbing and breathing, driven by an insatiable hunger, its misty breath rising up to the heavens. Yes, she knew there was a spirit there just as surely as one can feel another’s presence when being watched. And she was scared. From the beginning of time the river had conquered everything in its path, rock polished smooth as it raced past pyramids and through the jungle, bearing gold and bloated bodies, washing clothes and blood clean. As Ana crossed el río Suchiate, she felt it reach for her breasts—and she felt strange and somehow guilty. Then, in the darkness, the river laughed.
I must hurry! Ana thought. God, please, help me! I must hurry! The night belongs to the river. . . and it is alive!
Suddenly there was a hollow splash. A young man who had lost his balance was instantly towed downstream by the current. Ana and Manuel turned toward him, interrupting the refugees’ movement forward. The old woman behind them was confused by the change of pace, slipped and was swallowed by the river. Manuel quickly reached for her flailing hand and yanked her back into line. She sputtered and coughed, struggling to remain as quiet as possible, though terrified by her ordeal. The young man scooped away by the current managed to fight his way back against the onslaught of the river, using precious time to search for his belongings as he battled to rejoin the others. The delay angered the coyote boss, who waved his arms frantically until everyone was back in line and moving again. The coyote and his partners pushed and pulled and prodded the refugees until everyone reached the bank on the Mexican side of the river.
There, the refugees struggled to get dressed, though their clothes were wet and stiff. But the boss forced them to move along, regardless of how little progress they had made. They fumbled down a path in the dark, pulling up pant legs and hopping on one foot as they tried to slip on shoes. The young man who had been swept away by the current walked barefoot, having lost his shoes in the rushing water. Days later,children would discover them on the riverbank and assume they belonged to a dead man.
Into the night they marched, the forest gradually thinning, the earth no longer soft and pliant beneath their feet, their hair blown dry by a breeze now too tenuous to carry the moisture and scent of the river. In the light of the moon they marched, climbing rocky hillsides, their footsteps setting loose streams of stones that poured into the caves of iguanas and interrupted their sleep. The hours passed and still they marched, through groves of mangos and jocotes, not able to pause and quench their thirst or satisfy their hunger. They plodded ahead toward an unknown destination in a land where they had never been.
In time, they reached a battered wood-frame building—a bus depot. The coyote signaled everyone to gather around. “We’re going to take a bus now. Don’t talk to anyone! Nobody! If they notice your accent, they might turn you in to immigration.”
“Why would they do that?” the old woman asked.
“Vieja! Don’t you know nothing? You’ll find out soon enough.”
An hour passed, during which the immigrants struggled to remain awake. Finally, a bus arrived, an hour behind schedule. It was a machine built of iron and wood back when the old woman was young. In the daytime, this contraption would be so crowded that men and boys would ride on the luggage rack on top. But the hour and location presented many empty seats to the refugees, wooden benches as comfortable as beds to the weary travelers. Following instructions from the coyote, they sat apart from one another like strangers—except Ana and Manuel. Manuel dared not leave Ana alone.
They rode the bus for two hours, the Mexican passengers holding chickens and children on their laps as they snored. Occasionally, a particularly violent jolt would awaken them as the bus bounded over a gaping hole in the road overlooked by the drowsy driver.
Soon the bus arrived at another desolate station. Responding to a signal from the coyote, the refugees jumped down from the bus to a dusty dirt road, then followed him for more than a mile until they reached the outskirts of a small town. In the moonlight they stopped and stared at what would have appeared to be a parcel of overused land were it not for a hand-painted sign that declared in Spanish: “Place of Recreation for the People—Gift of the Benevolent Government of the People of México.”
Empty bottles of tequila and beer cans lay scattered about in the tall grass. Dogs prowled the park, searching through garbage and eyeing the refugees with suspicion, as if to warn them they were trespassing on their turf. Three derelicts sharing a bottle of cheap brandy attempted to focus their eyes on the refugees, then laughed bitterly, their heads drooping in exhaustion.
“We’ll be spending the rest of the night here,” the coyote announced. “Stay close together and try to get some sleep. We’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”
Having gone without sleep for two days, the immigrants lost little time searching for plots to spend the night. Ana and Manuel camped where they stood, though the earth was parched and hard as adobe. They lay on the ground in the park and gazed at the moon. As tired as they were, they felt as though they were still moving, waiting for a signal from the coyote.
“I wonder how my mother is doing,” Ana sighed.
“She is fine. I am sure she is fine. She is sound asleep, probably dreaming about you,” Manuel whispered.
Ana tried to smile. She tried to take comfort in what her cousin said. But she knew him too well. He would always find something good to say, no matter how difficult things were. When the government of El Salvador unleashed The Terror, he said it was because they were at el fin de el camino—at the end of the road. He said it was just a matter of time before the people would stand up and change things. That is what he said, even back then when there were screams in the night. And the next morning, when they found the bodies burned and mutilated in the street, he would still insist: It is the beginning of the end, my cousin. Watch and see. Something better will come.
Ana wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe things would change. She smiled and shook her head. Este hombre! He is so wonderful and so foolish! How he loves to dream! Such a typical man, thinking about football games and revolutions! Going to the United States . . . that is the most practical thing he has ever done.
Ana gazed at the sky and thought about her mother and her brothers and the way theylived. Hay Dios miyo. Help us to find work so we can send money back home to our families. Please God! It has been so hard. What have we done to deserve this life? Being born a poor Latin American—is that a crime? Dios! Por favor! Help us to make it to Los Angeles where at least we can find work!
An icy ring circled the moon; crickets sang to each other, joined in song by the drunken men.
As Ana prayed, Manuel lay on his back, hands cradling his head. Soon his thoughts drifted to his wife and son. Ah, mi familia. How much you have suffered. Now your suffering has grown ten times! Are you sleeping now, my son? Did your mother kiss you goodnight for me? Did she say: Mi niño—que tenga dúlces sueños de menta y chocolate, mi amor. Did she whisper those words to you and kiss your cheek? And did you reach for your mother and hold her close to you? Did you tell her how much you love her, my son? I am sorry I cannot be there to say goodnight to you. I am sorry you were born in a country where the people have to suffer so. Oh, but things will change, my son. I promise you! Things will change. But you are just a boy, just a child. You cannot wait to eat. When I find a job in North America, I will send money to your mother so she can buy you shoes and books. And on Christmas you will have presents to open. I promise you! You have waited long enough, mi hijo. You will never go hungry again. And though I am far away from you now, do you know how much your Papá loves you? Do you know I left you and your mother so you can live a better life? Oh God! Please! Let my son know that I left because I love him!
Before long, Ana and Manuel slipped away, lulled to sleep by the songs of cricketsand mumbling of drunken men. They slept side by side in the light of the moon—two cousins, far away from home.
From the novel ILLEGALS by J.P. Bone
copyright 1996, 2014
to purchase a copy of Illegals: