If there had been a way to taste the air I breathed, I would have claimed it tasted different in Hermosillo, Sonora. It did feel different, no doubt. It was heavier. Colder. I finally accepted that it was not the air, but the anticipation of whatever was to come, what made me feel nervous.
In contrast with the airport in Guadalajara, this one was smaller. Or at least that was what I perceived. I headed toward the public restroom as soon as I was out of the plane. My bladder was about to explode, and I had to deposit in the urinal a souvenir from the flight.
Then I looked in the mirror. My hair was still a mess. I wanted to tame it with cold water but thought of a quicker solution. Out of the backpack, I retrieved a black cap that was under the clothes; I’d forgotten I had it.
After that, I walked out and headed toward the nearest exit. When I opened the big, glass door, I saw a large group of men and women. Their clothes were like mine. Most of them carried the same black backpack filled with the same dreams and (maybe) even the same toilet paper.
There was a parking lot in front of me, filled with many different cars I would never be able to remember, it didn’t matter how hard I tried. Yet, there was this particular white van, parked near the airport’s door. That one, I was always going to remember. A group of middle-aged men stood near it, killing time. One of them, a white, fat man, walked toward the new illegal in the crowd.
Fat Man asked, “Where you headed?”
I looked at him, unsure if I should answer that question. In the end, I did, because this was not the time to be coy.
“See that white van there?” Fat Man asked. “I’m trying to get a group of people there and take them to Nogales. It’s better.”
There was an awkward moment of silence. I didn’t have to ask why Fat Man was telling me that. By then, wordlessly, anybody could guess where I was going.
“What do you mean ‘it’s better’?” I asked.
“If you were to get the bus,” Fat Man said, “you’re gonna have to get a taxi to the bus station, and you’re gonna have to pay about a hundred for that. Then, the bus to Nogales is gonna cost you two hundred fifty, but you’re gonna take over six hours to get there. If you come with us in the van, you’re just gonna pay three hundred.” Fat Man finished with a smile on his face, like a car dealer trying to persuade you to buy a vehicle you don’t really need.
Saving sixty minutes and fifty bucks didn’t seem like a bad idea.
I gave Fat Man the money and walked with him toward the van. The side door was wide open. I stepped in but was surprised to see that I was the only one there. Fat Man noticed the fear in my eyes and said, “Do you want to sit in the front? We are still looking for more people to fill up the van.”
“Ok,” I said.
There is not a way to describe relief, either, only that it feels as if you took a burden off your shoulders. That was how I felt. Because there was a brief, dire moment when I felt as if I was walking into a trap.
After a while, Fat Man came back with two young men. I recognized their faces. They were the two men who sat on the left side of the plane, where I was having a chat with the 45-year-old man who was going to Disneyland. Later that day, they told me that the reason why they were looking at me was that I and 45-year-old-man were talking about Tepalcatepec, a small province where they were born.
About ten minutes later, a man from Jalisco came aboard. He was white, short and hefty. Then, a tall, dark-skinned man in his late twenties joined the pack. A woman came with him. Possibly his girlfriend. In the end, there were three people from Michoacán, three from Sonora, and the white man from Jalisco. Fat Man was also crossing but happened to be friends with the van’s owner who, of course, was the last person to show up.
The Driver was one of the men who was killing time outside the van. He was finishing up with an unfiltered cigarette and didn’t step behind the wheel until he burnt the whole thing out.
When I wasn’t talking or smoking the Driver’s cigarettes, I would look at the mountains and see how they seemed to disappear in the horizon. I didn’t like to feel sad or depressed. But at that moment, all I could think of was my girlfriend, my mother and the friends I left behind. And there was a brother, too. A brother I hadn’t seen in a long time.
The van stopped at a roadside store. Everyone stepped out. Some of the passengers, including the Driver, went to the restroom in back of the store. I didn’t feel like going in there at the moment. Instead, I went into the store and bought a bag of salted peanuts and an orange Gatorade with a large bill. The clerk gave me some coins and bills back but forgot to say thanks. I put the money in my pocket, walked out, looked at my food, and realized I’d never had such an appalling meal before.
Is this how my life is going to be from now on? I thought.
When we all got back on the road, I couldn’t help falling asleep for about an hour and a half. While driving through a town called Magdalena, the Driver had the brilliant idea to speed up. The thrill of the velocity lasted only seconds on account of a police car that was behind him. The Driver had no idea where it came from.
I opened my eyes, saw the pulsing red and blue lights, and wondered what was going to happen next. We were seven unrelated people going north and had no good excuse for it. The cops took us to the closest police station. Then, a sickening feeling had me wondering if this was the end of my journey.
At the town’s police station, we lost the hour we could’ve used to be in Nogales on time. The Driver walked into the chief’s office, spent some time there, and came back with an angry look on his face, suggesting he had to pay a fine. Or a bribe. I didn’t know if either one made a difference in this country.
We all followed the Driver and continued our journey.
Nogales was bigger than the other places I had seen so far. I looked at the wall. On the other side, there was The United States of America, a country known for being a magnet for people like me. Illegal Immigrants.
The irony of all, I thought, was how furious some white people were when some Mexicans jumped over their wall. Didn’t the white men know their own history and how they too came to The Land for the first time?
The van stopped in front of a small plaza. It was a crowded street. An old phone booth stood outside a pharmacy. It was the downtown area.
“Most of the motels are around here, too,” the Driver said out loud, as everyone stepped outside of the van. He then looked at me, shook my hand, and wished me luck. When the Driver left, the group scattered. Everyone had different instructions, just like I did.
The immigrant from Jalisco stayed behind. He was looking at a map.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Miguel Angel,” he said while folding the map.
I looked at him with suspicion. He was so white he almost looked pallid. Also, his eyes were green, and his few blond hairs were still visible under that black cap. I couldn’t keep my comments to myself. “You’re too white to be Mexican, you know that?”
Miguel Angel’s smile suggested he’d heard that a million times before. “You’re not that brown either.”
I had never paid attention to my own skin color. After careful examination, I said, “Light brown, maybe?”
After an awkward moment of silence, I asked, “Where are you staying?”
“El Pasaje,” he said. “You?”
Miguel Angel gave me a look. “Really? That one is expensive. How much money do you have?”
I didn’t know if I should answer that question. But I did anyway. “A couple of hundreds.”
Miguel Angel shook his head. “That’s about what you’re going to pay for one night at that motel.”
“And how cheap is this other motel?”
Miguel Angel thought about it. “It’s about half of what you have,” he said, and then added. “If we get a room together, we’re going to save some money.”
I thought about it, looked around, and saw the phone booth. I patted my pockets, finding out that I still had the coins I got from the salted peanuts and the orange Gatorade. “Let me make a phone call,” I said and walked toward the booth.
I called my cousin Juan and explained the situation. Juan told me to go to the cheapest motel and wait there, “Someone will come and pick you up,” he said.
I hung up, walked back toward Miguel Angel and said, “Let’s go.”
By getting a room together, we did save some money. The two beds were so comfortable we couldn’t wait to lie on them and take a long and well-deserved nap. Unfortunately, sleeping was out of the question. The anticipation to keep going made us restless.
“First time you cross?” Miguel Angel asked while looking at the white ceiling. There was a fan too, and it sent waves of air onto our faces.
“Yes,” I said. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?”
Miguel Angel looked at me, “How do you know?”
“Your knowledge of Motel prices gave it away,” I said.
Miguel Angel smiled. “That’s true. Most people wouldn’t have paid attention to that.”
“I’m not most people,” I said. “I have this mental illness that makes me remember even the most mundane and unnecessary shit.”
Miguel Angel said, “Ok, there might be something useful to remember once in a while.”
I reconsidered. “Maybe.” Then asked. “So, how many times have you crossed?”
“That’s right. I come. Spend a year. Go back home.”
Just when I was about to start telling Miguel Angel about my life, three knocks on the door interrupted any chance we had to keep talking. I was worried. But Miguel Angel wasn’t. The fact that he’d gone through this same scenario two times before showed him that moments like this are typical in the life of an illegal immigrant.
Miguel Angel opened the door, and a man scarily similar to Fat Man came in. “Hurry up! We’re ready to go!” He stood by the door, waiting as Miguel Angel picked up his bag from the floor. Before they left, Fat Man Two asked me. “You coming with us?”
“No. I’m waiting for someone else to pick me up,” I said.
“When are they coming?” Miguel Angel asked.
“My cousin said they’d be here tonight.”
Miguel Angel nodded and approached me. We shook hands and never saw each other again.
It was 5:30 pm when I was finally alone. I smoked a couple of cigarettes. I then looked through the window. The wall was still there. It was a reality. My life in Mexico was coming to an end, and the proximity of the American Dream was palpable. I felt as if I were dying, while memories of my life up until that moment began to play themselves in my mind, like an old home movie I’d forgotten about. Watching the film of my life, I realized I’d always had a dormant desire to come to America.
I closed my eyes and began to dream a little bit more.
Photo by Darkmoon_Art.