My life became meaningful thanks to a mistake.
It all began on a Monday, November 22, 2004, at 11:00 pm. I had a leather backpack, a blue t-shirt that read ‘Brussels Belgium’ stamped on the chest, and a pair of black pants. I carried toilet paper in case of an emergency, and plenty of dreams for the future. My future. I also had a black jacket, a sweater inside the backpack, and six hundred pesos in my pocket. A plane ticket, and an unimaginable amount of willingness to triumph, to succeed. That’s all I had on me the first time I came to The United States of America.
At the bus station, some of my best friends said goodbye to me that night: Israel, Polo, and Juan Luis. I haven’t heard from them in a long time. My cousin Pablo was also there, my Aunt Rafaela and my mother. And even if I didn’t want to remember, my girlfriend at the time was there to say goodbye, too. Her name was Rosa. At 11:45 pm, I took the bus from Apatzingan, Michoacan to Guadalajara, Jalisco.
There was a moment there, as I was saying goodbye that I was about to go back to my car and tell them that I had changed my mind. I was afraid, yet I felt excited. I wanted to go, but I wanted to stay at the same time. My life in this country had ended, and it was time for me to create a different one. I knew that leaving was the only option, but it seemed like it was going to be hard to do it.
I already knew where I was going. The previous week, I had called Juan, a cousin of mine, asking him for help to cross the border. Illegally. Juan agreed at once, which was surprising because I hadn’t seen him in years. Juan had me write a list of the people I would meet and the places I would go, to get there in one piece. If everything went according to plan, my cousin would be waiting for me on Thursday, that same week.
Everything was ready. But I still didn’t want to say goodbye, because I was almost confident I was not going to see my friends and family again. Who knows what they are doing right now. And Rosa? Well, you know what they say about long-distance relationships.
It was 4:25 a.m. when I arrived at the International Airport in Guadalajara, Jalisco. I felt weird while looking at people, walking in and out of the airport. Even some of the pedestrians looked at me with curiosity, others with fear. Who the fuck am I? The Chupacabras? I thought, but then understood why they were looking at me like that. I was a young, skinny 19-year-old male, wearing black, oversized clothes. My long curly hair was a mess, too, and my luggage was only the black leather backpack.
What would you think if you saw someone like me, alone, outside of the airport? 9/11 was still fresh in the memory of millions, and because of my skin color, I looked like someone from the Middle East, about to blow an airport to the ground.
Of course, I didn’t do that.
I walked into the airport, ready to keep going forward with the plan. My flight would take off at 7:00 am. I had about three hours and a half to either cry in a public restroom or finish up a pack of cigarettes I had in the backpack. Instead, I opted for a third and safer option.
There was a small coffee shop to my left. Behind the counter, there was a young man around my age, wearing a red hat and a white polo shirt. He looked tired. Who would be happy to work at this hour? I thought. I approached him, asked him for a couple of coconut cookies he had in the display under the counter, and a black coffee. I paid and walked toward a small table filled with sugar packets and individual creamers. I took two small packets of sugar, poured them into my coffee, and stirred it with a wooden stick. Then I tossed the stick into a round trash container and walked toward a waiting area nearby.
When I sat, it was impossible not to notice the luxurious car in front of me. It was a black, four-door Cadillac that seemed to be looking at me with those big and bright headlights. Because daydreaming is my favorite pastime, I imagined I could be driving that car one day.
A woman was sitting next to me. She wore a gray suit and a blue shirt underneath. She reminded me of Dana Scully, the good-looking FBI agent on the X-Files. She had a black purse hanging from her shoulder and a black suitcase underneath the seat. She looked calm, but her left index finger tapped her leg from time to time.
She looked around, and I assumed she was also making her own deductions about me. “Traveling alone?” she asked as if we were old pals.
“Yes,” I said, trying not to be rude.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Michoacan,” I said. My hometown was unknown and hadn’t yet had a place on the map. I told her it was two hours south from Uruapan, one of the most popular cities in the state.
“I know Uruapan!” she said, and her voice had an extra timbre of excitement. “My husband is from there. We live in La Paz, but sometimes come down here to visit the family.”
Even though I didn’t ask her anything, she kept on telling me more about her husband, her kids, and her life. I couldn’t say whether she was a trustworthy person or was trying to make me say something, open up and reveal all my secrets.
Well, I didn’t have that many secrets, anyway.
I wanted to talk, yes, and tell her everything there was to know about my life. But, I was paranoid; I still thought she was a secret agent.
“So, where are you heading?” she finally asked.
She caught a glimpse of hesitation, my lips parted as a sigh got stuck in the middle of my throat. “Sonora,” I said, which wasn’t a complete lie. My flight was going to Sonora, and from there, I would have to go somewhere else.
The look in her eyes suggested that she knew I was concealing something. “Judging by your backpack,” she said, adding some uncomfortable mystery to her tone of voice. “I’d say you’re about to cross the border. Illegally.”
I pictured her taking her handcuffs out, grabbing my hands, and locking them behind my back. I even felt the cold steel on my wrists.
That didn’t happen. It was all in my head.
“Yes?” I answered, but it sounded more like a question.
She smiled. “What? You think I am going to judge you for that?”
“No,” I said. “It’s just that you look like a cop.”
She laughed out loud and looked at me with pity. “Kid, I am a businesswoman. And do you want to know why I won’t judge you for doing what you’re about to do?”
“Why?” I asked, feeling how the paranoia had left me alone for one moment.
“Because everybody in my family crossed illegally. Except me.”
Then she told me more about her life, and how they took the risk to cross the border, so she could have a better future. And she did. She turned out to be successful and gave back to those who provided for her when she was young.
The three hours and a half went by fast. We talked about our favorite singers: Manzanero, Iglesias, and Ricardo Arjona. We also talked about the Cadillac, and she said that someday I would have a car like that.
I was beginning to believe it.
Then we heard a voice. An airport worker using a microphone said it was time for us to go to a different section of the airport. We said goodbye, and she wished me the best of luck on anything I set my mind to.
I never knew her name, and I wondered why I never asked.
At this second waiting area, I stumbled upon a comics-and-magazines stand. I bought a couple of gossip magazines and read about things I didn’t care about. I needed to focus on less traumatizing stuff.
That was hard to do. I was only thinking about Rosa, and how much I claimed to love her. And I say ‘claimed,’ because later in life I learned that you can always love more than once.
I sat down, opened a magazine and browsed through it. Instead of reading, I began to look around. The diversity was obvious. I saw people from Asia, the Middle East, and even white men from the country I was about to enter. I even saw a couple of men who looked just like me, walking around with a black backpack, oversized black clothes and a look of melancholy in their eyes.
The Voice announced the departure time. The airport employee (whatever he was), said we needed to go to a next location, where we would finally be going to the plane. I looked at the wall and saw the clock. It was 8:00 am. Weird, I thought, even airports lie about departure times.
On the line toward the plane, I saw the woman I thought was an FBI agent. We smiled at each other. Then I noticed she had an extra suitcase. She asked me for help, and I couldn’t say no. In the end, and even if I never knew her name, I will always think of her as the first person who wished me luck while I was walking toward the unknown.