Crossing the River
Crossing the Rio Grande was the easy part. Raul first took off his boots and placed them next to him. He removed his rubber sandals from his back pack. He took off hispants, folding them neatly into a bundle and placing them into his back pack. He attached the boots to the outside of the pack and the hoisted the pack to his back adjusting the straps. He put on the rubber sandals and waded in knee deep water from Mexico to the United States in all of about 5 minutes.
It was much more difficult to get from the highway to the river. He took the bus from Monterey to Del Rio, getting off about 5 miles from the city. He suspected that the bus driver got a reward from American Immigration every time he reported someone getting off the bus on the road leading to the river just outside of Del Rio. The walk from the highway to the river was only about a half mile, if you followed the paved road, as many young travelers did. Instead he walked east, through brush and cacti, about a mile and then turned north to the river. He measured his walk by the time. He could walk a mile in about forty minutes, if the land was not too rocky. The sun was brutal, even with his Stetson, his prized hat, which he had bought in San Antonio, ten years ago. He had to stop often, remove his back pack and sip his bottled water. The back pack weighed about fifty pounds. It contained not only his work clothes, but also a suit for going to dances, two blankets, his work tools—he was an expert brick layer and carried his own trowels and strings for leveling, his underclothing, tooth brush, tooth paste, soap, razors, and shaving cream; he was clean shaven with a soft complexion that belied his age. He also had several bottles of water, so precious in the desert, and small snacks to eat along the way. In a small waterproof pack he had pictures of his wife and his children and a small book with the names and addresses of fellow travelers and places where he had worked before.
Raul was now 65. He had made the crossing more than 50 times in the last 40 years. He would cross in the spring and work all summer as a bricklayer in San Antonio or Chicago. In the late fall he would return to Monterrey. On a few of the trips, he had taken his wife and his two children, both sons, and both born in the United States. In fact, they were citizens of the United States. His oldest son worked as a lawyer in New York. His younger son was a businessman in Los Angeles. He had used his earnings from his work in the states to pay for their education and get them started in their careers. Unfortunately, they lived so far from Monterrey he rarely saw them. He could not travel to the United States to visit because he had been caught twice before, been deported, and thus had a criminal record. His sons did not have the time to visit him in Monterrey. He had never seen his grandchildren though he carried pictures of them wherever he traveled. If anyone would ask him, he would pull out his pictures and recant how big they were when they were born, the color of the hair and eyes, how beautiful they were now, and how good they were at school.
He was not a big man. He was 5’ 9” when he was young—but he had lost 2 inches over the years. He was about 165 lbs. His face was not as old as his years. He never smoked and always used his Stetson when he worked in the sun. His hands were worn with calluses on his palm and fingers and the skin was dry from the mortar. He still had a youthful walk, with a lengthy step, though he did not walk quite as fast as he did ten years ago. He loved to walk. He always walked tall. He even walked tall carrying the fifty pound back pack.
Still more difficult than crossing from the bus stop to the river in Mexico was crossing the dessert from the river back into Del Rio. He could not cross the river using the bridge in Del Rio. He had to enter the city from the east. He would stay in Del Rio for two or three weeks. He had friends who would hire him and pay him in cash for the work he would do. He would earn enough money in Del Rio to be able to get him to San Antonio where he had a job waiting. While in Del Rio, he would arrange for a ride into San Antonio. He still would have to walk the desert for about fifteen miles from Del Rio to bypass the immigration check point on highway 90 before he got his ride.
He arrived at the river on an evening in late April. The sun was just above the horizon. The sky was deep red and blue. The air was crisp and dry; he knew it would be a cold night. The brush appeared burnt red. There were Blue Bonnets, Indian Paint Brushes, and even a few Indian Blankets. He wanted to cross the river just before dusk when the shadows were long and the colors subdued. It would be difficult for the planes to spot him. In addition, it was suppertime and most of the Border Patrol would be at the Dairy Queen. After crossing the river, he walked a few hundred yards and found a small recess in the brush land. He removed two blankets from his back pack and spread them on the hardened soil. He used the backpack as a pillow and wrapping the blankets about him he lay down. He looked at the sky and remembered past trips. He was afraid of the scorpions, he was afraid of the rattlesnakes, but he was most afraid of the two legged snakes—the minutemen. These scavengers patrolled the border. Their stated goal was to catch the illegal immigrants crossing the border and turn them over to the Border Patrol. He thought about what happened three years ago. He and a friend were returning from a long summer’s work. They were nearly home, only having to walk a few feet to the river. He heard a noise in the distance and fell to the ground. His friend began to run to the river. Just as he got to the river, there were two blasts that shattered the quiet afternoon. His friend fell down with blood pouring out from his chest and head. The two men rode up to the dead Mexican. They got off their horses. A fat man, with a white hat, and the fanciest boots that Raul had ever seen took his revolver from his holster and shot the man on the ground twice in the head. He then kicked him. The Mexican didn’t move. The big man bent over and took a wallet from the dead man’s pocket. He removed all the cash the man had earned all summer. He threw the wallet into the river. It floated gently away. The two men laughed and divided the money, rolled the body into the river, and then got back on their horses and road off. Raul waited an hour before he got up. When he then returned to Monterrey, after speaking to his wife, he went to the home of the dead man and gave his widow half the money he had earned that summer. It seemed only fair.
Raul woke up from his memories. The clouds had disappeared and the sky was deep black flooded with millions of lights. He fell asleep. He awoke at sunrise, packed his back pack and began to walk. He wanted to get to Del Rio by nightfall. The sky was blue; the earth was dark-sand colored, studded with pale-colored rocks. There were patches of brush, green and yellow in color, interspersed with cacti. After an hour, the air warmed. He took off his jacket and put it into his backpack. He sat down and had a hardboiled egg, tortilla, and a little water. He walked always away from the sun.
After another hour, he came upon a dirt road. He would follow the road into town. He walked a few minutes along the road, when in some deep brush he saw a large red hulk. Walking towards it, he realized it was once a car, an old SUV. The car was lying on its side in a ditch. The wheels pointed to the road. The windows were shattered. He walked to the car and climbed up the underside and was able to get a look in the windows. In the front seat, behind the steering wheel was a woman. There was dried blood on her shattered, lifeless head. From the back seat he could just hear a soft crying. He scrambled to the back window and saw a young boy with blood on his arms and face. He was still moving. He was crying softly, perhaps in pain or just scared. He moved his legs and arms but he was clearly quite weak. He responded minimally when Raul called down to him. Raul climbed down from the car and found a fairly large rock. He climbed back onto the car and broke the window to the back seat. He climbed into the car and using all his strength he was able to pull and push the child out of the car onto the side of the car. He then lowered the child onto the ground. When he got him out he saw he only about six or seven years of age. There were bruises and superficial lacerations on his face and arms. But the child did not scream when he moved his arms or legs. Raul got water out of his back pack and poured it slowly into the child’s mouth. The child swallowed and swallowed. He gradually began to awaken. Raul got a few tortillas from his pack and tore them into pieces. The child devoured them and took a little more of the water. Raul continued to feed and water the child till his supplies were nearly gone. After about two hours, the child was able to stand although he was still quite weak. Raul realized there was no way he was going to make it to Del Rio by night fall. It would be at least one more day. Raul had not gotten any of the water.
They began to walk along the road toward Del Rio. The child’s name was John. He was 7 years old. He and his mother were on their way from Oklahoma to Mexico and had gotten lost. They were traveling so fast. He remembered the car spinning and then crashing and rolling several times. He thinks he spent two nights in the car. He was a bright young boy. He cried some when he talked about his mother but Raul was surprised by how little he talked about her. Perhaps it was the shock of losing her. As they talked, John seemed to strengthen.
Raul said, “I have a grandchild about your age also named John. He lives in New York City.”
“That’s funny. You’re a Mexican and your grandchild is named John.”
“I named my two sons, John and Matthew and John named his son John.”
“But you’re a wetback, right?”
“You mean an illegal alien!”
“No, that don’t sound right—I mean a wetback—that’s what my father calls ‘em!”
“Yeh. I’m a fugitive from Monterrey. Just like the cedar trees to which he and most of San Antonio are allergic. Where you were going?”
“I’m from Oklahoma City. I’m an Okie. Some people think that’s worse than being a wetback!”
“Are you in school?”
“Second grade; I love school especially science.”
“Where were you and your mom going?”
John said softly, “We were going on vacation in Mexico.”
“Why didn’t you take the highway?”
“Mom said she knew a short cut. She seemed to be scared and in a hurry.”
“What about your father?”
“Mom said he would meet us there. I live with my father most of the time. I just see my mom on some weekends. My parents are divorced. I love them both but they fight all the time. I was hoping this trip would bring them together.”
John started to cry. Raul changed the topic, “Hey, the sun is too hot; I’ve got something in my pack that you’ll like”. They stopped walking and Raul put the pack down and put his arm inside it and pulled out a cap—slightly worn. It was a Chicago Cubs’ cap that he had had for years. He got the cap when he worked in Chicago twenty years ago. He loved to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field on his day off. He gave the cap to John—who looked at it and put it on. It was a little large. Raul said, “You’ll grow into it.”
Raul picked up the pack and they started walking. Raul said, “I’ve got six grandkids but have never seen them. They just don’t have the time to visit me in Mexico.
“Why don’t you visit them?”
“It’s very far and I can’t drive.”
“You can’t drive?”
“Wow! Everybody in Oklahoma drives.”
They walked till it began to get dark. They had no water or food and both would go to bed hungry that night. Raul got out the blankets and gave them to John. He took out some clothes that John could use as a pillow. He then lay down on the ground and used the backpack for his pillow. It would be a cold but beautiful night. Raul, lying on his back, looked at the stars, closed his eyes, and imagined that his grandson John might be like his new young acquaintance. He made up his mind that when he got back to Mexico he would find the way to visit his kids. He remembered a poem he had written when he was struggling to put his children through college:
In the crisp, clear air
Exhale the warm, sacred mist
Life is an uphill run, into the wind
When you reach the top
See where you have been
He smiled, closed his eyes and fell asleep.
When he awoke he felt the cold. Every part of his body was stiff. He had to walk and wave his arms and then do a little dance to get his body moving. John was still sleeping. Raul waited a few minutes and then woke him up. He wanted to start walking while it was cool. They still had another five hours to walk and no food or water. John got up and stretched and was ready to go. Raul pack his back pack, lifted it to his back and they began to walk towards the road.
After they had gone just a few steps, Raul smelt something musty. Then, he heard a noise like someone shaking dried beans in a glass. Instantly he stopped. He yelled at John, who was about three feet ahead of him, to stop at once. He did. Now they both could hear the noise. Even John knew what it meant. Raul looked carefully around them. Then he saw it—a pale colored snake, the color of sand, with darker grayish diamond markings on its back. Raul thought it was about two feet long. Its head and tail were erect. It was two feet ahead and to the left of John’s left leg and partially covered by a yucca plant. The snake moved slowly, retreating a little with its head fixed straight ahead on John’s pant leg. Raul knew that only about a dozen deaths occurred from snake bite in the United States each year but they were five hours from the nearest phone and even a small bite would be fatal if medical care was not gotten within an hour or two, especially for someone John’s size. Raul began to sweat. Suddenly he reached forward, grabbed John and lifted him up pulling him back into his own body. Now the snake had his space. He moved his head up and down slowly. The rattle stopped. The snake lowered its head, turned and swiftly hurried off.
Raul broke into a cold, shaking, sweat and John’s knees buckled. It took all of Raul’s strength to hold him up. He held John for some time before releasing him. Then they hurried to the road watching every step they took much more attentively than before.
John said, “That was a big snake!”
Raul softly answered, “Big enough.”
They walked quickly at first. They talked mostly about baseball. Raul loved the Chicago Cubs, even though they had not even won a pennant much less a world series. John liked the Yankees. He knew all the statistics: batting percentages, won and loss, even their vital statistics.
As the hour wore on, John weakened noticeably. His legs were not as stable and he did not walk as straight, moving slightly side to side. The swing of his arms became slower and sometimes would stop. He would stop speaking in the middle of a sentence. Raul did not know what to do. He considered two options. He could leave John here and go ahead on his own. When he got to Del Rio he could send help back. That would take at least 4 hours and by then John would probably have died. The other alternative he considered was ditching his back pack and carrying John instead. He knew that he would lose everything in the back pack; he would never get it back. He could mark the spot and when he headed from Del Rio to San Antonio he could go a little further to the south and recover it; but it was most likely going to be gone. He looked at John for another ten minutes. He realized that a decision had to be made.
He told John to stop. He opened his back pack and took out his personal papers and the photos of his family. He then formed a large cross on the side of the road from some rocks. He walked fifty paces straight from the cross into the brush and covered, as best he could, the back pack. He then walked back to the road and helped John onto his shoulders and off they went.
The morning was going to be hotter than normal. He had walked an hour more and still had three hours to go. He did not think he could make it. He prayed to Jesus, Mary and Joseph for help. Suddenly, in the distance he saw two horsemen. He waved and the men galloped toward Raul and John. John climbed down from Raul and stood next to him as the men approached. Raul recognized one of the men. It was Fatso.
Fatso said, “What have we here—two wetbacks!”
John answered, “I’m not a wet back! I’m from Oklahoma!”
“What are you doing out here, boy?”
“I was on my way to Mexico with my mom when we had an accident. My mom is dead. Raul saved me.”
“You sure look like a wetback to me.” But, of course, he didn’t.
Fatso’s friend got off his horse and walked over to John. He was tall, thin, with a fine, gray Stetson. He wore jeans and a bright yellow tee shirt which read “What the hell”. His boots were worn and plain. He said, “Frank, he ain’t no wet back. He’s American and he’s pretty weak.”
Frank said, “Dave, the old guy is a Mex.” He smiled as he said that. He was still on his horse. His belly rolled over his belt and jostled as the horse stepped. Raul couldn’t take his eyes off his belly. Finally, he got off his horse and walked up to Raul. Raul realized he was not as tall as he thought. In fact, he was a little taller than Fatso. Frank continued, “I don’t like Mex’s”. His hand was resting on the gun in his holster.
Dave said, “The old guy saved the kid; don’t get no ideas, Frank.” He looked straight at Frank who stepped backwards a few feet and then looked at him, “What do you want to do?”
“We better call the Border Patrol and get the kid to a hospital.”
He got out his cell phone and called. He mumbled into the phone. In about 5 minutes, a Border Patrol car pulled up and stopped. Two men in uniform got out of the car. They walked over to Raul, John, Dave and Frank. One of the officers asked, “Dave, what is going on here?”
John tried to answer. He was quite weak and unsteady but was able to convey all that had occurred. Raul told the officers, that John needed to be in the hospital right away.
The officer looked at Raul, who had started to walk along the road towards Del Rio as silently as he could. The officer said, “Mexican, you ain’t going nowhere. You’re a wetback and you’re going back home. Get in the car.” The language seemed a little bizarre to Raul because the officer was clearly of Mexican descent. Raul shrugged, and got in the car. The officers got John into the car.
They took John to the hospital and then drove Raul to their detention center. Raul had been there before. He got out of the car without resistance and walked in with the men. At the first desk, he pulled out his papers from inside his shirt and gave the man sitting at the desk, his name, address, and nationality. Raul had given up.
Then he looked up and saw a sign on the far wall in English which read “You are entitled to an attorney.” He looked at the Mexican sitting at the desk and said, “I want a lawyer.” The man was startled. No one ever wanted an attorney. They would have to go to court. The deportation could take weeks instead of a day. He sighed; there was nothing he could do. “You know a lawyer?”
“Yes!” He gave the man his son’s name and phone number. The man said he would have to call him.
The next morning, everyone in Del Rio knew Raul’s story. John had told someone at the hospital who had told someone. Finally it made the evening news. He was a hero. He was a hero even in the detention center. The officers smiled when they spoke to him. He got a decent breakfast. Raul seemed to get back the two inches he had lost to time. He told the story to anyone who listened. He also told the officers about seeing Frank kill his friend.
“We wondered what happened. We found your friend down the river with bullets in his back without any identification. We buried him in a potter’s grave. You know the guy’s name?”
Raul gave him his friend’s name and address. He would be shipped home. There was very little the officers could do about Frank but they promised to keep an eye on him.
About lunchtime, while Raul was lying on his bunk, thinking about the ride home, one of the officers came to his cell, and took him out to one of the offices. As he entered the office, he could see both his sons and two women and six children he recognized from his pictures. They had come to visit him at last. His knees gave way and he grabbed the door so he would not fall. His sons ran to him and helped him to a chair. For the next two hours they talked and talked. Meetings between clients and lawyers were supposed to be only 30 minutes but the officers did not bother to enforce the rules.
Finally, his son told him he would have to be deported. This is the third time he was caught and there was little anyone could do. The laughing turned quickly to silence, then sadness. Raul said, “I’m too old for work, anyway. I need to be home with momma. I just think you should visit her.”
There was a chorus of “we will, of course, we will!” Raul went back to his cell. He lay on the bunk and looked up. “Even though I didn’t get to work, this was still the most rewarding trip ever. But I am too old; I will never come back; this was my last trip!”
The next morning, all the detainees were gathered in front of the detention center to await the bus that would take them back to Mexico. Suddenly, a large black Hummer drove up and stopped. John got out of the passenger’s side, still wearing his Cub’s hat. A tall man in a suit got out of the driver’s side. He was carrying Raul’s back pack. “John told me where it was. We went back and got it.”
Raul smiled, “Thanks.”
The man said, “I got to thank you. You saved my son. My wife was taking him to Mexico to use him to get money out of me. She didn’t love him. She would have killed him.”
“No mother could do that.”
“This one could and would.”
John looked at Raul, “I still got your hat!”
Raul said, “You can keep it as a memory of me.”
John answered, “Thanks, Raul, I don’t ever want to forget you.”
His father said, “You got an address so John can send you a souvenir from Oklahoma?”
Raul wrote his name and address carefully on the paper the man had given him. He handed it to the man. As he did the Border Patrol bus pulled up and Raul got on with the other men. Everyone started chattering in Tex-Mex. Even though they were going home, they were all laughing and actually seemed quite happy.
John and his father turned slowly and walked back to their car.
For Raul the ride home was long and lonely. He thought about the two days he spent with John and he thought about his family.
When he got to the bus terminal in Monterrey, he saw his wife waiting for him. He got off the bus and told her excitedly about seeing the grandchildren. She said that her son John had called and let her know he was coming home. They took a local bus home.
Late that afternoon, while they were preparing dinner, there was a pounding on the door.
“Who could that be?”
Raul shouted, “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
It was Fed Ex, “Got a package for you.”
Raul had never gotten a package from Fed-Ex before. He looked at the delivery man, who shoved the package in his arms, turned and hurried off. The package was about the size of a basketball but it was square. He put the package down on the couch and looked at it for a while. There were routing numbers on the package but no return address that he could find. His wife finally said, “Aren’t you going to open it; I want to see what it is, don’t you?”
Raul shook his head and got out an old pair of scissors from a drawer in the kitchen and opened the box. Inside were an envelope and another smaller package. He opened the smaller package. Inside were a cap and a note. The cap was a “Sooner” cap. The note read, “Thanks, I hope you like the Sooners as much as I like the Cubs, Love, your friend, John”. Raul took out the cap and put it on. He went to the mirror in the bathroom and looked at himself. He liked it. He smiled and walked out to show his wife. All she said was, “What’s in the envelope?”
He opened it slowly. Inside was a check made out to him for $25,000. He read the amount again and again. His wife asked if it were pesos. He said “no, it’s dollars”. It’s from John’s dad, a reward.
Raul and his wife screamed, then cried, then laughed, then danced. He had made more money on this trip then he had on his last five trips. He had gotten to see his children, his daughter-in-laws and his grandchildren. He looked at his wife and said, “I guess, I will go back next year!”