labor Into a Crueler America: Two Border Crossings, 30 Years Apart
What was I thinking? I asked myself that morning as I made my way to the San Antonio airport. Five weeks into my book tour, San Antonio was the 23rd city I’d visited to speak about my latest memoir, A Dream Called Home and offer readers an insight into the immigrant experience. Tired and homesick, I’d crisscrossed time zones, endured all kinds of temperature and weather, fled from a hurricane in North Carolina, and had met hundreds and hundreds of people along the way. Sometimes when I woke up, I couldn’t even remember what city I was in. As I arrived at the airport to return home and spend one fleeting Halloween night with my kids before flying to city #24 the next day, all I wanted was never to see the inside of an airplane again.
And yet, that flight would bring me one of my most memorable and meaningful experiences.
My boarding group was called, and I got up to find my place in line. I asked a young Latino man what his boarding number was. Instead of speaking, he tilted his pass toward me so that I could read for myself. As I took my place in front of him, I realized that he might not speak English. I felt bad to have asked him in English, but I had learned that some Texan Latinos were likely to be offended at being addressed in Spanish—and would tell you that their families have been in this country for generations, thank you very much. Six years ago in this very city, a Hispanic woman had come to a local bookstore reading to yell at me, accusing me of promoting illegal immigration through my books. “I hate what immigrants have done to my country,” she said. “My family has been here for generations. We didn’t cross the border.”
As we made our way down the jetway, I noticed that the young man who had answered me without words was also without luggage—carrying only an envelope with him, and wearing only stained jeans and a thin white t-shirt. Airplanes can get chilly, and seeing his thin bare arms, I wondered why he hadn’t brought a jacket with him. Then suddenly I knew who this young man was.
A few years ago, I’d taken donations to the migrant shelter in Tijuana, and Father Pat, who runs Casa del Migrante, had mentioned to me that 90 percent of the men in the shelter were deportees. He said when released from detention, they have nothing but the clothes on their backs and an envelope containing their paperwork.
“No tienes maleta,” I said to him as a way to start the conversation. He broke into a smile, relieved that I could speak his language.
“No, no tengo nada,” he said. I have nothing. Without me asking, he shared that he had been released from the detention center that morning. “I’ve never been on an airplane before. Do you know how this works? Where do I sit?”
“On Southwest you can sit in any available seat,” I said. “Follow me. I’ll find us a seat together.”
The only two adjacent seats were on the very last row, right against the bathroom. I showed him how to put on his seatbelt. He’d been released at 3am and was dropped off at the airport an hour later. Our flight was at noon, so he’d been at the airport for eight hours with no money and nothing to eat since his dinner at 5pm the day before at the detention center. As for his bare arms, he’d been asked to return the jacket lent to him by the detention center during his stay. He also hadn’t gotten any sleep. “I was afraid the plane would leave me behind,” he said.
Now here he was, hungry, tired, and cold on his first airplane ride.
I offered him some of the snacks my travels had accumulated—pretzel chips and cheese sticks, powdered donuts and bag of roasted almonds. “Gracias, gracias,” he said, his mouth full as he ate quickly.
He was 21 years old. He told me about his life in Guatemala, of what he had left behind. His story was not surprising to me. Oppressive poverty, violence, lack of opportunities—these were the common factors in the decision to migrate. It was the reason why, while we were flying on this airplane, thousands of people were walking across Mexico to the US border to ask for asylum.
“Have you heard of the caravan?” he asked me.
“The caravans,” I corrected. “The third one left yesterday.”
“Right,” he said. “I’ve been watching the news at the detention center. The agents joked that they would never be out of work thanks to the caravans and those to come.”
I didn’t know what to say. Did he know about the troops Trump had dispatched to the border? Did he know of our president’s hateful rhetoric, conjured to fuel the fear and hatred of Central American immigrants like him?
I didn’t ask him those questions. Instead, I offered more food—a can of tuna and crackers—as an apology.
He shook his head vehemently.
“You don’t like tuna?” I asked.
“That’s all the smuggler gave us,” he said. “During the journey, we ate tuna for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The smell will bring back bad memories.”
He told me about crossing the river from Guatemala to Mexico. During his swim across, the corn tortillas he’d packed had taken on water and were nothing but a ball of watery dough that he had to throw them away. He’d had nothing but tuna from then on. When they were caught in Mexico, his smuggler abandoned him. When he was released, he continued alone to the US border, where he was taken by Border Patrol and locked up in a detention center. He had two older siblings living in the US who had hired a lawyer to help him with his asylum case. He would have to go to court soon. Only then would he know if he would be allowed to stay. In the meantime, he would live with his siblings.
“They live near LA,” he told me. I was confused at this. He was on my flight to Sacramento, with a layover in Dallas. Why wouldn’t his siblings fly him to Los Angeles? My question worried him, and after he showed me his paperwork, I realized his mistake. “They live four and a half hours north of LA.” I told him. “Now I understand why you are flying to Sacramento. It’s closer to where they live.”
“I’m glad you understand,” he said. “Because I still don’t.” He laughed and ate my donuts.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll make sure you find your way.”
“Were you born here?” he asked a few minutes later.
“No, I crossed the border when I was nine and a half years old.”
I thought of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who’d come these last few years on their own, all alone. I’d been lucky. “My father came back to Mexico for me. So he was with me the whole journey. I’ve been here for 33 years now.”
I didn’t tell him that I had arrived in this country when things were different—when a Republican president had signed a law that forgave three million people, including both my parents, for coming into the country illegally and had allowed them to remain as legal permanent residents. I didn’t tell him how free and limitless I felt as a 15-year-old, when our green cards arrived. I didn’t tell him how I took that green card and ran with it to my American Dream—all the way to being a college graduate and a best-selling author.
What was the point in telling him this? I would just hurt him with talk of a time that no longer existed in this country—when forgiveness and a chance of legal status were still possible. I wished I could give him hope by being able to say that maybe those times could come again.
During our layover, I treated him to lunch. He ordered the typical American meal—a burger and fries. He said he hadn’t had potatoes in a very long time. “Many people in my village died from eating bad potatoes,” he said. Now, he ate his french fries with gusto. “They hardly fed us at the detention center,” he said. “And when they did, it was wilted lettuce and slimy overcooked cabbage. I lost a lot of weight there.” Weight he couldn’t afford to lose. The thin arms I had wished were covered before, now seemed even more fragile and small—even my 16-year-old son was taller and sturdier.
“What do you do for a living?” he asked me. I played with my pasta, which was drowning in alfredo sauce.
“I’m a writer,” I said. I told him I was in the middle of a book tour, that I had been going from city to city promoting my book, though I left out that what I was really doing on those trips was talking about my immigrant experiences and speaking up for my immigrant community—speaking up for him even before I met him. What would he say at hearing that unlike most immigrants who were forced to leave in silence and invisibility, I was invited onto brightly lit stages across the country and handed a microphone to tell my story and share my opinions? Would he believe me? Even I had a hard time believing it myself.
“You look tired,” he said.
“I am,” I said. “I’ve been traveling too much lately.” My exhaustion had made me begin to resent it, all the traveling, the time away from my children, the weight of having to share my immigrant trauma with strangers, the responsibility of fighting and pushing back against the racist anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of our president’s mouth. I just want to be a writer. I didn’t sign up to be a spokesperson for immigrant rights, I wanted to tell him. Yet, here I was. And here he was before me, reminding me of why it mattered, why I needed to keep going.
On our second flight, since we were almost the last to board, we weren’t able to find a seat together, so he sat in the row in front of me. Every once in a while, he would turn around to look at me, as if to make sure that I was still there. He would smile shyly and then turn to face forward again.
In Sacramento, I showed him how to take the tram to the main terminal, and he looked around, taking everything in, the technology around us astounding him. At the baggage claim, we looked around for his family, but all the faces were those of strangers. “They aren’t here,” he said. I saw panic in his eyes. I knew that if they didn’t come, I would take him home. I wasn’t going to leave him there, stranded. I handed him my phone and urged him to call. His siblings said they were stuck in traffic, that they didn’t know how much longer it would be, but that they were indeed coming. I wish they’d arrived earlier so I could have witnessed their happy reunion, so I could leave knowing he was safe.
My sister texted that she was outside waiting for me.
“I have go,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ll be okay,” he said. I gave him a hug and as he embraced me, he whispered, “Gracias por todo. Se lo agradezco.”
“I hope you are allowed to stay, to make a life here, to fulfill your dreams.” As I left, I could feel his eyes following me out of the airport. My stomach clenched with worry.
Luckily, I had his brother’s number on my phone, and half an hour later, I texted to ask if they had found him.
“Yes, we have him now,” the text said. Then a second text came, from him, perhaps.
“Que dios la bendiga,” it said,
“God bless you, too,” I replied.
Two days later, when I was back at the airport, boarding my next flight to city #24, I thought of him. I boarded that plane determined to keep on fighting, for me, for him, for the country we both hoped could be our safe haven, our home.
[Reyna Grande is an award-winning author, motivational speaker, and writing teacher. As a girl, she crossed the US–Mexico border to join her family in Los Angeles, a harrowing journey chronicled in The Distance Between Us, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist that has been adopted as the common read selection by over twenty schools and colleges and fourteen cities across the country. Her other books include the novels Across a Hundred Mountains, winner of a 2007 American Book Award, and Dancing with Butterflies, and The Distance Between Us, Young Reader’s Version. She lives in Woodland, CA with her husband and two children. Visit ReynaGrande.com.]