Martin was fourteen years old when his father first walked him to the United States. From the poor little Central Mexican village of San Miguel, the walk should take seven days. Sometimes, it took only six. Once, it took 11 days. And the time it took 15 days – they were lost – the party of itinerant workers ate snake (“Not very good, but you will eat it if you are hungry enough”), and armadillo (“Better than pork!”). They were happy not only to have food, but to have tasty food. The armadillo was charred on the outside, owing to a very hot cooking fire, but was quite juicy on the inside. Martin felt the juices running down his chin. It wasn’t until the next morning when he looked at his father in the daylight, that he realized how undercooked the armadillo really was and that he, as well as the rest of the party, was also covered in armadillo blood.
Counting his father and himself, there were eleven workers walking to Texas. When they crossed the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Seco’s truck was waiting for them. Along the road to his ranch, Seco stopped three or four times and sold all but four of the Mexicans to other ranchers. (The workers pay was typically garnished in total until they had repaid the ranchers’ outlays.) They would spend about three months driving cattle, mending fences, shearing sheep, etc. Seco’s father had taken Martin’s father under his wing many years before. When Seco inherited the ranch, he also inherited Martin’s father as a seasonal cowboy.
In those days, there was virtually no immigration or border patrol presence. Still, Seco was concerned that Martin would attract unwanted attention to the ranch because of his age. The government may not enforce immigration laws, but they were sure to enforce child labor laws. As a result, each day Martin would stay behind in the bunkhouse and be bored by local afternoon television, his light gardening chores done for the day.
One day, when there was no gardening to do, Martin talked his father into letting him ride out with the rest of the cowboys. In the mid-day, Seco stopped by the bunkhouse as was his habit. He expected to see Martin watching TV, and was alarmed when he didn’t see him. After quickly checking the grounds around the house and stables, Seco rode to where he knew the cowboys were working that day. He dreaded having to tell Martin’s father that he could not find the boy. Out on the range, Martin’s father feared Seco’s reaction when he saw that the boy was on horseback, working. To their great surprise, Seco, seeing how innately Martin handled the horse, through caution to the wind and gave Martin his blessing. From that point forward, Martin rode the range with the rest of the cowboys.
They made the walk from San Miguel to Seco’s ranch a couple of times a year for three years running. Martin mastered the art of the cowboy, and loved the life of a rancher. But when he was seventeen, a slightly older friend in the village convinced his father that Martin could make a lot more money working construction in Los Angeles. The walk to the California border at Mexicali in the Baja took ten days. From there they got in a coyote’s van and rode in windowless seclusion to Tarzana where Bill lived.
Martin, who spoke no English, fell in with the other construction workers. He was small for a 17-year-old and was the brunt of Bill’s derision, although he didn’t realize it at the time. He had not yet put together the idea that the word “idiot” was the English version of “idiota.” All he heard was what he assumed must be a nickname. It was “idiot this” and “idiot that.” Bill, who in later years would be like a father to Martin, did not suffer fools gladly. In fact, it was Bill’s grandson who pulled Martin aside and said, “Let me apologize for my grandfather. He’s just not a very nice man.” It became clear to Martin that until he learned to speak English, he would make small mistakes and Bill would call him out on them. But Martin was a fast learner, and as he picked up a little English, he was able to hold his own.
It didn’t take him long to fall in with the guys. Their habit most days after work was to go to the 7-11, buy a six pack of cheap beer and a couple of frozen tacos, and go back to Bill’s house where they would eat, drink and watch TV. Martin learned to curse in English from his fellow construction workers, the rest of what he needed to know he learned from television. On Friday nights, they went out. At 17, Martin was not old enough to drink. And while the other workers drank, smoked marijuana, and snorted cocaine when they could find and afford it, they were not stupid enough to get caught driving under the influence. Martin was the designated driver on the Friday night excursions to the Tarzana dance hall.
The dance hall girls offered big smiles, their mother tongue, and overpriced drinks in exchange for dances. The boys drank and danced and held the girls close, but there was no sex. Pedro, Martin’s older brother, was a smooth talker. Before long he was dating one of the dance hall girls. The other boys idolized the charming Pedro because his girlfriend got him in without the cover charge, and arranged dates for the older boys that Martin and Pedro worked with. These girls were also illegals. They were the immigrant equivalent of the boys working construction. All worked hard, and all sent the majority of their money back to their families in Mexico.
The dance hall girls weren’t there for sex, but every once in a while a van full of prostitutes pulled up in front of Bill’s house. Over the next 10 years as Martin came north to work construction when the economy warranted, the prostitutes in the van were a staple. The young man who arranged the prostitutes’ visits never had to pay. Neither was he particularly modest. One evening, when the boys had chosen their girls and disappeared into the kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, utility rooms, etc., the young man who made the arrangements found himself in the living room with one of the girls, and nowhere private to go. They simply slunk down behind the sofa and made the other boys in the living room step over them as they went to the kitchen for beer.
Although peopled by coyotes, drug addicts, and cholos (Mexican-American street gangs), Martin’s passage at Mexicali was generally untroubled. He did hear disturbing tales, though. It was not uncommon for the coyotes, most of whom had drug habits, to lead their charges directly to the cholos who would rob the men and rape the women. It was no skin off the coyotes’ noses, because they were not paid by the immigrants, but by the American employers on the other side. An immigrant usually gets across the border and to his safe house without spending a peso. They can’t leave the safe house until their new employers pay their freight.
It was also not uncommon for coyotes to separate the young women from the rest of the immigrants, and tell them that they could provide protection from the robbers, rapists and cholos. Having gained these girls’ confidence, over the course of a few days walking, they would convince the girls that they were in danger, and that in exchange for sex, the coyotes would make sure they got to the safe house. The coyotes also promised that in exchange for sex, they would pay all the fees associated with the girls’ passage. The naïve young girls never realized that there is only one cash transaction, and that it takes place at the very end of the journey. So, when they would say to the safe house operator, “My passage was paid for by your cousin Jorge, the coyote,” the safe house operator would simply laugh and say, “I have no cousin Jorge,” and demand their usual fee from the family member or new employer who showed up to take the girls.
Martin married in his twenties and had five children with a girl from the village. At thirty, after thirteen years of crossing the border to work in the United States, Martin decided he would stay home with his family. San Miguel was becoming an art colony with tourist traffic and a little money. His mother had a large house near the town square. Martin and his wife lived there with their five children, his brother, his wife, and their seven children. In time, the inevitable sibling rivalries as well as the fights among the young cousins forced Martin and his wife to make their own home. For nine years, Martin found good work in the village as a driver and interpreter. He remained in close touch with Bill in Los Angeles. One day Bill called and asked Martin to fly to Tijuana where he was to meet up with coyotes and make the trip to Los Angeles. Bill suddenly had houses to build and needed his trusted foreman.
When Martin found the coyotes in Tijuana, they told him to leave his food and water behind. Instead of the typical three-day trip, they had made arrangements for a van, and needed only to walk about three hours into the desert to make the rendezvous. The party was twelve people altogether, including coyotes. Some of the migrants were experienced with the border and others were not. All were in better shape than Martin, who had allowed himself to grow fat driving the tourists around San Miguel. He had taken a week or so before embarking on this trip to get himself into shape, but his long walks in the cool high desert were not enough to prepare him for what awaited.
After following the coyotes through the desert outside of Tijuana for three hours, Martin became suspicious. He asked the coyotes where the van was. They told him that they were certain they would find it very soon. Night fell, and the coyotes, who had not allowed food or water to be conveyed, insisted on continuing to move through the desert. Martin knew better. They needed rest. He knew that the desert was unforgiving. Being fat and out of shape, he had shed his jacket in the oppressive heat of the day. By nightfall he regretted that, and wished very much for something to cover himself with, for the desert had chilled quickly. The coyotes showed no interest in rest. It seemed that they were cocaine addicts and were far too high to stop. They didn’t appear to need food or water, but their charges did.
By noon the next day, Martin had fallen hopelessly behind. Wracked with exhaustion, and without food or water, he was dizzy and beginning to hallucinate. At some point, having lost sight of the immigrants and coyotes in front of him, Martin collapsed near a very minor county road in what he assumed was by now the Arizona desert. He awoke delirious, with two Chicanos standing over him. They were willing to give him water and a sandwich, but nothing more. They feared the Border Patrol would arrest them on suspicion of being coyotes when they were simply ranch hands. Martin found that he was so sick that when he took a swallow of water, and it came right back up. So did the sandwich. His internal organs were shutting down, and the Chicanos were refusing to help him further. Martin threw himself on their mercy, and cried, “I have a wife and children who depend on me. You cannot leave me here to die. I could be your brother.” They discussed the situation and one of the men was dead set on leaving him. The other prevailed, however, and they lifted him into the back of their truck. They would take him to the nearest highway intersection and no further. Martin lost consciousness in the back of the truck, and when he came to he was on the ground sprawled next to a paved road that had a little traffic. Soon enough, the Border Patrol rolled up in an SUV. They helped him up. He’d never been so happy to see law enforcement officers, and prayed that they were taking him to jail. The agents did not want to do all the requisite paperwork for one immigrant, so they flagged down a taxi. The driver, seeing the rough shape that Martin was in, declined to take him. The agents tried to get Martin to drink water but he could not. They stopped at a convenience store and got him a sports drink, which was exactly what he needed. The glucose and electrolytes brought him back pretty quickly. The agents drove around with Martin in the back of their vehicle for few hours until he was finally well enough to be put on a bus bound for Tijuana.
Still feeling horrible, Martin checked into a familiar hotel at the border where he was able to bathe, sleep, and finally hold some food down. He reflected on the difference between Mexican immigration and American immigration. The Americans were likely to throw your food away so you’d have to turn around, but they respected your being and basically left you alone. The Mexican immigration officers preyed on Central Americans making their way to the U.S. border. They would beat them and steal their money. Martin thanked God that his troubles had arisen on the U.S. side of the border.
Later that day, outside the restaurant at the hotel, Martin ran into a coyote that he knew. The coyote seemed shocked to see him.
“Martin, I’m so happy to see you alive.”
“Because the people you were with the other day were all found dead. They wandered around the desert as they collapsed one by one and died.”
Martin, recognizing that the fat around his middle had saved his life, called Bill and told him that he would not be coming to LA.