Last day in Mexico
Some stories begin at the end. Four years in Monterrey changed my life forever; and to wake up one morning knowing that day would begin another round of equally challenging changes deserves nothing less than a solid swig of my favorite tequila (I don’t mean that figuratively by the way, I mean it quite literally. It was 9:30am). Over time, Mexico adopted me and managed to make me one of its own. My experiences there taught me to do more than speak its language; I learned to tell its jokes. I came to understand its complicated traffic laws and even invented a few of my own. More than friends, I grew a family there, and I soon discovered that my journey across the border would come to represent Mexico’s hesitation to release me from its hard earned embrace.
It’s mid-morning. Time to hit the trail. I slip on my favorite cowgirl boots, and saddle up my two-door mare, Mustang Sally. Everything I own now fits into her trunk. It’s actually an incredibly liberating feeling to own nothing – warm wind blowing right through my trousers. I should own less more often. I water the horse, and pass by the bank to pick up my fair share of the past few years’ poker earnings (for information on my obsession with westerns, please see footnote B).
Every cowgirl needs a good scout. So Gabriel, my cubicle-mate recently turned more-than-cubicle-mate, decides to ride Sally into Texas with me. His presence is a comfort as the highway from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo is littered with possible dangers. A recent U.S. State Department Travel Alert warns U.S. citizens: “Mexican drug cartels are engaged in an increasingly violent fight for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S. - Mexico border. In order to combat violence, the government of Mexico has deployed military troops in various parts of the country. U.S. citizens should cooperate fully with official checkpoints… Firefights have taken place across [the country] but particularly in northern Mexico. Criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in border areas including Nuevo Laredo. The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted.”
And, here we go. Pennsylvania plates, car reined by a young little white girl. No sweat. The violence in Mexico is mostly invisible anyway. Until you receive an e-mail forward like I did once with a video attachment showing decapitated narcotics traffickers hanging from the ceiling of a dark warehouse in Tijuana, and a second video showing decapitated bodies shoved into a ceramic tiled shower stall in Juarez. Or until the U.S. Consulate in the city where you live is attacked by grenade and gunfire. Or until the local television station where you deliver a weekly report is threatened by narcos, bombed with a grenade and shot at. Or until you show up at a friend’s house and see her brand new Mercedes riddled with bullet holes and find out she’d been caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and had very nearly missed becoming another innocent casualty in Mexico’s bloody drug war. Then it’s not so invisible. But for your own sanity, you pretend like it is.
Organized crime is coffee talk in Mexico. It’s on the news. It’s the rumor that the son of the cousin of your friend from the job you had 10 years ago was assaulted in a taxi cab at 4am near the Starbucks on Vasconcelos. You sleep peacefully at night though, because you keep organized crime in the same place you keep all the poverty and all the corruption; in tightly closed Ziploc bags, measured, and categorized by date. It’s the same way any of us deal with difficult realities – the war in Iraq, pollution, debt, and personal grudges. It just happens that some of us have bigger Ziploc bags than others.
Beautiful desert mountains, cactus, and altars honoring La Virgen line the highway. Gabriel is asleep. I am driving, fifth gear, listening to Vicente Fernandez wallow in his melodic sorrow about all the women in Mexico he has lost. Make that one more. In the distance, maybe 500 meters down the road, I notice a couple military vehicles and a toll bridge. A man dressed in fatigues is waving a red flag. Slow down. This is nothing outside the norm for a Mexican highway. Just a routine checkpoint to guarantee my own safety.
“U.S. citizens should cooperate fully…"
I’m closer now, but still a good 250 meters away. Somewhere between the bullfighter effect of the red flag and the fact that there are no cars in front of me, I fail to see the series of three or four rather treacherous speed bumps between the soldier and me. They aren't painted or marked by any signs and I hit them dead on. The car bottoms out on one of them and from nowhere another soldier appears – a clone of the one in front of me with the red flag. But this one is cocking an AK-47, yanking the stiff metal handle on the side of the gun. Within seconds he’s pointing it at my tires. Gabriel wakes up and starts to yell.
“Que chingados hiciste?!” I’m yelling back that I have no idea, that I didn’t see the speed bumps, and a news story from a few months back flashes into real time. Middle class father accidentally shot on the highway from Monterrey to Texas. He had pulled away too quickly from a military checkpoint. They thought he was trying to escape so they shot at his tires and missed. Instead they hit him in the shoulder. His wife was right next to him and his kids were in the back seat.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I yell. I don’t know who I’m yelling to, but I’m yelling. And then I’m laughing. Stress causes some people to overeat, other people to cry, and still others to hold babies over balconies. My laughter is like that – a strange response to a strange situation. Gabriel flicks my shoulder, like shhh…!
Red flag soldier starts waving his bandera emphatically, motioning for me to pull over. My speed, the Pennsylvania plates, a car full of misshapen bags and boxes – it all leads to a stone faced boy poking through the trunk of my car. Despite my rodeo show entrance, however, the revision of my belongings is quick and easy. As soon as they see Gabriel’s respectful fear, and my cluelessness, they're eager to just pass us through the barricade – get rid of us so they can find what they're really looking for. No further business here.
By the time we get to the international bridge, the border checkpoint that connects Nuevo Laredo in Mexico to Laredo in Texas, it’s mid-afternoon. The lines to get into the U.S. aren’t too bad today, however crossing the bridge is always tedious. Driving over that dusty, dry riverbed, I am reminded of the power this moment has for my life. One girl’s mission to walk on water – over the Rio Grande, across the Atlantic, and to the frozen waters of the wintery Baltic Sea.
“U.S. citizen m’am?” the border guard flashes a light in my eyes at three in the afternoon. She wears her hair tightly pulled back, dark, slick and shiny. I tell her yes and hand her my passport. “What are your plans?” she asks. I explain that I’m moving home from Mexico. That I’d been living there and working full time. “Living and working in Mexico?” she clarifies – as if she’d just heard a priest tell a lie. “And who’s he?” pointing to Gabriel. “Mexicano?” she switches seamlessly to Spanish.
“Si, vengo para acompañarla hasta Houston,” Gabriel tells her that he’ll come with me to Houston and fly back to Mexico from there. She asks for his permit, the one you need to go beyond 20 miles inside the U.S. border. Gabriel shoots me a look, coupled with one of those baby hanging over the balcony smiles. He has his visa, but the permit is something new. A slip of paper that you must acquire for land crossings into the U.S. Air crossings are different. Gabriel doesn’t have it, and the appearance of my plates, the back seat stuffed with black trash bags, and the story I’ve been sticking to all along about living and working in Mexico, is raising suspicion.
They tag a yellow notice on the windshield of my car. The woman tells me to “Go over there. The officer will tell you what to do.” I pull up slowly. This time careful not to bottom out over the large unmarked speed bumps. An officer motions for me to pull into a parking place next to a long steel table.
They pull Gabriel aside and ask him to step into the immigrations office. He’ll need paperwork; electric bills to prove his permanent address, bank statements to prove he’s not here to look for work, and a pair of scissors to cut through all the red tape. He disappears, and I know that this is the part where they will ask us questions separately to corroborate our responses. It’s like that couples game show where you can only win if the other person knows absolutely everything about you – “How did you two meet?” “Her maternal grandmother’s maiden name?” “Scrambled or sunny-side up?”
Outside, I am forced to empty everything from my car. Every bag, box, sheet of paper, and gum wrapper. And since the four or five officers standing around are unable to help – they can’t tamper with the evidence – I am resolved to bend over for 30 consecutive minutes while big bellied men and their German Shepherds get a load of the gringa trying to drive herself across the continent.
I stare at all of my belongings laid out across the steel table, as if a complicated operation were about to be performed. Dogs start sniffing. Officer starts poking around. He makes the same observation that I do – there is absolutely nothing worth over Goodwill prices here. Dogs still sniffing. I put my hands on my hips, trying to catch my breath from the heavy lifting. Officer finds my collection of Catrinas, Mexican clay sculptures made into skeletons, dressed as fine ladies from the early 20th century. The officer unpacks them all, each one from 12 to 16 inches tall. He taps on the bones to see if they are hollow. To see what type of powder filled bags might fit inside. The dogs continue to sniff and this time they hit the jackpot. My sack of dirty clothes.
We continue like this for two hours before I am allowed to repack my car. Gabriel emerges victorious from the immigrations office, permit in hand. We are free to go. I kick Sally into gear, urging her on toward I-35 north to Austin. Deep breath, big sigh… Mexico is behind me now, but this trip has barely just begun.
Footnote B: I am 19 years old, hiking south toward the U.S. – Mexico border with my mother through Big Bend National Park in Texas. It’s spring break during my freshman year of college. Some friends are in Florida, others on the Jersey shore, but I am a cowgirl out on the open range.
My favorite English course this semester is called Literature from the American Frontier. We read dime store novels, Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. These stories thrill me. Cowboys and Indians, Mexican cattle raids, and town prostitutes just looking for love.
When my mother offers to take me hiking in the very heart of where I imagined these stories to take place, I spring at the opportunity. Each day, we pack our sacks – peanut butter sandwiches, nuts and bolts, fruit, and water – and walk for hours and hours. I tell my mother that she can call me Lucy Bell and that we are looking to settle west; looking to find new opportunities.
One of my favorite hikes lands us at a natural hot spring on the shore of the Rio Grande. We change into our swimming suits. Right there, right in front, for all of Mexico to see. We dip our whole bodies into the warm water coming straight from the ground. Some of the water flows over into the rushing Rio Grande. No one is here. Not for miles and miles. There is absolutely nothing. The complete and utter desolation allows me to feel just the opposite. Full to the brim with everything. Open range welcomes young, new cowgirl to Mexico.