The Other Border
La Otra Frontera
The bus careens north, bellowing ranchera music through sharp
green mountains. Mayan women in the red and pink colors of
northwestern Guatemala wash clothes in the thin foaming river. I
press my nose against the dusty glass. My stomach drops with each
curve. The air rushes in clogged with exhaust and the sweet smell of
ripe plantains. I clench my hands into fists and breathe slow,
waiting for the border. Mexico, Mexico: I imagine all the passengers
chanting it, dreaming of that great northern country, collectively
hoping the police donít stop us again. My own wish is more about
solidarity than fear. My stiff blue passport pokes into my stomach
just above my hips, where my money belt clings damply.
The police have stopped us twice in the three hours from
Huehuetenangoís noisy market-day station, where I ate saucy chicken
pepian and talked to a shy Honduran who said he was visiting
Guatemala as a turista but we both knew better. He was one of the
first the police kicked off. Each time, they rounded up a handful of
men Ėat random, I think, though the second time I wondered if they
were looking for the younger ones Ė demanded paperwork, and
collected bribes. A few were always left standing on the crumbled
shoulder, clutching small backpacks, as the bus sputtered away.
The white police jeep is parked so the driver canít miss it. The
bus jerks, rumbles forward, and comes to a halt. Everybody shifts
and whispers. My legs tingle as I push my feet as far under the seat
as theyíll go, trying to ease the blood back in. The man next to me
Ė cowboy hat, new jeans Ė twitches, glares, and taps his fingers
across a beefy thigh. The police walk up the aisle and point. Sweat
collects on my upper lip.
"Iím Guatemalan, you idiots," the cowboy hat man roars. "Iím not
going anywhere. Fuck Mexico! Fuck the United States!"
I shrink into the window, but Iím not so nervous. This guy is too
bold to be illegal. A policeman leans in.
"Then show me your papers," he says, softly.
Itís not Guatemala Iím escaping, not the people of Santa
Florentina, not the cottony hills and cool cornfield mornings. Itís
the Peace Corps and its slow lonely days, my community garden
project and its dying broccoli plants, the polite smiles of the
women who tell me they donít have time to work there. And more than
anything, itís the dengue. That awful shaking fever, weeks clotted
with syrupy rehydration liquid and the chalky crumble of packaged
crackers, while the smoke from Dona Eulaliaís cooking fire gathered
in my nose. Her good, soft face appeared and disappeared between
murky dreams, the light changed, and chickens clucked around the
bed. Hector, her oldest son, kept dumping wood next to the stove,
asking how I was, delivering more bottles of suero.
I didnít tell anyone in the Peace Corps I was going to Mexico.
Why should I? I only want a few weeks to swim and get sunburned. My
supervisor would never understand. Hector and Eulalia do. Everybody
in Santa Florentina knows Mexico, has lived and worked and borne
children there. All of them once had Mexican papers under false
names. Theirs is a refugiados village. For the adults, women mostly,
Mexico was hiding and no speaking the indigenous language, no
wearing huipiles, nothing to stand out in that foreign country where
they waited so close to the border and the death squads.
But the kids think Mexico is a better deal. Hector keeps telling
me heíll go back, and use his fake papers to work his way north and
further. He'll inch toward a chicken processing plant in the high-up
"Have you heard of Nebraska?" he asked me, round brown face, acne
scars, careful eyes, idling on a bike near the empty cement clinic
and the avocado trees. I was resting in the shade, three days out of
bed but still weak as the dead leaves. I said I had, but I didnít
know anybody there.
"Oh," his answer. "Well, I do." His father Josue had been in the
States for three years. It was the first Iíd heard this. I thought
Josue had been shot in the western mountains, tossed in the
anonymous muck of some terrible grave. Hector watched me before he
said he was proud of his dad but not interested in the revolution.
I am. Itís got to be better than a community garden project with
the wrong vegetables and a pale, clunky stranger trying to organize
family nutrition meetings nobody attends. Thereís no money in
anything and nobody in the government cares, though they said they
did when they signed the peace accords. Now the women soothe babies
as they chop tomatoes into rice or make tasseled bags from old,
aching blue huipiles, which they sell to the wholesalers who sell to
the tourists. The boys haul firewood and swig cool bottles of Gallo
beer when it rains after lunch, and talk about going north.
The bus groans and quiets as we arrive. Money changers descend
shouting. Deja, leave me alone, dejame sola! I tell them, but it
doesnít help. I elbow my way through, frustrated tears welling up.
Donít cry, you baby, I think. I donít know what the exchange rate is
for quetzales to pesos. I know Iíll get ripped off. I pick a young
boy and give him my crumpled quetzales; he whips out stained pesos
and folds them into my hand. Onions and meat sizzle on blackened
grills at the taco carts. My backpack presses into my shoulder
blades. I look for other travelers; three dreadlocked boys argue
with the money changers. I bet theyíre from Spain and speak in a
fast slangy river I wonít understand. Theyíll smirk at me and tug
absently at their hemp-and-shell necklaces.
I canít figure out where to go. I need someplace official. Cars
and battered minivans choke the road between the food vendors and
women hawking tiny Mexican flags and pins. The mountains look softer
and rounder, rising and falling around us. The big green sign stalks
up over it all: Bienvenido a Mexico in bold white letters. Thereís
nothing else, no towns or farms. Shouting men still follow me.
Senorita! Do I need a taxi? No, no, la aduana Ė customs.
The low, clean building is tucked up in a stand of scrubby trees.
A fan whirs frantically on the peeled-paint window ledge. Men sit in
folding metal chairs, looking at the hats in their hands. Off the
main room is a narrow office with a big desk and a thin, sweaty
official. He doesnít look at my passport long. He asks if Iíve been
immunized. I say yes. The stamp clicks into the paper. He leans
back. Go on.
And Iím in Mexico.
I clamber into one of the collective taxis outside with some
Mayan women and a handful of young men in neat, worn shirts. A
turkey vulture swoops dark and graceful above the trees. The men are
quiet and watchful. I wonder where theyíre from, but it doesnít
matter now; theyíre going to do their best to be mexicano. Or maybe
Iím wrong, and these guys are legal. Everybody else probably had to
cross just to the west, or east, streams diverted around the
churning pooled-up border post.
The taxi clatters north. Rolling highway, green hills and
white-black flashes of signs, women with baskets, a distant
motorcycle, hot arching sky. Chiapas is not so different yet, though
the road feels smoother. Hector told me about this when my fever was
slipping away and I could sit up, at last, against the cool wall. En
Mexico he would say, perched by the bed, even the highways are
better. Or the schools, or the jobs. His mother listened while she
swept or kneaded tortilla dough. Ay, you donít remember it right.
There was an entire war, Hector. He might concede that Mexican
police were just as bad, or Mexican beer too expensive. But then
heíd laugh, and repeat the word norte until Eulalia bustled him out
of the house. She wouldnít catch my eye after. I didnít understand
why, exactly. Mexico Ė it wasnít so far, and it wasnít mine, either.
But I understand now, as I watch Guatemala fade into Chiapas.
Hector doesn't want these damp warm hills the color of new corn
leaves both sides of the border. He wants my homeland, and he will
risk everything to reach it. Just like the other desperately poor
people who donít make it, are raped or chopped up with machetes by
the gangs seething along these escape routes. And I cross this
border easy as breathing.
Hector and so many others have no other options. I think of the
years Eulalia hid here while her husband slept with his gun in the
mountains, waiting inside the promise of peace.
"Have fun at the beach!" she told me when I left.
What little we all seem to know.
My throat burns with tears and I turn my head, quickly, to the
window. When Hector leaves, Eulalia will be left with only Peace
Corps volunteers. And me, relaxing in the sun.
Irene Keliher spent a year in Latin America as a Thomas J.
Watson Fellow, researching and living on coffee cooperatives. She
currently writes the LIDS-All magazine for the Laboratory for
Information & Decision Systems at MIT in Cambridge, MA. She will
attend the University of Houston MFA program in the fall.