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Irene Keliher

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 flat Midwest.

"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.

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