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Darlin’ Neal

XEROC 80, Juarez, Mexico


"XEROC 80, Juarez, Mexico," the woman identified the radio station in Spanish twice per hour. I listened in my bedroom in the fourteen foot wide trailer. I’d cried when I realized I was getting the small room instead of the bigger one my brothers shared at the end of the trailer, but of course I got the smaller room, there were three of them and another one on the way. At least it would be my own room and that incredible music came over the airwaves from Mexico, strategically placed right across the border so the DJs could break rules.

This was in Alamogordo. We finally had a home in one place and were going to stay. For a while I became a pot head kid and drank a lot. At the end of the ninth grade when I was fourteen and passed out sick at school and cried from remorse and embarrassment, my father told me I could drop out. The next year I made all As and Bs and took Speech class which terrified me. For current events I reported on sports. I talked football with David Sanchez and David Watson.

Before my family moved to Alamogordo, we’d been in Chama living in an eight-foot wide trailer. The babies slept on the fold out sofa. My brother and I had bunks in the room like a hallway and I put posters all over the walls and the doors. We’d lived in that trailer since I was four and it’d taken us all over New Mexico. Chama was beautiful and I don’t know why I ever wanted to leave, but my mother said, where would you like to live and I picked Alamogordo where we’d been before and where I first attended Yucca Elementary.

Recently in Oakland, I was walking around the lake with my dog when I ran into an immigrant march. I thought about turning around but instead we just started marching along, my dog and I. He was awed into his best behavior. There were so many people marching and crying out so passionately.

I tried to understand the Spanish I had heard all my life and studied some. People chanted, "Si, Se Puede!" like Cesar Chavez. So many signs, "We are not criminals. We are hard workers." I was dressed in old sweats. I noticed that everyone’s clothes were old. There were many babies and young children crying out. A couple of men scurried down by the lake and racketed back up with a grocery basket. They put three children inside and pushed on, glad to be resting their arms.

On the march, I asked a young man where we were going and I had to keep asking. Finally he smiled and looked away politely. I realized he didn’t understand what I was asking and all the Spanish words I should know left me and I just kept marching on.

In Alamogordo, we lived 80 miles from the border. There was a border check 20 miles away from my home, outside White Sands National Monument with all those beautiful white sand dunes stretching endlessly against that blue sky with those wispy clouds toward the mountains. Drugs were everywhere and illegal because that’s how everyone makes money, the dealers and the law enforcement. Right out there too they detonated the first Atomic bomb, because the beautiful desert was seen as desolate and dispensable, like hungry people you ship back over the river, or let die in hot truck trailers or jumping trains trying to find work to feed their families. People whose ancestors were indigenous to the land and could move freely until someone else moved in and drew an imaginary border that says who can eat well and who cannot.

A white woman drove through the crowd screaming incoherently with hatred so fierce it made her eyes bug out and her face turn red.

The boy who could not answer my question had a friend who spoke for my dog, "Rrrff, rrrff, rrff—rrff!" Meaning "Si, Se Puede! Yes, we can!" We marched beyond Broadway and I turned back. I wanted to remain but the people were crowding thicker up ahead and my dog got nervous and I was supposed to meet a friend somewhere else.

If you ever go to Alamogordo, visit El Camino Restaurant on White Sands Boulevard and if you can handle it, have the Chile Relleno plate and the best salsa you’ve had in your life. But don’t ask an older white person, because so many in that small town are mistaken that that restaurant has something to do with gangs, when it’s just the oldest restaurant in Alamogordo and some of the people who work there don’t speak good English even though they are Americans not from Mexico, but from the United States, for generations.

After we left the march and made our way along the lake toward home, a young black boy on a bike wanted to pet my dog. I told him I wasn’t sure how that would go because my dog didn’t like bikes. He reached out and Catfish growled and barked viciously so I walked away calling, "He’d be all right if you weren’t on the bike."

Before Chama, we’d spent several months in Mississippi where the children decided I was Mexican. I was blond though not so fair skinned and I stopped bothering to argue. They hated me for being Mexican and I tried to explain I was from Mississippi, I’d just moved away. A teacher asked me to stand up and tell the class what kind of food we ate down in Mexico, and I corrected her, "New Mexico," but she didn’t notice the difference. So I said, tacos and burritos and let her talk about the differences of food.

My dog and I continued on by the lake and met up again with the boy who’d been on the bike. He’d raced ahead and got off and sat waiting on a bench. I was a little nervous that maybe I lied and my dog would growl and bite, but the hound just laid his chin on the kid’s knee and offered up his floppy ears. I explained that where I lived in Mississippi where I found my dog I enclosed my porch so he could be outside when I was gone and some boys rode by on bicycles and shot him with a BB gun. He said, "He’s okay now. I’m off the bike." He asked, "You lived in Mississippi?" Often that surprises people here in California, who sometimes, after an awkward silence, have said things like, "I’ve never met anyone who lived in Mississippi."

I told the kid my dog’s name and we left with him waving and calling, "Bye Catfish!" We passed an unsmiling man wearing a turban. You could still hear the crowd in the distance.

In first grade at Yucca Elementary there was a boy named Jesus and my mother teased me I had a crush on him. It was a sweet teasing and he was a sweet boy and we stared at each other without ever speaking. She’d done the same about a little black boy she found me with in a store once. We were peeking at each other between a store display and giggling and hiding. I’ve remembered his beautiful round eyes and luscious lashes and how my mother teased me.

Someone else I remember is Molino who worked with my father. I flagged traffic for my dad one summer up on the Mescalero Apache Reservation and got sunburned until I was red over the deepest brown. Some Apache kids kept driving by and asking me if I was hot and tired and then they brought me a six pack. Molino saw me standing there in the middle of the road with a six pack of Budweiser and just shook his head and laughed. What else could I do but take the beer to my dad? Molino sent money to his family in Mexico. I think he slept in a car. I never got the story clear about his situation but he was a gentleman among those construction workers who were all polite to me. I could see he had class and he was concerned about me, wondering what his kids were doing in Mexico. He couldn’t speak English but all the white guys who worked with him respected his work ethic and regard for others.

Right before I left the march, a group of low riders bounced on behind, hanging out and bouncing their butts outside the car with the music playing. They looked a little out of place, but those woman carrying the babies and men holding the kids’ hands weren’t worried. Those celebrating low riders weren’t bothering anybody. I hadn’t seen anything quite like that since the low riders used to drive by the high school in Alamogordo, bouncing and listening to ZZ Top coming through on XEROC 80, Juarez Mexico.

Darlin' Neal's short fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Night Train, Puerto del Sol, The Arkansas Review and other magazines. Among her awards are a $5000 Literary Arts Award from the Mississippi Arts Commission, A Frank Waters Fiction Fellowship, and a Henfield Transatlantic Review Award. She has been a finalist and semifinalist in numerous other contests including The Great American Novel Contest sponsored by Meridian and Tupelo Press and The William Faulkner Creative Writing Contest. The Arkansas Review nominated her work for a 2005 Pushcart Prize. She now lives in Oakland, California, with her Mississippi dog.

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