Marisa Cadena ~ My Guardian Angel

I missed the bus to Tapachula by 15 min­utes. There wouldn’t be anoth­er until the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the robot­ic woman at the tick­et counter told me. I was try­ing to cross before dark, remem­ber­ing the fright­en­ing scene at the bor­der on my way in. I didn’t have enough mon­ey to stay the night in Guatemala City. I asked her if there was a sec­ond class bus sta­tion near­by that might have oth­er options. With a dis­mis­sive wave of her hand, she said, “Por allá, dos cuadras” and looked down pre­tend­ing to work on some­thing. In Latin America, when ask­ing for direc­tions, your des­ti­na­tion is always “two blocks” away. It mat­ters not if they have no idea where it is you want to go, or if it is actu­al­ly ten blocks away— it is always “dos cuadras” away.

I walked those two blocks to find myself at an inter­sec­tion exact­ly the same as the pre­vi­ous two. I kept walk­ing but every two blocks was more of the same. I was stuck on a tread­mill, get­ting ner­vous as the sun moved high­er into the smog-filled sky, beat­ing down on my back. The heat of the day was ris­ing along with my frus­tra­tions. The dust from the streets caked onto my teeth, accu­mu­lat­ed in my tear ducts. I stopped a man and asked again if the bus sta­tion was near. “Ahí,” he said, point­ing to his right. I turned and head­ed “over there” and came upon a bus stop of sorts, sim­i­lar to the one that had tak­en me to Antigua a few days before, but loud­er, busier, dirt­i­er. The park­ing lot was packed with humans, bus­es and car­go. The old school bus­es, parked every which way, rusty and spat­tered in sand and mud over lay­ers of bright blue, red, green and yel­low paint. Destinations were being shout­ed all around me. Women with arm­loads of babies, tod­dlers and gro­ceries; men with arm­fuls of shov­els and crates of chick­ens; all pushed passed each oth­er, cram­ming into the bus­es. A sym­pho­ny of con­duc­tors yelling and wav­ing peo­ple to and fro stood in front of their camiones. I asked the man with yel­lowed armpits and filthy pants stand­ing next to me which bus would be going to the bor­der. He gave me the once over and point­ed, telling me it would leave in an hour.

I sat in a come­dor across the street, a clos­et of a shop, wait­ing. I fished out a cou­ple quet­za­les and bought water and pan dulce and tried to enjoy my feast at the plas­tic table cov­ered in the crumbs of the pre­vi­ous patrons. I watched the bus­es, keep­ing an eye for when peo­ple start­ed to board. I watched a fam­i­ly of women cook for dif­fer­ent groups of fat, sweaty men who yelled at each oth­er while they ate and threw mon­ey on the table when they were fin­ished. It could have been an hour lat­er, it could have been two, but I was final­ly on the bus. My con­fir­ma­tion that we were indeed head­ed for the bor­der, when I asked, was only a slight nod from the dri­ver. I took my seat, squished against the win­dow by the oth­er bench occu­pant: a woman in tra­di­tion­al dress hold­ing a dead chick­en. She smelled like she was men­stru­at­ing. The air, a mix of live (and dead) ani­mals and bod­ies, of sweat, earth, blood, life and death, was pal­pa­ble. Once we hit the road, the dri­ver popped in his favorite cas­sette of con­sist­ing of a soli­tary song on loop: “Jesús Cristo, Te Amo,” whose only lyrics con­sist­ed of a cre­ative mix of those words: “Jesús Jesús Jesús, Te Amo Jesús, Jesús Te Amo, Dios es Amor, Amor es Dios, Amor Amor Amor, Dios Eres Todo, Dios Te Amo.” Otherwise, it was an unevent­ful albeit scenic ride through a ver­dant coun­try­side filled with vari­eties of plants and foliage, cof­fee fin­cas, palm trees, more goats, cats and yaks, chil­dren bathing in pud­dles, aban­doned Pepsi plants, a Pepsi bill­board that formed one wall of a make-shift house…

And then it was dark.

The bus had near­ly emp­tied. What was sup­posed to be a five-hour ride must have been clos­er to eight. And then the bus stopped. It was pitch-black save for one street lamp illu­mi­nat­ing a turnoff on the side of the high­way where three taxis were parked.

Oye,” the dri­ver grunted.

I looked around.

¡Oye!” he yelled.

I looked at him, point­ed to myself. “¿Yo?” I asked.

He nod­ded and opened the door.

I gath­ered my things and head­ed to the front. “¿Pero no esta­mos en El Carmen?” I squeaked, confused.

He point­ed to the door and mum­bled, “We don’t go to the bor­der after dark. One of those taxis will take you the rest of the way.”

Alone, on the side of the high­way, in the mid­dle of nowhere, a star­less black night, and three taxis to choose from to take me an unde­ter­mined dis­tance into the jun­gle. I looked at my choic­es. The first man offered to take me as he undid his pants, moved his dick to the oth­er side, tucked his but­ton-down shirt back in and zipped up. The sec­ond, prob­a­bly hav­ing done too much blow, looked man­ic. I picked the third man who seemed drunk, rea­son­ing that he would have slow­er reflex­es. He told me to sit up front. I got in and we took off. As we drove along, he was swerv­ing. It start­ed rain­ing and he didn’t slow down. I didn’t talk, just chain-smoked. I fig­ured my only defense was to burn him with the cher­ry of my cig­a­rette and the hot met­al of my lighter that I kept flip­ping on with my right hand hid­den beside the seat so he couldn’t see.

We approached a dark curve. He slowed down at the black­est part.

He asked if I was scared to be trav­el­ing alone as he pulled to the side of the road and stopped. My heart jumped and plugged my ears.

I thought I was going to black­out. I could bare­ly hear. I was underwater.

My hands didn’t work. I didn’t know where the cig­a­rette or lighter went. They didn’t exist in my par­a­lyzed body.

Sí, sí ten­go miedo,” I man­aged to choke out.

He laughed.

Por favor, Por favor no hagas esto. Please, please don’t do this,” the words mirac­u­lous­ly escaped my mouth. He laughed again, looked at me for what felt like hours, then turned and pulled the car back onto the road, still laughing.

I was vibrat­ing. Shaking. We arrived at the immi­gra­tion office. I fum­bled, trem­bling as I hand­ed over the fare and got out. My legs, still quiv­er­ing. The place he had brought me to was just as ter­ri­fy­ing. A prison let loose. It was full of men shout­ing obscen­i­ties at me. Lurching. It reeked of old and new urine. A night­mare. I want­ed noth­ing but to wake up. I walked up to the sole lit win­dow of the dilap­i­dat­ed office to find a frail old man with coke-bot­tle glass­es. He looked at me, shook his head, dis­ap­prov­ing­ly, and told me it wasn’t safe for a young girl to be there at night. I assured him I was well aware of the dan­ger. As he was stamp­ing my pass­port, a woman, jit­tery and jumpy, hap­haz­ard­ly dressed and half-unbut­toned— crack, I guessed— came up to the win­dow beside me. The old man greet­ed Helen, and start­ed to say he didn’t have any mon­ey, but paused, look­ing back and forth between us. He sug­gest­ed that I pay her to escort me across the bridge to the Mexican side of the bor­der. Helen assured me that I would not have been the first to take advan­tage of her ser­vices. I looked at her then behind me to the hun­dreds of men cir­cling like wolves. I turned back to Helen and smiled. She linked her arm in mine and we head­ed for the bridge. As we walked, men swarmed us, scream­ing, call­ing me dis­gust­ing things, scream­ing that they were going to fuck me. She shout­ed back, called them out by name, told them to fuck off and leave me alone. They lis­tened to her, kept at dis­tance but con­tin­ued to shout pro­fan­i­ties and make phys­i­cal threats.

Once on the oth­er side, Helen got a taxi for me while I was get­ting my pass­port stamped. I gave her a dol­lar or two worth of quet­za­les, thanked her and head­ed to Tapachula to catch a bus back to Oaxaca. I assumed Helen had spe­cial priv­i­leges as she was able to cross into both Mexico and Guatemala freely. She, an unex­pect­ed link in the chain of diplo­ma­cy, find­ing her place on the lim­bo bridge between coun­tries. Helen, my ángel de la guarda.


Marisa Cadena has con­tributed bev­er­age recipes to New York Magazine, Health Magazine, a book on Puerto Rican cui­sine and an anthol­o­gy on Bloody Marys. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from NYU. Cadena is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her mem­oir and a nar­ra­tive short film.