Footprints of Wolves and Men

 

View from a parking lot in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Abraham Osorio, Unsplash.

To Ivet, with eyes closed

One morning in March 2014, under a sky overlain by dregs of clouds, I climbed into the car and drove from Midland to El Paso on interstate I-20, with the relative peace of mind inspired by the subtle landscapes of the Texas desert and plains. Having lived many years on the East Coast, I chose to use the days off granted by the calendar for a scouting trip that would allow me to become familiar with the place. History says that Texas is a vast territory which in the 19th Century, under the jurisdiction of the State of Coahuila, was considered the Pearl of the Republic by the Mexican Government. At the time, traveling on horseback from here to Mexico City was worse than suicide. While the young Mexican nation was trying to get rid of the vestiges and whiffs of colonial Spain, Anglo-Saxon migrants in wagon trains were moving in, attracted by what they could forge on these lands. And here it was, in plain view, what the participants in this passage had built soon after arrival—the result of this challenge, maybe. A rich toponymy stretching in many directions, from the echoes of imperialism to the reverberations of the dispossession and indignities inflicted on the subaltern: Toyah, Pecos, Pyote, Wickett, Thorntonville, Monahans. I had planned to stop in Van Horn or in Sierra Blanca to stretch my legs, wander about, and eat something that would bring me closer to what I was used to.

I was driving at moderate speed. On one side of the highway—shrubs, grazing cows, miniature trees. A repetitive landscape that made my eyes glaze. On the other side—the hallucinations any vast expanse causes when the same objects get projected a thousand and one times. Obviously, it’s not the same as observing from a mountain. In the plains, objects become diffuse. A fertile field for chimeras and fancies. The moment comes when you start imagining things that leap out of this changeless place. Anyway… I always imagine a wolf that stares at me and follows me at the speed of the car; dinosaurs in search of pasture; Apaches with painted faces riding unsaddled horses, ready for war.

I was nagged by the need to relieve my bladder, ever since I passed through a rest stop. It was an ultramodern place, with play areas for the kids, gigantic TVs inside, and stairs leading to a basement which served as a tornado shelter. I stopped there. Right beside me, seated in the front of a pickup truck, a married couple with a visible accumulation of years and body mass was having difficulty reading the state’s roadmap. The man asked me whether to head North or South, to get to Marfa.

Since I had already been to Marfa, a small town turned headquarters for artists-in-residence (painters, filmmakers, poets and storytellers), it was easy to give them directions. Marfa attracted me by error —a mistake for which I didn’t pay dearly; it was a place with good beer and exceptional food. I was convinced that Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men (2005) was set there, that it was the place where Anton Chigurh, the desert’s hitman, marauded the local highways with complete impunity. I was just wrapping up with the married couple, when two school busses pulled in, brimming with adolescents who spilled out towards the restrooms. I decided to get back in the car and keep straight, southbound, under an intense spring sky. Judging by the copious light washing over the horizon, this region might as well be the best for building schools for painters.

I took the detour towards Pecos, a small village made known by actor Robert Mitchum thanks to the 1945 movie West of the Pecos: a somewhat redundant title.  A squad of piston pumps known as pumpjacks guards the outskirts of a community, which two decades ago was on the verge of completely abandoning this place where everything had been depleted, including the will to live. If it weren’t for the oil and gas deposits extracted with robotic precision by the machines in charge of guzzling the earth’s juices, Pecos would be a ghost town today.

But no, there was the zoo to which I need to return one of these days; and also the high salaries of the piston pump operators—as I was told by Juan Ceniceros from Ojinaga, Chihuahua, who in the best of times, when oil prices per barrel had skyrocketed, was earning up to five thousand dollars a week.  I made a promise to the owner of Terrazas, a Mexican restaurant, to stop for an unhurried visit. The portions, brought directly to the table, were overflowing; this touch of generosity had the effect of uniting a community divided in an ignoble manner since the days of yore: the Anglo-Saxons in the North and the Mexicans in the South, coming together without resentment.

The burritos with various fillings, the beef soup, and the menudo (chopped cow’s tripe and corn in an aromatic broth colored by red chilies) prompted a truce that goes beyond the symbolic and the ethnic. Even if it didn’t completely erase all types of animosity between both sides, this rustic fare ironed out the way Pecos residents relate to each other. As recently as the mid-Twentieth Century—to avoid looking even further back into history—any Mexican who crossed into the Anglo-Saxon neighborhood ran the risk of being lynched to death. Before I left the restaurant, the owner greeted a burly white guy wearing shorts and cowboy boots (sic) who carried a container to be filled with hot and spicy menudo.

It was past 11 am when I returned to the highway leading to Van Horn. I estimated I would get there in an hour and a half, provided I avoid venturing into a tempting detour on the way. In front of me, a trailer was advancing with the slowness of a prehistoric animal. I intended to pass it, but after seeing the highway patrol in the rearview mirror, I relinquished the impulse. The patrol car took a detour, and I put pedal to the metal. As I was passing the brontosaurus, I was surprised to notice that its cargo was something very similar to mammoth tusks. It was a helix for one of the thousands of windmills installed in almost every region in Texas to generate clean, green energy as announced by the signage on the door of the rattletrap puffing its way up the road.

Van Morrison’s music kept me company on the way, punctuated by the vitality of the small wonders that everyday life offers at every turn—better left unresolved, but rather lived with maximum intensity in order to understand, once and for all, that life is a goddamn miracle. And it’s so difficult to figure this out. The last song on the album before arriving in Van Horn was “Sometimes We Cry,” with the guitar intro that eviscerates any harshness.

Surrounded by barren mountains, hills that could serve as watchtowers for the Border Patrol agents, and, to the naked eye, houses, cabins and hotels half-built with wood and drywall, in Van Horn I experienced a sense of futility, the same I felt during my trip to Ushuaia (the southernmost part of the planet), midway through—on the patch that links Puerto Madryn and Trelew—when I saw the hamlets from the bus, seeming like a mirage, somewhere no one in their right mind would live, in the midst of such a hostile ecosystem. In a stretch of less than two kilometers I counted more than fifteen white-and-green trucks, patrolling the area as if right at that moment a mob of undocumented immigrants was trying to hide or pass unnoticed. I got off the highway and onto a side street that would take me to the town’s McDonald’s, an equivalent to a town’s square where everybody congregates, both the locals and the passers through. Four immigration officers were deep in conversation with the passengers of a van with tinted windows.  I didn’t miss a single detail of this scene on which I had focused my attention from inside the restaurant with a certain mix of anger and helplessness. The van had Kansas license plates.

In a couple of minutes reinforcements arrived. The migras were doing their job, namely putting cuffs on each and every one of the passengers (nine adults) for not having the necessary immigration documents in order, as they were stepping out from the car, head hung down, gray-faced, under the dark omen of imminent detention. All were cuffed except for a woman carrying a baby. Not even one of the people around me, standing in line to place their orders, paid attention to this scene which to them was as run of the mill as was buying fast food promptly. The lady in front of me told me that there was a very good restaurant in Sierra Blanca, in response to my question whether there was anything else to eat in this area except for hamburgers, chicken and extra-weak coffee.

In less than thirty minutes, driving at 100 kilometers per hour on an approximately ten-kilometer straight stretch of road, I spotted the hamlet of Sierra Blanca, the barren mountain that flanked it, and a fifty-wagon cargo train which was passing in slow motion to the side of a village that was even smaller than Van Horn. At first glance I could count less than 200 houses.

In the early nineteen nineties Sierra Blanca gained fame for being an indomitable town at due to the bravery and the capacity for resistance of its inhabitants, similar to the impetus of the citizens of Numantia. Although there were no casualties here, indeed there was an intense and prolonged legal blockade imposed by then governor Ann Richards to construct a nuclear waste repository. In 1998, thanks to the effective activism of environmentalists, writers, intellectuals, and the residents of Sierra Blanca, a federal court put a definitive stop to the project for a radioactive waste deposit site.

At a one-kilometer distance from the entrance to town (going South to North), to the right, is the detention center known as West Texas Detention Facility, shared by ICE and the U.S. Marshals—a leaden building, camouflaged in the desert. Yes, it’s vulgar and innocuous, but key in the strategy for stopping undocumented immigration. I was left with the impression that the people who I saw detained were members of the same family. All of them would be housed there temporarily and left at the discretion of the respective immigration authorities while waiting for the inevitable deportation. This pierced my heart. Even more than the baby’s cry and the pain-stricken face of her mother, I was deeply saddened by the image of the common dream, shattered to pieces like a broken jug, as a result of a bad decision. This is how life works when setbacks come: it is not humanly possible to stop what is coming, one lashing after the other. I would have liked to find out the reasons why this family decided to meet in the McDonald’s parking lot, knowing for sure that, in terms of immigration vigilance, it was too hot of a spot for undocumented crossings.

The parking lot of Delfinas's Restaurant was covered with gravel which under the moving tires produced sound effects reminiscent of a suspense thriller. On the side of the main entrance, in big bold letters, a sign was welcoming the trailer crowd, the masters of the road. I stepped in line behind a Border Patrol agent, a fairly young Anglo-Saxon type. I later learned that the owner was Delfina Arzate, a tenacious and amiable woman who had seen many things in her restaurant were, as I confirmed moments later, the best corn gorditas in the whole world are made. Of course, I ordered two gorditas (which turned out to be four) and a glass of horchata; the top of the drink was sprinkled with cinnamon, the way I used to get Choco Milk in my childhood.

I had a short conversation with Joe Jones, the border patrol guy, for several minutes before doña Delfina brought out 68 small boxes of freshly prepared food. When he told me that he was from Cincinnati, I asked him if he had seen the Tommy Lee Jones movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), scripted by Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. I asked because Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), one of the main characters, was from the same city as him. He googled the title: “I’m gonna see it, for sure,” he said enthusiastically. After deeming that we have established sufficient rapport for me to ask a question that otherwise he might have found uncomfortable, I asked him to give me his personal estimate or statistics of the number of detentions happening in the area daily or weekly, or monthly, whichever he preferred. “Detentions rise in December. It’s all I can say,” he retorted. “How many, any specifics?” I insisted. I wanted numbers, but he ducked the question. “Many,” he said acerbically and charged out of the restaurant.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire: looking at doña Delfina’s ways, I identified her as the one who would lead me to the crux of the matter. And also, I didn’t fail to notice her teeth – strong, as if made of stone. I remembered a verse by my beloved poet, Ramón López Velarde, who regularly lends my mind a helping hand: “Take care of your teeth, an assembly of hailstones, a procession / of foam, an everlasting treasure trove of a mine.” (There were reasons for the perfunctory laudations of the gorditas, which, by the way, are incomparably good).  Doña Delfina’s restaurant was—and still is—at the center of one of the biggest migratory routes on the continent, located exactly midway between the most important immigration checkpoint in the area and the Border Patrol station. Therefore, being in Delfina’s Restaurant gave me an ample spectrum to consider when thinking of migration, from ancient times until today, as a real threat to rich countries – and that is, without including the diverse ideological orientations which a strongly politicized individual may or may not use when elaborating a discourse that either justifies it or condemns it.  Basically, humans are animals that migrate, animals in constant flight. And migration —regulations, necessary immigration permits and legalities notwithstanding— always takes after the social phenomena that spur it. It bears remembering that poverty in Latin America hasn’t decreased while the minimum wage hasn’t increased either.  Who, then, will harvest the crops from fields in the United States, under the brutal sun, rays coming down like spears? Why leave behind home, family, children, pregnant girlfriends, beautiful wives or the thundering cobs of the corn harvest?

I was right. Doña Delfina had witnessed countless episodes involving immigrants. I prompted her to recount an incident, either a recent one or the one that affected her the most perhaps due to its brutality. I take these stories as teachings, since such undertakings put lives on the line, and—when examined closely—allow us to learn about the art of survival, as well as about the worldview and values of the migrating subject who moves from one place to another for whatever reasons.

“Six men came in, very badly dressed, with tangled hair. Two had their trousers torn, who knows whether by thorns or barbed wire. They were from Mexico and Central America. They told me they hadn’t eaten anything for days. They sat, and made it clear they had no money to pay. I told them not to worry, I would serve them all the food they wanted. They devoured everything I laid on the table, ravenously. After a while, when they were full, they filled up their water bottles, thanked me, and went back to the hills. Two months ago, I was fooled by appearances. Four well-dressed young people came in, two women and two men. They sat right there, at the back. I noticed that they were somewhat nervous, but little by little they started to relax. One of the men had long hair, held in a pony tail. The women were wearing dresses, as if going to a dance; the men had on dark suits with no ties. I thought that they were going to a school event or to one of the quinceañera parties that are so frequent in the Mexican community. The young man with the pony tail was constantly looking out the window while the rest were trying to entertain themselves with their phones. They were waiting for someone. I approached them to hand out the menu and ask if they wanted something to drink.” Doña Delfina’s recounting had the unmistakable tone of a biblical story, somewhat stern, since the narrator already knows what is about to happen. “The young man with the pony tail went to the restroom, took a long time there, and came out because one of the girls called out his name when she saw that the immigration agents were coming. They took them all in. I would have never imagined that they were illegals. They were waiting for someone, but whoever it was, didn’t come in time to pick them up.”

I told her that in Van Horn I had seen up close what seemed to be the detention of a whole family. Doña Delfina’s description of the minivan with Kansas plates and its passengers matched the people I saw being rounded up at the McDonald’s parking lot. She told me that they had eaten breakfast the same morning at her restaurant, but they were only three people—the mother carrying the baby and two more men. The story became clear.

The 68 boxes of food bought by Jones, the border patrol agent, revealed another underwhelming landscape as part of the scarce bucolic charm of Sierra Blanca. According to doña Delfina, this meant that the previous night the border patrol had detained that number of children. With a rural aristocracy only preoccupied with its horses and cows and served by hyperactive workers, with vulcanizers working at full capacity, with members of said aristocracy already starting to fill the restaurant, with its peaceful appearance, Sierra Blanca had nothing going on. Many things occurred without being seen.

Children’s crossing weren’t frequent in such a hostile environment where temperatures could drop drastically at night in any season and especially in winter, or could skyrocket during the day reaching furnace-like heat in spring and summer. Reaching Sierra Blanca could be an unbearable challenge for anyone, but especially for children with their somewhat lower resistance. They would not only have to go around the checkpoint, fenced off by tall calcareous mountains and surrounded by giant cacti brimming with venomous reptiles, they would, most importantly, have to enter an area guarded by police dogs and infrared surveillance cameras.

Bringing the car to a full stop is compulsory so that the immigration agent can have a notion of the immigration status of the driver and his or her companions, if any. Furthermore, supported by high-end technology, the agents constantly patrol the long perimeter that covers many total kilometers. Reaching Sierra Blanca, then, means that you have made it, that the only thing left is to become invisible so that no one can catch you. Doña Delfina heard from another agent that a girl of barely five ended up in the detention center, unaccompanied by an adult, carrying in the pocket of her pants a piece of paper with a short message to call the number written on it in case something serious happened to the child. It took the agents three months to track down the girl’s relatives. During that time, doña Delfina told me, the girl without a name had many godparents (the agents themselves) who frequently bought her gifts and fed her hot meals every day.

Doña Delfina asked me if I were a journalist like the ones that have been coming to town lately, some from New York, others from Los Angeles and Chicago. Even more, she told me, they were expecting a visit from Mark Wahlberg, an actor and action-film director, who would come to shoot heart-stopping scenes near the Hueco Tanks State Park (a good reason to return to this area), which was not too far away from where we were. I told her that I worked for a University in Texas, and that based on all that I had seen and heard, I would try to write down my impressions of the place and its related matters. As we were saying our goodbyes, I complimented doña Delfina on her talent for cooking. By now, the gorditas were a thing of the past and I had to return to the road that would take me to El Paso, now converted to highway I-10, the same that Jack Kerouac rode on his powerful Cadillac next to his friends, the scandalous Beatniks. Before waiving doña Delfina my final farewell, on my way to the exit, I told her that when I next visit her establishment I would give myself time to look for and see with my own eyes the shortcuts and paths carved by the continental migration of human beings who by instinct look for their own North. In meaning, these paths could well be the equivalent of the pictographs (hands, aquatic animals, reptiles, abstract drawings) on the rocks in Hueco Tanks, the palpable evidence that humans are not static beings, that they always leave traces.

Leaning against the wall of the restaurant, like a person who was there only to watch the motorized traffic go by, a man wearing a hat asked me in wavering Spanish, while I was trying to open the door of the car, if I were interested to visit all the paths which the “wetbacks” use for their crossings. I came closer in order to have a better dialogue: the distance and the wind were preventing me from hearing clearly what he was saying. It would have been embarrassing to clarify to the good ol’ cowboy that, all in all, the moniker that he used for an undocumented person or an illegal immigrant could backfire on him, because first he didn’t take into consideration who we were, and last this country or any other could accept the immigrant and send to the trash bin any stupid idea of superiority. But all this was a futile impulse.

After the hand contact, he proceeded to tell me that he had heard from a nearby table my conversation with doña Delfina. That’s why he was offering his services as a guide to lead me to the passage paths in exchange for a pre-payment of $50. He immediately added that he charged it as an hourly rate. I assumed there was a specific reason having to do with customs and traditions of the First Nations that he avoided telling me his own name and introduced himself instead as Wolf, just Wolf, and not by a nickname that would fit like a glove an experienced coyote or someone with pretentions of being one.  My name sounded homely to him because an uncle of his was called the same (what a load of crap!). Anyway, to soothe a bit the sting of this accidental conversation I told him that wolves were also “wetbacks,” just like the people crossing nearby, because wolves are by nature nomadic, and go out to seek food in the places that are most convenient to them.

Wolf belonged to the Tigua tribe, at least that’s what he told me, a peaceful and hard-working people. No one could doubt that. His persistent smile and the strong stench of alcohol he emanated, like a rotten orange, reminded me of the character of the snitch who appears in certain movies that reflect extreme political contexts, and who —to satisfy poetic justice— always ends up being found out, betrayed by something like that insufferable smirk that tends to veil the cowards and the bootlickers.

I told him that I wasn’t in the mood to negotiate, because his rate was a mentada de madre. To make him believe I had fallen for the scam, I suggested that he accept to be a guide for $30 an hour, and not his usual rate. He suggested that I wait another hour; from a strategic position we could see people running (he avoided using the word “wetback”), crouching behind wagons and shrubs. The next train was about to go through town and the Border Patrol agents were to change shifts. I replied that it wasn’t possible for me to do it this time, but that I would seek him out for sure when I return.

I got into the car. I was eager to leave and get to El Paso. Actually, not exactly to reach El Paso, a city also molded by the wild, and not more attractive than Ciudad Juarez on the other side, where Mexico begins. Wolf lifted his hand, letting me know that he wanted to tell me something. I lowered the window to hear him out.

“What is mentada de madre?”

“I am surprised that you don’t know what it means, Wolf,” I told him, “since your Spanish is better than what you pretend when you speak.”

“No, really, tell me what is mentada de madre.”

Mentada de madre is a motherfucker’s racket, Wolf.”

And I stepped on the accelerator.

Translated by María Akravoba

Languages

Elena Poniatowska in LALT
Number 11

In the eleventh issue of Latin American Literature Today, we highlight one of the essential voices of Mexican letters, Elena Poniatowska, and we pay homage to the towering literary figure of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. We also highlight literary journalism from Venezuela and Mexico, indigenous literature in the Maya languages of Guatemala, poems by renowned Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, and exclusive previews of upcoming books in translation from Silvina Ocampo, Johanny Vázquez Paz, and Sergio Chejfec. 

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elena Poniatowska

Dossier: Enrique Lihn

Essays

Interviews

Chronicle

Indigenous Literature

Fiction

Brazilian Literature

Poetry

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene