by Lilia Hine
They left Sonora on a cold morning, the desert landscape watching over them. The hills were adorned by a forest of saguaros and the wide valleys were covered by a blanket of white flowers. Each flower had a bright yellow center that mesmerized Maria as she daydreamed about the possibilities and opportunities ahead of them.
She let her daughter Paola roll the window down. She knew once they got closer to the border there would be many restrictions. Maria felt the breeze on her face and her eight year old’s hair brush softly on her cheek, long black hair flying freely with the wind. Maria didn’t have time to braid it this morning. They had left at dawn and the anticipation was too much for either of them to care about their appearance.
Maria had wanted to leave months before, she was looking forward to a new life for them, but the coyote said they were better off traveling in the fall. During the hot months the Sonoran desert was dangerous. It would swallow people up and spit them out in hell.
“You can’t travel in June, especially if you’re pregnant,” said the coyote, staring down at her belly. “I’m not,” said Maria with a nervous smile. She knew admitting it would mean an increase in price she couldn’t afford. She tried her best to suck in her growing belly and hide it under a baggy t-shirt.
Maria’s brother did the negotiations for her. All she had to do was gather part of the money and follow the coyote’s directions. By now she was seven months pregnant and felt this was her last chance to go before having the baby. She packed their things, a change of clothes for her and her daughter and their old toothbrushes. Paola grabbed her hairbrush “Remember mom, this is the one I like. You don’t pull my hair with this one.”
Maria took the brush and placed it in the small bag. “This is it. We can’t take anything else”. There were no pictures or items with sentimental value, and even if there were, they weren’t allowed to take them. She was given packing instructions by the coyote “Only the essentials, this isn’t a luxury tour.”
Maria looked around the small room. It pained her to leave her things behind. She didn’t have much, an incomplete set of plates, an old mattress, a worn out dining table. Items insignificant to many people, but they were her only possessions. This is what dying must be like, you leave everything as is, you take your memories, good or bad, nothing matters anymore.
Maria leaned on her daughter’s head running her fingers through her hair. Paola was a small child for her age. Her short legs barely touched the car’s floor and Maria felt a punch of guilt for doing this to her. She was taking her innocent girl away from all she knew. It was like cutting a flower and putting it on a vase expecting it to bloom. But she reminded herself that she would be there. She would always be there for Paola, her baby girl.
They arrived at their first destination at dusk and walked into a room that looked like the jail cells they had seen in movies. There were old mattresses on the floor and Maria could tell they weren’t the first ones to sleep there. Colorful drawings and obscene writings covered the walls. Paola couldn’t help to admire some of the “art.” She was amused by the situation, excited about their adventure but she held Maria’s hand tightly. Her mother’s hands were rough. Paola could feel the calluses that were a result of hours of work cleaning houses to gather the money they needed for this trip.
Several men were leaning on the wall waiting to be assigned a bed. They weren’t friendly. No one wanted to reveal too much about themselves. Maria observed the other travelers. Only one other woman was there. She was holding a bag tightly and staring at the wall. Her face was sunburnt. The redness of her cheeks looked painful, but not as painful as the expression on her face. Two young men spoke with an accent, their thin bodies and sunken eyes revealed the hardship of their journey. Next to them was a man covered with tattoos. His eyes were red and he couldn’t stop moving. Maria heard him say that this was his third attempt to go back after being deported. “They don’t like you when you’ve been in jail,” he said, laughing to an older man standing next to him.
Maria shook her head trying to erase the horror stories from her mind. Women raped multiple times by different men during the trip and children disappearing for days enduring hunger and abuse. For the first time in her life she was thankful for not being attractive. No one had ever told her she was pretty, not even the father of her children. She was short and had been overweight most of her life, her round face hid her small eyes and her nose was crooked from a fall she had as a child. Appreciating her round body and less than perfect facial features, she walked towards the first mattress by the door and sat down.
A coyote came in and started counting the people in the room. “Ok, listen up. We will be leaving early tomorrow and you will be going in the boxes in twos. Whatever you brought will be returned to you after you cross the border”.
Maria wasn’t overly concerned about her belongings. Her bra held the little cash she had and she hoped it would be enough for them to survive a couple of days before meeting her brother in Sacramento.
“Your daughter will have to stay in Tijuana. We don’t allow children to travel with their mothers across the border. They get too noisy.” Maria stared back at the coyote in terror. No one had told her she had to go without her daughter.
“I’m not going without her. I rather go back and die of hunger if I have to, but I’m not leaving my daughter.”
The coyote rolled his eyes. Without saying a word he took his cell phone out then dialed and handed it to Maria.
“Hello?” Maria said.
“Who is this?” asked a male voice.
“Pedro, it’s me Maria,” her voice shaking. “They want me to leave Paola here.” Having her brother on the line calmed her down enough to listen to what he had to say.
“Maria, we already paid him half the amount. Are you willing to lose $3,500?” He reminded her of all the work they had done to save the money. “I’ve worked for years to save up and you promised you would pay me back when you got here.”
Feeling an ache in her stomach that she never felt before, she looked at her daughter and without really meaning it she said, “Ok” and hung up the phone.
With tears Maria looked at her daughter. It wasn’t just pain she felt, it was panic too. She hated the life she had been born into. She looked out the window and saw the Palo Verde trees. They reminded her of her childhood. She and her sisters had played for hours under their shade. Maria was the youngest of four and she had vague memories of her father forcing the oldest daughters to have sex with him while their mother was gone. She always tried to take those images out of her memory, to think of them as bad dreams, but deep down she knew it was true. Her oldest sister left their house one day and never came back. Later someone told her she was working as a whore in a neighboring town. Her mother always pretended everything was all right. No one was allowed to talk badly about their father.
“Are you going or not?” asked the coyote.
“It’s okay mama, I’ll go by myself,” said Paola pressing her head on Maria’s belly and putting her lips on it to kiss the baby.
Neither slept that night. They just held each other and prayed that they would make it to their destination safely.
The next morning the adults were instructed to put their belongings on the back of a pick-up truck. They were asked to take their shoes off and remove any items or jewelry that could set off the metal detectors at the border.
“Guard dogs are often used by the border patrol so refrain from wearing cologne or perfumes that could attract the dogs’ attention,” warned the coyote.
The travelers were shown a group of coffin-like boxes made of wood.
“These are the boxes I told you about. Once you’re in them, we will drill the tops with screws to make them look part of the armoires that we are “exporting” to the US.” The coyote’s tone was very serious.
Maria was assigned to go with one of the young men she had seen the night before. She found out he was from Guatemala and had traveled for months before making it to Tijuana. He and his friend were robbed as they crossed the Mexico border and they had to stay and work to gather more money to continue their journey.
She slowly took her shoes off and looked at Paola who was standing on the porch of the small house.
“Come Paola, come say goodbye” Maria opened her arms and Paola ran to her.
There were no tears, only sadness and fear.
Their embrace was interrupted by the screams of an old man. He refused to get in the box and insisted no one told him this was the way he would cross the border.
“I’m claustrophobic,” he said.
He couldn’t bear the idea of being trapped in a confined space during a trip that could last hours.
Maria didn’t let anything distract her from her goal to get to the other side. She had to be strong. It wasn’t just her now. Her children depended on her.
She got in the box facing one side, while her companion faced the other. Her pregnant belly flopped to the side hitting her companion.
“I’m sorry,” her face flushed with embarrassment.
The noise of the screws being drilled in prevented the man from saying anything. Even if he did, Maria wouldn’t be able to hear him. They were both terrified.
“We’re going to die” were the last words Maria heard him say. She closed her eyes and laid in the darkness rubbing her belly and hoping for the best.
Paola watched the coyote and his helpers put the boxes in each armoire and load them in an oversized truck. They told her she would go with the luggage on the other truck.
“We need to make sure you remain still the whole time. Remember one sound, one movement can ruin everything.” The coyote warned Paola. She knew how serious these words were, even at her young age Paola understood the implications of being caught crossing the border illegally.
Staying still wouldn’t be hard for her. The box was so small she could barely fit in it. As she struggled to take a deep breath through the small orifice on the side of the wooden box, she thought of her mother. All she wanted at this moment was to be in her arms.
“I’m so thirsty,” Paola’s voice was so low she could barely hear herself. They hadn’t allowed her to drink anything before the trip. It was dark and she was scared. The coyote had given her several doses of sleeping pills to make her go to sleep. She was trying to stay awake, but the sleeping pills were starting to work.
Suddenly the truck came to a stop. She shut her eyes tightly, just like she did when she was little, playing the game of hide and seek. If I can’t see them, they can’t see me. She heard the door of the truck open and then the sound of the drill taking off the screws of the box. She remained still, her eyes tightly shut, her heart about to jump out of her chest. She didn’t know how she could be so afraid and still be alive.
She felt the fresh air on her forehead and slowly opened her eyes to see a man looking down at her. “Get up Paola, we’re here.”
The sunlight blinded her. At first she saw only shadows and desperately searched for a familiar face. She didn’t recognize his voice. As she sat up to get out of the wooden box, she realized her underwear was wet, she didn’t know how it happened. She felt a wave of shame go through her, and although it was starting to get cold outside, she was hot and sweaty. She sat for a moment and looked around.
“What are you waiting for, get out!” shouted the man. She gathered the courage to stand up and another man lifted her out and set her on the pavement. “Go inside, they’ll give you something to eat”. She looked back at him wanting to say that this was not right. She was supposed to be with her mom, where was she? Why wasn’t her mom waiting for her? But her words were lost somewhere in the Sonoran Desert with all her memories.
She walked into the house. It smelled like food and sweat and pee, but she wasn’t sure if the smell was coming from her or the place. A woman resembling a grandmother came out of the tiny kitchen. Gray curls framed her wrinkled face and she had glasses that barely hung from her pointy nose. Looking at Paola over her glasses, she asked her how the trip was. Paola just nodded, afraid that saying something would upset the men who brought her here.
“Come in, I made pozole today,” said the old woman. Pozole wasn’t her favorite, and the sleeping pills had made her lightheaded and nauseous. She didn’t feel like eating, but she slowly walked to the table and sat down. The tablecloth was plastic with colorful designs of fruits and vegetables. “Azul, Blue, Rojo, Red.” Her uncle had taught her some English words when he visited and she was proud she still remembered all of her colors.
“Eat! You’re wasting my time!” yelled the woman. The child was startled and scared. She picked up the spoon as the woman left the kitchen and started yelling to the men in English. Paola wished she could understand what she was saying. The men yelled back and they all broke into a big laugh.
When Paola was done, she got up and took her plate to the sink just as her mother had taught her. No one was around and she needed to go to the bathroom. Slowly she walked out of the kitchen and looked around. The house was bigger than the one she grew up in. She saw a toilet at the end of the hall and walked towards it. Her stomach hurt. She was so nervous and scared she barely made it. She sat there for a long time staring at her vomit.
“What are you doing in there, what is taking so long?” The woman was back and the knocks on the door were loud. Paola opened the door as fast as she could, her brown eyes swelling with tears. Paola noticed the woman’s pink fingernails matched the dress under her stained apron. She had always liked nail polish, the brighter the better, but her mother wasn’t that kind of person. She didn’t like nail polish, elegant clothes or fancy hairstyles. At eight years old, Paola was a big fan of all three.
The woman looked at her and almost felt sorry for the little girl, but she had decided long ago not to get attached to any of the people going through her house. How they got there or their motivation to come was not her business. As long as she got paid for her services, she did not really care what happened to the travelers after this stop.
She pointed to a door and said, “This will be your bedroom.” Paola looked at her and finally said, “But, my mom….” The woman didn’t say anything. She flipped the light switch on turned around and walked to the front of the house. The room was cold and the smell of it reminded Paola of dirty socks. There was a small bed with a single pillow and a green blanket. The walls were bare. No pictures or anything that could tell her about the people who lived there. Next to the bed was a small table with an ashtray full of cigarette butts. The smell was almost unbearable to her. She covered her nose and gagged, but stopped herself. She didn’t want to vomit again. Her stomach still hurt and she had a headache. She pulled her t-shirt over her nose and closed her eyes for a moment trying to get used to the stench.
Paola looked around and finally sat on the bed not knowing what to do. Her mom had given her a little stamp that she was carrying in her pocket. She took it out and begun to pray. Her mom had said it was Saint Christopher, the patron of travelers and that he would protect them in this and all of their journeys. She was exhausted but didn’t close her eyes. She couldn’t. She needed to stay awake because her mom could come anytime. “Stay awake and wait for her.” She kept repeating the words. She stared at the wall and tried to remember the prayer her mother taught her. Every Sunday they went to church, even when it was really hot. Her mother had a fan and she loved to sit next to her and feel the air on her face as the background noise of church made her sleepy. She slowly drifted away in the peace she felt remembering her mom. Oh how she missed her! And holding as tight as she could to the stamp, she fell asleep.
Paola woke up and quickly realized she was still at the house. It was the same stinky, bare room. She had hoped it was a bad dream. But her mom hadn’t come and she didn’t know what would happen. “If you want to eat breakfast you better get in here now,” said the old woman, looking less like a grandmother and more like an evil witch. Wrinkled cheeks covered in brown spots. She was wearing a long robe and was barefoot. Her toenails were long and yellow.
“When am I going to see my mom?” asked Paola, looking down at the dirty floor. She wanted to cry but wasn’t sure she was sad or scared or mad. It was something she had never felt before.
“You will, but not yet. We’re waiting for more people and then all of you will be taken to Los Angeles, where your mom is.”
Paola wasn’t sure what to say. She just closed her eyes and remembered her mother’s words “Your life will change. It will be full of possibilities and opportunities. You won’t have to struggle like I did. You will have choices.”
Right now her only choice was to believe her mother’s words.
Lilia Hine is a Creative Writing Student at Santa Barbara City College. Before becoming a wife and a mother of two, she earned an MBA and worked in the High Tech industry for a decade. She was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States twenty years ago.