An American Education
No fiction could be more false, or more dangerous
The customs officer beckoned me forward with a distracted wave of her gloved hand. I stepped into the inspection booth and greeted her with the smile of a traveling salesman.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” I said. “Glad to visit again.”
The key was to strike the right tone, neither reticent nor forward. I rarely encountered problems at the airport, but over the previous months the Trump Administration had formed a task force to identify naturalized citizens eligible for deportation, announced that it would no longer allow foreigners who enrolled in Medicaid to obtain green cards, and repeatedly refused to issue passports to citizens of perceived Latino descent. It had also begun to imprison children in concentration camps, though this last news item was so insane that it was hard not to pretend the concentration camps were not concentration camps and the children were not children.
The incredible, in other words, had invaded the realm of the possible, such that the contours of the future had become nebulous. None of the foreigners I knew in America knew what to think or feel, much less what to say or how to say it. I had a good lawyer and nothing to hide, but was I sure that I had met the criteria for filing my taxes as a nonresident alien?
Had I checked that the lady from the Office for International Students and Scholars initialed the document that authorized me to teach two different courses instead of two sections of the same course?
And what about that time in New York when I’d let a friend borrow my phone to text his dealer? That had been years ago, true, but who was to say that the hardworking prosecutors of the proud borough of Brooklyn might not yet conclude that the only surefire way to combat the scurrilous accusations that they focused their not-inconsiderable resources on poor people of color would be to make an example of the handful of bougie twentysomethings who had been foolish enough to do business with a moonlighting bike messenger who called himself “the Cheesemonger”?
That my fears were ridiculous did not make them any less terrifying. My foreigner’s anxiety, as I had come to call it, was a complex and mortifying version of the irrational suspicion that assaulted me once or twice every month as I crossed the main quad of the University of Iowa on my way to teach: I would become convinced that I had left the Bialetti on the stove, and that the stove was on, and that it was only a matter of time before the pressure in the coffee pot’s inner chamber reached the point of no return, transforming the charming espresso maker into an improvised explosive device. I would then run back to the apartment, ready to find the place covered in shrapnel and coffee grounds, only to discover the pot in the sink.
The officer held out her hand and I placed my passport between her fingers, shivering at the surgical touch of her latex gloves. I hoped that she’d notice how I’d made things easier for her by bookmarking the page that held my visa with my Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, but she began entering my details into her computer without so much as looking at me. Minutes passed. I grew nervous. She still hadn’t said anything. Was something wrong? No, I was overinterpreting. Her gestures, unlike mine, were not the product of careful consideration. She seemed angry, sure, but the logical conclusion wasn’t that she’d decided to punish me for some inadvertent violation. It was far more likely that she had a headache or credit card bills or a pending divorce.
“Is everything all right?” I finally caved.
The officer looked up from her computer and into my eyes and I realized that my question contained its answer. “I’m confused,” she said. “You go to school in Iowa, right?”
“That’s correct,” I replied.
“So why did you fly into San Francisco?”
“To visit my girlfriend’s parents.”
“And where do they live?”
“But you’re flying to Burbank tonight?”
“Yes, we — ”
“But you said you were staying in Oakland.”
“Yes, but we — ”
“My girlfriend and I.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s an American citizen, so — ”
“So you are visiting her family? Have you met them before? What do her parents do in Oakland?”
“Yeah, she’s a printmaker and he’s a — ”
“And why are you going to Burbank?”
“For a wedding.”
“And how long are you staying in Oakland?”
“Ten days, I think?”
“Well, I — ”
“And when do you plan to get back to Iowa?”
“In a month or so, haven’t quite deci — ”
“You said you were staying in Oakland for ten days.”
“We’re going to Providence for a few weeks after that.”
“What are you doing in Rhode Island?”
“Spending time with my girlfriend.”
“Doesn’t she live in Oakland?
“No, that’s her parents. She — ”
“How long have you known her?”
“About a year.”
“Don’t you know your anniversary?”
“Well, it’s complicated, we — ”
“Where did you meet?”
“We crossed paths in college but didn’t really know each other until grad school.”
“But she lives in Rhode Island?”
“She’s going to school there. We met when she was deci — ”
“And now you are going to Oakland to meet her parents?”
“But you have a ticket to Burbank.”
“Yes, but — ”
“When was the last time you entered the US on your current visa?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You are not sure?”
“January. Probably January.”
The officer flipped through my passport, then picked up the phone on her desk. “Hi there,” she said into the receiver. “I’ve got an F-1 with an I-20 from the University of Iowa. Says school starts in August but wants to spend time in Rhode Island with a long-distance girlfriend. Has a boarding pass for a flight to Burbank but gave an Emeryville address. Says he was last admitted in January but has no current-year stamps. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Thanks.”
She looked at me and let out a sigh, and I felt the odd calm that arrives when the worst-case scenario comes to pass.
The officer exited her booth and gestured for me to follow her down a corridor that stank of disinfectant but looked like it had never been cleaned. She walked slowly, as if she were a nurse taking a terminal patient on a walk around the oncology floor. I wondered whether she was trying to maximize her time away from the inspection booth or was simply so alienated from her work that every step she took in the performance of her duties struck her as a small affront.
I thought of the flight I had to catch and of my girlfriend, who had already gone through customs and was waiting for me. I took out my cell phone to let her know what had happened — but the immigration officer turned to face me and stopped dead in her tracks.
I looked up and saw that her expression had changed from a mixture of boredom and irritation to genuine anger, as if she had discovered her terminal patient sneaking a cigarette in the bathroom.
“Put that away!” she said. “Didn’t you see the signs?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just wanted to — ”
“Cell phone use is strictly prohibited in this area!”
I nodded and put the phone away. I wondered whether I should apologize, say it wouldn’t happen again, beg her to call my girlfriend’s name on the loudspeaker, demand to see a consular official, or just keep my mouth shut. Before I could make up my mind, she shook her head and turned around and kept walking, slower than ever.
Others stared at the map that covered one of the walls. Or at the turned-off television that hung on another. Or at the scowling portrait of the American President.Tweet
After some time we arrived at a white waiting room that made me think of a bus station in the middle of the desert or a hospital at the end of the world. There were no windows, but the space was bright with the blue glow of overhead fluorescent tubes.
“Take a seat,” the officer said, pointing to the rows of plastic chairs. “They’ll call you when they’re ready.”
She walked to the far end of the room, where five other officers sat behind a long desk, typing on aging computers. She hung my documents on a rack filled with identical red folders and left without saying a word. I closed my eyes. The calm I’d felt earlier turned to nausea. Of course I had no stamps from that year. I’d flown back for New Year’s Eve — the last night of December.
I looked around. I counted five Homeland Security officers and twenty-seven foreigners. Among the latter I saw:
A young man with platinum hair, wearing the jersey of Mexico’s national soccer team.
A man and woman with five small children and seven large suitcases.
A pale teenager listening to house music on oversize headphones.
A hijabi in her twenties.
A young woman from East Asia dozing on a young man’s shoulder.
An elderly African man in a three-piece suit.
A Central American mother with an infant child.
Some chewed gum, tapped their feet, gnawed at their nails, caressed rosaries. Others stared at the map that covered one of the walls. Or at the turned-off television that hung on another. Or at the scowling portrait of the American President. Or at the sign that prohibited eating, drinking, smoking, and the use of cell phones and other electronic devices. Others still held their heads in their hands. Nobody spoke. The only sounds were the soft hum of the air conditioning, the crackle of a flickering light, and the patter of keystrokes of an imperial bureaucracy following orders.
I sat in silence for what felt like hours, trying to decide whether the feeling that I was about to have a heart attack was evidence of my fragility or an adequate response to the times. I looked at the clock, but it was broken. I glanced at the sign that prohibited cell phones, then at the officers, then at the sign again. I had lost track of time, and this simple fact, the not knowing, filled me with indignation. I wasn’t a citizen, or even a resident alien, but I was a teaching assistant in the English department of a large public university in the Middle West, and while the immigration status that came with that appointment did not allow me to sell a book or freelance for magazines or even assist in the teaching of literature without first taking a language proficiency test, it did in fact grant me the right to spend the summer vacation wherever I damn pleased. And so I took out my cell phone, making no effort to hide it, ready to be sent back to my country for defending my right to know the time. And then I saw the digital clock on the home screen and realized that I had been in the detention room for less than an hour. Suddenly I felt ashamed. Perhaps it wasn’t altogether unreasonable to double-check a foreigner’s papers.
I waited. Eventually, I realized that I needed to piss. Ignorant of the protocol, I reverted to Catholic school and raised my hand. One of the officers jerked his head in the direction of a hallway that opened on the back of the room. I nodded in thanks and headed down the corridor, trying not to think about what took place behind the unmarked doors that I passed. When I reached a single-stall bathroom and discovered with relief that the lock worked, I urinated leisurely, relishing every second of privacy. I washed my hands and replied to my girlfriend’s messages of concern, telling her that she shouldn’t worry, but also that she should probably start looking for alternate flights.
I headed back to the waiting room, hurrying past the unmarked doors. At the end of the hallway, I noticed a poster that I hadn’t registered earlier. The photograph that covered the top half depicted a person of uncertain gender and age. They sat on a bare concrete floor with their back against a bare concrete wall, holding their knees against their chest and projecting a long shadow at an oblique angle, as if someone were shining a searchlight on them. Overlaid on the image, in large white letters, was written:
keep detention safe
cbp has zero tolerance for sexual abuse & assault
Break the silence
Be safe and get help
At first I almost laughed. The link between the wall in the poster and the one in all the President’s speeches was too obvious to be coincidental. In place of Lady Liberty and her nursery rhyme, the waiting rooms of America were presided over by a symbol of the violent emotions that animate imperialism: the sadistic need to conquer, to claim, to break and bend, to GRAB the huddled masses BY THE PUSSY and send them THE HELL back, ANIMALS that they were, to the SHITHOLE COUNTRIES from whence they came, where they could be paid less to produce raw materials for the manufacture of American fetishes, which they would then be expected to buy at prices inflated by tariffs.
But then I felt a wave of dark green vertigo. The poster, I realized, was not just a caution but a threat. One was supposed to see it and tremble with the knowledge that this sort of thing happened in this sort of place, that the bureaucracy of the homeland reserved the right to bring any and all foreigners to a disinfected place where the clocks didn’t work and terrible things happened, that by crossing the border one tacitly accepted the risk of witnessing or suffering sexual abuse & assault.
I walked back to the waiting room in a daze. I tried to think of anything else, but all I could see were their faces. I found myself reconstructing their story from memory — the things they had told me and the things that had been left unsaid. They had been 16 at the time. Brother and sister. I was not yet 24. I had met them because my editors wanted a story about education. There had been no photographer available, so I took the portraits myself. All but two came out blurry. In one he stares into the distance, his arms resting on the handlebars of his diminutive bicycle, his mouth tense in a disarming attempt at a tough-guy smirk. In the other she sits in a chair, her arms crossed, her lips half-parted in a skeptical smile.
I sat down and tried to remember how long it had been since I saw them. Two, three years? No, I realized, surprised to discover that I was no longer young enough for half a decade to feel like an eternity: it had been five years ago, the year of Ayotzinapa and the second death of Nazario Moreno — and also, though I did not know it yet, the happiest of my life. By then I had been in close proximity to various foci of American power long enough that I had almost forgotten that I was merely a guest in the country. I went through life as a near perfect facsimile of a white American of my gender and class, with the carelessness that comes from knowing that Fitzgerald was lying: the privilege of American whiteness consists in being granted a life with infinite second acts. I was wasting the kindest years that history was likely to offer me wondering whether I was squandering my literary talents in the content mines of digital journalism.
I looked up from my notepad. He was still smiling but his expression now had a certain solemnity. I held my breath. This was the opening.Tweet
In my defense, I was not alone. Most members of the bourgeoisie experience history as they do their heartbeats: they know it’s there but only become aware of its presence when something goes wrong. Neither I nor my peers in the “creative class” of that faux-meritocratic New York understood that the Obama years were precisely that — years, an era among others, a period with a beginning and an end. The time that I spent as one of New York’s half-million aspiring writers was the product of a wild confluence of improbabilities — the financial crisis was over; Facebook’s algorithms began favoring news stories; a vacancy opened in a rent-stabilized building in South Slope; the United States government approved some three hundred thousand work visas — and yet I rode the subway twice a day believing that these coincidences were as unremarkable as the coming of spring after winter.
As it happened, even the seasons were changing, but an observer in possession of so much as a half-developed sense of historical irony wouldn’t have had to turn to the science section of the newspaper to find omens of disaster. In the span of a few months more than fifty thousand Central American children had crossed the southern border of the United States without parents or documents, and while the relatively humane policies of the Obama Administration meant that most of them were soon released to family members, the detention centers that the government built to hold them for days or weeks laid the groundwork for the even greater crimes to come. At the time, however, the press corps did not understand the question of the immigrant children as a test of what America stood for but as a matter of logistics and policy. The “unaccompanied alien children,” as the bureaucracy insisted on calling them, were numerous enough to fill a small city. Now the government, which the more naive among us then still imagined to be capable of benignity, was going to have to feed, clothe, and house them, not to mention provide them with health care and schooling.
Hence the story about education that my editors had asked me to write: The public school districts of the United States were already overcrowded, underfunded, and in general ill-equipped to serve students with complex needs. How, exactly, were they planning to deal with children who had just crossed a desert and a militarized border? The question was clearly newsworthy, but I resented the assignment. I was supposed to be covering the cops; I didn’t know anything about education. My editors replied that most of the children did not speak English and that I, unlike most of my colleagues, spoke Spanish. And so I called the only contact of mine who seemed halfway relevant, a source from my days working for a local paper in college: the Catholic priest who led the Latino parish in New Haven, Connecticut. A Yankee from East Hartford, he spoke Spanish with the accent of a truck driver from Reynosa and the grammar of a fraternity brother on spring break. He pointed me to a small solidarity organization — “either communists or anarchists,” he called them — and for the next few weeks I commuted on the Metro-North to attend the group’s meetings. Eventually, the organizers put me in touch with a man from Guatemala who had recently taken in two relatives, a pair of younger half-siblings who called him Tío.
I met him one bright Sunday morning in August, on the sidewalk outside the priest’s church, where the faithful gathered after mass to buy paletas and to joke and gossip in Spanish and Mayan languages. He was short and broad-shouldered like Chicago; he wore a cachucha and a spotless white shirt with a clip-on collar that was starting to fray. He seemed suspicious, so I tried to reassure him that I could minimize any risk to the kids. After some time he cut me off with a wave of the hand.
“All right,” he said. “But only if they want to.”
He gestured to someone behind me and I turned to see two teenagers running toward us. They were a boy and a girl, both with dark skin, and they wore clothes that struck me as cartoonishly American, like the wardrobe of a television drama set in a suburban high school. The boy shook my hand with enthusiasm, but the girl kept her distance. The man pointed at me and said something in Kaqchikel. The boy nodded. The girl shook her head.
“She doesn’t want to,” the man said.
“That’s totally OK,” I said. Then I turned toward the boy and went on: “Are you hungry?”
“Great,” I said. “Me too. What do you like to eat? Burgers? Chinese?”
“How about pizza? They have great pizza in this town.”
I called us a taxi and we headed to the brick-oven joint on the corner of Elm and Howe, down the block from a building where I had lived in college. I ordered a large pie with sausage and peppers, brought it to one of the tables near the window, and sat across from the boy. I’d known him for less than an hour, but I had already scribbled down the handful of details that I would later use to characterize him at the top of my article: he laughed loud and often, he spoke an elegant Spanish full of archaic constructions and biblical inflections, and he wore his thick black hair in the vaguely punk style popular with Latin American soccer players—short spikes fixed in place with an ungodly amount of gel. I liked him already, and not just because he was almost certainly going to prove a great subject for a profile.
“So, you’re starting high school soon, huh?” I asked. “Have you met any of the teachers? Do any of them speak Spanish?”
He’d just bitten into a slice of pizza, so he simply shook his head for an answer. “But I did meet this chapín who’s gonna go to the same school,” he said in Spanish after he swallowed. “He lives next door to my tío. He’s cabal, a real cool dude. He demonstrated to me this band who call themselves Sepultura. They’re from Brazil and they’re bien chileros. Have you heard them?”
“Yeah, man, Sepultura,” I said. “Total classic. But tell me, have they made you take tests to see what classes you should take?”
“He demonstrated to me many things, el chapín aquel,” the boy went on. “Like the parkour. Do you know about the parkour? It’s when you run around the city but instead of running on the street you run on the azoteas, pues, like a caco running from the chontas or a superhero chasing a supervillain.”
“Right,” I said. “But are you nervous about studying in English? And what’s it like hanging with American kids?”
“No, pues, they’re real good people,” he said. “There’s many guatemaltecos and hondureños and salvadoreños, pues, and those are real cabalitos. Plus a bunch of mexicanos, gente chilera. And then there’s also boricuas and dominicanos. Sometimes it’s hard with them, ’cause some of them don’t know Castilian, pues. But they are still chidos, gente de calidá. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I think I do,” I said, realizing that for him American meant “US-born Latino” rather than “white person.” “But they get along all right? Even though they’re from different places?”
The boy laughed so hard that soda came out from his nose. “¿Qué si se llevan bien, pues? No, pues, ta buena la preguntita, ¿eh? Yeah, they get along. I mean, sure, some of them are in gangas, pues. But mostly it’s real quiet, you know? Like, we all hang out and do stuff together.”
“Like soccer?” I asked.
“More like BMX,” he said, pronouncing the acronym in English. “You know about BMX?”
“That’s with the tiny bikes, right?”
He burst out laughing again. I smiled and nodded and dutifully wrote down the quote. I reminded myself that I had no right to be frustrated; that he was giving me a gift, that my job was to listen carefully to everything he said, even if none of it made it into the story, because the only thing I could offer him in return for his willingness to speak with me was an occasion to feel that the fact that his neighbor had introduced him to Sepultura and parkour was a small but crucial part of history.
“Esas meras,” he said. “Las bicis chiquitas. My uncle got me one when I got here, you know? As a bienvenida, pues.”
I looked up from my notepad. He was still smiling but his expression now had a certain solemnity. I held my breath. This was the opening. All I had to do was give him a gentle push and I would have my story. But a second passed, then another. I hesitated. The boy was sitting with me because one of the few people he trusted had told him that he could trust me, but I knew better.
In the previous weeks and months I had begun to wonder whether my profession, for all its insistence on the value of facts, was not in the last instance dependent on dishonesty. If I pretended to care about the boy’s discovery of parkour and death metal, it was because I hoped that my kindness would lull him into feeling comfortable enough to tell me about the most painful moments of his life. I had told him and his guardian that I intended to write an article based on our conversations, but my disclosure, though accurate in a strict sense, obscured the nature of my intentions. What I should have said was that I intended to repackage the boy’s trauma into a digestible narrative I hoped would capture the attention of some hundred thousand internet users, who would then surrender valuable information about themselves to one or another technology baron, who would then reward the website for which I worked with a better starting position in the algorithmic rat race, which would allow the website’s owners to convince a handful of investors to keep funding the company, which in turn would allow my editors to pay me a salary, earn me accolades, and, eventually, if all went well, convince the US government that I deserved to live and work in this country. The boy was for me not an end but a means, and lately thoughts of that nature had been bothering me often enough that I wondered whether I shouldn’t do something else with my life.
I was about to tell him that there was no need to relive difficult things, that maybe I could come back next week with a videographer and shoot some footage of him and his friends doing their best BMX tricks on the wide concrete sidewalk down by the harbor, edit it so they looked like real badasses, set the whole thing to a death metal soundtrack, and try to convince my editors to put that on the website, because that right there would be a story about education—but the boy went on before I could say anything.
“Yeah,” he said. “It was real nice of him, pues. Regalarme una bici después de tanto caminar.”
The boy with spiked hair said he came from the highlands, from a place where the clouds flew close to the ground, the people spoke Kaqchikel, and each family had its own little milpa—a few rows of maize, some beans, a handful of chiles, a lime tree. His father was gone and his mother was sick, so he worked instead of studying, first shining shoes in restaurants, later at a clothing factory. Going north was his mother’s idea, he said. She was worried, and it was easy to imagine her reasons. The older kids. The ones with the guns and the tattoos. The ones who had started following him. They’d see him on his way home from the factory, on the dirt road that led up the hill, and they’d walk up to him, until they were real close behind, and then they’d start saying things. That they had work for him. That they could help him out. That they were like a family. Like that—real friendly. But then when he didn’t say anything back they would start with the questions. Was he for real? Did he really like the factory that much? How much were they paying him? Was he kidding? Was he fucking with them? What, was he a joto? Was he bien puto? Marica? Güicoy? Chupavergas?
They wanted to know, they said, because she was looking tasty. Bien rica la morrita. Bien buenota la chava. Calientahuevos. Casqueadora. Why’d she dress like that if not? Yeah, they’d say, that’s why they wanted to know. Because if it turned out that he wasn’t just a shumo de mierda, but also a puto; if it turned out he wasn’t a real man, un pinche varoncito hecho y derecho, the kind of hidesumadre who has his revolver bien cabalito, always at the ready to defend his viejas and stand up for his kin — then God knows what might happen to such a tasty morrita as his sister.
And so they left, the boy and the girl. They said goodbye to their mother, and they headed north.
At first they rode a burra, then a troca, then La Bestia. They sat on the roof of the train, holding onto the containers with bare hands. The metal got hot in the sun, the boy said. Real hot. Like red coals held to the face.
The train was slow, so there was no breeze.
They fought off gnats, mosquitoes, borrachos, and ladrones.
The heat made them drowsy but they couldn’t sleep because of the babies.
They cried all the time, the babies.
There were dozens of them, tossing in the rebozos of their mothers.
Sometimes the mothers cried too.
The days were long, the boy said, and they only got longer after he and his sister got off the train. They kept inching north, one ghastly town at a time, on trocas and burras and sometimes on foot, eating when they could, almost never sleeping. Along the way they paid off a lot of people. The drivers. The soldiers. The municipal cops. The federal cops. The narcos. The other narcos. The cops who pretended to be narcos. The narcos who pretended to be cops. Everyone offered them protection but also warned them about everyone else, and since the children didn’t know who to watch out for, they started watching out for everyone. Their lives became a whirlwind of safe houses where they didn’t feel safe: crowded motel rooms when they were lucky, warehouses with dirt floors when they were not. After some weeks of this, the boy said, the nights became longer than the days.
At last they made it to the border. They met their guide: a boy with vacant eyes, only a few years older than them, who spoke in monosyllables and clutched a rag soaked in paint thinner, which he held over his nose and mouth like a handkerchief. He made them wait for several days, dizque because of the weather, and then he shook them awake in the middle of the night, telling them to get up and leave everything and follow him. The boy with the rag then brought the Guatemalan children to a parking lot, where a troca loaded to the brim with grown men was waiting. The boy and the girl climbed into the pickup truck, trying to make themselves small enough to fit between the men.
And then they drove into the night.
It was very dark and very quiet, said the boy, like those nights when there’s mass because it’s a feast day and everyone gets out of bed, even though it’s real cold, and then the whole town stands outside the church, holding candles, and every time they breathe you can see their souls.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Like when smoke comes out of the mouth,” the boy said. “Like a cloud. Like mist. Like fog.”
“Oh,” I said. “You mean steam. Water vapor.”
“Yes,” the boy said. “That. Vapor.”
I nodded and wrote down the quote, though I didn’t understand its significance at the time. Later I would realize that, in my obstinate attempts to write a story about the challenges of providing an American education to children who spoke Indigenous languages better than Spanish, I had mistaken poetry for a lack of vocabulary.
The migrants rode the troca for a long time, the boy said, first on the highway and then on a dirt road. The kid with the rag turned off the headlights, so the children could see the stars, different from the ones in Guatemala—and also, lower on the horizon, the soft red glow of the city. After a while, when they were far from the road, the kid parked the truck by a big tree. Everyone got out and started walking single file, deeper and deeper into the desert, until they got to the river, where another kid was waiting with an inflatable raft. The migrants climbed on, trying not to trip in the dark, and then the second kid pushed the raft away from the bank of the river. Everyone be quiet, said the kid with the rag, and everyone listen carefully. When we get to the other side, you run, OK? Fast as you can. Don’t stop until I say stop. Understand?
The boy with the spiked hair nodded and squeezed his sister’s hand. He took a deep breath. He closed his eyes, then opened them, and that was it. They’d done it. They were on the other side.
And then they ran.
They ran for a long time, hours and hours, tripping on jagged rocks, feeling thorns pierce the soles of their shoes and the flesh of their feet, too scared to worry about snakes or consider the pain in their thighs, until the sky went from pitch-black to light gray and they reached a hill with a few low trees, where at last they stopped. The kid with the rag said they should lie down and rest, but the boy with the spiked hair didn’t close his eyes. He was so exhausted that he wasn’t sure if everything that he was seeing was real, but he couldn’t let himself sleep. His sister, he said, was the only girl in the group.
After that point the story became blurry. The boy wasn’t sure how many days he and his sister spent in the desert. He figured it was somewhere between three and five, but it was hard to say—his memory played tricks on him whenever he tried to revisit the last part of the journey. He was pretty sure that he’d stayed awake the whole time, but his sister remembered events that he didn’t, and these unnerving gaps made him wonder what else was missing.
He wanted silence. Besides, that way it’d be faster. All he had to do was keep walking.Tweet
In between the gaps in his memory there was the incident with the airplane. It was small, no larger than a zopilote, too small to carry a person, and it made a noise like a wasp, and it flew real close to the ground, and when the migrants saw it they panicked and ran away in every direction, and the girl and her brother didn’t know what to do so they followed the men who were closest to them, and after running for a while they couldn’t see or hear the zopilote, so they stopped to rest—and then realized that they didn’t know where they were or where the rest of the group had gone.
This part the boy remembered well. They tried calling the kid with the rag and at first they couldn’t find a signal, but the man with the phone kept trying until the call went through. The kid with the rag said that he knew where they were, that he was coming to find them, that he’d be there soon—but hours passed, then a day, and he didn’t show up. By the time they gave up on their guide they’d run out of food and water. One of the men suggested they take their chances walking to the city. Even if they didn’t make it, he said, they might find a ranch or a shed with a faucet, and besides, if they stayed where they were, they wouldn’t last much longer.
And so they walked for another day, trying to orient themselves by the desert sun, and as night began to fall they saw a lake and sighed with relief and ran toward it, but when they got closer they realized the lake was no lake but the river.
It was at that point that the men started talking among themselves. Real quiet. Real suspect. Away from his sister and him. Then one of the men came over and said to the children that he was real sorry, that he wished things were different, that he hoped God would forgive him, but that he and the other men had decided to leave them behind. The children were slowing the group down, he said, and the men had children of their own, and wives and mothers, and fathers, too, and they had to stay alive for them, he said; they owed it to them, he said; they could not afford to die.
By the time the man was done talking, the other men were nowhere to be seen. The man who’d come to talk to the children said sorry one last time, and then he turned around and ran away. For a while the boy ran after him, yelling, begging him to stop, turn around, wait a minute—but he was tired and thirsty and he couldn’t reach him. And so the boy turned around and walked back to his sister and sat next to her, and then the children held each other and shivered and waited in silence for the desert night to be over, listening for coyotes and drones, watching the stars above them begin to turn again.
The next morning they set off walking in what they thought was the direction of the city. After some time they saw in the distance a just-harvested field. The boy and the girl ran to it, knelt in the dirt, dipped their cupped hands into the furrows, and brought the water to their lips, but the liquid tasted of chemicals and burned their mouths.
By the following morning, the boy decided that he’d had enough. He told his sister that they should find the highway and surrender to the migra.
But what if they send us back, the girl said.
Then we try again, the boy said.
But we’ve come so far.
But we won’t get much farther.
You can’t give up, the girl said. The boy didn’t reply. Suddenly he was angry. Of course she wanted to keep going. No wonder she was so full of energy. Tan pinche talisthe. La pinche shuma cochina. She’d gotten to sleep. She didn’t know what he’d gone through. Ishoka mimada. Malagradecida. Chance si no hubiera andado de coqueta. Chance si se hubiera dado a respetar.
Pos como quieras, said the boy. Allá tu.
He turned around and walked away. He didn’t know where he was going. It didn’t matter. As long as it was away from her. That’s all he wanted. Never to see her again. Beyond that he didn’t care. He’d always known but now he saw it real clear: La vida valía verga. That was la puta verdad. Pa’ que decir que no, si sí. But he didn’t want to just sit and wait. Especially because that way maybe she’d find him. And then she’d cry his ear off. Y ni madres que le iba aguantar sus berrinches. Not now. He wanted silence. Besides, that way it’d be faster. All he had to do was keep walking. Straight into la pucha mugrienta de la chingada madre del mundo. But after a while the boy’s anger subsided, and all at once he was sad. He found himself hoping it would come soon and happen quick. Because his feet hurt real bad and his head hurt real bad and his eyes and his guts and his eyes and his guts and his eyes and his eyes and his eyes hurt and they hurt bad real bad they hurt . . .
The boy heard footsteps behind him and turned around to see his sister running toward him. Suddenly he didn’t want to keep going, so he sat down and waited for her. When the girl got closer, the boy realized that she was crying. He stood up and went to meet her. She threw her arms around his neck and clung to him and whispered in his ear over and over again that she was sorry. The boy held her and stroked her hair and tried not to cry and said soothing words until she stopped sobbing. Then they got up and kept walking together.
They found the highway that same night. It had been there all along, said the boy, just behind the hills. They sat by the side of the road and waited until la migra showed up in a troca. The officers gave them water and peanut butter sandwiches, and then they took them to las hieleras.
“And what was that like?” I asked. “By the way, do you want dessert?”
“No, thank you,” the boy replied in English before continuing in Spanish. “But I should get home soon.”
“Of course,” I said. “We don’t want to get you in trouble. But quickly, before we go, can you tell me about las hieleras?”
“Well,” said the boy. “Pa’ que te miento. I don’t really know. It was real cold, that’s for sure. Every bit as cold as people say they are.”
That was all he had to say about his time in detention. He and his sister managed to get in touch with their uncle right away, so Homeland Security let them go after only a few weeks. Besides, the boy slept through most of it. La migra had separated him from his sister—they had a hielera for boys and another for girls—but he hadn’t been scared, because la migra were awful, real awful, bien canijos los desgraciados, but at least they weren’t like the cops back home or like the cops in Mexico, the ones who’d say things about his sister, things that weren’t altogether different from the things that the boys with the guns and the tattoos used to say.
And so the boy slept, at last, for hours and hours, waking up only to eat and use the bathroom, and even though the hieleras were as cold as everyone said they were, and even though la migra kept the lights on the whole time, and even though he didn’t know whether the Americans would let them go or send them back to their deaths, he felt that he didn’t have to worry about his sister—at least not there, at least not for a few nights.
I paid the bill and called a cab, and we walked out of the restaurant. On the way to his uncle’s house, the boy told me about his god. He’d joined an evangelical church a few months before he left Guatemala, he said, because he liked the singing, and they let him play the drum kit after the service was over. On the Sunday before he set out for North America, the pastor had given him a Bible to take on the journey. The boy had kept it with him, even after the kid with the rag soaked in paint thinner told them to leave everything behind.
“I’ve been trying to learn it,” he said as the car pulled over in front of a large Victorian house that once belonged to a bourgeois marriage but which now housed several families of Indigenous Guatemalans, all of whom woke up before dawn and went to bed after midnight and spent the hours in between doing thankless work for significantly less money than what the US government considers necessary to live with a semblance of dignity.
“Learn it?” I asked as he got out of the car. “You mean by heart?”
He closed the door and leaned to look at me through the window. “Yeah,” he said. “I want to have it with me always. Even if they take it away.”
I nodded. “Do you have a favorite verse?” I said, though I might as well have asked him for a good kicker for my article.
“A huevo,” he replied. “Psalm 91:5–6.”
“Which is that one again?”
He chuckled and shook his head and lowered his gaze and then he looked up and fixed his eyes on mine. And then he said, with more conviction than I’ve ever said anything:
You will not fear the terror of night
Nor the arrow that flies by day
Nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness
Nor the plague that destroys at midday.
And as he recited the verses his face took on an expression that stayed in my memory. It was peaceful, but it bore no resemblance to happiness. Its central component was a great weariness in the eyes, a slight drooping of the lids, that I later decided was the exhaustion of telling, an echo of the exhaustion of living. But there was something else, too: a faint smile, a certain softness in the brow, an unexpected lack of tension suggesting an optimism deeper than that of the intellect or the will.
It was the expression of someone still enough of a child to be earnest, but with a visceral understanding of one of the central truths of the human condition: that the gap between the eighth and the ninth circles of hell is wider than the distance between the sixth and the seventh heaven, that the difference between hell and purgatory is essentially infinite—or, to put it in terms so simple that they risk reducing mysticism to banality, that suffering is relative. This knowledge, I realized even then, was of the most difficult sort. In theory anyone could understand it, but to grasp it fully, as an embodied idea rather than as an abstract axiom, required the harshest and most exacting education. And yet with the difficulty of the knowledge there also came a great consolation: the ability to find something like peace in circumstances that would break weaker spirits. As the boy with spiked hair turned around and ran across the yard of his uncle’s house, I thought that, while there was no home in this world for migrants, there were nevertheless way stations: places of temporary relief—and perhaps a reason to thank God.
Such was the face that I saw as I stared at the broken clock on the wall of the secondary screening room, waiting to be told whether or not I would be allowed back into the country where I had built my life. Remembering it made my predicament seem very small, so small that I felt ashamed of ever having felt scared, or hurt, or angry.
But then again, I thought, remembering the poster that had brought the brother and sister to mind: they had been among the fortunate ones. They had crossed the border under a regime that was already bent on denying their humanity, but all the horrors they had witnessed were but a prelude to what was to come. Their passage through the way stations was purgatory to the next generation’s hell. The boy’s face, the emotion it expressed, the ethics it represented, could only exist because the boy knew or believed or hoped that nothing had happened to his sister during the nights that the two of them spent in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security.
I sank into the thought as into a pool of oil-slicked seawater. All of a sudden in place of the boy with the spiked hair I saw hundreds of faces, some of which I recognized from the photographs that accompanied the earliest press reports on the concentration camps: children, multitudes of them, some too young to walk, others old enough to understand what was happening, torn from their parents, kept in cages, confined for months on end to makeshift cities where every room was windowless like the room where I sat, where they were neglected, treated like cattle, injected with antipsychotics, expected to follow orders and sign papers in a language that they didn’t understand, lied to, misfed, kept away from fresh air, from joy, from beauty, from the petty miseries that are the daily bread of lives that have not been destroyed by imperialism—the quotidian unhappiness, the vague dissatisfaction, the boring, benign, intolerable anxiety that is the privilege of white people.
Told to break the silence.
Told to report confidentially.
Told to get help.
Told to keep detention safe.
I saw their faces, and the faces of their parents, their uncles and aunts, their siblings, their cousins, their friends, the lovers that some of them would have, the children that some of them would have, the multitudes who had been touched and would be touched by the horror of that crime, and the sight made me furious, because along with the faces I saw with perfect clarity that none of it was preordained, that none of it was necessary, that the destruction of all those lives had been the product of a choice, a conscious one, made by a handful of hateful people empowered by a hateful nation and carried out by an army of uniformed nobodies who had credit card bills to pay. The knowledge that those responsible did not know what they did offered no consolation. If anything, it made the crime more painful to contemplate, because it made it absurd. The world teetered between redeemable and irredeemable tragedy; the stakes were nothing less than life’s worth; every new horror risked plunging humanity into a desert with no way stations at all.
Then the law called me by my name: “Mora? Medina Mora?”
My ears rang. My rage evaporated and in its place there arose an ugly combination of hope and fear. My body lifted itself from the chair. The world sharpened, as if I were wearing new glasses. I took a step, then another, taking care to avoid the eyes of the other foreigners. My legs moved. I advanced. What would I be willing to do for a green card? For citizenship? In that moment, I realized, I was ready to do a great deal of betraying. I was surprised by how brittle I’d proven. After just an hour and change in a windowless room, I was all but ready to sell my neighbors.
“I apologize for the wait,” the officer said.
“That is quite all right,” I mumbled, feeling my accent grow thicker and my diction more clumsy.
She smiled but did not look up from her computer. She had light brown skin and Mexican features; she had her long black hair in an intricate braid; she wore a dark red lipstick that contrasted with the navy blue of her uniform; she must have been around my age; she was very beautiful.
“Is this your first time seeking admission to the United States on your student visa?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’ve had it for two years. I did consular processing at the embassy in Mexico City.”
“I see,” the officer said.
She took my passport from the red folder and flipped through the pages. The desk was unusually high, reaching almost to my chin, and she sat on a tall stool, such that I saw her from below. She did not seem angry or impatient but instead emanated a calm confidence in her own authority, a sense that she was as comfortable in her skin as she was in her uniform. I wondered whether she’d risen through the ranks quickly, whether her austere but dignified politeness originated in the knowledge that her supervisors saw her as a rising star. I pictured her a few years younger, recently graduated from college, living with her parents in one of the vanishing Mexican neighborhoods of San Francisco, trying to choose between taking out a loan to go to law school and applying to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers. What did she tell herself when she made her decision? What did she tell her parents? And her grandparents? How many generations did a Mexican family need to live in America before a daughter’s decision to become an immigration officer no longer raised eyebrows? Or had her family been in California since before the annexation? Before independence? Before the conquest? Did she lack other options? Did she hope to change things from the inside? Or did she truly believe that she was working to secure her homeland?
“So the last time you were admitted was late last year, right?” she said.
“Yes,” I stuttered. “What happened was—I got confused. Earlier. With your colleague. She asked me and I tried to remember but I didn’t remember—the date but I remembered that—I’d come—for—a—a—New Year’s Eve party. And that—that’s—that’s—”
“That makes sense,” she said with a smile.
What was this desire I felt to kiss her hands? She was declining to subject me to petty humiliations, it was true, but if that was my definition of kindness then I had lost most of my self-respect. No, I thought, this was not gratitude; it was Stockholm syndrome. I should never have been detained, not even for an hour. In fact, nobody should ever be detained. I lived on a continent shaped by genocide, slavery, and the forced displacement of millions. In light of that history, no fiction could be more false, or more dangerous, than borders. The countries that tried to prevent people from crossing the arbitrary lines between them were acting on no justification beyond brute force, the basest sort of power, that which is born from the jawbone of a donkey or the barrel of a gun.
The story now seemed simple: I had remade myself in the image of the rulers of the empire, hoping that if I came to resemble them closely enough they would welcome me as one of their own. With the years, even I had come to believe my own charade and convinced myself that I had more in common with white Americans than with most Mexicans. As it turned out, I had fooled no one but myself—not the Mexicans, not the white Americans, and certainly not the US government. There was no denying it anymore: I loved America more than myself, but America did not love me back. And yet there I was, standing at the inspection desk in the secondary screening room at the San Francisco International Airport, hoping that America would change its mind.
The officer took a stamp from the desk, pressed it on my passport, and handed my documents to me. Then she looked me in the eye and smiled and said: “Welcome to the United States.”