Thursday, February 1, 2007

Lost and Naked in El Paso

The Greyhound arrived in El Paso at 3.30 in the morning, dumping us in a poorly-lit courtyard surrounded by the crouched forms of ramshackle buildings, broken bits of wall, and the sound of engines roaring through the orange night. I pulled my bag out from under the bus and walked into the station lobby, where a long line of people were waiting to be searched by a group of security guards. Half-asleep, one man muttered, "Guns, knives, mace, pepper spray, drugs, alcoholic beverages, needles, I'm looking for these, okay?"

I sat down on the bench. After forty-eight hours of coffee, energy bars, and little sleep, my nerves were bare. Conversations on the way from Pendleton to Salt Lake City had focused on the benefits of mixing methamphetimine with ecstasy, several reasons why buying a car on eBay is a bad idea, and the cultural highlights of prisons in the Boise area. One woman had just had her thumb broken by her boyfriend's brother, and just outside of Tucson she began having hallucinations that the man was on our bus, trying to get to her. When an ambulance came for her it was discovered that she was diabetic and in the first stages of a hypoglycemic coma. I'd made things worse by spending most of the trip reading a book about institutional violence in Guatemala between 1954 and the late nineties. When I tried to sleep, my head filled with images of the Kaibil's disinterred victims, open pits filled with skeletons wearing rubber boots, voices calling out in terror. Now, seated on a bench in the lobby of the El Paso bus sation, I found myself unable to stop staring at a scar that cut cleanly across the face of a young father who stood in line, holding his gurgling child in both arms. "Guns, knives, mace, pepper spray..."

Turning away, I saw a boy, maybe seventeen, leaning against the doorway of the gift shop, next to a pile of toy parrots and children's books. His eyes were hollow, and one of his cheeks was covered by a deep bruise that must have only recently stopped swelling. I surveyed th room, flinching at every stain on someone's jeans, every fleck of dirt as though it were a scab. I couldn't escape the naked sense of my own skin, like it was a blank sheet awaiting the inscription of some violent act. Under my clothes, I could feel a blade drawn lightly along the soft curve of my stomach.

An hour later we were called to board a bus to Juarez, and after loading my pack underneath I sat in the dark cabin of he bus listening to mariachi tunes and advertisements for used cars. In the darkness I felt safe, invisible. I took out some cash from one backpack, transferring it to my wallet so I would be able to change it when I arrived in Juarez, and as I slid a thin stack of bills into my wallet I looked behind my seat to meet the same deep eyes I'd seen in the bus station. Defensive and embarrssed, I forced myself to smile, saying "Is it cold in this bus?" He shrugged, as if this question were irrelevant.

His eyes were so wide they seemed to shine in the darkness of the bus, and when he spoke it was so quick and soft that I could only catch some of what he told me. He repeated himself often, punctuating his sentences with a jab of his chin and a widening of his eyes. His name was Luis. He told me he came from Veracruz six months earlier, with several friends. They'd found work in El Paso, working in construction and demolition. The contractor he worked for didn't always pay his employees on time, and was involved in moving drugs north from Texas. Sometimes the contractor would pay his employees with drugs, or give them drugs to make up for not paying them their wages. The group of men who worked for this contractor lived together in a small house, and spent their time off together as well. They liked to go dancing. Luis started becoming involved with a girl who had dated another of his co-workers, and this began to cause some tension. There had been a fight the left Luis with the bruises he had on his face, and others he indicated along his ribs. He was forced to leave the group of workers and to stay with other friends in El Paso. His boss paid him, and gave him a handful of drugs as a parting gift. Luis never said exactly what sort of drugs they were, but he explained that while we spoke he was coming down from four days of being high and confused, wondering what to do and where to go next. He decided he would return to his home in Veracruz to heal, rest, and in time he would try to return to the US at a different spot than El Paso-Juarez.

His voice was afraid, wounded, and also intensely threatening. As he spoke he would sway towards me, then lunge a little, to emphasize his point. Every time he lunged, I would fight my urge to flinch, countering by consciously leaning in towards him, towards his face. Softening, he would tell me how difficult life was, how frightened he was, how badly he needed help. Then, fierce again, he made it clear to me that he was still carrying drugs, and he began pressuring me to buy some from him. When he said this he would nod towards my backpack, as if to say "That's where you keep you money." I decided I needed to leave the situation, and so I forced the conversation to drop, feigning distraction in the process of readying the bus to depart for Juarez. My skin was prickling with sleeplessness and fear, and the horrible clarity of my situation. After a year of study and talk, I'd travelled south to encounter the reality of immigration, to speak with the men and women who were crossing the border, and to learn about the illicit economies that thrive in the interstices between Mexico and the United States. Now, I was sitting next to Luis, who had survived some of the cruelest truths of immigration, who smelled of exhaustion and fear from life in a world my books could never actually describe. I stared into the darkness outside the window of the bus, hearing again the sound of engines roaring in the night. I felt unprepared, vulnerable, and ashamed.

In the bus station in Juarez I found Fulgencio, who I'd met in Colorado. We struck up a conversation, and I began to feel calm. I watched a little boy put a quarter into a robotic horse, swaying easily in his saddle as the sun began to creep into the waiting room of the station. Although Luis travelled with us in the bus all the way to Queretaro, I didn't let a conversation with him begin again. I spent most of the morning talking with a farmer from Villa Aldama, and trying to sleep. The bus driver chose movies about arms smuggling, genocide in Rwanda, spousal homicide, and the death penalty. After hours of this, I found myself smiling with relief when a comedy about family reunions came on, and with this feeling of relief I finally fell asleep.

Later, when we stopped in Ciudad Delicias, I saw Luis sitting behind a booth that sold coffee and candy and cigarettes. He had taken his shirt off, laying it out in front of him, and he was staring up into the sunlight with his hands clenched together in prayer. He rocked back and forth, gently patting his hands down onto his shirt and then raising them over his head. When he came back on the bus, he was carrying a large bag of fruit, and he walked patiently down the line, offering oranges and bananas to each passenger. When he came to me he thrust an orange at me, and said "Look, when we get to Mexico City, I can take you to the cathedral, I can show you around." I told him I was meeting a friend, and thanked him. When he offered the orange to me again, I said I wasn't hungry, I smiled, and deliberately turned to look out the window as if there were something fascinating waiting for me there.

When Luis stepped off the bus in Queretaro, Fulgencio smiled to me and said "Well, there goes that young man. He's going to back to Veracruz for a while, to be with his family."