Monthly Archives: February 2014

Borders/Embargoes, II and III

“…behavior could be judged by moral criteria as right or wrong, 
but action is judged for neither its motivation nor its aim, only for its performance.”

Hannah Arendt, qtd in Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun,
Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen 

II.

To anyone looking through night goggles, the eight figures huddling in the blackness of the desert night would have glowed an eerie phantom-green. Without the goggles, all eight, including the little girl and her father, remained nameless shadows. They had been waiting in the desert heat, waiting until nightfall for the truck that would carry them on the next leg of their odyssey across a continent. When the truck finally arrived, the coyotes jumped out of the cab and unlatched the rear door. The stench of sweat and excrement caused the eight waiting travelers to step back, which offended the coyotes, who started herding them into the truck at machete point, cursing at them for being late.

Inside, there were already some thirty or so people, their only luxuries a bucket in a far corner and two small slits that ran along each side of the truck. All eight scrambled in, grateful to have completed one leg of their journey, anxious as they faced the long ride from the edge of the north-south border to the center of Florida. All of them had to trust that the coyotes would not take the money they had each paid and leave them locked inside, without food or water, in the terrible heat, along a foreign road. They had to trust that once a day the two strangers seated in the cab would pull over by the side of a less traveled road and open the truck’s rear door enough to let in the fresh air and give one of them the chance to empty the bucket.

The girl sat tightly by her father. He wrapped his arms around her, and she buried her face in his chest, trying to peer out into the darkness of the truck’s interior to observe the people around her. When the final stop came and the driver loaded another dozen people inside, they lost the luxury of sitting and had to stand, swaying and bumping against one another with every turn the driver made. The passengers stood that way until their hands and ankles and calves swelled. Some people started to weep, calling out in the name of the Virgin mother for any mercy that would take them home again. That would forgive them for the terrible mistake they had made.

We’re suffocating, the girl’s father told one of the coyotes, who only looked past him, pushing against the truck door repeatedly, as if he were trying to close an overstuffed suitcase. He turned the heavy bolt and locked them all inside again.

The girl squeezed herself into her father’s arms, trying to block the sound of a child weeping by focusing on the rattle of the truck’s engine and its grinding gears. She fell into a deep sleep, not waking up until the coyotes opened the door.  They had arrived in Florida. Almost everyone hurried off the truck. Squeezed into the far right corner a young woman remained curled up in sleep. The coyotes laughed. They cursed. When she still would not wake up, they jumped in, planning to drag her out, but she was dead, still holding in her arms the child who had suffocated with her. Some of the fellow travelers started weeping. Someone else asked if anyone knew her name. One of the coyotes drew a machete and explained that nothing had happened.

III.

An out-of-state visitor who had lost his way pulled over to the side of an empty county road and decided he might as well relieve himself. Walking into a small clearing about twenty feet from the road, he was surprised to discover a half-buried doll. Why would anyone do that? He took a closer look, quickly zipped up, and ran back to his car. Whatever had happened, it was none of his concern, so he sped off, but once he had found the interstate again, a pang of conscience moved him to call the police and leave an anonymous tip.

When the police arrived, the officers discovered the depressed earth that had been partially excavated by hungry animals and called in the homicide and forensic teams. The boiesy of a woman and child were eventually exhumed and taken to the coroner, who cut them open and determined both had died of asphyxiation. The woman was in her twenties and otherwise healthy. There were no indications of sexual assault on either victim, though further examination of the woman’s pelvis indicated that she had probably given birth more than once. The infant, a girl, was only months old. The internal organs of both bodies indicated severe dehydration before death. A thin silver cross on a thin silver chain and one pink infant sock were found near the bodies. Though well decomposed by heat and humidity and dismembered by animals, modern advances in DNA technology made it possible to identify with one-hundred percent certainty that the bodies of this Hispanic mother and child were not related.

The discovery of the grave was of interest to the local newspaper. Fulfilling a clear civic obligation, the editor ran a series of articles about what had happened just miles from the town limits. God only knows, the editor wrote, how often this sort of crime is being committed and by whom. We must seek for remedies to keep this from happening again, and we must punish the guilty. The mayor, who never saw eye-to-eye with the editor, could smell trouble brewing. He called the police chief, who called his officers, who rounded up several local Hispanic men, (the “usual suspects,” someone chortled), and held them for further questioning–all but one. His name was Pedro. He had lost most of his hearing in an industrial accident when he was still a boy. He never heard the police officer who told him to stop and then shot him once, twice, three times in the back when he did not. Justifiable, wrote the editor. Law and order, intoned the mayor.

The suggestion of possible malfeasance by a local police department drew the attention of an editor at a large newspaper in a large city hours away from the town on whose outskirts the grave had been found. This editor sent a reporter to speak to the police chief and to interview the widow and five orphaned children of the illegal who had had the bad luck of not hearing the policeman. My husband was here legally, the widow was reported to have said. Why was he  shot in the back on his way to work? The photograph that ran with the story clearly documented the impoverished conditions of this working-class family. “Shoot an Illegal?” the headline above the photograph above the fold read. Sales shot up. Dozens of good citizens who had glanced at headline and photo wrote in to the editor: Don’t those people know about birth control?

A few days after the story ran, Pedro was buried, but only after an anonymous donor provided the money required for a simple casket and grave marker. No one remembers what happened to his widow or children. No one remembers when, or where, or even if the bodies of those other two wetbacks were buried.

Borders/Embargoes, I

 

“When you tell a story no one else tells anymore , you say: ‘I invented this, it’s mine.’ But what you’re really doing is remembering…what the memory of your forefathers left in your blood….”

Ariel Dorfman, “Myth as Time and Language [in Miguel Angel Asturias’ Men of Maize]”

I.

In the moonlight what appeared first were the empty shoes, which seemed to have walked across the hot shifting sands alone. Then the tattered clothes, draped across the broad, bristling arms of the cacti like charred garlands, appeared.  Behind the cacti was the low tree under which a girl and her father discovered the incinerated bodies of three men who had paused to rest in the shade, grown lethargic from lack of water, then delusional, and died. The girl could not look away from the bones gleaming in the moonlight, or the figure in the middle, reaching out to her, offering her something in the palm of his hand.

The girl felt her father emerging from the darkness, his arms wrapping protectively around her, pulling her away from the strange tableau. He pulled, and she followed, watching through her child eyes as the sands under her feet shifted, forming hills, then dunes she had to cross quickly, as quickly as her father demanded. She imagined sinking into the hot sand, disappearing, emerging again and always near the base of the tree, where the three men had come to rest. Hurry, her father said. They had to catch up with the others. He knew it was difficult, but she had to try harder.

Sometime after the girl and her father crossed the moonlit landscape, the three incinerated men were discovered by a few good Samaritans, the sort of fools who left plastic gallon jugs of water along the northward passage from Mexico. Before calling the authorities, the Samaritans knelt before the bodies in prayer. As one of them explained in far too much detail to the local television news reporter, there were no words to express the injustice of dying in pursuit of a better life.

Tell us how you feel, the reporter prodded. The Samaritan hesitated and then explained how he had recoiled in horror, how he had approached the bodies, how he had found in the mummified hands of one of the men, hands that reminded him of his own father’s, a perfectly intact photograph of a little girl in a white dress with a blue ribbon sash and the smiling woman who held her. The reporter flashed her saddest, most knowing look at the camera.

After the edited version of the interview ran on the local news, the public responded with what some described as an understandable degree of shock and awe. The Samaritans, who had been interrogated for hours by the authorities, were rounded up and placed in custody. Hearing of their arrest, the same television reporter did a piece on religious fanatics, running the Samaritans’ mug shots repeatedly on the six- and eleven-o’clock news, and generously helping the viewing community to formalize the terms of the debate: “What do you think?” the reporter asked, her brow studiously furrowed for the camera. “Was it okay to help illegals break the law? We want to hear from you, our viewing public.” Eventually that public reached a consensus, as the polling data clearly showed: providing water to illegals did not constitute humanitarian relief. Everyone had their own problems. The Samaritans had aided and abetted a criminal. It was a matter of law, and the law was clear.

After their release, the Samaritans started receiving death threats. Eventually, they had to stop a practice deemed blatantly unpatriotic by a well-known local radio personality. “Those people!” he sputtered. “They shouldn’t be trespassing out there anyway.” His argument (that real Americans were tired of hearing about illegals, that those men who had died in the desert had made a choice, however foolish) was indisputable—not that too many people with microphones tried.

No one seemed to remember the fact that the terrain those men died crossing had once been their ancestral lands, theirs before an illegal war of aggression against Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century. Though if those historical facts had been brought up, the local radio personality would have had a ready response: whatever happened that long ago was history—a matter of no consequence. He might have recalled the illegal Atlantic crossing of his maternal great-grandfather, who was known to have killed the man whose wife he coveted and eventually married. He might have, but he didn’t.