“El Cruce” by Wendy Shoua

Wendy Schoua, 2009 PSP participant

Wendy Schoua is Argentine, bilingual and bicultural. She attended a British school in Buenos Aires, and began writing as a child. She is an avid reader, theatre/opera enthusiast, film connoisseur, traveller, and a teacher of English at all levels. Wendy was the first Latino Advocate for the City of Evanston, the position she is the proudest of in her long public career. She has an M.A. in Public Administration from the University of Illinois, and an M. A. in Creative Writing/Fiction from Northwestern University. Her forthcoming book is Immigrants and Other Aliens, a short story anthology by many writers, some well-known and a few neophytes like herself. “El Cruce” will be featured in this forthcoming book.

El Cruce

Lucho was grateful he did not throw up. The pill he swallowed this morning had stopped the uncontrollable churning in his stomach. He was working on his last construction job in Zacatecas, Mexico. He was on a ladder painting the wall for the new grade school. Lucho had already paid the coyote half the fee. He had made most of the money in Chicago doing the same type of work, but in dollars, a living wage. For six gritty years he had risked deportation, sharing an apartment in Cicero, Illinois with five other guys, returning to Mexico each Christmas to see his parents, and now his young wife and infant son. This time he could not go back to the U.S. without Melina and little Javier.

One of his housemates in Cicero was Alberto, an Argentine in his forties from Tucumán. He and Lucho became friends working for the same construction company on the day shift. Their shared passion for soccer and their curiosity about each other’s culture, the differences and similarities between Argentina and Mexico, drew them together. They liked to work to the blare of Country and Western music, especially old Johnny Cash tunes blasting out from a now paint-spattered radio they had bought at K-Mart. The stories in the songs reminded them of the tangos and rancheras they had grown up with, sad and plaintive.

The Sunday before his return to Zacatecas, as they were sitting at the kitchen table in the otherwise empty apartment listening to their favorite C and W station, Lucho told Alberto that he had begun to experience panic attacks. And after many pauses, he described his fears about what in his mind he called his final cruce.

“I’ve lost my nerve and I don’t know why.  Maybe because it’s forever,” Lucho said. “Because even if we make it, I’m not sure that we’ll ever be able to go back to Mexico or see our families again. If Melina knew how frightened I am, she wouldn’t trust me to get them both across.” And he started to sob while gasping that he was ashamed about his lack of courage.

“It’s alright. You don’t need to suffer, Viejo,” Alberto said, getting up and putting his arm around Lucho. “There are pills for that. When you get back to Mexico you can get them over the counter. It’s going to be okay, you’ll do what you have to do.”

Alberto then told Lucho that most Argentine males were not ashamed of seeing therapists or telling their loved ones about it. Lucho stared at him in disbelief, until Alberto showed him an article in the Sunday edition of El Clarin, which he bought every Tuesday.  The article claimed that in proportion to its population, Argentina had the highest percentage of psychologists and psychiatrists in the world.

Lucho followed his friend’s advice. No one but the pharmacist in Zacatecas knew.  He gave Lucho sixty U.S. one-milligram pills called Clonazepam for his nerves. The pharmacist told Lucho not to take more than two a day, and to avoid alcohol.  The pills were green and inoffensive-looking, but they worked. He had taken one in the morning and the anxiety that was roiling in his stomach had stopped, allowing him to finish the job today.

He came down the ladder and wiped his face with the old blue kerchief that he always wore tied around his forehead to keep the sweat out of his eyes. He took a deep drink from his water canteen, hosed off the tools, and put them away neatly in the shed.  Then he walked over to the boss’ trailer to pick up his last pay envelope.

They hugged without a word.  They had gone to the secundaria together, and except for Lucho’s ponytail they looked alike, short, dark and compact. Francisco finally spoke. “I’m sorry to see you go, cabrón.  It’s been great having you back for a while. If I didn’t have five kids, and my mami, I’d go with you. I’m sure I’d make more money doing the same work.”

“I know man, and I wish you could come. Tell you the truth I’m scared shitless of crossing over with my wife and kid. I’ve usually gone alone, or with a bunch of guys from the ranchos around here.”

“But I remember that one time you took your cousin Marisol,” Francisco said.

“That was scary enough going with a woman, being responsible for her, never mind also taking a baby.”

“Good luck, Lucho.  Call if you can.  If not, I’ll find out you’re safe from one of your brothers.”

Lucho’s oldest brother Juan drove him, Melina, and little Javier northeast to Nuevo Laredo in his new red pickup to meet the coyote.  No one made a sound during the two-hour drive except the baby, who whimpered in his sleep.

While she held her baby, Melina looked straight ahead and tried to imagine what their life with Lucho in Estados Unidos would be like. Had she been too impulsive? She had been unable to imagine a future for herself in the village, marrying some field worker and bearing children until she dropped. She had seen Lucho at a wedding in her village outside Zacatecas last December, and had surprised herself and her girlfriends by asking with great urgency who he was. He did not look or carry himself like the younger men who had courted her without imagination or success.  Except for his silver and turquoise belt, he was dressed in black. Ignoring her friends’ shocked whispers at her forwardness, she had stared at him until he had come over and asked her to dance. Later, during their hurried courtship he had thrilled her—she had been a virgin—not only with his assured lovemaking, but also by telling her that if she married him they would live in Chicago. They would have their own house like the gringos. She could learn English; she could continue her education and he would take care of her. No one close to her had ever crossed. Her mother and her younger sisters had begged her to wait, but Melina’s physical passion for Lucho and his promises for a different life had overcome their objections. They had a New Year’s Day wedding and she was sure that their baby was conceived that night.

Nuevo Laredo sat right across the Río Grande from Laredo in the U.S.  You could cross the one hundred-meter length of the bridge spanning the river in less than fifteen minutes by car if you had the right documentation.   At either end and in the middle, there were checkpoints with armed guards and drug-sniffing dogs. The official crossing was less than a mile from the widest part of the Río Grande where coyotes had built a thriving business getting the most determined Mexicans across the river.  The precise

spot of the crossings changed daily to deflect the U.S. river patrol and their limited numbers and capabilities.

Everyone on both sides of the river knew about the compuertas under the bridge. Built and maintained by both governments, their purpose had never been made public. They were a system of metal and wire portals that could be opened and closed. When the portals were open, which was most of the time, the river waters flowed freely under the bridge.  When closed, and the water drained, whatever was trapped under the bridge could be seen clearly. Every few months, when enough families on the Mexican side filed police reports of relatives who had “disappeared” and paid hefty sums, the compuertas were closed, and the horrors under the bridge were revealed.  The watery communal grave held dozens of bodies, mostly male, some without arms or legs, perhaps eaten by crocodiles, drowned while attempting to cross or murdered by their coyotes and then thrown back in the river. The terror etched on some of their bloated faces was horrible to see.  Those who had known they were drowning often died with their mouths opened as if in a scream of soundless despair, their eyes bulging, staring at the pitiless darkness of the sky above and the river around them. Some of the bodies were claimed and buried by their families. The others were trucked to a nearby cemetery on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo and buried in a mass grave.  Although a priest always came to bless the dead, the people of Nuevo Laredo felt it was the saddest way to go.

The brothers settled Melina and the baby on a park bench across the street from La Buena Estrella, the bar where they were appointed to meet the coyote.  Lucho hoped the name of the bar was a good omen for the crossing but he did not tell Juan, because he was reluctant to show Juan how frightened he was. Despite an early morning dose of Clonazepam, Lucho’s breakfast was churning in his stomach.

They walked in and looked around.  The coyote rose from a small table in the back to meet them, and they sat down. Lucho blinked. Dressed in American clothes, with short hair, and average in size, she did not look tough until the conversation turned to money.

“The baby is the same price as you and your wife,” she repeated firmly. “The risks are the same for me and my guys.  I’ve got to pay people on both sides of the river, you know, and maintain two safe houses in Laredo and San Antonio.  You came to me because your concuño, your cousin Rafael told you I was gentle and treated people right, no?”

“Yes.”

Juan spoke for the first time.  “We’ll pay you three quarters now and the final amount when he calls us from San Antonio to tell us they’re safe.  I’ll be waiting right here for the phone call two days from now.  I’ll wire the money from the Western Union down the street the moment I hang up the phone.”

“I can deal with that.  I’ve done it that way before,” she answered, giving the big man a good look for the first time.

“Oh, and don’t try to put someone else on the phone, because I’ll know it’s not him right away.”

“How will you know?”

Lucho tried to speak, but Juan put a meaty hand on his arm to silence him.  “I’ll know,” he said looking hard into the woman’s eyes.

They waited for nightfall near the river in a large van without air-conditioning.  The hot air outside the van’s open windows was still and unrelenting.  Two young women, sisters, were in their group for tonight’s crossing. Their names were Cata and María. Before he could chastise himself for the thought, Lucho noticed that neither was as light-skinned or as delicately featured as Melina and his baby. Cata, who was tall with short hair and looked like the older sister, told them that she was making the crossing because after twelve months of discussions, María had agreed to come with her.

“I’m luckier than Cata,” María said, “I have a job that I love as a teacher assistant in Nuevo Laredo, and I was going to be married, that’s why I didn’t want to come.  Then last month I broke my engagement, and there didn’t seem to be a reason to stay. I never wanted her to do this alone anyway.”

The sisters cooed at little Javier, and Cata asked if she could hold him.  As she rocked him in her arms, she looked so at ease that Melina said, “¿Me parece que tú quieres un niño tambien, verdad?”  I think you want a baby too, right?

       “O, sí,” Cata replied blushing, “I do want one of my own. But first I need to find a decent job, and a good Tex-Mex or gringo husband.”

Lucho snorted and the three women laughed.

After Lucho fell asleep, they spoke a little in low voices and halting sentences about their fears about making el cruce and their hopes if they reached the other side.  María and Melina braided each other’s hair with the rubber bands they had brought around their wrists, and then pinned it up with the bobby pins that Cata had slipped inside the coin pocket of her jeans. They took turns sleeping in pairs while one held the baby. When Lucho woke up, they drank bottled water provided by the coyote’s driver and ate the food they had brought, cold chicken, ham and cheese sandwiches, tortillas, bananas and apples. The air was sultry and it began to rain hard.  They had to close the windows almost to the top.  It was suffocating inside the small space. They kept moistening their necks and faces with the remaining water, but the relief was very fleeting.

When it was dark and the rain had stopped, the driver started the van and drove further west from the bridge to a part of the river where the rest of the team was waiting sheltered in another van.   He asked them to step out. Then he patted them up and down. They knew they could carry nothing at all, even a wallet. If they had money on them they might never make it.  They had been warned about unscrupulous coyotes killing their own customers. Lucho, anticipating it was probably useless because the river waters could reduce them to a paste, had packed the small plastic pill container inside his tight cotton briefs. He passed muster. Now he watched when it was Melina’s turn.  The night before she had hidden the last of their money in a small bag made of oilcloth and stitched it into her bra. Satisfied, the driver handed them over to the four other men.

It started to rain again.

The men in the other van hauled out four inner tubes, black and inflated, and showed Lucho, Melina and the sisters how they would sit in them.

“You’re going to put your backside in the middle and then lean back all the way,” said the leader.  “Each one of us is a strong swimmer, so we’ll be pushing you from the back until we get to the other side.  You, Melina, will hold the baby tightly in your arms with this toy salvavidas around his waist.   It’s the only way to cross him.  I don’t like taking babies.  I’ve got a couple of my own.”

“We know,” Lucho whispered, “but this is our only chance.”

Nobody said another word while the group crept towards the bushes on the bank, until Cata asked, “How long will it take?”

“It’s been raining hard for days — the river is really high.”

The group turned to look at the swollen, brackish waters licking the river bank.

“Takes twenty or thirty minutes when it’s normal.  Tonight I don’t know.”

Lucho threw up his dinner in the bushes.  The man who was to swim behind him laughed, not unkindly.  “Hey, hombre, it’s probably better this way.  You won’t be as heavy to push.”

The four coyotes dropped about three feet into the swollen river and then grabbed the inner tubes from the bank.  “Jump,” they urged their charges.

“Jump now and we’ll help you get on.  I will hand you the baby when you’re afloat, Melina,” said the driver who was behind them on the bank.

Melina hesitated, and looked at Lucho who nodded.  She showered Javier’s head with kisses, inserted the pacifier in his mouth and then gave him quickly to the driver.   With her eyes closed tightly, she dropped behind her husband into the oily black water.  The coyote caught her and put the tube over her head.  Melina grasped the sides firmly and pulled herself through it to a sitting position.  She blinked the water out of her eyes and immediately focused them on her baby.  The man pushed her a few meters towards the bank, and Javier was lowered into her arms screaming. She held him fast. The pacifier floated away.

Lucho put out his arm and touched them both once more, before he felt his tube being propelled swiftly to the front of the group.  He could not hear Javier wailing any more. Lucho clenched his teeth and slammed his eyes shut when he realized he would not see his wife and child until they made it to the other side. He didn’t want to think about the pungent stench of the water, the alligators, the pelting rain, the chunks of bark and trees floating around them, and the possibility that his son could be snatched from his wife’s arms by the strong currents tossing him back and forth. He wished they had waited a few more days until the rain had ceased.  Then he stopped thinking and concentrated on grasping the sides of the tube as tightly as he could with his wet hands.

The night was pierced abruptly by a scream.  Lucho tried to twist around to see if Melina and Javier were safe, but the coyote growled for him to stay in position or they would both go under.   As the man pushed him harder and faster, Lucho could hear María’s cries coming behind him in agonized gasps, “¡Sálvenla! ¡Por Dios! ¡Salven a mi hermana!  ¡Cataaaa, Cataaaa!”

Then there were only the sounds of the crashing waters and the hard rain slapping Lucho’s face. He closed his eyes tightly and for the first time since his Holy Communion,

he prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. He implored her to let the remainder of their little group survive the river.

When he stopped praying, Lucho could still hear the rushing water, the colliding chunks of bark, and the heavy breathing of the swimmer behind him.  But the rest of the journey was eerily silent of human voices.  He lost his sense of time, until he opened his eyes and saw that the river bank on the opposite side was close.  The coyote pushed him with one final, almost breathless effort. Lucho swiveled around to look for his wife and child.

They were right behind him.  And so was María, but not Cata.  Lucho’s eyes turned back to the coyote who whispered that she had probably drowned.  After the fourth coyote climbed on the bank empty-handed, he told them that a huge wave had crashed over them. Cata had fallen off the tire.  She had been swept beyond his reach by the current and then swallowed by an immense vortex of black water.

Wet and shivering, Lucho, Melina, Javier, and María were lifted out of the river by another group of men, who gave them some towels and herded them into a truck.  Melina handed the baby to Lucho so that she could hold María, who clung to her weeping and shuddering.  Javier also began to cry, so Lucho rocked him and put his thumb in the baby’s mouth.

They drove through muddy back roads. Melina and María sat together holding each other tightly, while Lucho was in the front seat next to the driver cradling Javier.  The driver had turned the radio on to a country and western station. In the distance, they could see the bright lights of Laredo. To Lucho the soft sounds of Willie Nelson and the reflection of the city lights he glimpsed through the windows felt like heaven, and for the first time almost like home. He thought this might be because he was not alone. He wondered how it would be for Melina, if she would regret it.

They stopped at a shabby trailer park and entered a large trailer in the back of the enclosure. The woman who received them asked them to peel off their filthy clothes.  The trailer was air-conditioned, so they sat shivering in their underwear clutching their damp towels until Melina, eyeing the small stove and a box of teabags next to it, asked the woman if she could make some tea for María, Lucho and herself.

The woman assented. While Javier slept in a laundry basket, they cradled their mugs of hot tea in silence, grateful for something to do for the next hour. They watched as the woman tossed the clothes in a washer with plenty of detergent and then dried them. When she handed them back they were stiff and scratchy, but clean.

“Tomorrow,” she said, “we’ll buy you some new clothes at a discount store in Laredo so you can blend in with the other Mexicans on this side.  But now you’d better sleep while you can.”

Melina took Lucho aside and said, “Tú duerme con el niño.  Yo me encargo de María.”  You sleep with the baby.  I will take care of María.

Lucho just nodded, but as he picked a corner of the room for Javier and himself, he marveled at her composure.  She was only twenty years old to his thirty, and he knew she had never been away from her family or her village. A sharp twinge of gratitude ran through his body like electricity.  He took the sodden pills in their plastic vial out of the

pocket of his clean pants and debated whether to throw them into a small garbage can in

his corner. As he put them back in his pocket he decided to continue taking them as they were until he could get some more at their final destination.

In the opposite corner Melina prepared herself for a long night. She felt María’s pain like a physical ache. She had never lost a sister or even a cousin, but now that she had Javier and Lucho, she felt more vulnerable to the abyss of sudden loss. They held each other rocking and speaking in weepy whispers for hours. When María fell asleep, Melina detached herself gently and closed her own eyes. Lucho’s soft, regular snores reassured her like a lullaby.

They slept.  In the morning, the woman made them coffee and fed them scrambled eggs and tortillas.  They put on their new clothes, t-shirts, cheap jeans, denim jackets, and

sneakers.  The baby wore a pale blue sleeper and was wrapped in a yellow baby blanket.

“This is the easiest part,” the woman told them. “There’s another checkpoint half an hour from the city, so we’ll get out of here without crossing Laredo.  It’s a bumpy ride, but then we’ll travel on the highway to San Antonio.”

“What happens after that?”  Lucho asked.

“I take you to the safe house, and the rest is up to you and the people in the house, whatever you arranged.”

In the early, clean morning air they drove away from the trailer park in a dusty pick up. Melina and Javier sat in front with the woman driver. Lucho and María were less comfortable on the truck bed under a dusty and heavy tarpaulin that smelled of cattle dung. They had to be silent and still, the woman told them, so as not to arouse anyone’s curiosity. They had bottles of water to sip. It would get very hot before they got to the San Antonio highway.

After miles of gravelly, bumpy roads they began to travel on a smooth surface. Under the tarp Lucho and María signaled their mutual relief, imagining that they were already on the San Antonio expressway. The truck came to an abrupt stop. Lucho put a steadying hand on María’s shoulder, and they held their noses so as not to sneeze. They heard a conversation between the woman and a male with an American accent.

“Why are you stopping us?”

“The Laredo checkpoint is closed for repairs. So this is the new temporary checkpoint before the San Anton express.  Where are you going, ladies?”

Lucho could barely breathe as he listened, hoping that Melina would not speak. Her poor English and her accent would betray her.

“My daughter and I are from Laredo. We’re going to visit her mother-in-law. My girl was pregnant with another child, but she lost her baby yesterday. She’s barely awake now. We need someone to care for this other precious one.”

“I’m sorry Ma’am. We’ll do this as quickly as possible. Driver’s license?”

There was a short silence.

“Anything else in the pickup?”

“Nothing, except some fertilizer I haven’t had a chance to unload yet with all these troubles.”

“I have to take a look in the back, Ma’am.”

Heavy, booted footfalls approached as María and Lucho sweated and shivered at the same time. They clung to each other in silence. The tarp so odorous, dense and annoying when they got in, now felt as insubstantial as a cobweb. They heard the back gate of the pickup open with a loud click. The fetid air under their covering was altered slightly by the aroma of Polo Blue. Lucho started to lose control of his bladder.

“Ugh, I see what you mean. And with the sun…”

The gate was clicked shut, and the footsteps moved away.

“You’re good to go, Ma’am.”

“Thank you, Officer.”

Four hours later, when they got to a small, barely-furnished house on a quiet street in San Antonio, Lucho called his brother from the grubby kitchen phone attached to the wall.

“How’s your mother-in-law, Juan?”

“She went to the doctor, you know.  You heard she’s having surgery, Lucho?”

“Yeah,” Lucho responded, “in the head, next month.”

Juan laughed with relief.  “Let me talk to the guy in charge, Mano, so I can keep my part of the bargain.  Remember he’s supposed to take you to the bus station and put you on the bus to Illinois. I’m sending enough money for the tickets.  Give my love to Melina and Javier.”

“Thank you, Juan.  We’re going to be all right now.  I’ll also give your love to Elena, and I’ll call you again when we get to her house.”

It was night when they arrived at the bus station and were finally alone.

At the convenience store in the station, Lucho who spoke some English bought a package of Pampers and American baby food in a jar for Javier and sandwiches and bottled water for Melina and himself.  Melina, standing next to him holding the baby reminded him they also needed a comb and a box of tissues. The lady at the counter smiled at him when she glimpsed Javier and added some plastic spoons for the baby food and a handful of paper napkins to the bag with his purchases.

Then they headed to the ticket booth and bought three tickets to travel on the Tronador, the legendary express bus that would take them from San Antonio to Waukegan, Illinois.  His older sister Elena would be waiting at the station.

While Lucho sat on a bench outside the ladies’ room holding Javier, Melina went inside. Once she was alone Melina took off her t-shirt and her bra.  It still had the dank smell of the river.  She ripped out the small package of money that she had sewn inside one of the cups, and shoved the bills in the right front pocket of her fitted jeans.  She threw the bra away in a tall garbage can outside the stall.  Then she locked the door again and sat down on the toilet.  For the first time since leaving home, she broke into loud, wet sobs.  Melina made the sign of the cross and prayed that she could be a good wife to Lucho and adapt to her new life. Outside the stall, she washed and dried her face and ran the new comb through her long wavy hair. She hoped her sister-in law Elena would like her and love Javier.  In the mirror she practiced the wide smile she would bestow on her husband and child when she emerged from the washroom.

As he rocked the sleeping baby, Lucho allowed his thoughts to wander for the first time since crossing the river.  Now that he was by himself he felt a pang of anxiety. It could get worse, he knew. The panic could start gnawing at him and unman him like before. There was the question of the pills. What would Melina think if he told her? Would she feel, and rightly so, that she had made a mistake not only to come with him but also to marry him?

He felt like a gambler with his last chip, afraid of making the wrong bet. Then he remembered how her composure had surprised him.  Perhaps he could tell her the truth and she would understand.  He could not make up his mind.  The bus trip was forty hours long.  There would be plenty of time to talk. Telling her, he thought, might be  another sort of crossing altogether.

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