In the last installment of her interview, Carmen told how six years ago she and her husband David decided to leave their hometown of Cuernavaca, Mexico and try for NYC. She was almost 30 years old at the time and looking to change her destiny. They hired a coyote who arranged for them to cross through Arizona. In their second attempt, they jumped the wall in Nogales and nearly made it to Tucson before being caught. Back in Nogales, the coyote sent them west for the third try, to the small border town of Sasábe.
One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from the Arizona Border to NYC
Interview and translation by Logan Phillips
When finally there was the opportunity to go, the guys in Sasábe put you in a pickup with thirty people, and that’s how you go. “Like little sardines,” David said.
They separated us. They put me in one truck and him in another. When they did that, I began to feel really bad, I was saying to myself “no, no, no,” I didn’t want to be alone because I was so scared. It was really hard for me there, more than it was for David. Well, maybe he felt bad that I was alone.
They bring you up through the hills, in the dark, obviously late at night. They already know the route, but they still have to guess, it’s risky. You’re risking your life because on either side are steep ravines.
That night we went. Him in one truck and me in the other. And the truck that I was in was caught by the migra. We had arrived at the crossroads where we’d get on the freeway, and the coyotes were waiting for the migra shift-change. That moment is when they try to take advantage and get you to the city.
When we got on the freeway, about ten minutes passed and a migration patrol came up beside us, they pulled us over and made us all get out. They brought us back to Nogales because it is the closest station. They again fingerprinted me and scanned my eyes. They asked me how many times they had caught me now. I told them the truth, two. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” they said.
Back in Nogales, Mexico, I wouldn’t let the drivers of that truck get away from me for anything. I didn’t know where everyone had gone, but they knew what truck David had gone in. I grabbed them and told them, “you guys aren’t going to leave me here. I’m going with you wherever you go.”
“No,” they said, “the thing is...”
“I’m going with you.” And they took me back to Sasábe. I arrived crying and giving up hope, because I thought David was already in Phoenix. We got there about six in the morning and at seven o’clock that night, all of a sudden a guy who had been in the truck with David returned on foot. I recognized him. “Hey,” I said, “you went in the same truck as my husband.”
“Yeah, it broke down on us, I came back for a part to fix it.” So the truck had broken down out in the horrible, uninhabited desert. He had just walked for something like eight or ten hours.
When he was ready to go back to the truck, I told him, “I’m going with you.”
“I can’t risk taking you because you’re a woman and you aren’t going to walk fast enough.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I stuck myself to him.
“I can’t take you.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m going with you, I’m not staying here.” I went with him out of necessity, he couldn’t believe it. We walked from eight that night until about two in the morning. We walked and walked. And during all that time we were completely alone. And there are so many women who have had experiences where they were raped by the very coyotes themselves.
Suddenly he stopped me and I asked him why. He told me that there were wolves there. “Shhhh,” he said. Can you imagine the fear I felt in that moment? I told myself that was it, a wolf is going to show up and we’ll never leave here.
I’ll always respect that man. We were so alone in the desert, and moreover I was so scared. But I felt how he was breathing and I realized that he was scared too, despite his experience. I don’t think you ever get over that fear of animals, of the unknown.
We finally arrived where everyone else was hidden. I arrived yelling “David! David!” in the darkness.
He heard me and he asked “what are you doing here?” because he thought I was already in Phoenix. When I saw him, nothing else mattered. I started to cry. Everyone was asleep, hidden, because the helicopters can be sent over any time.
“Why’d you bring her!?” The coyotes were scolding the guy I came back with.
“She didn’t want to stay,” he replied.
Across the United States
There were already so many going, and with me, one more. They fixed the truck at about five in the morning, we left and that same truck brought us all the way to Tucson. Arizona is pretty, beautiful cities.
In Tucson, they ask you “who is sending you?”
“Ok, those sent by so-and-so over here, those sent by the other coyote over there.” Because for them, it’s all about when payment time comes, they have to keep people organized for that reason. At that moment you don’t pay, you’ve paid your trip from Cuernavaca to the border, but you don’t have the rest of the payment deposited until you’re where you’re going.
We arrived in Phoenix in a van, on the freeway. Now, being inside the state, there’s not very much migra. The migra is on the border. But we were in Phoenix about a week because there was a lot of migra in the Phoenix airport.
We were shut in, watching television, eating, sleeping, always shut in, we didn’t go out for anything. But there we ate in luxury. They sent us stuff to eat, a lot of it, chicken, juice, yogurt. They asked, “who’s gonna cook?” Straight away I said “I will,” and I made food for everybody.
We waited, and went from there to Las Vegas. Yeah, since there was so much migra in Phoenix, in the airport, we said to ourselves “well, we gotta get around them.”
In Las Vegas we arrived at the station and immediately got on the next bus. So, first to Las Vegas, then from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on the bus.
They already described the person that would be there waiting for us, and there he was, exactly how they had said. Ready for us. How many hours is it from Los Vegas to Los Angeles? It’s a long time. He put us in a hotel, and fed us well. Two days in Los Angeles in that hotel.
In the LA airport we were afraid because we felt like the migra would catch us. But the guy said that here there’s no problem, and the coyotes buy everything for you. You just arrive and get on the plane.
And from LA they threw us in a plane to New York. And that’s that.
NYC & September 11th, 2001
We arrived in New Jersey, because there weren’t direct flights to New York that day. David’s brother’s family came for us. We were feeling bad and disoriented because of the time change. And from there, off to look for work. David already had something. His brother is a resident and has a painting company. He married an American and had two kids, Americans who don’t speak a bit of Spanish. He had left them with their mom. We were in his house, they gave us one room for the both of us, I started looking for work and found it at a clothing store called Kohl’s.
[Six months later] I was at work, in the Portchester store, which is one of the biggest branches. That day I was vacuuming the children’s clothes section. Then a co-worker, a Guatemalan, told me “A plane hit a building and exploded.” I didn’t think of the magnitude of it, just the first thing that came to mind, that a little plane had smashed itself against the building and fallen as if it were nothing, an accident. Suddenly everybody began to get nervous, and I saw that a lot of my co-workers had started to go up to the cafeteria on the second floor.
All of a sudden, somebody said “another plane hit!” and some people started yelling “another! Another!” Things had gotten ugly. I just stood there––I still had the vacuum in my hand––thinking “what is going on?” A friend of mine, a Peruvian woman, said the manager was calling us to the cafeteria because it looked like something was happening at the World Trade Center. We went up and they had a TV ready, and there were the buildings on fire, with all the smoke. I started to cry, saying to myself “what’s happening...” The news came about the Pentagon and that one had gone down in Pennsylvania and I kept crying, just remembering it, I get goose bumps. A friend told me to calm down, but I just said “look what’s happening!” They had already started talking about terrorists and who knows what else.
The manager started talking to us in English, a friend told me what he was saying in Spanish––I hadn’t learned English yet, actually I never learned it well, but it’s OK. He said that we had to stay calm but that we were going to go home because something horrible had happened. We had to leave calmly, they were going close the store. In that moment, one of the towers fell. Somebody screamed. Everybody cried out, loud. The manager was so red from screaming. I cried, it really scared me, I was shaking, not knowing what would happen. The other one fell. People burst out in tears and screams again, hugging each other, saying that it couldn’t be, talking in English, black people, white people, everybody. People hugging each other. With the other tower falling on TV, we started to organize ourselves to leave. I caught a taxi outside of the mall.
The taxi driver already knew. And almost all of the taxi drivers are Hispanic. I remember he was a Peruvian because he asked me in Spanish, “they closed the store?” I told him yes.
“Because of what’s happening to the buildings?”
“Yes, didn’t you see?”
“No, but the freeway is jammed, lots of accidents.” People had gone crazy, they reacted however they could in the face of such a tragedy. I arrived at my house still crying. I asked one of my neighbors if she could call my mom as a favor, since they had cut the communication lines and you could only call other countries with cellphones.
In Mexico at my house my family was already crying like I had been killed, because they had heard that New York had been attacked by terrorists. They practically thought we were at war. My neighbor called them and asked “does Carmen live there?” And they cried louder because they thought she was calling to say I had been killed. She said “calm down, señora, Carmen is OK, she asked me to call on my cellphone because the regular phones aren’t working.”
And my mom: “tell her to come home so that she’s not there, tell her to come back to Mexico.” Later I said to myself, if it was my decision I’d return, but I was scared to get on an airplane because there could be a bomb there too.
In a few days I went back to work and they told us that we were going to be on red alert. We were going to work, but with a lot of precaution. If anything happened, they’d call us and immediately we’d leave because they didn’t know if it was war, or if they were going to close, or what. They didn’t know what to do either. Actually, people stopped buying. The streets were empty. Many people stayed at home, in their basements. They stayed there because they still didn’t know what to do.
But little by little, everything started to be more normal––if you could call it that, normal. But in the new year, during March and April, they started to check the papers of undocumented workers, and my papers were fake. They fired a lot of people. Now all illegal workers were terrorist suspects. Well, it was a security measure, but if the United States really had wanted to throw out all the illegals, it’d be left without people, without workers. All of the physical manpower is illegal.
I think at least fifty percent of the people killed were illegals. And that number that they use––2,300 deaths––it’s a lie. I could dare to say that more than 50,000 died. Remember how many floors each tower had? A hundred. That’s 200 floors. How many offices were there on each floor? At least ten. Banks, businesses, restaurants. Let’s only put three people per office––which there could have been at that hour, and it isn’t much. That’s thirty people on each floor. Times a hundred floors, that’s 3,000. Do you remember the 1986 earthquake in Mexico City? The government only said that 10,000 died. It’s inconvenient for governments to tell the truth.
Imagine all of the immigrants that worked there with false identification. There was no way to know who they were. They only counted the people that they knew through legal papers. But lots of people work with illegal papers under a different name.
They don’t count those people.
Carmen concludes her story next month, telling of her return trip to Mexico, and explaining what advice she would give to other Mexicans thinking about crossing illegally.