La Otra Arizona: SB1070 and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Part four of La Otra Arizona series.

This month the Supreme Court is expected to take on Arizona’s SB1070, the now-infamous immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. As with any Supreme Court case, SB1070 has traveled a long road of litigation to get to this point: decisions by lower courts, injunctions, appeals, etc. Now we’re headed toward the final decision––perhaps.

The court’s ruling will be on what is essentially a technicality, a question of states’ rights. Does each state in the Union have the right to set its own immigration policy, or is that the sole purview of the federal government, as the constitution seems to assert? Many across the nation await the Court’s answer to that question, as 1070-style legislation has been enacted in other states such as Alabama and “self deportation” becomes an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.

However, debating such a complex situation as immigration in such a narrow manner omits some crucial background to the question. What got us to this point, anyway? What has been Arizona’s relationship to immigrants for the 159 years since becoming a US territory in 1853? What groups were considered to be immigrants, and which groups were given a free pass to homestead wherever they liked? While there isn’t space here to fully explore those questions, much can be learned from one example given to us by Arizona history.

The first villains in the tale of Arizona’s “immigration problem” weren’t Mexican, they were Chinese. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived to the western United States in the last half of the nineteenth century, coming mostly from the area near Canton in the coastal region of the Guandong Province. They came across the Pacific because of economics––crushing poverty in their homeland and the lure of seemingly endless jobs in the US, building the transcontinental railroads, working in mines, restaurants and laundries.

By the 1870’s, after the they had finished building the first national transportation system in the US, these workers continued to face the anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the young United States. This xenophobia was codified by such laws as the Page Act of 1875, which was an attempt to stop Chinese prostitutes from entering the country. Since most Chinese women were assumed to work as prostitutes, the law effectively barred almost all Chinese women from legal entry to the US. This legislative impulse culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred entry to all except those who worked in a few professions.

However, there existed a loophole: while Chinese were prevented from arriving from China to the US directly, they could still legally arrive via Mexico. Even after the loophole was closed in 1884, the southern US border continued to be a popular point of entry. Indeed, the Chinese were the first group to be denied legal entry to the US based solely on their nationality––they were the country’s first “illegal immigrants.”

Once anything is declared illegal, enforcement can’t be far behind. The modern US Border Patrol has its roots in the “Chinese Inspectors” first appointed in 1891.

The Anti-Chinese movement in Arizona predated the federal legislation, however. An 1869 headline in Prescott read “MORE CHINAMEN––Three more Chinamen arrived here during the week, and have gone to work. There are now four of them which is quite enough.” Nevertheless, their population continued to grow, in 1879 the same paper declared “Prescott has about 75 or 80 Chinamen, which is 75 or 80 too many. Now is a good time to get rid of them.”

Racist editorials in Arizonan newspapers have a long history indeed. In the 1880’s the Tombstone Epitaph, whose editor and former Apache Indian agent John Clum also organized an Anti-Chinese League to “rid the town of evil.” An aspiring politician, Clum was an early example of an attempt to curry xenophobia into support for a political campaign. In 2003 another Tombstone newspaper was carrying anti-immigrant headlines, such as “Enough is Enough! A Public Call to Arms!” but this time the villains were Mexican and the editor was Chris Simcox, founder of a Minuteman-related group.

This Arizonan pattern isn’t hard to pick out. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain have all used fear of an immigrant invasion to help them win elections in recent years. Sex sells, but fear wins elections.

Whatever decision the Supreme Court makes on 1070, Arizona will still be forced to address the fact that we live in a border state that belonged to another country just a few generations ago. Framing immigration as a “problem to be solved” is a symptom of historical nearsightedness, and only serves politicians on the campaign trail and businesspeople in the board room.

In the wider context of immigration in Arizona, 1070 is just one thread in a much larger tapestry. If we want to deal with this reality, we’ll work towards understanding immigration as a complex web of issues interwoven with the individual experiences of intelligent and capable human beings. No state or federal law is going to “solve” this––it’s up to us to reimagine what it means to live in a border state entering its second century. It is exciting and unavoidable work.

For further reading:

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands.

Luckingham, Bradford. Minorities in Phoenix a Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860-1992.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans and Anglos in Arizona.

Sheridan, Thomas. Arizona: A History.

The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas

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Written for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.4mb).

The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas Between english indie rock and a naked crowd: the new Mexico City?

A couple weeks ago, on a Sunday just before dawn, 20,000 people were standing in the center square of Mexico City. It wasn’t another political protest, or even a particularly popular Catholic mass. No, they were completely naked. And they were standing at attention, saluting, in the freezing cold. It was art for art’s sake.

Later, the photographer Spencer Tunick spoke about why he picked Mexico City for his latest naked installation / photo shoot. “There’s something happening in Mexico City, it’s cultural, it’s going to explode and it’s going to be great. The greatest and newest things can come from Mexico. In my mind, the heart of Latin America is now Mexico.” The New Yorker was apparently seeing something that goes largely unnoticed to people living in the US borderlands. Mexico City, an art capital? Since when?

Some say since NAFTA. Another New York institution, the venerable Times itself, also recently cast its ears on the exploding english-language indie rock scene in the Mexican capital, and through sources cited NAFTA as being one cause of the explosion.

The theory is one that chicano poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña has been openly dreaming about since the early 1990’s––that along with endless KFC’s, Micky-D’s, and Wal-Marts the size of entire pueblos, we would begin to see a free flow of art and artists crossing borders and expectations. Has that time come? Has the coming of the MySpace messiah changed everything?

The energy of Mexico City has always been obvious and overwhelming. “This city is a universe,” says Pilar Rodríguez Aranda, a video artist and writer currently living in Coyoacán, a neighborhood on the southside. The city is so many things at once, and each can be seen through its many names. It is el DF, el distrito federal, the government center, just as DC sets Washington apart from the rest of the nation. It is also chilangolandia, an ego-centric metropolis, cosmopolitan and hip.

It is also––as Pilar calls it––el DFectuoso, the defective center of a torn country. “It’s a mirror of this country so full of contradiction and injustice, of beauty and the poor masses. She’s right, in all this art-talk there’s no denying the city’s plagues. Violence against women on a horrific scale. Drug cartels––financed by sales in the US––with a boot on the neck of every level of government. El narco even recently helped give Mexico the dubious honor of being labeled the second most dangerous nation for working as a journalist––second only to Iraq.

El DF is also of course locked in a perennial arm-wrestle with Tokyo for the right to call itself the biggest city in the world, which is perhaps how it inspires the obsession and envy of other metropolises like New York and Los Angeles. Of course, we’ll never really know if it is literally the biggest, but does that matter? In 1961 some four million people lived in the city. Now, it’s anywhere between twenty and thirty million––take your best guess.

José Manuel Mendoza, an intellectual of many disciplines and native to the city, puts it this way. “[In the middle of the twentieth century] Mexico City represented for the rural poor what the United States does today. It was the land of guaranteed opportunity.” Which of course sparked massive inward migration from the provinces.

Despite all of the comparisons between NYC an LA, there is one fundamental difference to el DF. While New Yorkers and Angelenos have a clear tendency to think they live in the center of the universe, chilangos have evidence, at least as they see it. Over half of the  population of the entire nation lives in Mexico City, and when people in other states refer to it, they usually just call it México. Even more shocking is the history of that demographic. From the Classic Mesoamerican Era onward––long before the arrival of any conquistadores––city-states like Teotihuacan (100 BC-650 AD) and Tenochtitlán (1325-1521 AD) had always been the cultural and popular focus of the region, often holding more people than the rest of the Mexican land-mass combined. 

The word Mexico itself comes into play here, and its original meaning in náhuatl. Mé, meaning moon. Xi, navel. Co place. The place of the moon’s navel. So you could say Mexico City has its own center-of-the-world complex. Maybe any good city worth its weight in concrete does. One of the original Spanish conquistadores, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote that pre-conquest Mexico City––the Mexica capital known as Tenochtitlán––was the most marvelous city he had ever set eyes on. Four times bigger than Sevilla, the largest city in Spain at the time, Tenochtitlán was a shining city built on a series of platforms and islands in a lake surrounded by 15,000’ volcanoes.

Little by little the Spanish drained and filled in the lakes, and built a Catholic church atop every Mexica temple they could find. Which brings us to the earthquakes. Every great city has its origin myth, and each its dark prophecy. For Manhattan, it’s the bay rising twenty feet. LA has the San Andreas and Hollywood, both tempting fate. But el DF is sinking. Its sandy conquest-era foundations can’t support the mestizo jewels of architecture built atop it. As the city sinks, it shakes, settling back down into the earth. And when the fault lines that run through the Sierra Madre––San Andreas’ southern cousin––sends shakes, it’s always el DF that feels them most.

So this city is a little like everywhere, ephemeral and blissfully doomed. Making art in the meantime and fighting for enough to go around. Abortion has been legalized and American Apparel runs a culture rag called Mexico City Monthly. As Pilar says, “it’s natural that in a city this size there are ‘important’ things happening.” But is it natural for 20,000 people to be standing naked at dawn in front of the national cathedral? Entirely. This is the center of the moon’s bellybutton.

One of the Millions III

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The third of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (30.9mb).

In the first two installments of the interview, Carmen explained how six years ago she and her husband David left their hometown of Cuernavaca, Mexico for New York City. She was almost 30 years old at the time. They hired a coyote who arranged for them to cross through Arizona. In their third attempt, after being separated in the desert north of Sasabe, they made it to a house in Phoenix. From there they took a bus through Flagstaff to Las Vegas, and from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. They took flight across the country to NYC, where, a few months later, they were caught up in the horror of September 11th, 2001. In this final segment of the interview, David adds a few of his own observations.

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from the Arizona Border to NYC

Interview and translation by Logan Phillips

The Return

I was there still a year and a half more after September 11th. David two years and a half. He was painting and I was working in a deli in Harrison. Work got scarce after the Towers. People weren’t interested in making improvements on their houses. And even if you are out of work, you still have to pay rent.

Look, I had plans to only be there two years. In October 2002 I bought my return ticket for February 2003. I bought it five months ahead of time, I had made plans ahead of time to return. It wasn’t spontaneous, as if I said “tomorrow I’m leaving.” No. I thought about it, but David told me to think about it more, to stay and save more money. I told him no, because I couldn’t be away from my daughters any longer. They were small, they needed me. He said, “well, go, but I’m staying.” And he did, a year longer than me.

I came back mainly for my daughters. I had nightmares about them there. Many times late at night I would wake up and David would tell me to calm down, but I would cry. I had horrible, ugly dreams. I’d think about them and cry. I talked to them twice a week on the phone. As much as I could. But I tried to save as much money as I could because it cost five dollars every time I would call them, and five dollars would begin to hurt after awhile. They sent me things, photos, and I sent them photos too.

I came back in a plane. Direct to Mexico City. Super easy.

carmen

Thoughts on Immigration

After everything, it wasn’t worth it. It’d be worth it if you’re going legally to visit, because it’s a beautiful country. To go with work lined up, maybe with papers to be there only seasonally. That’d be better. Because, like David says, going like we did, it’s dangerous. You die out there. There are so many who stay out there. Close to Sasábe there is a place called Altar, it’s on the way to the border. In Altar there is a pile of crosses and posters that say “don’t risk your life, don’t cross the desert, don’t cross the mountains, you can die.” It took us exactly 25 days to cross in total.

David says, “Me, to everyone who tells me ‘well, I’m headed there,’ I say, ‘why are you going? You’re abandoning your country. You can work here. You just need intelligence. You’re going up there looking for money, but you can find it here, and with less problems. There you’re going to go every single day to work, you can do that here too. Don’t be lazy.’

“Also, they want to see new things, because a lot of people come back talking about things that aren’t true. ‘There you earn bills hand over fist,’ and all that. ‘I don’t know what to spend my dollars on,’ but it’s all a lie.” They come back showing off, it’s not reality.

We paid more than $500 a month in rent in New York. You don’t save up a lot. I didn’t save my money while I was there, I sent it back to do a little bit of work on my house. Yeah, I added on a little to my house, I put a entrance on my lot. It’s something that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do here as easily. And David saved a little for his taxi. But almost the same as when we left. What is good there is the clothes. The only good thing we brought back with us was good clothes and shoes.

Oh, it felt so good to come back. Lately, although work has been going a little bad for me thanks to the type of bosses I’ve had, I still don’t feel like going back to NYC. Even though it’s a beautiful city, you feel like an outsider. I felt strange, out of my element. I couldn’t just talk to people, “Hola, ¿qué tal?”

But we did some nice things there. For me the coolest thing we did was go to a Paul McCartney concert in Madison Square Garden. That was definitely the coolest thing.

It will never be possible to stop immigration. There is so much poverty in Mexico. We are poor, but there are people way poorer than us. People who can only eat tortillas, chile and salt. It doesn’t matter to them to risk their life to go looking for what is called “the American Dream.” Look, in the US there are people from little villages in Mexico that you can’t believe are there. People from the mountains, from villages that are at the tops of the mountains. One time I met some people from Michoacan who told me they were from some little tiny village, I asked them how they came. The same way, they found a coyote. There are villages here in Mexico where there are no men. They’re all there [in the US].

You know what messes things up financially to go? The coyote. The crossing costs $3,000. That’s $30,000 pesos, more or less. They have a good thing going. Look, the majority of them have already been deported from the US. The guy who crossed us, he was deported. They will never be able to get papers. Maybe someday David and I will be able to get papers, even though we’ve been caught. Maybe with time, I don’t know, some new law, an amnesty or something. Like that they would pardon your sins.

The coyotes are sure it will go well for them, all the better that it’s an illicit, illegal act. But the worst is then when they just leave you, throw you out into the desert. That’s really bad, and that’s why I’ll never go that way again. Never.

Sure, it would be possible to construct a wall along the entire border. But it’s not worth it to the government. And look, Mexicans are clever, they cross in tunnels and drains also. Would it be possible for them to construct the wall? Yes. But would it stop migration? No. See, everything here is a swindle. Like the saying, “he who doesn’t cheat doesn’t get ahead.”

The immigrant work force is a business. It suits the US government not to stop it, and also the Mexican government. It’s a business for them. They only thing they do is control it, nothing else.

David says, “How many millions have they invested in Iraq now? And they can’t close the border? It’s a business. If immigrants don’t enter, who is going to do the work? Everybody that takes care of the kids, that cleans the houses, they’re latino. If the US didn’t want anyone to come in, they could stop it.”

Los Angeles, California, is the city with the second largest Mexican population in the world. More Mexicans than in Mexican cities. More than Guadalajara, more than Puebla.

Look, this is my opinion. I put myself in the place of the people of the US, those who don’t have anything to do with the economy of Mexico, and I think, it’s not their fault things are this way. But yes, there are immigrants who have committed crimes. And that’s why people have a bad impression of all immigrants.

I would tell people in the US to put themselves in our place. The majority, we want to go to work, not to rob anyone of anything. We go to work. And if people gave us that opportunity, if they allowed us to work legally and efficiently, we would take it. Even while working illegally––and I say this not to to brag or to show off––after only two months Khol’s gave me employee of the month twice, paid vacation, prizes. What does that mean? That we would be really efficient employees if it was worth the trouble to go and work. So to those people who have the wrong opinion of the majority of us, they should realize that all we want is to work and nothing more. And we want to do things right.

Carmen and David continue to live and work in Cuernavaca. David works as a wholesaler and at various jobs. Carmen has gone through a string of jobs since he return, but continues perusing her real passion––singing at events with a band––whenever possible. Her daughters are now in middle school.

Since Carmen’s crossing through Arizona, it is estimated by the International Organization for Migration that over three million other Mexicans have left their country and crossed in a similar way, looking for greater opportunities for themselves and their families. Far more than in the past, 45% of those three million immigrants were women. The number of unaccompanied minors is also growing. 7,000 were caught and deported in 2005.

One of the Millions II

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The second of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (18.7mb).

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

Sasábe

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?”

“Coyote so-and-so.”

“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.

One of the Millions

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The first of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.7mb).

Carmen is a woman in her early 30’s, born in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City. Six years ago this month she started a journey that took her across Mexico and into Arizona. Her ultimate goal was New York City, where she arrived just in time to experience the events of September 11th, 2001. What follows is her story, as she herself tells it.

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from Cuernavaca to NYC

interview and translation by Logan Phillips

Preparations

We left February 15th, 2001. It was a normal day, just like that song that says, “it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold.”

We had decided in October of 2000. I was working in a coffee shop, selling little cakes, chocolates. We decided to go because... well, my husband, David, he wanted to go more because he has a brother that lives in New York and he offered David a good job, as a painter. I wentto try my luck, to try a new way of living my life. Maybe it was curiosity, but more it was the necessity to earn a little bit more money in less time.

But we needed a lot of money just to go. We had $6,500 for the two of us.

We also needed a good coyote. A friend recommended him to us, we didn’t know him. He’s from Puebla, he came here to Cuernavaca to talk to us about it. We crossed through Arizona because the coyote told us to. He’s the one that decides the route you’ll take, you can’t say, “no, I think we’ll go through Tijuana.” No, you make a deal with the coyote and the only thing you’re interested in is making it to the other side. You pay him and he has to figure out how to get you there––all the way to wherever you want to go, to Wisconsin if you want. But you don’t pay him before. You give him the name of the person who will send the money, and you pay him when you arrive.

He gave us advice, like not to bring backpacks, packages, but to dress warm because it’s really cold. No photos in your wallet, and just a little bit of money. He told us not to be scared, that we’d jump the wall and that’d be it.

My oldest daughter was ten years old, and the younger one was seven. I told them that I had to go work, that they needed to wait for me for awhile. Although they didn’t understand it, they had to accept it. They stayed here, with my mother. They cried, and felt like we were abandoning them. It was hard.

My mother and father gave me a lot of advice, that I should be careful what I get myself into and who I make deals with. Since I was young my dad has always taught us to be honest. David’s family told him to behave, and not get drunk all the time. They just told us to be careful, especially when the time comes to jump. Also to be careful of the cholos because they’ll assault you.

carmen

Nogales

We left on a bus from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, to the airport. Then in a plane to Hermosillo [capital of the state of Sonora]. There we hired a suburban, which is like a taxi, but for a lot of people, and it took us to Nogales. I didn’t know anything about northern Mexico. It’s like David says, “I didn’t know any farther than my eyes could see.”

Nogales is ugly. It looks like an abandoned city. The whole border is ugly.

We arrived at a hotel. The coyote had told us where we would meet again, in that hotel. It obviously wasn’t a luxury place, normal rooms, normal beds. He was already there waiting for us, and that same night we tried the first time. That first time is when the cholos showed up, the guys who live on the border and make a living of attacking people. They’ll take your shoes, your watch. But that night they just were making noise, shouting our way. See, they also want to jump, so when you try, they’ll make a big show so that you won’t make it.

We had to jump from really high in Nogales. The wall was fourteen or fifteen feet high. But the jump is the least of it. The important thing is to get to a safe place where you’ll be able to get transport to where you’re going. Sure, you jump in Nogales, but to get to the next populated place, it’s unbelievably hard.

You arrive like a soldier, chest on the ground, dragging yourself. More than half a mile like that, dragging yourself like you were a worm. Like that. But the cold, it gives you all its got. Our jackets weren’t thick enough.

There were six of us crossing. David and me, our cousin, a couple and another guy. Two kids from Puebla guided us. Ah, because see, it’s not the coyote who brings you, the coyote sends the people who will bring you. No, the coyote doesn’t hang around there, he passes you to a helper and says “take them, you know where to go.” And they were young! Not even eighteen years old. From Nogales we hoofed it the whole way.

We made it to a ravine at about eleven that night, and we were there all night and all the next day, without eating, just sleeping. We were hugging one another, trying to get rid of the cold. It was unbearable, to the bones. We couldn’t lick our lips because the spit would freeze. We hadn’t drank any water, hadn’t gone to the bathroom––much less taken a shower––in two days. A lot of animals came while we were there. If you get hurt, you’ll die there. It’s really risky. People don’t realize.

We just huddled in that hole. I didn’t know absolutely anything about Arizona, just some photos and maps on the computer, and the desert, which is the famous thing. And Tucson thanks to that Beatles song that says “Tucson, Arizona,” but that was it. [laughs]

A car came for us the second night. We all piled in, all pressed together, it was horrible. I thought that the car was going to take us to a safe place, but that car didn’t bring us anywhere. They threw us in the desert. They told us that we were going to just walk for half an hour, then we’d meet another car to take us to Tucson. We had to go around the checkpoints, but they keep saying things so that you don’t get scared, but it isn’t true. That night they threw us out of the car at about nine.

That was the most traumatic for me. We had two gallons of water that we got from the car. Our feet sank in the sand, our sneakers filled up with it. We jumped some barbwire. I fell flat on my face. The highway was about a mile away, and they have this red light out there that detects your iris and they’ll know you’re there. All kinds of technology. But it’s stupid because they know that there’s a lot of people passing anyway. We walked all that night.

We hadn’t eaten anything. David started getting really mad at the guides. We got to an underpass on the freeway, before Tucson. The guides kept saying “there’s the car,” lying so that you’ll wait. We were really disillusioned. We went out to the freeway and waited, I said it wouldn’t be long before someone called us in. Half an hour later, the migra arrived. One of the guys with us had lived in Brooklyn before, and he started talking to them in English. “We’re tired, we’re hungry.” They rounded us all up and brought us all the way back to... Nogales!

The migra was really nice. We can’t say anything bad about them. They took us to the station to get our information. Later, in Mexico, we called the coyote because he always has people in the hotels, waiting to send them. We got to the hotel with our clothes in rags, he saw us and said “I thought you two were already in Phoenix!” We started to talk, and he said he was going to send us through Sasábe.

We got to Sasábe [a small bordertown east of Nogales], another horrible place, there isn’t anything there. We were there about a week, not doing anything. We were in this house with tons of people, about fifty. Everybody together, Salvadorians, everybody, waiting their turn. Waiting.

Carmen continues her story next month, telling of how she and David became separated during their second attempt, and how they eventually made it to Los Angeles.