February 19, 2010
At the San Antonio bus station, the Americanos bus idled in lane two. I got on line behind a young guy on crutches, a desert-camouflage rucksack on his back that read “National Guardsmen Since 1836.” Overhead announcements continued to blare for the McAllen/Brownsville/Matamoros route now boarding.
A second-generation Texas-Mexican, I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border and have been living in New York City for the past 16 years. All last year I kept up with the papers and watched the nightly reports about the increasing border violence and the spread of swine flu. I endured the fear mongers who insisted on more agents, even troops, and those who made taco jokes at our expense. Even my mother, who still lived in the Rio Grande Valley, made me wince when she admitted in her Sunday night phone calls that things back home had “gotten bien ugly.”
I remembered a different place, where panaderías sold gingerbread pig cookies and going across the border was just a routine, care-free activity to buy birthday piñatas and string puppets for us kids, discount cartons of Salems for my father and sacks of candied pumpkin for my mother.
So while I was in San Antonio recently, I decided to head back to see just how bad and broken the border was.
Climbing aboard the bus, I nearly tore my pressed, button-down shirt on a cheap, jerry-rigged clothes hanger sticking out of the inside panel of the front door. It’s something I wouldn’t have noticed growing up because do-it-yourself fixes were such a regular part of our make-do life along the border. We baked enchiladas with blocks of government cheese, insulated house windows with aluminum foil and drove around with gallon jugs of water in our used cars to pour into overheated radiators.
On the bus, I took a seat in the second row, and a young couple with a toddler took the seat behind me—only the man explained to the driver, "M'just dropping her off, sir.”
The couple kissed, and the man reassured the woman, "Call y'later." On his way back out, he told the driver, "Dios lo bendiga."
The young woman pulled her daughter to the window and went through a mom and daughter ventriloquist act, saying, "Bye, Papi. I love you."
Our driver, in a white button-down shirt, black clip-on tie hanging to one side and a bright yellow vest worn over the whole uniform, chatted in Spanish with one of the other drivers. They commiserated about their nagging coughs, speaking of them as if they were women they couldn't shake. "N'hombre, hasta limón con miel l’hecho—y no me deja,” one said.
Just as our driver was about to shut the door and take us on our way, the other driver called out, "Tienes uno más." A Mexican-Mexican, as we used to say, meaning he was from across the river. Wearing a pair of Wranglers, a straw cowboy hat in his hands, the man stood quietly at the bottom of the staircase.
"Vámonos," the driver hollered before the man even dared come aboard.
He took a seat in the front row, but not before politely asking the driver if it was okay to sit there. "Cómo que no," the driver said and got behind the wheel.
Pulling out of the station and into the downtown streets, the young mother was already phoning the man she’d left behind, alternately scolding her daughter—"Gorda, siéntate, porque vamos ir b'bye!"—and pulling her over to speak on the cell phone with her daddy.
I looked over at the man who'd come in last. I've always been startled by men like these—men like my father, who grew up picking cotton and was weathered from too much work in the sun, his skin now like that of a battered leather wallet, but who still managed to clean up good.
This man wore a gray polo that matched his trim mustache and his salt-and-pepper hair. His straw hat looked so pristine that he might've just bought it for that trip south. He looked, as we say, bien arregla'o, bien planchadito. It would've made any mama proud. It’s why I’d dressed up, too.
As the miles ticked off and the landscape went from suburban monotony to dense thickets of mesquite and nopal, I didn't think we'd make so much as a stop during the four-hour ride down to the Valley. But in Falfurrias, just before the border checkpoint and 50 miles from the border wall that is being built, the bus pulled into one of those sprawling service stations, and the driver announced, "Fifteen minutes. Quince minutos."
After the break, all of us back in our seats and ready to get back on the road, the driver couldn’t get the door closed. He used one hand to pull the wire hanger and the other to push a button on the dashboard. "Ay, puertita," he said, as he tried again and the hydraulic mechanism failed with a defeated sigh.
He turned to the Mexican in the gray shirt and explained that he’d been assured he wouldn't have trouble with the door. He was told he’d make it all the way to Matamoros. "Allí estan los mecánicos," he said.
While the driver pulled on the door, the Mexican pushed the dashboard button, and the rest of us sat in silence—except for la Gorda, who began to act up and got a new name to match her attitude. "Pórtate bien, Chiflada,” her mother snapped.
We needed more than the blessing we’d been given at the start of the trip, so the driver got off in search of help and returned with a crowbar. Back inside the bus, he tried to pry the door shut, while outside a much older man and some kids, whom I took to be his grandchildren, watched. They were dressed in camouflage, the old man standing tall in a hunter's cap, as if they were on their way to shoot paloma, venado or javelina.
This was what I’d come for: to see these faces and hear these voices all around me. It proved that we were still the people I knew us to be, not the terrible outlaws they reported on TV, which I had nearly believed. Having been away from home for so many years and so many miles, I was being reminded as I drew closer that even when certain things in our life circumstances seemed broken, our spirit wasn’t.
Once the bus door was forced shut, the crowbar was passed through the driver's window to the grandfather and the kids and the young father who came around later—all three generations of one South Texas family.
Starting the bus engine, the driver called to the Mexican behind him. "Gracias por tu ayuda."
"No, pos, de nada," the Mexican said with the typical humility that has always bewildered my American need to take credit.
But it was more than nothing. He’d brought us that much closer to getting home. And for the rest of the ride, I was hopeful that we’d figure a way to hold it together and keep going.
Erasmo Guerra is a writer living in New York City.