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3.4: Cantú, Francisco "Bajadas" (2015)

  • Page ID
    40384
  • Bajadas ba-ja-da noun

    1: a steep curved descending road or trail

    2: an alluvial plain formed at the base of a mountain by the coalescing of several alluvial fans

    Origin 1865-70, Americanism: from the Spanish feminine past participle of bajar: to descend

    December 20

    Santiago quit the academy yesterday. We were on our way into town when I heard the news, speeding across the cold and brittle grasslands of New Mexico. Morales must have told me, or maybe it was Hart. I called Santiago as soon as I found out. You don’t have to quit, I told him, you can still finish, you should stay. I can’t, he said, it’s not the work for me. I have to go back to Puerto Rico; I have to be with my family. I wished him luck and told him I was sorry to see him go. He thanked me and said to finish for the both of us, and I promised that I would.

    Of all my classmates, it was Santiago I most wanted to see graduate. He marched out of step, his gear was a mess, he couldn’t handle his weapon, and it took him over fifteen minutes to run the mile and a half. But he tried harder than any of us. He sweat the most, yelled the loudest. He was thirty-eight, an accountant from Puerto Rico, a husband and a father. Yesterday, he left the firing range with a pocket full of live rounds, and the instructors ordered him to sing “I’m a Little Teapot” in front of the class. He didn’t know the song, so they suggested “God Bless America.” He belted out the chorus at the top of his lungs, his chest heaving after each line. We laughed, all of us, at his thick accent, at the misremembered verses, at his voice, off-key and quaking.

    In town, over drinks, Hart went on about the winters in Detroit. I can’t go back there, he said, not like Santiago. Fuck that. He asked Morales and me about winter in Arizona. Morales laughed. You don’t have to worry about snow where we’re going, vato, that’s for sure. Hart thought it sounded nice. Nice, I asked? Just wait until the summer. Have you ever felt 115 degrees? Hell no, he said. Well, I told him, we’ll be out in the heat, fetching dead bodies from the desert. Who the fuck walks in the desert when it’s 115, he asked? I drank my way through another beer and went rambling on about how everyone used to cross in the city, in San Diego and El Paso, until they shut it all down in the ’90s with fences and newly hired Border Patrol agents like us. If they sealed the cities, they thought, people wouldn’t risk crossing in the mountains and the deserts. But they were wrong, I said, and now we’re the ones who get to deal with it. Morales looked at me, his eyes dark and buried beneath his brow. I’m sorry, I told them, I can’t help it—I studied this shit in school.

    On our way back to the academy, I sat in the backseat of Morales’ truck. In the front, Morales told Hart about growing up on the border in Douglas, about uncles and cousins on the south side, and I sat with my head against the cold glass of the window, staring at the darkened plain, slipping in and out of sleep.

    3 January

    Last week, my mother flew in from Arizona to see me, because—she said—we’ve never missed a Christmas together. She picked me up at the academy on Christmas Eve and we drove through the straw-colored hills, leaving behind the trembling Chihuahuan grasslands as we climbed into the evergreen mountains of southern New Mexico. We stayed the night in a two-room cabin, warm and bright with pinewood. We set up a miniature tree on the living room table, decorating it with tiny glass bulbs. Then, wrapped in blankets, we laughed and drank eggnog and brandy until the conversation deteriorated into discussion of my impending work.

    Look, my mother said, I spent most of my adult life working for the government as a park ranger, so don’t take this the wrong way—but don’t you think it’s below you, earning a degree just to become a border-cop? Look, I said, I spent four years away from home, studying this place through facts, policy, and history. I’m tired of reading. I want to exist outside, to know the reality of this border, day in and day out. Are you crazy, she said? You grew up with me, living in deserts and national parks. We’ve never been far from the border. Sure, I said, but I don’t truly understand the landscape, I don’t know how to handle myself in the face of ugliness or danger. My mother balked. There are ways to learn that don’t place you at risk, she said, ways that let you help people. I fumed. I can still help people, I told her—I speak Spanish, I’ve lived in Mexico, I’ve been to the places where people are coming from. And don’t worry, I told her, I won’t place myself at risk—I’m not too proud to back away from danger.

    Good, she said. We hugged, and she told me she was happy I’d soon be back home in Arizona, closer to her. Before bed, we each opened a single present, as we have done every Christmas Eve since I can remember.

    In the morning, we ate brunch at the town’s historic hotel, feasting on pot roast by a crackling fire. Afterward we climbed the stairs to a narrow lookout tower where people crowded and huddled together in jackets, walking in slow circles to take in the view. Below us, an expanse of sunlit plain stretched westward from the base of the mountain. I watched as the landscape shifted under the winter light. Behind me, my mother placed her hand on my shoulder and pointed to a cloud of gypsum sand in the distance, impossibly small, swirling across the basin desert.

    24 February

    We caught our first dope load today, only our second day after arriving at the station from the academy. We were east of the port of entry when the sensor hit at Sykes trail. At the trailhead, Cole, our supervisor, found foot sign for eight and had us pile out of the vehicles. For four miles we made our way toward the mountains following toe digs and kicked-over rocks. Cole went in front and called us up one by one to watch us cut sign. We found the first bundle discarded among the boulders at the base of the pass. We spread out to comb the hillsides and after about ten minutes we had recovered two backpacks filled with food and clothes and four more fifty-pound bundles wrapped in sugar sacks spray-painted black. Cole had us dump the packs, and I watched as several of my classmates ripped and tore at the clothing, scattering it among the tangled branches of mesquite and paloverde. In one of the backpacks, I found a laminated prayer card depicting Saint Jude, a tongue of flames hovering above his head. Morales found a pack of cigarettes and sat smoking on a rock as others laughed loudly and stepped on a heap of food. Nearby, Hart giggled and shouted to us as he pissed on a pile of ransacked belongings. As we hiked with the bundles back to our vehicles the February sun grew low in the sky and cast a warm light over the desert. At the edge of the trail, in the pink shade of a paloverde, a desert tortoise raised itself up on its front legs to watch us pass.

    2 April

    Tonight we stood for hours in the darkness along the pole line. After we had tired of the cold and the buzzing of the power lines, Cole had us lay a spike strip across the dirt road and return to wait in our vehicles parked in a nearby wash. We sat with the engines on and the heat blasting, and after a few minutes of silence, Morales asked Cole why some of the agents at the station called him “Black Death.” He laughed and pulled a can of Copenhagen from his shirt pocket. You have to be careful, he said, the Indians out here, when they’re drunk and walking at night between the villages, they fall asleep on the fucking road. He packed the can as he spoke, swinging his right arm and thumping his forefinger across the lid. When it’s cold out, he explained, the asphalt holds warmth from the sun, even at night. A few years ago, I was working the midnight shift, driving down IR9, and I saw this fucking Indian asleep in the middle of the road. I stopped the truck and woke his ass up. His brother was there with him, sleeping in the bushes. They were drunk as hell. Cole pinched a wad of dip into his mouth. His lower lip bulged, catching the green light from the control panel. I gave the guys a ride into the next village, he said, dropped them off at their cousin’s place. Told them not to sleep on the goddamn road. Cole grabbed an empty Pepsi cup from the center console and spit. Maybe nine or ten months later, he continued, same fucking spot, I ran over the guy, killed him right there. Same fucking guy, asleep on the damn road. I never even saw him. After that, they started calling me Black Death. Cole laughed and spat into his cup and a few of us laughed with him, not knowing exactly what kind of laugh it was.

    Just after midnight, a blacked-out truck roared across the spikes and three of its tires went. We tore after it, speeding blindly through a cloud of dust until we realized the vehicle had turned. We doubled back to where the tire sign left the road and followed it until we found the truck abandoned at the foot of a hill. In the back of the truck we found two marijuana bundles and a .22 rifle. Cole sent us to scour the hillside with our flashlights, but we only found one other bundle. It’s a fucking gimme load, Cole said. I asked what he meant. It’s a goddamn distraction, that’s what. They’re waiting us out. But my classmates and I didn’t care, we were high from the chase. We drove the truck into a wash until it became stuck, and slashed the unpopped tire, leaving it there with the lights on and the engine running. On the way back to the station, I asked Cole what would happen to the truck. He told me he’d call the tribal police to seize the vehicle, but I knew he wouldn’t. Even if he did, they wouldn’t come for it, they wouldn’t want the paperwork either. They, too, would leave it here to be ransacked, picked over, and lit on fire—evidence of a swirling disorder.

    4 April

    After sundown, Cole sent Morales up a hill near the highway with a thermal reconnaissance camera. Let me borrow your beanie, vato, he said to me, it’s cold out. I handed it to him and stayed inside the vehicle, waiting with the others. An hour later, he spotted a group of ten just east of mile marker five. We rushed out of the car and set out on foot as he guided us in on the radio, but by the time we reached the group, they had already scattered. We found them one by one, huddled in the brush and curled up around the trunks of paloverde trees and cholla cactus. Not one of them ran. We made them take off their shoelaces and empty their backpacks, and we walked all ten of them single file back to the road. For a while I walked next to an older man who told me they were all from Michoacan. It’s beautiful there, I said. Yes, he replied, but there’s no work. You’ve been to Michoacan, he asked? I told him I had. Then you must have seen what it is to live in Mexico, he said. And now you see what it is like for us at the border. Pues si, I said, we’re out here every day. For a while we walked silently next to each other and then, after several minutes, he sighed deeply. Hay mucha desesperacion, he told me, almost whispering. I tried to look at his face, but it was too dark.

    At the station, I processed the man for deportation, and he asked me after I had taken his fingerprints if there was any work at the station for him. You don’t understand, I said, you’ve just got to wait here until the bus comes. They’ll take you to Tucson and then to Nogales and then you’ll be back in Mexico. I understand, he assured me, I just want to know if there is something I can do while I wait, something to help. I can take out the trash or clean out the cells. I want to show you that I’m here to work, that I’m not a bad person, that I m not here to bring in drugs, I’m not here to do anything illegal. I want to work. I looked at him. I know that, I said.

    7 April

    Sunday night, Cole showed us the layup spot where he had almost been run over by smugglers. He led us to a wide wash full of old blankets and discarded clothes and pieces of twine and empty cans of tuna and crushed water bottles. We climbed out of the wash and walked to a nearby cactus, a tall and sprawling chain-fruit cholla, and Cole asked if any of us had hand sanitizer. Someone tossed him a small bottle and he emptied the gel on the black trunk of the cactus. Cole asked for a lighter and with it, he lit the gel and stepped back to watch the flames crawl up the trunk, crackling and popping as they engulfed the plant’s spiny arms. In the light from the fire, Cole packed his can of dip and took a pinch into his mouth. His bottom lip shone taut and smooth, his shaved black skin reflecting the flames. He spit into the fire and the rest of us stood with him in a circle around the cholla as it burned, laughing loudly, taking pictures and video with our phones, watching as thick smoke billowed into the night, filling the air with the burnt smell of tar and resin, like freshly laid asphalt.

    9 April

    Cole was ahead scouting the trail in the darkness when he radioed about the mountain lion. Come with your sidearms drawn, he said. We figured he was full of shit. We had been talking loudly, walking with our flashlights on—surely a mountain lion would shy away. We continued down the trail until the ground leveled off, and it was then that a grave hiss issued up from the darkness beside us, a sound like hot wind escaping the depths of the earth. Holy fucking shit, we said. We drew our sidearms and shuffled down the path back-to-back, casting light in all directions around us. In that moment, I felt a profound and immediate fear—not of the danger posed to us by the animal, but rather, the idea that it would show itself to us, so many men armed and heedless, that it would be shot down and fit on fire and left here beside the trail, another relic of a desert unspooling.

    7 June

    There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks full of food and clothes, how to explain what we do when we discover their layup spots stocked with water and stashed rations. Of course, what you do depends on who you’re with, depends on what kind of agent you are, what kind of agent you want to become, but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze, and Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize then their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue on, and they’ll quit right then and there, they’ll save themselves, they’ll struggle toward the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent or they’ll head for the nearest parched village to knock on someone’s door, someone who will give them food and water and call us to take them in—that’s the idea, the sense in it all. But still I have nightmares, visions of them staggering through the desert, men from Michoacan, from places I’ve known, men lost and wandering without food or water, dying slowly as they look for some road, some village, some way out. In my dreams I seek them, searching in vain until finally I am met by their bodies lying face-down on the ground before me, dead and stinking on the desert floor, human waypoints in a vast and smoldering expanse.

    23 June

    Last month, we were released from the training unit and dispersed into rotating shifts to work under journeymen agents. For the past week, I’ve been partnered with Mortenson, a four-year veteran and the Mormon son of a Salt Lake City cop. This morning, at dawn, we sat together in the port of entry and watched from the camera room as two men and a woman cut a hole in the pedestrian fence. Mortenson and I bolted from the room and ran to the site of the breach, rounding the corner just in time to see the two men already scrambling back through the hole to Mexico. The woman stood motionless beside the fence, too scared to run. As Mortenson inspected the breach, the girl wept, telling me it was her birthday, that she was turning twenty-three, and she pleaded for me to let her go, swearing she would never cross again. Mortenson turned and took a long look at the woman and then laughed. I booked her last week, he said.

    She spoke hurriedly to us as we walked back to the port of entry, and while Mortenson went inside to gather our things, I stood with her in the parking lot. She told me she was from Guadalajara, that she had some problems there, that she had already tried four times to cross. She swore to me that she would stay in Mexico for good this time, that she would finally go back to finish music school. Te lo juro, she said. She looked at me and smiled. Someday I’m going to be a singer, you know. I believe it, I said, smiling back. She told me that she thought I was nice, and before Mortenson returned from the port, she snuck her counterfeit green card into my hand, telling me she didn’t want to get in trouble if they found it on her at the processing center. When Mortenson came back, we helped her into the patrol vehicle and drove north toward the station, laughing and applauding as she sang to us from the backseat. She’s going to be a singer, I told Mortenson. The woman beamed. She already is, he said.

    27 July

    Last night, finally allowed to patrol on my own, I sat watching storms roll across the moonlit desert. There were three of them: the first due south in Mexico; the second in the east, creeping down from the mountains; the third hovering just behind me, close enough for me to feel smatterings of rain and gusts of warm wind. In the distance, hot lightning appeared like a line of neon, illuminating the desert in a shuddering white light.

    30 July

    Agents found Martin Ubalde de la Vega and his three companions on the bombing range ten miles west of the highway. At the time of rescue, the four men had been in the desert for six days and had wandered in the July heat for more than forty-eight hours without food or water. By the time they were found, one of the men had already met his death. Of the survivors, one was quickly treated and discharged from the hospital, while another remained in intensive care, recently awoken from a coma, unable to remember his own name. When I arrived at the hospital asking for the third survivor, nurses explained that he was recovering from kidney failure and they guided me to his room, where he lay hidden like a dark stone in white sheets.

    I had been charged with watching over de la Vega until his condition was stable, at which point I would transport him to the station to be processed for deportation. I settled in a chair next to him, and after several moments of silence, I asked him to tell me about himself. He answered timidly, as if unsure of what to say or even how to speak. He began by apologizing for his Spanish, explaining that he only knew what they had taught him in school. He told me he came from the jungles of Guerrero, that in his village they spoke Mixtec and farmed the green earth. He was the father of seven children, he said, five girls and two boys. His elder daughter lived in California and he had crossed the border with plans to go there, to live with her and find work.

    We spent the following hours watching telenovelas and occasionally de la Vega would turn to ask me about the women in America, wondering if they were like the ones on TV. Then, smiling, he began to tell me about his youngest daughter, still in Mexico. She’s just turned eighteen, he said. You could marry her.

    Later that afternoon, de la Vega was cleared for release. The nurse brought in his belongings—a pair of blue jeans and sneakers with holes worn through the soles. I asked what had happened to his shirt. I don’t know, he told me. I looked at the nurse and she shrugged, telling me he had come that way. We’ve got no clothes here, she added, only hospital gowns. As we exited the building, I imagined de la Vega’s embarrassment, the fear he must have at remaining bare-chested as he was to be ferried through alien territory, booked and transferred between government processing centers and bussed to the border to enter his country alone and half naked.

    At the patrol vehicle, I placed de la Vega in the passenger seat and popped the trunk. At the back of the cruiser, I undid my gun belt, unbuttoned my uniform shirt, and removed my white v-neck. Then I reassembled my uniform and returned to the passenger door and offered de la Vega my undershirt. Before leaving town, I asked de la Vega if he was hungry. You should eat something now, I told him, at the station there’s only juice and crackers. De la Vega agreed and I asked what he was hungry for. What do Americans eat, he asked? I laughed. Here we eat mostly Mexican food. He looked at me unbelievingly. But we also eat hamburgers, I said. As we pulled into the drive-thru window at McDonalds, de la Vega told me he didn’t have any money. Yo te invito, I said.

    As we drove south along the open highway, I tuned into a Mexican radio station and we listened to the sounds of norteno as de la Vega finished his meal. After he had eaten, de la Vega sat silently next to me, watching the passing desert. Then, quietly, as if whispering to me or to someone else, he began to speak of the rains in Guerrero, about the wet and green jungle, and I wondered if he could have ever been made to imagine a place like this—a place where one of his companions would meet his death and another would be made to forget his own name, a landscape where the earth still burned with volcanic heat.

    4 August

    This evening as I cut for sign along the border road, I watched a Sonoran coachwhip snake try to find its way into Mexico through the pedestrian fence. The animal slithered along the length of the mesh looking for a way south, hitting its head against the rusted metal again and again until finally I guided it over to the wide opening of a wash grate. After the snake made its way across the adjacent road, I stood for a while looking through the mesh, staring at the undulating tracks it left in the dirt.

    7 August

    Yesterday, on the border road, a woman on the south side of the pedestrian fence flagged me down as 1 passed. I stopped my vehicle and went over to her. With panic in her voice she asked me if I knew about her son he had crossed days ago, she said, or maybe it was a week ago, she wasn’t sure. She hadn’t heard anything from him, no one had, and she didn’t know if he had been caught or if he was lost somewhere in the desert or if he was even still alive. Estamos desesperados, she told me, her voice quivering, with one hand clawing at her chest and the other pressed trembling against the border fence. I don’t remember what I told her, if I took down the mans name or if I gave her the phone number to some faraway office or remote hotline, but I remember thinking later about de la Vega, about his dead and delirious companions, about all the questions I should have asked the woman. I arrived home that evening and threw my gun belt and uniform across the couch, standing alone in my cavernous living room. I called my mother. I’m safe, I told her, I’m at home.

    29 August

    At the end of the night, Mortenson called me into the processing room and asked me to translate for two girls who had just been brought in, nine- and ten-year-old sisters who were picked up with two women at the checkpoint. He told me to ask them basic questions: Where is your mother? In California. Who are the women who brought you here? Friends. Where are you from? Sinaloa. The girls peppered me with nervous questions in return: When could they go home? Where were the women who drove them, when were they coming back? Could they call their mother? I tried to explain things to them, but they were too young, too bewildered, too distraught at being surrounded by men in uniform. One of the agents brought the girls a bag of Skittles, but even then they couldn’t smile, they couldn’t say thank you, they just stood there, looking at the candy with horror.

    After the girls were placed in a holding cell, I told Mortenson I had to leave. My shift’s over, I said. He told me they still needed to interview the women who were picked up with the girls and asked me to stay and translate. I can’t help anymore, I told him, I have to go home. As I drove away from the station, I tried not to think of the girls and my hands shook at the wheel. I wanted to call my mother, but it was too late, it was the middle of the night.

    30 August

    Last night I dreamed I was grinding my teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands, searching for someone to show them to, someone who could see what was happening.

    12 September

    Morales was the first to hear him, screaming in the distance from one of the spider roads. He hiked for a mile or two and found the kid lying on the ground, hysterical. For more than twenty-four hours he had been lost in a vast mesquite thicket. The coyote who left him there told him he was holding back the group and handed him half a liter of water, pointing to some hills in the distance, telling him to walk at them until he found a road. When I arrived with the water, the kid was on the ground next to Morales, lurching in the shade and crying like a child. The kid was fat—his pants hung from his ass and his fly was half open, his zipper broken, his shirt hanging loosely from his shoulders, inside out and torn and soaked in sweat. Morales looked at me and smiled and then turned to the kid. Your waters here, Gordo. I kneeled next to him and handed him the gallon jug. He took a sip and began to pant and groan. Drink more, I said, but drink slowly. I can’t, he moaned, I’m going to die. No you’re not, I told him, you’re still sweating.

    After the kid drank some water, we helped him up and tried walking him through the thicket toward the road. He lagged and staggered, crying out behind us. Ay oficial, he would moan, no puedo. As we crouched and barged through tangled branches, I slowly became overwhelmed by his panic until finally we broke out of the thicket and spotted the dirt road. You see the trucks, Gordo? Can you make it that far? Maybe we should just leave you here, no puedes, verdad?

    On the ride back to the station, the kid regained some composure. He was nineteen years old, he told me, and had planned to go to Oregon to sell heroine, un puno a la vez. You can make a lot of money that way, he told me. For several minutes the kid was silent. You know, he finally said, I really thought I was going to die in that thicket. I prayed to God that I would get out, I prayed to the Virgin and to all the saints, to every saint I could think of. It’s strange, he said, I’ve never done that before. I’ve never believed in God.

    30 September

    Today I went to the hospital to see Morales. He was in a motorcycle accident two weeks ago and wasn’t wearing his helmet. For a while we had been hearing at the station that he might not make it. I was too afraid to see him a week ago when he was in a coma and I was afraid, still, to see him a few days later after he had come out of it, when he would wake up cursing and pulling his tubes out, when he still didn’t recognize anybody. When I finally saw him, I was surprised how thin he was, how frail. He had bruises under his deep-set eyes, a feeding tube in his nose, an iv line in his arm, and a huge gash across the left side of his skull where half his hair had been shaved off. Ey vato, he said to me quietly. I smiled at him. I like your haircut, I said. As Morales spoke to me he seemed far away, his eyes scanning the room as if searching for some landmark, something to suggest the nature of the place he had come to. His childhood friend from Douglas was there. He told me Morales couldn’t see out of his left eye, but that doctors thought the sight would come back eventually. His mother and father were there too, speaking quietly to each other in Spanish. A little while after I arrived, Cole and Hart came, and as they stood talking at his bedside, I could see a wet glaze in Cole’s eyes. I excused myself from the room, telling everyone I’d come back, but I didn’t.

    13 October

    Last week I took the border road out to the lava flow, driving for more than an hour across rocky hills and long valleys. The earth became darker as I neared the flow, devoid of plants and cactus. To the south a pale band of sand dunes underlined the base of a nameless cordillera, shifting at the horizon in shades of purple and dark clay. I drove across the lava flow and looked over black rocks glistening as if wet under the afternoon sun, rocks pockmarked from a time when the earth melted and simmered between erupting volcanoes, a molten crust cracking and shifting as it cooled.

    25 December

    At midnight on Christmas Eve, just before the end of my shift, I heard gunshots ring out in Mexico. I stopped my vehicle at the top of a small hill and stood on the roof to watch the sparkling of fireworks along the southern horizon. After returning home, I woke my mother who had come to visit for the holiday, her eyes bleary with worry and sleep. We sat in my empty living room in the night-weary hours of the morning, drinking eggnog and stringing popcorn around an artificial tree. My mother asked about my shift. It was fine, I said. She asked me if I liked my work, if I was learning what I wanted. It’s not something to like, I said, it’s not a classroom. It’s a job, and I’m getting used to it, and I’m getting good at it. I can make sense of what that means later.

    You know, my mother said, it’s not just your safety I worry about. I know how the soul can be placed at hazard fighting impossible battles. I spent my whole career working for the government, slowly losing a sense of purpose even though I remained close to the outdoors, close to my passion. I don’t want that for you.

    I cut her off—I didn’t want to tell about my dreams of dead bodies, about the fires burning in the desert, about my hands shaking at the wheel. Mom—I said—let’s open a present.

    30 December

    Tonight the scope truck spotted a group of twenty just north of the line. The operator said they were moving slowly, that it looked as if there might be women and children in the group. He guided us in, and we quickly located their sign and then lost it again across a stretch of hard-packed desert pavement. We split up and combed the hillside, hunting for toe digs and kicked-over rocks. On the walk back to the car, I became furious. There were supposed to be twenty of them, they were supposed to be slow, but still I couldn’t catch up, I couldn’t stay on the sign, I couldn’t even get close enough to hear them in the distance, and so now they remained out there in the desert: men, women, and children, entire families invisible and unheard, and I was powerless to help them, powerless to keep them from straying through the night and the cold.

    Attributions

    After its original publication in Ploughshares, this creative nonfiction essay won a place in the Best American Essays of 2016. It would later be developed into an award-winning, book-length work of Creative Nonfiction called La línea se convierte en río: Una crónica de la frontera, or The Line Becomes a River (Penguin 2018). The true story, written in epistolary form, follows third generation Mexican-American immigrant and former border patrol agent Francisco Cantú as he navigates the physical, interpersonal, and moral challenges of the borderlands. This text is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 and must be reproduced in its original format along with link attributions to Ploughshares and Francisco Cantú.

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