The migrant’s tale

Sure it’s progressive to sympathise with young undocumented migrants, but it also locks them into a victimhood narrative

All photos by Jorge Santiago

is a writer whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in Harper’sPacific StandardOxford AmericanThe Paris Review DailyGuernica and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of Vela and a current Fulbright fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her first book, Homing Instincts, is forthcoming from Pantheon and Vintage 

3,700 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

I had been travelling around the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca in Mexico for months, talking to returned migrants – men who spent decades in laundromats in Los Angeles or shovelling snow off the highways of Indianapolis or serving burritos to the paunchy Republicans of Cincinnati – before I wound up in the tiny mountain village of San Pedro Cajonos, at Pedro’s hamburger stand. Painted bright blue and white, it was just big enough for a fridge, a grill and a man. Pedro was a scrawny, bony guy with wavy hair and a long crooked nose. He watched us approach with an intensity that made me feel exposed – odd in a rural region where many men retain layers of guardedness until mezcal or fiesta loosen them up.

I had come to these villages with my husband Jorge and our friend Romeo expecting to hear stories of woe and oppression with which I would proudly empathise. This empathy formed part of my understanding of myself and the world: As a progressive, I saw what others denied or perpetuated. I grasped context, and the context I grasped was that of the poor Mexican abused by the voracious US economy. I recognised and stood with the wounded traditional beauty of this culture in opposition to the capitalist grind of the US.

Except the majority of the stories I heard were about eating shrimp for the first time, or hunting for arrowheads in the Virginia rain, or learning to snowboard, or those signs on the side of the road in Connecticut that showed a mother duck and a row of ducklings. Returned migrants talked about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish and the Unites States’ obsession with sweet breakfast foods. About how gringos reserve the gritty, exhausting work for Mexicans, and how not having papers means living in perpetual fear, and also how there is nothing comparable to walking along the Hudson River at night feeling free: free from the confines of the village, the past and circumscribed identity; free from boredom; free in the way only a traveller loosed from expectation can be free.

Yes, some wanted to talk about how life in the US was non-stop work and there were too many rules and they rarely felt the free-flowing generosity of the Sierra. But mostly they wanted to revisit that formative era of their lives, when they came to know themselves in the way we can know ourselves only when we leave behind everything familiar. The purpose of their telling wasn’t outraged commiseration but the embodiment of a new self that had little bearing in a minuscule village of Spanish moss and perpetually boiling pots of beans: a self constructed in a space that did not exist fully in the US or Mexico but rather between the two. A liminal space, outside of the familiar binaries and hierarchies on which Americans rely.

The notion of liminality was first developed by the anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in The Rites of Passage (1909). Gennep saw the liminal as the second in a tripartite series that characterises all rites of passage. First, the individual detaches from the social order, shedding previous status, identities and roles. This detachment is often physical: a trek into the wilderness, seclusion in a hut beyond familiar geographic margins. Then, the individual enters a state of suspension, lacking power and influence, neither belonging nor excluded but in an ambiguous limbo. Finally, he reintegrates into society and assumes a new identity and role, having undergone a transformation whose ultimate purpose is to reinforce the underlying social order.

The anthropologist Victor Turner elaborated on and popularised Van Gennep’s work in the 1960s, reinforcing the fundamentally conservative nature of liminality: ‘[Individuals] have to be shown,’ Turner wrote, ‘that in themselves they are clay or dust, mere matter, whose form is impressed upon them by society.’ Liminal rites thus tend to be initiated not by individuals but rather by society, as part of seasonal, biological or ritual shifts. These rites are communal, and characterised by both a unifying egalitarianism between initiates and a deep anxiety and dread, a fear of having no place in the world.

Turner eventually began to recognise the liminal as a postmodern condition, evident not only in rites of passage but also in many facets of everyday life, including art, revolutionary social movements, travel and leisure: phenomena Turner called the ‘liminoid’. In the liminoid, people are temporarily set free from ordinary social mores and relationships, released to experience an out-of-context bonding with others that Turner dubbed ‘communitas’. This playful state was ‘part of an individual’s freedom, of his growing self-mastery, even self-transcendence’. It was a concept tied to the West and its emphasis on individuality.

In the West, only certain types of people are allowed to be individuals: Those who can travel, who inhabit the postmodern liminoid, whose stories are unique and self-drawn. Such individuals are contrasted with the likes of Pedro and other immigrants – especially illegal immigrants – who are part of mass movements and migrations. Their stories are seen as part of large economic, political and societal shifts.

Yet in listening to Pedro, I came to recognise what the cultural theorist Homi Bhaba has dubbed ‘the third space’ – a hybrid realm lacking clear cultural definition, part liminal and part liminoid, rife with reinvention, imagination and creativity. For Bhaba, the third space represents ‘an insurgent act of cultural translation’, where the immigrant might subvert the American dream into something slanted and new.

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Pedro came around from behind the booth to shake hands. ‘Sit, sit,’ he said, pulling out chairs for us and then hurrying back to his side of the plywood, where he stood illumed like a magician at a carnival. Behind him on a cutting board was a Mexican still life: a tomato, a jalapeño, a half-cut white onion. A Post-it on the refrigerator read ‘la fe me salva’: ‘faith will save me’. He took a corked bottle from a shelf and set three tall shot glasses on the counter before us.

Eso,’ Jorge said, as Pedro tipped the bottle and filled the glasses to the brim.

‘The United States,’ Pedro said by way of beginning, looking me straight in the eye, ‘is the most beautiful country in the world.’ There was no irony in Pedro’s tone and no hate, despite everything that came next.

Pedro had stopped school at 12, and after a few years toiling in San Pedro’s fields, he’d had enough. At 16, he paid the cheapest crossing price and walked for nearly four days through the Arizona desert.

For the next three years, he worked 80 hours a week in LA’s sewing factories. Then a buddy offered Pedro his position as a valet parker at a hotel near the University of California, Los Angeles, and Pedro worked days at the factory and evenings at the hotel. Within a few years, he was promoted to supervisor at the latter, and left the factory.

Nace el amor por allí,’ he said. His love for the US was born. He learned what it felt like to wear a tie, to go to a restaurant in Beverly Hills, to lace expensive shoes, to seduce a girl. He learned about the sharp, sleek highs of coke. He transitioned, in other words, from a boy – a village boy whose knowledge consisted of seasonal labour and millennial tradition, laced with rumours of abundance up north – into a young man. Crossing the border, grappling with English and the US labour force, earning money in dollars far from home, and discovering the perils and thrills of a foreign culture are his generation’s rites of passage.

In LA, Pedro worked and played with equal vigour, discovering discretionary income and recreational drugs

Yes, young men leave these poor Mexican regions for pressing economic, political and historical reasons. Yet they also leave because they are 16 and spend their days hunched over fields in minuscule pueblos with little to offer them other than campo and cantina. They leave because they are curious, restless, bored. They leave because they got a postcard of a golden city from a friend now wiser and bolder and worldlier than them. They want adventure; they want to measure themselves against something bigger. They leave, in other words, for the same reasons that 22-year-old Americans take off for Asia with a Lonely Planet and starry-eyed notions of the Ganges.

The Americans’ quests, however, aren’t layered beneath the structural concerns of geopolitics in the same way. White, middle-class Americans are allowed the privilege of understanding and narrating their journeys as individual, existential and personal; they need not frame these journeys as illustrations of the agendas of more powerful people and institutions. They are allowed to possess their stories and construct a sense of self distinct from the structures that surround them, whereas Mexican migrants must always be first bound and framed by law, politics, history, society. Migrants’ stories are circumscribed by US ways of thinking about who travels and who does not, who goes about the process of constructing identity, and who is shaped in the old-fashioned way – by birth and tradition.

In LA, Pedro worked and played with equal vigour, discovering discretionary income and recreational drugs. And then one afternoon shortly after 9/11, his boss called him in for a meeting, declared that his name and social security number didn’t match, and fired him.

Pedro felt a gap open between what his life had been and would be, the shining LA of nice shoes and cars and seduction moving further from him with each passing second. He channelled the fury he felt for his boss and the injustice of his situation into icy equanimity with coke. Plenty of coke. He solicited the services of a prostitute named Sheila, a rubia with a heroin habit, who soon came to live with him. One night, Sheila didn’t come home. Pedro searched and searched for her but she was gone. He upped the ante on the coke, siphoning from his savings with increasing rapidity.

Six months later, he was on the streets. He slept under bridges and in underground tunnels where he found rats, snakes, dead bodies, naked women lost to drugs and the world. He learned to make himself small, foetal, to become one of those ragged almost-invisible spots of misery dotting the urban landscape. He lived in a timeless vagary, until one night roaming the streets he heard: ‘Hey Mexican!’

Los morenitos,’ he said, ‘los blacks.’ He said it quickly, with a flick of the tongue like a frog snatching an insect. His street English was a sudden and spot-on ventriloquism of an urban world far removed from these oaks and orchids under drifting fog. ‘Me enseñseon todo.’ They taught me everything.

They introduced him to crack or ‘queso’, taught him to smoke it, to sit and wait in an alleyway for a hit to take effect, to ride out the panic until it smoothed. They showed him how to sell, to organise and dominate a block; how to promise shop-owners safety and cleanliness in exchange for quiet tolerance; how to rile up cholos and addicts and vagrants, and establish rules about what each had to bring, who could and could not stay.

Pedro’s love for drugs took on a transcendent and religious quality. He gave himself up to high after high, leaving behind his tremulous physical self; his poor brown self in a city of poor brown selves. He discovered Turner’s communitas: on the streets, he met doctors, teachers, students, who told him their stories from within the stupors of their highs. In these moments of liminal communion, he learned more about humanity than he had in his entire life. Status, past and future erased, he was wide-open and terribly vulnerable. There were days he’d wake in a decrepit piss-reeking house that the addicts had appropriated, and stumble into LA’s limpid morning light feeling a surge of disgust that could be ameliorated only by another hit. He watched a girl from Xagacía die on the sidewalk, felt from the galactic distance of his own high a horror as the life bled out of her. And one night, he too lay flat on his back on the sidewalk, staring frozen at LA’s violet sky, thinking he was going to die until a gringa face loomed over his. They saved him, and he went right back to the street.

He began to get queasy with the shakes, desperate for money, which is how he finally found himself at the bar el Pescador, playing pool and flirting with other men.

‘Come to my house,’ one offered. He had a Mercedes, and took Pedro to what Pedro defined as ‘a mansion’, which held photos of the man in a uniform pinned with medals.

Pedro had slept with a man before, another addict. ‘A homeless drug addict: who will give him work?’ he asked us. ‘Each one of us had a soul shouting want me, love me. In this lapse… I understood the problem of a gay: they have their needs, too, and they’re really discriminated against. Many of them helped try to get me into rehab.’

Pedro went on: ‘He had a waterbed.’

It was the start of a new era of sex for money and money for drugs. Not all johns were as playful as the first policia. One slipped something in Pedro’s drink at a club, and several hours later Pedro found himself lying naked on a bed unable to move. He could see his keys on the table nearby. Then came a cold searing penetration, and Pedro wanted to scream but could not form words.

But this was not the incident that ended his time with gay men. What did it was a night in Montebello with a man who put on romantic music, told Pedro to get naked, and made him dance. When the man started fondling, Pedro laid out his price.

‘I don’t pay,’ the man said.

‘I don’t work without pay,’ Pedro responded, and started to leave. The man was furious. ‘You’re not leaving!’ he shouted. ‘I’ll call the police.’

But Pedro didn’t stop, and so the man grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed him. The knife was not very sharp, but it was enough to break the skin, making a jagged wound that would leave a purple-red scar several inches long on Pedro’s upper abdomen.

The man from Montebello was a harbinger for the beginning of the end. One night several months later, a new face showed up on Pedro’s block. It was clean, too clean for an addict. The man asked for a hit.

Tu eres cops,’ Pedro said.

‘No man,’ the guy insisted. ‘I just need a hit.’ Pedro examined his nails; they were blackened, ruined specimens, and so Pedro took the guy at his word.

Ten minutes later, the cops showed up. A female cop handcuffed him, read him his rights, showed him a photo of himself making the sale. She pointed at a camera tucked into the corner of an alleyway above him.

‘Bingo,’ she said.

He was sentenced to 10 years in Pitchess Detention Center, or ‘East Max’. Pedro was by then approaching 30. He’d spent approximately half his life in a Lilliputian Mexican village, weaving on dirt paths through perpendicular corn fields, getting by on warm tortillas and beans, and half his life in LA, cruising atop and beneath its golden veneer, learning the streets, learning the rich and the destitute, hustling. Now, he’d have to start anew.

He learned what a burger truly is. It was the skill that would carry him back home

A paisa explained to him on his first day in: ‘This is for urine; this is for el dos; this is to brush your teeth; this is for your clothes; when there’s a morenito in the shower, you can’t go in, you have to wait until there’s another paisa. Got it?’ And the whole time Pedro fantasised about hanging from the top bunk, everything fading to black.

But once the tremors had subsided and he’d stopped waking up half-crazed, he started going to Bible Study. He embraced God in a straightforward, weary way, finding there not the feverish transcendence he’d discovered in drugs but the practical grounding to keep on living. He liked the priest, who told him: ‘You know what, Pedro, Mexican, apply yourself in here.’

Most of the other inmates got what Pedro called ‘tienda’. Friends or family members picked goods up at the commissary and delivered them during visiting hours: money, coffee, candy bars, sodas, chips and, most exquisitely, Sopa Maruchan, a ramen-like soup that comes with a spice packet. Prison regulations forbid boiling water, so prisoners ate it cold, the spices floating on the surface, the noodles crunchy. It was the culinary height of prison life, a precious and much envied commodity.

Pedro had no family, no connections, and therefore no tienda, and it rankled him. But he soon set his mind to obtaining his Maruchan the way he’d set it to owning LA nearly a decade ago. He started saving bags of chips at each meal, and when he’d accumulated seven or eight he swapped them with his cellmates for sandwiches, chocolate, the lesser tienda items. But not Maruchan. Not yet. That took a coup of faith. Spotting his chip stash, a friend showed him how to tear the plastic bags into strips, then roll those strips into threads, then weave those threads together into a cross. Bingo: Ruffles Cheddar ’n’ Sour Cream rendered cruciform and divine. When new prisoners showed up – despondent, petrified, lost – Pedro dangled before them this humble promise of salvation. Then, he had his Maruchan.

Two years in, Pedro got a job as a line cook in the kitchen. And there, he said with the finality of the pilgrim who has passed through so many trials and illusions before enlightenment, ‘aprendí realemente lo que es un burger’. I learned what a burger truly is. It was the skill that would carry him back home.

He was released on 7 September 2007. LA had never looked as beautiful as it did on the day he left. He took a bus bound for Tijuana and crossed Mexico, winding up on the tumbling dirt road to San Pedro Cajonos two days later, on his 35th birthday.

This was it: a new life in a village of just over 1,000 people. No crack, no gangs, no street hustle, no expensive shoes or restaurants. Donkeys, turkeys, gossip, pines, mass broadcast by loudspeaker, one cantina made of adobe and river stones.

He panicked and, not long after returning, he pulled a knife on someone in the cantina. The pueblo held an assembly and threatened to expel him permanently. He didn’t listen. After one long bleary night of drinking, he was thrown in jail to sober up. There, he undid his belt and looped it around a rough wooden ceiling beam to hang himself.

He began foaming at the mouth. A señor passing on the cobblestone street above the basement jail caught sight of him and alerted the police – a handful of villagers assigned the duty on rotation­ – who rushed from a nearby taco stand to the jail. They lowered and held him, his limp ravaged body hanging on the shoulders of a half-dozen paisanos. Then someone suggested: ‘Set him down and see what happens.’ They deposited Pedro upright on his feet and let go. He veered to the side, crumpled, smacked his head hard on the concrete, and passed out.

After that, people took to calling him La Ahorca: the strangled one. ‘Allí va la ahorca!’ they’d shout with friendly waves, and in this way he found his place in the pueblo. He waved back. He stopped drinking and began travelling around to fiestas in neighbouring villages with a rented hamburger stand on wheels, until he saved up enough money to buy his own fridge and grill. He set up on the side of a plunging pueblo street, courted passersby, nursed the gringo taste for grilled meat and white bread in a pueblo of thick herbed soups and hand-ground corn and cacao. He built himself a wooden house in the countryside.

‘That’s where I’m happy now,’ he told us, pouring a final shot of mezcal, watching the bubbles bind to the rim. ‘Among the cow shit.’

But I didn’t believe him. Not fully. Because that flimsy magician’s booth was thick with longing, the same longing that brought me down to these pueblos in the first place, the longing for another self.

And what’s on offer, for those whom Pedro decides are interested, is a story, not a burger. In the telling, Pedro remembers again who he became: what made, destroyed, and remade him. His is one of the oldest human stories, easily mistaken as the contemporary US narrative of the poor Mexican immigrant come north and crushed. Perhaps it is this story, too, but for Pedro that’s not how it goes: for Pedro, it is the story of coming into himself and coming into wisdom via a prolonged, painful initiation. It did not, like the age-old liminal rite, set him up in a defined role in an established society, but rather thrust him into the ambivalent and growing group of people living always in the liminoid, lacking clear belonging, transcending defined categories, free to seek new forms and burdened always with longing.

‘Now,’ Pedro said, in perhaps the most astute observation of US culture yet this evening, ‘too bad I don’t have the little box where you put the tips.’

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