Authors: Ann Jaramillo
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Thank you to the individuals and organizations who work to bring to light the struggles of immigrants who come to this country. The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., and The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of CaliforniaâSan Diego provided valuable background data and statistics.
The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation's “Stop Gatekeeper” project highlights the abuses suffered by immigrants at the border. Series by the
Christian Science Monitor,
National Public Radio, and the
Los Angeles Times,
especially the moving reporting done by Sonia Nazario, put a human face on the data. Groups such as Humane Borders (to name just one) are out there every day, on the border, saving lives.
Deborah Brodie is my editor. She believed in
and knew what to do with it. I'm pretty sure she's the best there is.
to my English as a Second Language classes at La Paz Middle School who reviewed the manuscript. Your “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” helped me make the book reflect your experiences. You know who you are, and you are special.
Mil gracias a
Cruz Reynoso, Adrian Andrade, and Irma Herrera. You used your precious time to read the book and offer comments. Your kind words mean a lot.
Many, many thanks to good friends AngÃ©lica LÃ³pez-Simons, Ruth Barraza, Alma Saucedo, and Cher Nicolas. You made sure I got it right, and I am grateful for your insights and suggestions.
Thank you to my family members who read too many versions of the manuscript but still continued to encourage me: Mom (Dorie), Petrea, Matthew, and Virginia. A special thank-you to Mateo, for believing in your mom every step of the way.
Most of all, thank you, Luis R., for saying again and again, “Good idea, Mom. Now go write it.” I could never have written this book without you. âA. J.
I should have known Elena would find a way to go north. If I'd kept my eyes open, if I'd been paying any attention at all, I might have seen what she was up to. After all, I'd dreamed about crossing
for years. Why should my sister be any different? But it was my fifteenth birthday, and Elena was the last thing on my mind.
I opened one eye and looked down at the wooden crate at the foot of my bed. Abuelita always left something for me to open, and I always knew what would be inside.
Calcetines, una camiseta, chones.
Something useful. Something my grandma could afford. Something I needed. Something I didn't want.
But there was nothing. No present.
I rubbed my eyes and checked again. No, nothing. Not even the usual pair of underpants this year? Of course there was never enough money for a gift I didn't need. But any small thing would be okay.
I rolled over and covered my head with my blanket.
What I wanted was a pair of jeans, like the ones I saw Juanito wearing last week. They weren't like the pants I wore to work on the
every day, the knees patched and darned by Abuelita, frayed on the bottom. The jeans I wanted were bigger and looser and hung low. They got frayed because you let them drag on the ground and you stepped on themâon purpose, just because you could, because it didn't matter if they wore out or not.
But what I
wanted couldn't be wrapped up in a package. It cost thousands and thousands, and only PapÃ¡ could give it to me. And he was thousands and thousands of kilometers away.
What could I remember about PapÃ¡? I thought I could remember sitting on his lap as he read aloud to me, when I was still little enough to sit on his lap. I liked the faint scent of his hair oil, the clove gum he chewed to cover up the cigarettes he smoked behind my mother's back. I liked the slow, careful way he pronounced each word, and how his moustache curved up when he read a line he enjoyed.
Abuelita made sure I didn't forget the important things about PapÃ¡. Every chance she got, she told the story of how he educated himself. He went to school only to the fourth grade. After that, the government closed
in San Jacinto. He had to work on Abuelo's
anyway, to help the family.
“He herded the goats and watered the corn with a book in one hand, and still he did more work than anyone else!” Abuelita always said. In those days, PapÃ¡ could save a
here and there. He used the money to buy books. The few he had, he read over and over until he knew long passages by heart.
I was the firstborn, so PapÃ¡ should have named me Domingo, after himself and Abuelo and Bisabuelo and Tatarabueloâand all the Cervantes as far back as anyone could remember. But PapÃ¡ declared I wouldn't be like him, starting with his name. Miguel Carlos Octavio Pablo de Cervantes, he named me, after the authors he admired. Those were his saints, so those were the names I got.
And PapÃ¡ proclaimed I would get an education. I would have a good, important job, one where I didn't have to break my back to put a few
frijoles y tortillas
on the table.
No quiero que sufras como yo.
That's how PapÃ¡ put it.
I leaned over the side of my bed to pick up the pants I'd left on the floor the night before. On top of them lay a plain white envelope. Well, at least I got a card. I sighed. Abuelita loved me. She wished she could give me more. This year, there had been no money at all. It wasn't her fault.
But there was no card inside. No
Feliz CumpleaÃ±os Nieto.
Instead, there was just a small folded note.
“It's been six years, eleven months, and twelve days since I left to go north across
It's time for you to come. Go see Don Clemente. He'll help you.” It was signed, simply, “PapÃ¡.”
PapÃ¡ had never written a note before. He'd never asked me to see Don Clemente before. And I didn't know until then that he'd counted each day since he left, that he numbered them one by one, just the way I did. I'd been waiting for this moment ever since I was eight. Could it be true this time, finally?
For once, I didn't care about a birthday present. If PapÃ¡'s note was true, my real life was finally beginning. This was day number one.
I picked up my soccer ball and twirled it on my index finger. It was scuffed and stained and the plastic insides bulged out in two places. Soccer was just a memory now. I hadn't made the cut for the best team, the one I had to get on if I wanted a chance to turn pro. I remembered
I'd had just before waking. I knew the dream by heart. It was the same one I'd had a thousand times.
In my dream, when my turn came, I didn't go north to California. Instead, I played soccer for Cruz Azul or Chivas, America, or Necaxa. I was famous. I was very, very rich. I returned to San Jacinto in a shiny new black SUV, riding up high, around and around
looking down on the people. They looked back up at me, but they had no eyes, no noses, no mouths. I didn't know who anyone was.
I brought MamÃ¡, PapÃ¡, and the twins back home. I built us a mansion, the biggest one in the whole state, ten times the size of Don Clemente's. I always woke up, in a cold sweat, just as I put the key in the door. I shook my head hard. Soccer was just a dream now, and a dead one.
Ya basta. OlvÃdalo.
I heard Abuelita shuffling around our little kitchen. She'd been up before five and had already stoked the fire for breakfast. She talked quietly to herself as she moved about.
Ahora, las tortillas.
How many will Miguel want?” Abuelita mumbled. The
slapped softly in her hands. “And Elena?
I looked over at my sister. She slept, curled up in a little ball, exhausted. Every night that she couldn't sleepâlike last night, like most nightsâElena pulled MamÃ¡'s letters out of a little woven bag she kept under her bed. She read them, over and over, one by one, in chronological order.
In almost seven years, we'd seen MamÃ¡ just once, a little over three years ago, for three days. She'd slipped home for her sister's, TÃa Consuelo's, funeral, using up all the saved money to pay a
to get her back across
Elena had to grow up without a mother, so she hoarded what she could of MamÃ¡, her letters. The words were like little drops of water to a person dying of thirstâenough to give hope; not enough to make a difference.
I threw on my pants and shirt, tucked PapÃ¡'s note in my pocket, and stepped quietly out of our room. Abuelita stood at the stove, spooning my birthday
into a bowl. I kissed her on top of her head. She touched my cheek and made the sign of the cross on my forehead.
Abuelita set the bowl on the table. “Eat, Miguel. Eat.”
I took a handful of oregano out of a bowl, rubbed it in my palms, and watched it land on top of the steaming soup. Abuelita gave me two of her handmade
I tore one and dipped it into the
mingled with the smell of roasting chiles and the beginnings of
One of our chickens had already been killed for dinner. Abuelita plucked the feathers from its lifeless body.
She turned her back to me. “Don Clemente has gone to
” she said quietly. “He won't be back until Sunday.
“I'll tell Elena the news if you want,” Abuelita continued. “But it's better coming from you. She deserves to hear it from you.”
Abuelita.” I said it respectfully. I sounded obedient.
I didn't want to be the one to tell Elena. She'd have one of her famous temper tantrums. She'd cry for hours. Nothing I could say would stop itâexcept to say I'd take her with me. And that was not going to happen.