I JUST RAN TWO illegal aliens across the desert in my Jeep.
The Border Patrol had set up blockades on Interstate 19, between Tucson and Nogales. The two women sat in the back seat and blinked at the big Dodge trucks like baby birds. I wondered what the agents would make of my passengers and me if they pulled us over. One of them on an overpass watched me speed by. I wondered about the laws covering human-smuggling; I was counting on the fact that it's one of the few directionally-oriented laws in the United States. Law by compass. For, though I was knowingly transporting law-breaking Mexicans, I was heading south. I was smuggling them back into Mexico, where people are safer on the streets than here....
THIS IS THE story of Carmela and Mariposa, a secretary and her next-door neighbor, who have spent their whole lives in Hermosillo and never dreamed of coming to the United States. Carmela hadn't been across the border for more than 20 years. Mariposa had never been here. The Mexican economy, however, encouraged them.
Carmela's monthly salary was 100 pesos less than her monthly bills, and her husband's day-labor job was barely making up the difference. They had three kids, one of whom was attending university. His tuition was 7,000 pesos a semester; Carmela and her husband earned 6,000.
One day, a goat rancher named Don Chuy came into Carmela's office. This is where, unexpectedly, I enter as well.
Carmela had known my family when she was younger--she had been, in fact, a close friend to some of my cousins. Don Chuy, in his many journeys into Arizona, had somehow stumbled across a member of the extended family. You know how conversations can go over a few beers. Somehow, the connection was made, and Chuy and his associates hatched their plan after the get-together was over.
He told Carmela that he saw her suffering, trying to make ends meet. He also felt he owed her a favor, since she had looked out for him in a business deal. She was in luck. Did she remember the Urrea family? Of course, she said. Well, Don Chuy had an exclusive contract with the Urrea family. They owned factories in the U.S., factories so large that they hired bus-loads of Mexicans to work there. And since she was a family friend, he could guarantee her a good job within a week. Of course, there would be a small fee to get her safely across the border. But it would be much less than what the other coyotes charged. (The Urrea family owns no factories in Tucson.)
Carmela's husband was against the idea. He hated the thought of her going away, and he hated the thought of her crossing the dangerous border. "I have a passport," she told him. "I can just walk across the line with the tourists." But, he insisted, even if it was good old Don Chuy, how could he let her travel with a man?
Carmela had an idea: She'd invite Mariposa. Mariposa could be her chaperon, and between Mariposa and Don Chuy, Carmela was sure she'd be safe. They could travel, live, and work together. They'd come home together. And they'd have double the money.
Against his better judgment, Carmela's husband said yes.
DON CHUY HAD a fit when Carmela showed up at the bus station accompanied by Mariposa.
"What is this!" he shouted. "I didn't count on this!"
"She'll pay you," Carmela said. "You'll make twice the money."
"This," he sputtered, "is not in the plan! It's dangerous. Very dangerous!"
He immediately donned a pair of sunglasses.
"Act like you don't know me," he said. "Buy your tickets, and get in the back of the bus. Say nothing to anyone!"
He scuttled away, casting suspicious glances in all directions.
They did as they were told. They boarded the bus and took a seat together near the back. Don Chuy sneaked into a seat in the front of the bus, never removing his sunglasses. He held a newspaper before his face, pretending to read. When he came back to use the head, he looked away from them, but gestured at them with one hand--some sort of top-secret hand-signal.
"This seemed really strange to me," Carmela said later. "We were still in Mexico! We were just taking a bus from one Mexican town to another. Nobody had done anything even slightly illegal."
Carmela was thinking, at this point: Está loco.
WHEN THEY FINALLY arrived at the Nogales, Sonora, bus station, Don Chuy stood near them and spoke out of the side of his mouth.
"Meet me in town," he said. "I'll be in the little square, sitting on a bench under the trees. Watch out for cops. Don't talk to me! Just sit near me and look at a magazine." He hurried out.
The women collected their suitcases and somehow made their way into Nogales.
They found him nervously hiding behind his newspaper. He peered over the edge, eyes still hidden behind his shades, and he nodded once at them. "Sit!" he hissed.
They did. Everybody sat there.
Suddenly, Don Chuy leaped up and said, "I'll case the park. Make sure all's clear. I'll call my contacts."
He moved away and began a circuit of the area. Carmela watched him. He never went near a phone.
In a few minutes, he plopped down and proclaimed: "They're waiting for us. Let's go!"
Later, Carmela admitted, "I should have gone home right then and there."
They followed Don Chuy to meet his smuggling contacts.
CARMELA WAS RIGHT. All she had to do was walk through the checkpoint. Don Chuy was five people ahead of her, looking over his shoulder and smiling too much. "Vacation," Carmela said to the bored gringo checking everybody's papers. They were through.
They convened in the tiny park in Nogales, Arizona, near the gazebo. Behind them, the train tracks. All around them, the old men who call themselves the "CPW" (City Park Winos). Don Chuy, behind his shaking newspaper, looked just like one of them. Perhaps that was his plan all along--foil the Border Patrol by blending in with the garrulous bums of Nogales. If he'd been nervous before, he was positively jumping out of his skin now.
"Don't look at me!" he said. "Don't talk to me!" Carmela thought he was having a stroke. His face, as they waited for Mariposa, began to turn purple.
MEANWHILE, MARIPOSA WAS in the hands of Don Chuy's "associates." They had turned out to be a bunch of young thugs who took her money and made her carry her own suitcase. They added her to a small group of females--a pregnant woman and a gaggle of teens who were on their way to Phoenix to be maids. "Let's go," the head smuggler said.
"But we don't know where we're going," Mariposa said.
"So?" He shrugged. "Head out, we'll follow you."
Off they went, a thoroughly lost Mariposa leading the way.
The thugs sauntered along behind them, doing a version of Don Chuy's undercover routine. When it came time to direct the women to turn, the smugglers would cough and clear their throats and bark out a word. Mariposa was not always sure she'd heard right. "Cough. Left! Ahem! Cough-cough! Right!"
They turned right.
"Here we are," the smugglers said. "Good luck."
They hurried away with the women's money.
The women looked at each other. The smugglers had delivered them into the traffic lane driving through the border gate.
Drivers goggled up at them as they stood there. All they had to do was run down the line of cars, get by the Border Patrol, and they'd be in the USA. "I want my money back," Mariposa said.
THE TEENAGED GIRLS ran. They charged through the gate before the INS officer knew what hit him. He stepped out of his booth and yelled, "Hey!"
The pregnant woman built up a head of steam and charged. The guard jumped out and reached for her, but she slipped past. "Hey, Goddamnit!" he hollered.
Mariposa took hold of her suitcase with two hands and started to jog.
He hung his head out and glared at her.
"Ay," she said, and turned away to skulk behind some trucks.
When he wasn't looking, she charged out and galloped toward the gate. He stepped out and waggled a finger at her. She, trying to look like she jogged through U.S.-bound traffic carrying heavy luggage every day, turned away and trotted along, gazing at the fence.
The third time, she almost made it, but he leaped out and snagged the collar of her coat. She must have seemed like one of those Warner Bros. cartoon dogs who speed to the ends of their leashes and Boiiinq! suddenly fly backwards. He towered over her, and he was plenty mad. He bellowed in her face; she understood nothing: "Habba-dabba-babba-rabba!" he was yelling. There was only one word she clearly heard. And that was: Arrested. She hung her head and trudged back into Mexico. The road signs above her head all said: MEXICO, NO EXIT.
I'm going back for her," Carmela said. "No!" Don Chuy was shouting. "No! I never counted on this! Leave her!"
Carmela put her bags beside Don Chuy and started walking. He hid behind the newspaper and trembled.
Mariposa was discovered leaning on the fence and gazing morosely into Arizona. Carmela crossed over and said, "Just follow me. We'll bluff our way through the check-point."
They got in line.
Carmela was hoping the gringo checking the papers had been so bored that he'd not noticed her the first time she went through. Then, she would try to get her passport into Mariposa's hand. Mariposa didn't look anything like Carmela's picture, but if the gringo was that bored, it might work.
In front of them, a group of Americanos was trying to carry several wicker chairs through. There was some kind of bottleneck, and the lone migra officer turned away for a moment and started looking for something. "Go!" Carmela said and walked by, waving her passport. Mariposa hurried after her, waving something over her head--it was probably her social-security ID, and they were out the door and bearing down on Don Chuy before the migra officer even noticed.
A SECOND TOP-secret bus trip. Same routine. Don Chuy, about to have some sort of coronary event, sat at the front. They watched his ears turn purple.
When they got into Tucson, he motioned for them to stand outside in the parking lot. They pondered the Hotel Congress while he used the pay phone.
"We're in," he said, when he joined them. "Our contact will be here in a few minutes to collect you."
"What about the Urreas?" Carmela asked.
"The Urreas?" he said, suddenly cagey. "Oh, you know. They're busy. As soon as the coast is clear, we'll call them. It's a big business. We can't bring heat down on them."
A large truck arrived. The doors swung open. The driver was named Fidel. He continues to work in transportation in Pima County. He wore a uniform.
"Let's go," he said.
He drove them in circles. Carmela, already disoriented, was completely lost. By the time the sun was setting, she could only see that they were driving into "the worst part of Tucson." She was nervous. Fidel pulled up to a stucco one-story house.
"My wife left me," he said. "I'm all alone in my house. I need a woman's touch."
This struck both women as an odd confession, but it was only in keeping with all the other weird events of the day.
"Boy," Mariposa said to Carmela, "illegal alien smuggling is a strange business."
THEY THOUGHT DON Chuy was going to stay and protect them.
"I have to get back to the ranch!" he announced. "I have a sick goat!"
A sick goat? Carmela thought. How does he know a goat is sick?
Don Chuy hurried away, and Fidel locked the door.
"I don't have a bed for you," he said. "You'll have to sleep on the floor in the laundry room. Take the pillows off the couch. Sorry, but my wife took all the blankets."
He was eyeing Carmela.
"She didn't like to have sex. I needed sex all the time."
With this interesting tidbit, he went to the living room to have a drink.
Mariposa vowed to stay awake all night, guarding Carmela.
"He was a pervert," she said later. "I could tell right away. What kind of man makes ladies sleep on the floor and tells them terrible things about sex?"
Fidel mentioned his aching sexual needs to the women.
Carmela spoke up: "What about the Urreas?" she said. "We're here to speak to the Urreas."
"You must take us to the Urreas!" she insisted.
He went away and came back with a phone book. He threw it on the floor.
"Look them up," he said. "Maybe we'll try to find them tomorrow."
The women cuddled on the cement floor on couch pillows, with their coats and two other pillows covering them.
Mariposa started to cry.
"Something's wrong," she said.
IN THE MORNING, Fidel had no breakfast for them. He handed them brooms. "Clean up the place," he ordered them. "You don't expect to stay here for free?" He stared at Carmela. "We'll talk about rent later."
He went in his den and started calling people on the telephone. He was speaking in English, so they couldn't understand what he was saying. Carmela said, "Don't worry," and went outside to sweep off his porch. Mariposa sneaked to the hall cabinets and opened the doors. The shelves were crammed full of blankets and comforters.
She heard Fidel laugh.
She sneaked to the door of his den and heard him say, in Spanish, "I have a special shipment in. Yeah, they're here now. Fresh. Two new ones. Going cheap, too."
She hurried out to Carmela.
ALL THEY COULD think to do was to insist that the Urrea family be contacted. Carmela raised such a ruckus that Fidel finally said, "All right!"
He took them to his truck and drove around Tucson again. After driving them up and down Campbell, back and forth on Broadway, then down to Ajo and Valencia, he pulled into a Circle K on 22nd. "Couldn't find the factory," he said. "What should I do now?" He smiled at them.
Carmela startled him by jumping out of the truck.
She had looked up phone numbers in the directory when he'd thrown it on the floor.
"What are you doing?" he yelled.
"I'll call!" she said. "Don't worry! Come on, Mariposa!"
Mariposa made a face at Fidel and hopped out. Carmela was already at the pay phone, scrambling to get a quarter in the slot. Fidel started to step out of the truck. Carmela called a number and accidentally caught a Urrea who spoke Spanish and who knew the woman she was trying to reach. "Help me, please," Carmela said. She smiled happily and waved at Fidel.
Furious, he slammed his door and sped out of the lot, rocketing over dips in the alley. Before he could circle back on them, they were hiding down the street, watching for the Urrea Cavalry to come.
WE STOOD AT the doorway of the bus station in Nogales. They were back, only days after their pointless journey had begun. Don Chuy had taken $100 from each of them--for nothing. Fidel had charged them a fee to help them get settled in their new factory jobs. The thugs at the border had charged Mariposa for the opportunity to run for her life. And, somewhere in Tucson, there was a room prepared for them, a place where "fresh shipments" of women were apparently delivered.
Carmela was crying. She said, "Don Chuy never expected me to come home."
"No," I said.
"But he knew they would hurt us," she said.
"Or kill us," said Mariposa.
"That's why he was so scared."
"He was already breaking the law when you got on the bus," I said. "He was kidnapping you."
We hugged each other. They were going home with less than they had started out with. But they were alive. There was that.
"My husband..." Carmela said. "You don't know what he's like. He...he will kill Don Chuy."
I have to admit, it didn't knock me to my knees in horror.
"Perhaps," I suggested, "Don Chuy should have taken that into consideration."
Mariposa crinkled up her nose in disgust.
"If you steal women," she said to me, "I think getting killed by their husbands is one of the risks of your career. If he doesn't kill that old man, I might!"
"Turn him over to the cops," I said.
"Let them kill him," Mariposa said.
"You're not too worried about Don Chuy," Carmela said.
Mariposa picked up her suitcase and looked out at Nogales one last time. "He should have stuck to his goats."
They pushed inside just in time to catch the last bus home.
"This," he sputtered, "is not in the plan! It's dangerous. Very dangerous!"
"Don't look at me!" he said. "Don't talk to me!" Carmela thought he was having a stroke.
"My wife left me," he said. "I'm all alone in my house. I need a woman's touch."
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