If it isn’t already, the village of Santa Ana will soon be absorbed into Mexico City. It overlooks the metropolis from a hillside above what by night becomes a terrestrial galaxy pooled on the floor of the Valle de Mexico, lapping at the foothills around the patches of darkness that betray the high places.
Agustín Melo lives with his wife, daughter, parents, brother and an assortment of extended family in a clutch of wooden shacks by the turnoff to Santa Ana from the highway. Fields of edible nopal cacti and maize climb the hill into a forest behind the houses, but Agustín is no longer a farmer.
“There are dry years when it doesn’t rain, or it freezes and kills the plants and there’s no financial gain,” he says sitting in the grassy lot overlooking his small home. “The government doesn’t help with this and there are no jobs.”
After a couple of particularly hard years in the late 1990’s Agustín’s sister made up her mind to leave Mexico and take her chances in the United States. From the vast barrios that swarm around Mexico City to the smallest country towns Mexico is full of stories, truth mixed with fantasy, of friends and relatives who’ve made fortunes north of the border
“She encouraged us all to go,” says Agustín. “This was in 2000. We needed the hand of god – without money, without any knowledge, how were we going to make it?” He had a wife and three-year-old daughter to support, and with stories of riches in the U.S. and his sister’s enthusiasm he decided to join her.
“We borrowed $25,000 Mexican pesos and off we went, on a bit of an adventure.”
In the capital Agustín, his sister, brother and sister-in-law organised passage with a Coyote, the name given to human traffickers who make a business helping people to illegally enter the United States. They flew to Hermosillo, in the centre of the troubled northern state of Sonora.
“We were guided by the name of the Coyote, who we knew only by the letter ‘R’. They told us when we left the airport in Hermosillo we were to tell the taxi driver to take us to ‘The R’ and when we did so the taxi driver replied, ‘I know who you’re talking about’.”
They were driven to Agua Prieta, a desert town pressed up against the border between Sonora and the American state of Arizona. Immediately opposite Agua Prieta lies the town of Douglas, squished against the line. Agustín and his companions were taken to a house and stayed for three days before their first attempt at entering the United States.
“We weren’t lucky,” he says with a wry smile. “We couldn’t get through. There were a lot of border patrols and it was very guarded. We walked for a day and weren’t able to get through.”
They returned to the house and tried again the next night.
“This time the border patrol detained us. They held us for a while and then sent us back to Mexico.”
On the Mexican side of the border the Coyotes charge a daily fee for the accommodation and food they provide, and as night after night passed without success, Agustín began to despair. His money was evaporating and he was also missing his family. On the third night they tried again.
“The men in charge have a method for getting us across. We had to run 500 metres towards a Walmart. There was one group on the left, one on the right and our group was in the middle. Three groups of twelve. The border patrol managed to stop the two groups on either side but we made it through. We were free.”
He smiles again.
“The thing was, I did not have so much luck. I got lost in a small forest and became separated from the group. I was alone. I got distracted and couldn’t make it. So they detained me once more. They took me to a building, took my name, my fingerprints. I was alone and detained once more, you can imagine how I felt.”
Agustín says the border authorities caught him at 8pm and he was left at the gates to Agua Prieta at 4am. His sister, brother and sister-in-law had been in the same group as him and when he returned to “R”s house, he was told they were safe in an apartment in Douglas. They had made it, and he had not.
By this point Agustín had given up on ever crossing into the United States. He would have to pay interest on his loan and his funds were dwindling with each day.
“I was in contact with my mother, father and wife by this time and I decided it would be better to go home,” he says. “But that same evening the man I was staying with mentioned that the border authorities had released the ‘chámacos’” – a slang term for ‘kids’ – “that he had working for him. The chámacos are like guides. They cross the desert on foot, as they know they paths.”
These chámacos had been detained in the U.S. for human trafficking,but were being released that same day.
“So if you’d like to try one more time,” said Agustín’s host, “you can go with them and if you can’t get through and want to leave, that’s fine. You can go back.”
He gathered his resolve and decided to give it one more crack.
“The other times I had walked with adults and we never had any luck. But I when I met the chámacos I was astonished to find they were just kids. Twelve, ten and seven years old respectively. That way, when the border patrol catches them they can’t keep them for long.”
“The next morning they gave us water and some burritos for the journey. They drove us into the desert and left us, and off we went into the desert. We walked all day, all afternoon, stopping only for five or six minutes at a time to drink water, and then we walked again.”
They walked for two days and nights and by the second night they had crossed the border. Eventually they found a road. Cars would arrive periodically and carry off four passengers at a time, until the whole group of twelve, plus the chámacos, had been whisked away.
Agustín smiles often when he tells his story, which he describes as an adventure, but here his smile disappears.
“I met many people on my journey who died or disappeared in the desert, or were even killed by the American border patrol or criminals on the Mexican side. It happened several times when I was detained and sent back across the border. There are always people who take advantage of the power they have at that moment.”
“On the Mexican side too there are bad people, just like everywhere else I believe. Many times we were robbed of any money or valuables we carried.”
Many of the prospective immigrants carried just a few of their most treasured possessions as they went looking to start anew elsewhere.
“You’re very vulnerable, and there are always people looking to take advantage of you,” he says.
Agustín had made it to the United States at last, but he was still a long way from the riches promised in the stories. He was taken with the rest of the group to a mobile home parked on a lot in an isolated patch of desert, where they waited for two days.
“The mobile home became an inferno during the day,” he says. “Such terrible heat. They only gave us one meal a day and it was no more than a small hamburger, a handful of fries and a small soda.”
Dirty, hungry, dehydrated, burning and separated from his family, Agustín decided that if no one showed up by the end of the third day, he would leave. He knew the authorities would catch him and back to Mexico he would go, back to the same dismal job prospects and now $25,000 pesos out of pocket, plus interest. But he was fed up and he missed his family.
Instead, a car arrived on the third day. The chámacos disappeared into the desert towards Mexico once more. Agustín was driven to an apartment in Phoenix, Arizona and says the conditions improved there.
“We could bathe, they gave us a little more food, we could wash our clothes, and once more we waited to see what would happen.”
Later in our conversation Agustín remembered an episode from this chapter of his story.
“In the group with whom we went to Phoenix there were three young girls” – he calls them “muchachitas” – “who were about 18-years-old, the same age as my daughter is now,” he says and pauses for a moment. The daughter he’s mentioned is sitting out of earshot under some trees, talking with her mother. “The men who took us to Phoenix had treated all of us extremely well. But when we arrived at the apartment they took the three girls into a room, and they raped them.”
“It was horrible. So horrible. But what could we do? The rest of us had our hands tied and there was no way. That was how it had to happen,” and he says it almost to himself.
“As a man,” he goes on, “the worst that can happen to you is that they assault you and rob you, perhaps kill you. Women can suffer abuse far worse than that. This is one of the reasons I don’t recommend people to go to America like I did.”
From Phoenix Agustín was able to contact his sister, from whom he’d been separated when he lost himself in the desert on his third attempt at the border. She was in Chicago and Agustín would therefore be sent to be with her. Of the original twelve, only four were sent to Chicago, including Agustín. The others were sent to Florida and Kansas, and none had much say in where they ended up.
Once he’d entered America Agustín’s costs were being covered by a US$1500 fee that he had paid to the man known as “R”. He and his three companions were put on a bus that took four days to get them to Chicago from Phoenix. He’s still unsure why, but they were put on a tour that took them to all sorts of tourist attractions throughout the American west and mid-west.
“The coolest place that we saw – the coolest place we could’ve seen at this time – was Las Vegas,” he says. “But the bad part of this tour was that they only gave us $20 spending money. So we just ate bread and drank bottled water and sat on a bus for four days.”
Eventually the bus dropped them at a station in Chicago, where they had been told to look for a phone and call a number they’d been given.
“They told us to ask for ‘La Reina del Sur’ – ‘The Queen of the South’ – and that would verify who we were.” He chuckles at the woman’s code name. A van soon pulled up in front of them, the door opened and they climbed in.
“We were taken to a house to wait for my sister and this was when I finally met this ‘Señor R’. He’s a big man. He was in his late 40’s. And that was the last of it. Off I went with my sister.”
Having made it into the United States through a shadowy, complex web of connections, a lot of waiting and the odd daring escapade, Agustín now had to find work.
“Many times my sister would leave me in some place, a MacDonald’s for example, and we we would wait to see if anyone would come by to give us work. The main jobs were in roofing, changing the tiles on houses. But nobody came, and I had to walk for two hours to get home.”
“I saw Mexican-Americans driving past who would say ugly things to us and wouldn’t give me a ride. The only ones who ever helped me out, gave me a ride or something were American people.”
Communication was a problem here.
“Obviously I couldn’t speak much English. I could only understand ‘ride,’ ‘yes,’ and ‘no’. I imagine they would ask where I was going and that sort of thing, but I only knew how to write down my address. It was very difficult.”
Agustín arrived in the U.S. in April 2000 and stayed until December 2001, a period of almost two years. By his second year he had paid off the debts he had accumulated to get him there in the first place, was living comfortably enough and sending most of his salary back to his family in Santa Ana. He worked in a factory that made safes, where the manager had taught him and the other immigrant workers how to weld, paint and laminate the metals involved in the process. He was getting paid US$6.50 per hour plus overtime – a word he said in English – and lived in a decent house.
But being in the country illegally still presented many challenges in daily life. Many of his friends who were pulled over for minor traffic infringements were found to have no driver’s license. Upon leaving the police station they would often find immigration officials waiting outside, and back to Mexico they would go.
Furthermore, the riches he had been promised in the stories were being eaten up by the United States’ higher cost of living. Rent, electricity bills, phone bills, gas bills and water bills had all been conveniently left out of the stories and promises.
“Back home you just think ‘I’m going to make a lot of money,'” he says. “In Mexico City, six dollars per hour will make you rich.”
But most of all, Agustín missed his family. Even though he and his family were now much better off economically than they had been when he was at home, Agustín was aware that his daughter was now growing up without him.
“Many friends up there told me to ‘Send them some money and save a little for yourself. Enjoy it!'” he remembers. “And I thought about it and said ‘I’d prefer to enjoy being with my daughter. She’s growing up and I’m not there. Before I know it she’ll be married and I won’t be there.'”
So he left his job and returned to Mexico, to the delight of his family.
“After two years and all the trouble I went through to get there, it only took four hours in a plane to return to Mexico City,” he says. “It all happened very quickly.”
Apart from the relief of seeing his wife, daughter and parents again, Agustín found his return to Mexico City difficult.
“Living in a city like this – ugly, dirty, people have no respect for one another – really does overwhelm you,” he says looking out over the capital beneath him. “It was very sad to return and be confronted with how we live, compared to how they live up there. It’s completely different. But that’s how it is.”
He thinks people have more respect for each other and the law in Chicago than in Mexico City, and mentions the cleanliness of the suburb he lived in and the lack of noise. He liked that drivers would pull over at the sound of sirens to allow the passage of the police or an ambulance “so they can go help someone”. This was something he’d never seen in Mexico City.
“Drivers respect the road rules and it isn’t necessary, like here, to put speed bumps everywhere. Here in Mexico we’re full of speed bumps and rubbish.”
(Cyclist’s note: Agustín was the first Mexican I’ve met to recognise the ridiculous amount of speed bumps that litter the roads in this country, often in the most illogical and even dangerous locations. We bitched and moaned about speed bumps for quite a while before returning to his story.)
Having been to the United States as an illegal immigrant (or “sin papeles” – without papers – as the local slang calls it), a country with whom Mexicans have the most complicated kind of love-hate relationship, Agustín would not recommend any of his compatriots to do the same.
“If you make it through, dedicate yourself, behave well and work hard, over time you can be much better off than you ever would here.”
Today he works as a forest firefighter and earns a grand total of $70 Mexican pesos per day. That’s about US$4.50 per day, less than he made in an hour building safes in Chicago. But he’s happy with his decision.
“The way I saw it, I had the choice between economic stability or being here with my family,” he says. “I chose my family. I think it was the right decision.”
Agustín Melo and his daughter