By Jessica Gonzalez
Little Marvin kicked the can on the sidewalk of the vecindario in Tijuana.
It was a weekday afternoon. The neighborhood kids were at school; the street was deserted.
A colorful object on the ground caught his eye. He picked up a Snow White figurine, a cake accessory, chipped on one side, and examined it in the palm of his hand. Her dark hair reminded him of his oldest cousin, Mimi, back home in Guatemala City. She was 15. She had always looked after Marvin, especially during the last few years when his mother lived in Los Angeles with Mimi’s mother, Marta, who worked as a seamstress. The two sisters dedicated themselves to working and sending money back to the matriarch, Mama Chuy, who looked after Marvin, his brother, and their five cousins with Mimi’s help. Their money paid for the children’s school and a little extra for Mama Chuy to keep; over the years she had enough to upgrade her home.
Marvin loved Mimi like a sister. He put the Snow White figurine in his pocket and returned to kicking the can.
By now, Marvin had been in Tijuana nearly a month. He arrived with his older brother Humberto, his mother Dolly, her boyfriend Eddy, and his mother’s brother, Uncle Edwin, whose sister-in-law lived in Tijuana and agreed to host them.
It was the farthest from Guatemala Marvin had ever been. Two years prior, when he was seven, he’d travelled to Mexico City on vacation with Dolly and Eddy. They visited Teotihuacan, Xochimilco, and other pueblos near the big city. At the time, the D.F. seemed ten times bigger than Guatemala City. Its grand boulevards filled with massive crowds of people and traffic impressed Marvin. After a few weeks on the metro he felt like a local. He enjoyed listening to the Chilangos talking on the metro and thought they sounded funny. Their inflection and intonation sounded as if they were singing a song. They used familiar words but in different ways. Like chamarra. In Guate, chamarra is not jacket; it means blanket. The word for jacket in Guatemala is chumpa. “Y tu chumpa vos?” This made him giggle.
The plan was to stay in Tijuana a few weeks while visas were sorted out for Marvin and Humberto. Then the family would travel together to Los Angeles. Dolly and Eddy already had their own visas. They were both from Guatemala City but met when they were living there. He was a sharp entrepreneur; she was a hard-working beauty. They returned to Guatemala together and lived in an apartment with the boys two years before deciding to return to the U.S. as family. Marvin was nine years old. After two weeks in Tijuana and still no visas for the boys, Dolly and Eddy returned to Los Angeles, leaving Marvin and Humberto in Uncle Edwin’s care.
There was not much to do in the Tijuana neighborhood during the day; no one to play with. His brother was only a year and half older but viewed Marvin as a pest. In Guatemala, Humberto was close with their cousin Ruben; they were the same age and played sports together. Little Marvin was cast out of the older boys’ circle.
On Sundays, Marvin went to the local Catholic Church. After mass they gathered in the church courtyard for lunch prepared by local congregators. It was during Easter celebrations and the quad was littered with cascarones. The eggshell confetti bombs were popular during Easter fiestas. In Guatemala, Marvin was raised in an evangelical Christian church. They did not observe communion nor pray to saints as Catholics do. Their church was a humble room, big enough to fit 30 people. There was musical equipment for the choir to set up in the front and folding chairs instead of pews for the worshipers. Music was an important part of his congregation. They sang passionately and spoke in tongues when the spirit of God moved them. By comparison, the Catholic Church was proud with its ornate décor and statues of Saints and the Virgin Mary. Sometimes Humberto became upset and chastised Marvin for making the sign of the cross when he followed along during mass. Neither of them took communion.
During the day Marvin hung around with Uncle Edwin’s sister-in-law running errands. A highlight was a trip to the tortilleria a few blocks away. It looked like a residence on the outside but inside was a tortilla factory. At one end of the room was a table where a woman wearing gloves rolled masa into small balls then set them on a platform where a machine pressed them flat and slid them onto a conveyor belt. Once cooked, the tortillas were placed on a cooling rack where another woman snatched them up and piled them into a chrome cylinder into one dozen uniform stacks. She then wrapped the stacks in butcher paper, tied them with a string and set them on the counter. While they waited Marvin helped himself to oddly shaped misfits that were offered up as samples served with a homemade salsa.
Every other day for two weeks after Dolly and Eddy left Tijuana Marvin accompanied Uncle Edwin to a local payphone to call Marvin’s mother for an update on the visas. While Eddy spoke to Dolly, Marvin played with the coin return slot inside the phone. He examined the white paper his uncle had laid on the platform of the booth and read the numbers written on it, thinking of his mother.
One evening a man arrived at the vecindario to pick up Marvin and his brother. The boys understood they were waiting in Tijuana until they could cross the border and join their mother but they did not know they would be crossing on their own, without family. Uncle Edwin explained to them that they would cross with a coyote.
“A coyote?” They giggled.
“Coyote is what men who help people cross the border through the desert are called. They are guides.” He explained he would not be with them. They would be on their own. But there would be other people with them and that their mother would be waiting for them on the other side. The boys were ready. They left with only the clothes they were wearing. After a short drive they arrived at a meeting place with others waiting. There were 15 men and women; Marvin and Humberto were the only children. Three other men—the coyotes—looked young, in their 30s. They wore t-shirts and jeans. They could have easily passed for a crosser.
One of them spoke in a clear, authoritative voice.
“We’re going to walk all night and we are going to walk fast. If I say ‘Migra!’ I want you to drop.”
As the group started to mobilize a lady walking next to them asked Marvin “Ustedes con quien andan?” She was concerned to see two kids alone and motioned them over to her and the man she was with. “Stay close,” she said.
God was watching.
They walked swiftly with each step, deep into the night. They observed the landscape, listening to the grand silence of the desert.
Marvin dropped to the ground. Lights flashed across the sky, like lightning. The sound of a chopper echoed in the distance. A voice over a megaphone was barely audible. A man’s voice called out to crossers broken Spanish. Marvin’s heart pounded and for the first time since he’d arrived in Tijuana he felt scared. Crouching next to a bush, he imagined himself still as a rock. With his brown hoodie pulled over his head he visualized himself camouflaged, blending into the desert landscape. When it grew calm again the coyote called out to them to resume. They walked for hours, dropping for cover a few more times before the end of the night.
By dawn, they reached a tunnel. “Lean into the wall,” the coyote said. He sifted through a pile of leaves that lined the ground and pulled out a set of keys. On the keychain was a big sunflower that blended in with the color of the leaves. They went through the tunnel and climbed up an embankment. Parked on the street was a van. It was an isolated area just outside of the city. They were now in the U.S.
The group piled into the van and was driven to a nearby motel in Chula Vista.
The coyote parked at the door to the room and told them to enter quickly and quietly. The room was a large suite with a living area, two rooms and bathrooms. Each crosser showered. When Marvin came out from his shower there was food: Kentucky Fried Chicken. In Guatemala the local fried chicken was Pollo Campero, cooked with oregano and achiote, and different from the flavors of American fried chicken. And though it was fried it didn’t have the same thick crispy skin that KFC had. Or perhaps he had a worked up such a hunger after walking all night that he would have devoured anything put in front of him. He relished the biscuit and the bright red shiny apple that was dessert.
It was time to get back on the road to their final destination. They headed up a highway and soon Marvin was asleep. He awoke as they pulled into a driveway at a house in South Los Angeles. “Don’t loiter,” one of the coyotes said, “just walk in quickly.”
The house was sparsely furnished: a couch and table, some chairs. One of the coyotes led the group to a bedroom to wait. Over the next few hours families arrived to pay the fees of their crossers, and a coyote came to fetch and release each one. The boys waited patiently. By night, only a few crossers remained. A coyote asked the boys who they were with.
“My mom’s name is Dolly Garcia.”
The coyote shook his head. He didn’t have record of who the boys were or who would be picking them up.
“Do you have a phone number?”
Marvin remembered being at the payphone with Uncle Edwin and the number written on the piece of paper. He perked up. “I know a number!”
The coyote returned a few minutes later to tell them Dolly was on her way.
“She was really worried.”
When Dolly arrived she paid the coyotes $400 dollars and waited in the front room while the coyote fetched the boys from the bedroom. They ran to her. She thanked God, barely audible beneath her tears.
“I was going crazy!”
Dolly did not have a number or an address for the coyote. She was expecting someone to call when they arrived in Los Angeles. She had not heard from anyone and was close to a breakdown.
But the worst was over.
Dolly took to the boys to Denny’s. Marvin scanned the menu. Pancakes, waffles, eggs. It reminded him of the pancake house in Guatemala City they sometimes went to after church on Saturdays. He looked at the family in the booth next to his. They were speaking Spanish and he thought then that Los Angeles might not be that different after all.