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By Olivia Segura

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]wo twenty-foot black barred gates stood corner-to- corner separating Miguel from the catcalls on his right where tattered men clawed at him.

To his left was a clean, orderly ward.

Miguel stood, distracted by the gates when suddenly he felt a yank on his blue silk tie.

“Give me your tie,” said an inmate on his right.

He pulled away quickly and the yelling escalated.attachment(1)

The guard looked him up and down. Miguel’s tie matched his eyes; he wore a tailored navy blue suit and stood six feet tall.

“Would you like a luxury cell or do you want to join them?” he said, pointing to the right.

“I’ll take the luxury cell.”

The guard smirked.

The left gate opened and with that the shouting from the right faded. The guard escorted him down the corridor. Miguel heard the far off strumming of a guitar from the galleys above. He was placed in a single cell on the ground floor. Meals would be served in the dining room. The cost for “luxury”: five hundred pesos a day. The guard gave him a voucher to sign.

It was 1953 and Miguel was 29 years old. He had been to Mexico City eleven years earlier, fleeing his village in Michoacán. When he was three, his father accidentally killed his mother while cleaning his shotgun. His father repented throughout his life praying endless hours on his knees while wearing a crown of thorns. However, he became distant and allowed his second wife to mistreat Miguel.

Miguel loved school. But at age seven, at the suggestion of his stepmother, he was made to work in the fields and support the new children that came. His father owned land, animals and bore the last name of the founders of the village. But Miguel lived like an indentured servant. His labor began before sunrise and ended after sunset. His clothes and shoes were worn and he was never given a peso or a sign of affection. At dinner he was not welcomed to the table, and he ate alone.

The years of neglect and frustration drove him to Mexico City in 1942. He heard that the United States needed workers, Braceros, to help the war effort. He arrived by train in white manta clothing, worn huaraches and held his sombrero in place with one hand on either side as he looked up at the skyscrapers. Miguel wanted to stay and explore the city but his only contact was Major Rubalcava, a man who had married a woman from his village. The Major managed the Rancho La Herradura, which belonged to Miguel Aleman, Mexico’s President.

The Major and his wife gave him a place to stay and a job on the ranch. But Miguel had left his village to become a Bracero and he kept this in mind as he tended the cows, irrigated the vast fields of alfalfa and exchanged glances with a shepherd’s daughter. He also thought about his mother. He would quietly hum a lullaby, his only memory of her. He would close his eyes as he sung but still he could not see her face.

A year later he left the ranch and set out for the Estadio Azteca where thousands of men were spread across acres of parkway waiting to be contracted as Braceros up north. Soldiers patrolled the area in jeeps as men gathered with their home statepaisanos. It was difficult to find a clean spot to rest. The unexpected number of people in the parkway destroyed the grass and trees and the smell of excrement permeated the air.

He camped out for nearly three weeks surviving on the small amount of money he had earned and the generosity of others. Finally, one day in early April, he made it to the front of the line.

“You’re young,” said the administrator.

Miguel was under the required age of 18.

“I’m 22,” he said.

He was first sent to Oregon and then to farms in California. His last assignment placed him in Fillmore, an hour from Los Angeles. He began taking the bus into the city on the weekends. He found a job at the Brown Derby, then at the Biltmore Hotel. He felt alive in Los Angeles and enjoyed the nightlife. He worked to dress sharp and dance to the big bands.

On July 4, 1948 he was deported to Cuidad Juarez. He spoke English now and landed a job as a floor manager at one of the best nightclubs in Juarez.

An acquaintance asked him to travel to Mexico City to help him register and sell the songs his brother had composed. Miguel resisted. But the man promised to pay the expenses. In Mexico City, Miguel took the man to “La W Radio” and several other places to pitch the songs. One day, while searching out leads, Miguel spotted several men with typewriters and makeshift desks near the Zocalo.

“Letters Written,” their sign read.

He had not seen his father for eleven years. He had a writer compose a letter to his father, telling him that he was in Mexico City at the Hotel Juarez.

Two weeks passed and none of the radio leads worked out. One afternoon two policemen appeared at his hotel door. The man who convinced him to go to Mexico City was now falsely accusing Miguel of fraud. The police put him in a detention cell.

Later, an attorney named Tostado appeared. He loaded men with minor charges into a van. They were being sent to prison, he said, but he would be able to save them for a fee of 800 pesos.

One by one, the men were driven to their homes where loved ones paid the fee. Miguel was the last man in the van. Miguel tried to convince him to let him go; he would pay him later, he lied, stating his father was wealthy Hacendado. Tostado let him make a phone call. He pretended to make the call and reported that as it was Sunday his father was at the track racing his prized horses and could not be reached. Tostado told the driver to head to the Palacio de Lecumberri.

Built in 1900, Palacio de Lecumberri was the “Black Palace,” a prison in the form of a castle, where corruption, murder and beatings were common. Tostado left Miguel with the guards.

Which is how he found himself that morning standing before two cellblocks, with a choice of which way to go – with the rabble in general population or with the upper classes.

For the next several days Miguel dined on steak and listened to the stories of imprisoned generals and bureaucrats who claimed they had been betrayed. Every day he saw bodies dragged from the general population ward. And every day he signed the 500 peso vouchers with no way to pay, fearing he would soon join them. At night alone in his cell he would recall his mother’s lullaby and fall asleep imagining how different his life would have been if she were still alive.

On his fifth day at Lecumberri, two prisoners came to his cell and took him to a room. They demanded payment for the days he’d been there. Miguel told them his father would come soon; everything would be taken care of. Had his father received the letter he sent? Even if he had, how would his father know that he was in Lecumberri? But he stuck to his story. The men yelled louder and grabbed him to throw him in the general population ward. There, he knew, he’d likely be killed as someone from the luxury ward who thought of himself as upper class.

At that moment, two soldiers with bayonets stormed in.

“Let him go!”

Miguel heard the prisoners pleading for his tie and jacket as the soldiers took him to the vast main hall. There stood his father with Major Rubalcava. Miguel was stunned. He reached out to shake hands with his father and the Major.

He began to tell the Major that he had been signing daily vouchers of $500 pesos.

“Don’t even think of paying those crooks.”

As they drove away from the Black Palace, Miguel asked his father how he found him. His father had received his letter and sought him out at the Hotel Juarez, where he learned of his arrest.

They returned to Michoacán. The only open seats on the bus where separated and they were not able to sit together. But, anyway, Miguel’s father was stoic and not inclined to conversation.

They arrived at the village; the smell of guavas filled the air. The same cobblestone streets passed the same multi-colored homes, with the same people sitting at their front doors.

His younger brothers and sisters were welcoming, but he felt the cold stare of his stepmother.

That night, Miguel awoke to his father praying over him. He lay there, pretending to sleep, as, for the first and last time, he saw his father’s tears.

He worked daily from sunrise to sunset. He socialized with the townspeople but he no longer spoke or thought like them. He’d been gone too long.

One day Miguel attempted to load a bushel of hay on the horse and missed. His father yelled at him, “You’re of no use! The calluses on your hands have disappeared. You’re no longer good for this work.”

Miguel kept silent and felt the distance between them.

Weeks passed and Miguel could not find himself in the village.

After a month, without saying a word, he left.

____

Olivia Segura was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and lived, studied and worked in Mexico City for several years. She took the TYTT workshop to begin documenting her father’s life. This is her second TYTT workshop and story.
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By Gerry Hadden

I’m idling at a red light on a Mexico City street when my car starts to rise onto two wheels.  A stubby green and white public bus is trying to squeeze ever so slowly between me and another car.   It’s not working.  The bus’s driver side door handle scrapes sickeningly along the right side of my little Volkswagen GT.  I watch my side-view mirror twist and pop, then fall from sight.   Then he’s past and I’m back on four wheels.

The light turns green and I pull out in front of the bus, blocking its path.

Hiiiiiiijole manito,” calls the bus driver.   “That was my fault back there.”  He orders his passengers off his bus but I am tired and do not recognize this for the clue it is.

“We’ll have to call the police,” I say.

“Of course,” says the driver.  Then he says, “Hermano?  We should pull over past the intersection.  So we’re not blocking traffic.”

“Good idea,” I say.  We climb back in our vehicles and moved forward.  And that’s when the clue I’ve missed begins to bother me.  I am halfway across the intersection when I think, a bus driver who’s emptied his bus is not going to pull over anywhere.   I have him in my rear view mirror and am already leaning on my brakes as I see him swerve sharply to the right and speed off down a side street.

As I slam into second gear I figure I’ll catch his top-heavy green vehicle within a block.   But I’ve underestimated his skill behind the wheel.  He’s already crossing oncoming traffic to the left and disappearing down another street.  As he takes the turn the left wheels of his bus come off the pavement and several cars skid to avoid him.  When I reach the intersection I hesitate.  My car is new.  I’ve had it for three days.

Soon the bus driver has put three full blocks between us.  When I glimpse him banging a right on a street far ahead of me I think, I’ve lost him.  I speed to the corner and take it hard.  Then I brake.  It’s a dead end.  At the end of the cul-de-sac sits the bus, lights out, parked behind a light pole, facing us.  An elephant hiding behind a tree.  I swing my car around to block his exit.

“You’re trapped now, you bastard!” I yell.

He pulls out from behind the pole, but has nowhere to go.   He revs his engine, the grill of his green vehicle just inches from my car.

“Move your car or I’ll plough straight over it!”  he yells.

After a long moment it must become clear to him that the dramatic effect is waning.  He turns the bus off, jumps down to the sidewalk and starts off down the street in a wobbly arc and disappears.

(Click to buy Gerry’s book)

Several people from the large surrounding houses watch from their stoops.  One man, dressed in khaki pants and a polo style shirt, approaches.

“Do not call the police,” he counsels.  “They will only arrest you.  The other man is already gone.”

“But he left a small piece of evidence behind,” I say, pointing toward the bus.

I’m not worried about the cops.  I have my press credential issued by the Mexican Interior Ministry.  The Interior Minister is the cops’ boss.  When the police come I hand it to them.  They discuss the situation in murmurs.

A captain tells me I’ll have to accompany them to the precinct headquarters.   Then two officers come walking around the corner with none other than my friend the bus driver. He is sweaty now and looks displeased.

“That’s the bus driver,” I say.

“I can call my lawyer,” the neighbor whispers.

At the precinct house I am told to wait in the crowded lobby of the station.  A  representative from my insurance company shows up.  He urges me to settle with the driver.  But the driver is nowhere to be seen.  At dawn an officer leads me to a desk in a corner of the great hall.  The bus driver is already there, seated.   A policewoman sits behind the desk, typing on a computer.   She asks me to explain what happened.  She gives me a sheet of blank paper and asks me to draw the accident scene.

I make a hasty sketch of the street.  She asks me how many lanes it had.

“Four, I think,” I say.

“You think.”

“Or six.”

“What sorts of buildings were nearby.”

“They had doors and windows,” I say.

“Were they restaurants, homes?”

“I can’t remember,” I say.  “But I don’t see how that matters.”

“We need to establish where the accident took place.”

“But I told you the name of the cross street.”

“Yes, but if you cannot remember what it looks like…”

(Watch the trailer to Gerry’s book, Never the Hope Itself.)

“Look,” I interrupt.  “I was waiting at a red light right here.”  I draw a little squiggle on my road map.  “Then this guy comes along in his bus and scrapes the entire length of my car.”  I push the pen along my drawing, ripping the paper in the process.

“Is this what happened?”  the policewoman asks the bus driver.

“No, señora,” the man says.  “El señor hit my bus.”

“That’s a lie,” I say.

Then two men in long white smocks come out through a door behind her desk:  they are car crash forensics specialists. Their conclusion:  the bus hit me.  One of them cuffs the bus driver lightly on the back of his head and laughs.

“Listen up, fool.   You might as well settle with the Gringo.”

“I agree,” says the policewoman. Then to me:  “I implore you to reach an agreement with this man.  If you file charges you will regret it.”

I turn to my adversary.   “My insurance rep tells me there’s about 4 thousand pesos (400 dollars) worth of damage to my car.  Pay me and our business is finished.”

The driver fishes through his pockets.

“I have 400 pesos,” he says.

“Arrest this man,” I say.

The bus driver asks the policewoman if he can speak with his boss who’s arrived at the station.  She assents.

“Please settle with the man,” she says.

“If he won’t pay for the damage I’m not going to settle.”

“But it could take years,” she insists.  “And I think it will end badly for you.”

“I don’t see how,” I say.

My insurance representative interrupts.

“I have just spoken to the driver’s boss,” he says.  “They are going to offer four thousand pesos.  Do not accept it.”

“Why not?”

“Because the owner is offering to meet with you tomorrow to settle this.  But he will never show up.”

The insurance rep leaves me his card and leaves.  The policewoman and I finish the details of the report.  She gives me my car keys and says I can go.  Outside it is already light.  Sticking to my guns has cost me half a day of red tape but it’s worth it.  I swear to myself that I will get the entire four thousand pesos from that drunken son of a whore liar.

A week later the policewoman calls to say that I have won.  I know, I say, how do I collect the money?  She tells me that I will first need a copy of the favorable decision.

“Shall I give you my mailing address?”

“It must be picked up in person,” she says.

“You’re joking.  What’s the exact address of the police station?”

“Your insurance rep has it.”

“But I need it.  To pick up the document.”

“You cannot pick it up.”

“I cannot?”

“Your insurance rep must claim it for you.”

Fine, I say.  I hang up and dig about for the business card the young man left me the night before.  But I can’t find it.  After searching in every conceivable place I give up and call the insurance company.  Two days pass before I get through.  I explain to the customer service person that I need the name of the rep who has responded to my case.

“Who was he?” she asks.

“That’s what I am asking you,” I say.  She says she can find no record of the incident.

The following night I dine out with friends.  I arrive home about midnight.  As I pull on to my street I notice an old model Buick double parked and idling under a tree just before my house.  To squeeze past it I have to slow considerably.  I make eye contact with the two men sitting in it.  They are scruffy but alert-looking and appear very interested in how I look.  I decide to continue down the street. The idling car pulls out.  This time I’m the chased.  After 10 minutes I manage to shake them.  I drive home, my heart racing.

The next morning I call the policewoman.

“You said that my insurance rep was the only one who could claim a copy of the police report, right?”

“Correct.”

“Did the bus guys pick up a copy?”

“Yes. Yesterday morning.”

“How were they able to do that?”

“They came down and picked it up.”

“What?  How could they?  Do our addresses figure in the report?”

“Yes.  The addresses of both parties appear in the report.”

I hang up.  I call back the insurance company’s toll free line.  When I get through later in the day they still cannot locate my case.

Several weeks pass without word either from the insurance company or the police.  No more goons have returned to stake out my house. But the incident has shaken me.  Then quite unexpectedly my insurance agent calls.

“I’m sorry to inform you that we’ve lost the case,” he says.

“Come again?”

“The police have found in favor of the bus driver.”

“First of all, where have you been?  Second, that’s impossible.  You must have your cases confused.”

“I’ll look into it,” he says.

Two more months pass.   One afternoon my front doorbell rings.  I peek down from the roof terrace.   A Mexico City police cruiser is parked in front of my door.  Two officers in brown uniforms and caps stand on the sidewalk.

“Si?” I yell.

Don Gerald Hadden?”

“Who are you?”

Don Gerald?”

“Who are you?” I repeat.

Don Gerald?” says one of the two cops.  “We need to take you with us.”

I go outside.  I have my cell phone on with the number of the U.S. Embassy ready to be dialed.

“What is this about?” I ask.

“You, sir, filed a traffic complaint following an accident involving a bus.”

“Several months ago, yes.”

“Your testimony is apparently filled with inconsistencies,” he says.  “Contradicciones.  You must come with us to the station to clear this matter up.”

I stare incredulously into the man’s dark eyes.  There’s hatred or indifference hidden in them, who can tell.  He is a frog playing poker.  But it’s his voice.   It has suddenly and most powerfully deflated me.  The sham seriousness of his tone, the all too familiar deadpan absurdity of a shake-down in progress. I look at the other cop, nonchalantly chewing gum, his eyes fixed on his partner.   And I give up.  I have no fight left in me.

Sabes que?” I say.  “I drop the case.  You win.”

The officer watches me.

“I’ve had enough,” I say, waving my hand before his eyes.  “Hello?  Case closed.”

The cop smiles wryly, then places a hand on my shoulder.

“Better for you,” he says softly, “Much better.”

And he is right.  He and his partner do not ask for a penny and I never hear from them again.  And I never get back through to my insurance rep.  Nor does the case ever appear in the company’s system.  I stop calling.  Because the truth is I feel relieved to have gotten all these crooks off my back.   It’s painful to admit because I criticize Mexicans all the time for the same passivity.  I won’t anymore, because now I get it.  Accommodating injustice here is a hell of a lot easier than fighting it.

____

Gerry Hadden is an author and radio foreign correspondent. For several years, he worked NPR’s Mexico, Central America and Caribbean correspondent. He now lives with his family in Barcelona, where he is Europe correspondent for Public Radio International’s The World. Contact him at www.gerryhadden.com.

 

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