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By Jian Huang

I wore a pink satin dress with a bow that tied in the back. My dad wore a white short-sleeved button down shirt. His mother taught him to always wear a collared shirt when going out in public. It was 1989. It must have been summer. I sat on my dad’s left arm. It was easy to carry a four-year old who weighed so little. With his right arm, he waved at someone just out of the frame. He wore a look of pleasant surprise; I had just kissed him goodbye on the cheeks.

“Even back then you knew more than your age,” he told me one day at lunch. He’s 78 now and living in affordable senior housing in Chinatown. He lost his sight 13 years ago, but the image of this picture is seared into his memory. I look at this photograph as an adult and wonder what made my dad say goodbye to his whole life that day at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

“I am going to America,” he said in the van ride to the airport.

“Is it far?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you coming back?”

“No. But you’re going to come with me.”

“Today?”

“No.”

When I turned six in 1991, I saw my dad again at the Los Angeles airport. I helped my mom push two carts worth of luggage up the carpeted ramp to the arrival gates at Tom Bradley International Terminal. Two years had taken a lifetime’s toll on his face.

“Life is a slippery thing,” he said at lunch. “It takes all the courage you have just to keep living.”

My ears hurt from 16 hours of cabin pressure. We squeezed seven across in the middle aisle on a Boeing 747. It was dark outside our aircraft for a long time while it tumbled up along the eastern rim of Asia, up to the tip of the Soviet Union, across the Pacific to Alaska, and following the coastline down through Canada. A flight attendant let me lay on the floor near the bathroom in the back of the plane because I was so nauseous. My mom sat on the floor next to me and rubbed my head.

“I don’t want to be here,” I cried. “I want to go home.”

When there was daylight again outside the airplane window, I saw little patches of land down below grow to a full-sized city. Life awaited.

“You have arrived in Los Angeles, California. The local time is…” a female voice said over the intercom in Mandarin Chinese. It was hard to hear over the loud cheers.

“Why are they so happy?” I asked my mom.

“Because we’re in America now.”

She asked the other people who got off the plane with her what the signs read and was met with confused stares. A young man in front of us with thick-rimmed glasses pulled out a pocket dictionary and flipped through the pages.

“Hang onto my pant leg,” she said as we squeezed through the stream of passengers. “Don’t get lost. I can’t speak the language.”

The population in China in 1991 was 1.2 billion. In the United States, it was 253 million. Being just one of many, by comparison, was much better here in the U.S. More land for everyone. More food. Life mattered here; in China, we were just a number on a graph. The U.S. was the land of the free. The land of the Self. Here, we manifest our own destinies.

“Where do we line up? What kind of identification do they need?” a woman behind us asked nervously, as we and dozens of others walked into the terminal.

They were people with college degrees, crushed by the Cultural Revolution, disheartened by a lack of choice, who would rather be motel workers in the U.S. than starve back in China. There were hundreds of them with luggage as big as ours inside that fluorescently-lit brown interior. Our whole lives fit into five black zip-up bags as big as I. My dad mailed letters to us with instructions on how to write our new identities in English:

W.X. Huang

116 E. 23rd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90011

“There are standards in America. Try not to stand out too much. They don’t like foreigners,” my dad’s letter read. “Remember to respect them.”

We waited for hours. The brown wood-paneled walls accentuated the terminal’s lack of windows and airflow. The young man with the dictionary slumped over his pile of luggage in front of us. There was only a little chatter here and there. I tried sitting on the floor, but my mom abruptly pulled me back up.

“Stand up,” she said firmly. “Don’t embarrass us. We’re in someone else’s country.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit on top of one of those big bags in front of us. How nice it would have felt to take a nap.

Before we had left Shanghai our relatives helped us pick out our best clothes to wear just for this moment of entry. “You have to look like you have money,” my uncle said at dinner the night before we were scheduled to leave China. “Otherwise they’ll turn you away.”

“They would do that?” my aunt, sitting beside us, asked.

“Yes. You have to make them believe that you’re only visiting.”

But we weren’t only visiting. Even a six year-old could tell from the five big bags that took weeks to pack. We were planning to stay whether they wanted us or not.

China was a place of perpetuated separation between the rich and the poor, the light- and the dark-skinned, the urbane and the provincial. There are 56 ethnic groups in the country but only one, the Han Chinese, made laws. In China, you got one shot at taking an entrance exam for college. There were no community colleges, no transfer opportunities, no mobility. People in rural towns stayed dumb and poor. Destiny predetermined.

The lines of black-haired people in front of us snaked across the terminal. Every few minutes more Chinese nationals piled on behind us from other arriving flights. Blond-haired people went into a separate line next to us that was much shorter. There were booths at the head of the line with uniformed officers hunched over a desk, examining paperwork and looking through bags. One blonde woman waved to me and smiled. She probably knew she was going home. In our line, no one smiled.

“Mom, can we go there?” I pointed as I tugged at her leg.

“That line isn’t for you,” dictionary man said. “That’s for Americans. You’re not American.”

At the front of the line, I couldn’t tell who I was supposed to smile at, so I smiled at everyone who didn’t look like us. My mom pulled out pieces of papers from her red leather bag. Red was the color of good luck.

This moment would be only the beginning of many instances where my mom would utilize her newfound communication skill: body language. The lady officer pointed at my mom’s purse and held up some papers as example. Getting what was being asked, she pulled out all the documentation she had and laid them out for the lady officer to choose. Two male officers opened our bags, occasionally bringing things up for a sniff.

“Why do the foreigners have such big noses?” I asked my mom while in line.

“Because the air quality in America is better.”

They opened our packages of teas, our menthol ointments and our dried fish snacks. I pulled open my pink plastic backpack to show them my package of crackers. They chuckled. Then I lifted my heels to flash my best six year-old smile at the lady officer over the counter. I made sure she saw me because she smiled back.

A couple stamps stamped. “Now we can go find your dad,” my mom said to me with relief.

Memories of my dad were faint. I remembered him running after me on a set of stairs at the park. I remembered him laughing as he fed me noodles with a spoon. I vaguely remembered a man who I had kissed goodbye two years earlier at the airport.

I thought that reunion would solve whatever problems we had before. Each time my mom showed me one of his letters she would say, “We’ll see your dad soon.” Often, he would send me doodles he made during down time at his motel job in Inglewood. Sometimes he would send a photo of him in front of the Federal immigration building in Downtown, or at the pier in Redondo Beach, or holding the box of Andes mint chocolates that came with the letter.

“For little Jian,” they always read.

I didn’t recognize the man who came to pick us up at the airport. He appeared as suddenly as the downtown L.A. skyline while we flew through smog.

“This is your father,” my mom introduced him. I hid behind her leg.

She grabbed my hand and placed it in his hand. They didn’t feel like my dad’s. They were thicker, darker skinned and much more calloused than I recalled. His face was fatter. His eyes were puffy. His head had more gray hairs.

“What happened in those two years?” I asked my dad over lunch in Chinatown.

“Life slipped away from me.”

Two years had erased the vitality in his face. The man I remembered had never heard a woman scream while getting raped at a motel, hadn’t heard of gang wars, or drug addiction, or seen a human body twitch after getting stun-gunned. He hadn’t seen black people, or brown people, and only theorized that we all bled bright red inside.

“We wear our lives on our faces,” my dad said.

Later, on those days when I helped him at a motel near MacArthur Park, we would play games and tried to guess whether someone checking in was a good person or a bad person. He would teach me how to punch someone in the face, a skill that would later come in handy at John Adams Middle School.

“Protect yourself. The world is an unforgiving place.”

But I didn’t know any of these things the day this man picked me up at the airport. I still understood the United States through Shirley Temple movies dubbed in Mandarin.

My mom and I had cheered along with everyone else on the aircraft because, finally, we were here in the land of the free. Everything would be okay. I would see my dad again – the same man I had kissed goodbye in the photograph.

____

Jian Huang was born in Shanghai, China and grew up in South Los Angeles. She has worked in the arts and for local nonprofits. Her interests include watching old Hollywood movies and writing about social justice issues that deal with class barriers, the American Dream, and finding a place of belonging. She is a 2016 PEN USA Emerging Voices fellow.
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By Michel Stone

I’d known Angel a few weeks when he told me about his being sealed by blowtorch in the underbelly of a truck.  His words flowed fast, like the cork had blown on something bottled inside him, and the telling and my interest gave him great satisfaction.

We were tagging elms with yellow plastic tape in the tree nursery where we worked.  “You cannot imagine,” he said. He had an easy, boyish smile, almost devilish, but his eyes revealed a perpetual weariness.

“Tell me,” I said, stretching out an eight-inch piece of tape and snipping it from the roll.

“We lay like this.” He stood rigid, his arms pinned to his sides.  “Is very close, you know? With the shoes of the other mens is rubbing my head here and here,” he said, tapping his ears.

“How many of you?”

His sudden, wide smile puzzled me.

“Is ten of us.  This space is very, very small.” He stepped to a nearby elm and bent a thin branch for me to secure the length of tape.

We had to tag the best looking elms for a landscaper who’d pick up the trees the following day.  Angel could tell the caliper of a tree with a glance.  We’d walk down the field, he’d select the trees, and we’d tag them.

I didn’t want to be nosy, and I figured he’d be guarded about telling me much more, but  I was wrong.

“I try not to move in this truck, is so tight like… how you say… the little fishes in the can?”

“Sardines?” I say, tying a strip of tape to the limb.

Si, is like the sardines.  And the coyote – he is the man I pay the moneys to bring me in these truck – he close the hole in the truck with the… how you say… the fire, you know?”

“Blow torch?”

Si.  Is very dark in this place.  Is very long time in this place.”

“How long did it take you to cross?”

“Oh, is many hours!”

“Pretty scary, I bet.” I said, as we made our way down the row, eyeing trees to select.

“I think I will die on this trip.  I could no tell is day or the night, is Mexico or el norte outside this space.”

“Did you and the others talk?”

“No, not so much because we is scared of the coyote in the outside, if he hear us or if the border patrol hear us.  We not talking in there.  But then one man he get very crazy in the head,” Angel says, his perpetual smile lost now.  “Is very bad.”

“Crazy in the head?” I said.

Si, is true.  He say crazy things.  He screaming and he wanting his mama, but is no space in there and is no mama, either.  I want to hit him in the face!  You see, is no because I am a bad guy, but this man, he could get us caught, you know?”

“Did you hit him?”

“No.  Is impossible. The… how you say… the top?  Is right here, is very near to my nose.  Is no able to move to hit this man.”

I shook my head, unsure what to say, thinking about my story, my life, and how simple and unencumbered my existence would seem if he were to ask me to tell my personal narrative.

(Michel Stone’s first novel, The Iguana Tree, is just out now on Hub City Press, about a Mexican couple’s trip into the United States, ending in South Carolina. It has been called a “compassionate yet unsentimental story [recalling] the works of John Steinbeck.” …    Read an excerpt here.)

“Then the mens, they have to piss, right?  And what can they do but they have to go.  So these mens pisses, and one man he… how you say?”  Angel shoves a dirty finger into the back of his throat.

“Vomit? Throw up?” I said.

Si, he vomit and smelling very, very bad in this truck.”

As we made our way across the field, tagging the last couple of trees, I wondered what I’d do in the situation Angel just described.

I said, “Did you pray?”  I fold my hands in prayer and briefly close my eyes to illustrate my question.

“Oh, si!  I says to God, ‘Please! Please! Please!’  And the other mens I can hear them talk to God and to the Virgin, they say like me, “Please, please!”

I tried to picture Angel prone, scared, and lying in human waste among his fellow travelers with barely a few inches between their faces and the top of their hidden, sealed compartment. I imagined the unbearable stench.

(View a trailer to The Iguana Tree)

Suddenly I am thankful Angel is a thin man.  How could he have fit into the space otherwise?  Maybe a plump, well-fed fellow wouldn’t have had Angel’s motivation to leave Mexico in such a way, under the protection of a coyote, in search of something better.

“But you made it across,” I said, smiling at him.

Si,” he said, his mischievous grin contradicting the horrendous tale he’d just shared, the truth about his deliverance to el norte in the dark belly of that truck.

“When was this?” I said.

“This was in five months ago.  In Marzo.  You know Marzo?”

“March,” I said.

“Si.  In March I come here.  Soon is my wife coming and my boy.”  His face darkened when he said this, and for a moment I suspected I’d misunderstood, imagining he’d be thrilled to be reunited with his family.

“Where are they now?” I said.

“In my country, in my town, Cortazar.”

My familiarity with Mexican geography was minimal.  “Is that near the sea, or near the border?”

“No, no, is no near the sea and this town is very far from the border.  Is in middle of my country,” he said.

Then I pictured his young wife – How old was Angel? 23? – traveling up through the center of her country with a small child in tow, trying to cross into America.

Perspiration dampened the front of Angel’s shirt in this muggy August South Carolina heat, and I wonder how insufferable a sealed undercarriage of a truck would be in Mexico or Texas this time of year.

I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand.  “Why’d you do it, Angel?  Why come here?”

“Is much better here, Michel.  The moneys I make here in one week?  You know in my country I make this moneys in many weeks. Is much better here.”

My relatives owned the farm where Angel and I worked, and I kept up with him through them for years after that summer.

His wife and son did make it to el norte that autumn, their journey across the border different but equally as harrowing as Angel’s.

Then one day I learned they were gone.  Disappeared.  Rumored to have returned to Mexico.  Some farm hands mumbled that Angel had begun drinking too much, had gotten in trouble with the law, and left before he got locked up.

Where is he now?  His wife?  Their child?  I often wonder.

____

Michel Stone is a writer living in Spartanburg, S.C. Her acclaimed first novel,  The Iguana Tree, is just out on Hub City Press, and available in hardback or Kindle. Contact her at www.michelstone.com.

 

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By Brian Rivera

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]t was around 6:30 a.m. when I heard a knock on my window. It was Ernesto.

“They took Ulises.”

He had a look that woke me instantly.

Ulises and I met seven years ago. I was a senior and he was a sophomore at Garfield High School. We shared the same immediate group of friends. Eventually, we forged a brotherhood that made us inseparable.

I met Ernesto outside my apartment and went to Ulises’. We found the house door unlocked. There were half-filled plates on the table and the sink overflowed with soapy water. The burners beneath the comal glowed red, like embers from a waning fire. The door led to the kitchen, where we heard a clicking sound. It was a pot. Although the flame was off, the vapor inside struggled to pry the lid open, like a mouth of steel snapping at us.

We went back to my house and called the rest of the guys.

“They deported Ulises.”

A week went by. Then, one day a phone call.

“Diego. It’s Ulises.”

“Ulises! How are you? Great to hear from you.”

“Same here. Sorry I didn’t call you right away.” He sighed heavily.

Image for Story“What happened?”

“It’s all a blur. At daybreak, men rushed into my room, guns drawn, in search of a criminal. They searched my room and told me to get dressed. Moments later, I was escorted into a white van by agents armed with automatic weapons. No questions asked.”

I asked how his family was.

“In shock. We lived in our house for over twenty years and never had a problem. We feel lost.”

“How are you?” I asked.

“ I wake up believing I’m home, in East L.A. I may not have been born in the United States, but I was raised there from the age of three. It’s my home.”

Neither of us said a word. Ulises’ breathing was the only thing I could hear.

“We’re going to try to cross again this week,” he said.

We communicated daily after that. Having failed to cross twice, his family was going to attempt to cross a third time, he said on one phone call.

After a deep sigh, he continued.

“I wanted to ask if you guys could pick me up? I can cross back with you.”

I thought about it. Maybe, when crossing the border, a couple of us could pretend to have lost our I.D in our drunken stupor?

“Let me talk to everyone and we’ll go from there. That cool?” I said.

Days later, the guys and I gathered at our friend Salvador’s to discuss what we could do for Ulises.

“What would happen if we were caught?”

“I don’t know.”

Luis suggested he could lend his I.D. and birth certificate to Ulises. They looked nothing alike, but we had no choice.

Ulises called the next day.

“We’re coming to get you,” I said.

“What? Serious? Thank you for doing this for me. We can do this, Diego. Meet me inside the McDonald’s near the border. You won’t miss it.”

***

We met at Luis’ house around 8 PM the next night. We took two cars and headed south on Interstate 5. I rode shotgun in Luis’ car with my brother, Justin, and Oscar in the back seats. Alex drove Ulises’ blue 87’ Ford Explorer. He took Salvador, Gabriel, Marcos, and Ernesto.

“How are you guys feeling?” I asked.

“Nervous.”

“You guys are going to be okay, manito,” Oscar reassured me.

I called Marcos, who was in the other car.

“How you feeling?”

“Good. Excited. It never occurred to me, but it’s the first time we leave the country as a group.”

“Let’s go over what we are going to say once we reach the border one more time.”

“Tell him to relax,” I heard Alex say. “We know what to do. You don’t have to keep lecturing.”

We stopped at a mini-mall in San Ysidro. Blocks away, were parking lots for individuals who preferred to walk across the border. Oscar stayed with Luis. Luis handed me his birth certificate and his California I.D. I gave him a hug. He gave me his blessing.

“What are you guys going to do for four hours?” I asked.

“We’ll see.”

“Be careful.”

“Go bring him home.”

We crossed through a rotating door made of metal cylindrical bars surrounded by concrete walls lined with gleaming barbed wired.

Tijuana oozed of liquor, tacos, piss, McDonald’s fries, and burning trash.

We found Ulises within minutes. I greeted him last.

“Let’s find a bar and have some drinks.”

We walked over to Avenida Revolución. After walking past a few nightclubs, we went up a flight of stairs and into a crowded bar. We sat at a table near the balcony overlooking the avenue. A short man with a face like red leather walked up carrying a bottle of Cazadores tequila. He wore a tejana and blew a whistle that hung around his neck. He approached our dimly lit table and slowly began to tilt Marcos’ head back. With his whistle, he kept time as he poured Marcos a mouthful of tequila.

Our table roared. When he was done pouring the shot, he shook his head and blew his whistle. As the man finished pouring shots of tequila, we asked for the bill.

The mysterious man walked away, an arm around his bottle, blowing his whistle to the rhythm of Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me,” which was playing for the third time that night.

I sat next to Ulises.

“You okay?”

He gave me a weak smile.

“I’m in disbelief. I went from working eight hours a day, to having nothing. Instantly. No money. No clothes. Nothing. Luckily, we managed to contact relatives who lived in Tijuana. Mind blowing how one minute you are immersed in the comforts of your own home and next thing you know, you find yourself wandering the streets of an unknown city. The reality of my situation is difficult to accept.

“I look out my window and expect to see the downtown L.A. skyline. Instead, I see hills littered with homes made of tin and aluminum.”

We continued to talk and drink.

An hour later, we gave a toast and made our way out back onto la Revolución.

“One more drink somewhere?” I suggested. But from the looks on everyone’s faces, we were ready to go. We took taxis to the border and found ourselves in front of a billboard that read:

“Welcome to Tijuana: A Well Behaved Tourist Is a Welcomed Tourist.”

We walked toward the glass doors. Inside the crossing zone, we were suddenly alone. We expected a room full of people crossing too, but the corridor was empty.

“Go immediately after me,” I told Ulises. “And put this on.”

I gave him a black shirt with the image of President Obama on the front. Beneath Obama’s face was the word “HOPE.”

We were met by a row of solitary cubicles. Border patrol guards beckoned us to approach them. I walked toward the nearest guard with Ulises and Mario close behind. He was an elderly man whose wrinkled face resembled a Chinese Shar Pei. The creases on his uniform shirt were impeccable. He glared at me as I handed him my California I.D.

“And what was the purpose of your visit to Mexico?”

“Pleasure. We came to eat and drink, sir.”

“Here you go,” he said, handing me my passport. I expected Ulises to follow, but Salvador went next.

“You look young. How old are you?”

“Seventeen, sir.”

Salvador handed him his passport.

“What school do you go to?” the agent asked.

“Schurr High School, sir. In Montebello.”

The agent stared at Salvador, holding his school I.D. between his index and middle fingers.

“SURE you do,” he chuckled and allowed Salvador to pass.

I saw Ulises lay Luis’ California I.D. on the counter.

“Go ahead,” the old guard said, and with that Ulises crossed back into the United States.

While Alex delegated with the border patrol agent over not having brought what constituted proper identification, everyone’s eyes met, radiating like madmen.

But we suppressed it as we walked towards the mini-mall and found Luis and Oscar. Finally, we burst out laughing and jumping around. Marcos and I began to drum on the roof of Luis’s car.

“Let’s go home, you guys.”

The night was dark and cold. We got into our cars and pulled out onto the freeway, heading north.

“Where are you staying tonight?” I asked Ulises.

“Not sure.”

“You can stay at my place,” offered Luis.

“Thanks.”

“Stay as long as you like.”

“At least until my family comes back,” Ulises said.

Luis and Oscar began recounting what they did in San Ysidro. I turned and looked at Ulises. He was smiling, as he peered out the back window. Then I saw his smile slowly fade, along with Tijuana in the rear view mirror.

____

 Brian Rivera was born and raised in East L.A., where he still resides. He received his B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. He spends his time playing music, chess, fútbol, eating and travelling.
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By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]t was a cold dark morning and somewhere out in the Sonoran desert the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus I had boarded hours earlier in Tijuana came to a halt, the motor switched off. It was 2:30 AM.

As the only gringa onboard, I had to exit the bus, alone, and go into an immigration office; a rickety wooden shack big enough to fit two desks and folding chairs. Inside the shack, two disheveled, yet intimidating Mexican immigration officers sat like vultures waiting for something to happen. I stumbled off the bus, my heart thumping. This is it, I thought; I’ve been caught.

It was 1968. I was 16 and running away from home. With suitcase, sewing machine and two guitars in tow, I was headed to Guadalajara to become a child bride. Back home in Studio City, my mom was realizing I was gone. I was the last of four siblings living at home; my rebellious nature was wearing her down.

That previous summer, she had sent me to study at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Guadalajara, where I met Oscar. Magic was in the air with muralists up on their scaffolding, sculptors welding abstract forms in the garden, and folklórico dancers kicking up dust in the central patio; the thought of returning to the San Fernando Valley – the place where I’d grown up – depressed me. I, a precocious and rebellious teen, was a misfit and needed room to breathe and grow. The linear grid of the San Fernando Valley stifled me; the orange groves turned into track homes felt sterile. My classmates at the time were heavily influenced by the drug scene and frequently dropped LSD before attending classes. I preferred boys. But sneaking out my bedroom window at night to meet up with friends, mostly guys, was no longer an option; I kept getting caught and grounded. Being a good little girl never came easy. The friction between my mom and me became unbearable.

Earlier that day, I barely passed the scrutiny of the American immigration officials. Their questions came at me like machine gunfire. How old was I? Why was I alone? Where was I going? Why Guadalajara? Who did I know there? Had I visited before? I bluffed my way through, using my sister’s name. She was twenty-five at the time. I had come across her birth certificate just before leaving Los Angeles and had brought it with me just in case. When the U.S. officials emptied the contents of my purse and came across a letter from Oscar addressed to me, it prompted them to question why I had two different first names. The thought of being caught and sent back made me sweat and shake. My voice quivered as I lied. But they let me through and I made my way across the border into Tijuana where Oscar was waiting for me.

At this point my mom hired a detective to look for me. He had been an L.A. cop, trained to find runaway kids. He failed to come up with any leads since I misled them by leaving clues on our phone bill so they’d think I went north instead of south. I also created a fake diary, purposefully left behind with notes about how much I desired to go up to San Francisco. It was the late 60s when the counterculture movement was in full swing. It never occurred to my mom or the detective that I’d do something as crazy as crossing the border illegally, risking so much just to go back to Mexico.

But my friend Kathy, who I’d met in Guadalajara, was still in L.A. visiting her mom, and she became an accomplice to my getaway. I was grateful she could translate the letters from Oscar; his English was worse than my flawed Spanish. So I communicated with my husband-to-be through an interpreter and thus we knew little about each other. We had no clue if we shared interests or basic values. There was very little time to become acquainted with each other’s quirks and habits. Nor was our nine-year age difference a consideration.

That day in mid-September, Kathy showed up as planned. She picked me up from North Hollywood High in her rickety VW bug, 15 minutes after my mom had dropped me off. It was meant to be my first day of high school. I never stepped foot on campus. From there she dropped me at the house of another friend, who drove me to the border two days later.

While some girls my age were preparing for their Sweet Sixteen parties in frilly dresses, I was planning an unlawful international border crossing.

For me, the experience standing in that ramshackle immigration hut was a turning point; a symbolic passage into maturity while still a child. I had fast forwarded into an uncertain future, assuming I’d be better off once I escaped the Valley and a home where I felt invisible. I replaced one challenging home life for another. I married an alcoholic Mexicano, who I later discovered was gallivanting around with other women as I grew plump.

Four months later, while in my third month of pregnancy, I called my mom to let her know where I was. With raised voice, but relieved I was alive, she asked, “How could you have done this to me. We thought you were dead. Where did I go wrong?” But she was a pragmatist, something I later came to admire, and asked me what I wanted to do.

“Get married to Oscar and have the baby,” I replied.

I needed her written permission to do so since I was a minor. She agreed, though she wanted more than anything for me to come home and put the baby up for adoption. On July 21, 1969, during my eighth month of pregnancy, Oscar and I were married. At that moment, Neil Armstrong was stepping foot on the moon; our guests had been watching the moon landing and arrived three hours late.

Later I learned the Catholic Archdiocese in Guadalajara had phoned the local Catholic Church in Studio City. They were able to locate my mom through my cousin, who had coincidentally celebrated her wedding there; they wanted to alert her that I was in Guadalajara. The preparation for my wedding in the Catholic church, required taking catechism classes with an American priest who taught theology assuming I was a university grad student, not a 16-year old high school drop out. I guess I blew my cover. They were double-checking to confirm the legitimacy of my written permission to marry.

So, there I stood before the Mexican immigration officials that next morning after crossing into Tijuana. I turned and looked back. People on the bus, including Oscar, were staring at me. When the officers mumbled “Tarjeta de turista,” even with my limited Spanish I understood. They pushed a pen toward me. I quickly forged my sister’s signature, my hand shaking uncontrollably. That signature – which looked more like chicken scratch – stayed imprinted on my psyche.   The fear of crossing borders haunted me; that shack in the middle of nowhere lingered for years, no matter where I travelled in the world, or which border I was crossing.

But the officers barely noticed, and could not have cared less. They just wanted to go home.

____

 Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a proud, native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
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