It was a hot, disorienting afternoon in El Paso, and we’d just had lunch. We were walking back to our tiny vacation rental, squinting against the high sun.
The busy street was built for cars, not bipeds. The sidewalks were old and weathered. Fast food trash and cigarette butts littered the shadeless desert landscape. My brother-in-law, Antonio, and I talked about his visa interview scheduled for the next morning: it was an endless sequence of speculations one way, then another. “Your lawyer said your case was strong. I wouldn’t worry about it,” followed by “What if they say no, man?” Somehow, the debate itself felt productive.
“Look, David,” he said, while we crossed the street. “If they say no, I’ll cross the same way I did last time. It’ll take some time. I don’t have the money, and, dude, it would totally suck, but I am coming back.”
Just sixteen hours later we were in a late-model Volkswagen Jetta, traveling from our El Paso rental to a cheap hotel in Ciudad Juárez. I was relishing being in Latin America for a week, even if only by a few miles. My last visit had been to Mexico City, a place I still consider the cultural capital of Latin America. I walked from the Palacio de Bellas Artes to the Zócalo along Francisco Madero street, a pedestrian-only passage lined with shops, cafés, and restaurants. I bought a Natalia Lafourcade vinyl record and enough books to make me switch hands from time to time as I carried them to the hotel. I was sure Ciudad Juárez had something similar to offer, some way to delight me by regifting my own Latinness. I looked over at my brother-in-law, who was silent, brooding. He had his headphones on as he looked out the window and tapped his leg nervously.
He was going the wrong way.
He had crossed this loathed stretch of land more than a few times, northbound, on days-long expeditions fueled by scant supplies and pleas to the santos around his neck. He had given thanks to God when he saw the Border Patrol heading in his direction. “They give you a bottle of water and a ride back to Mexico!,” he told me. Once on the north side, he had kept his head down. Never a speeding ticket, never a parking violation. He was constantly on the lookout for any warning signs, any shift in the wind that might signal he was being hunted by ICE. He knew his life there was fragile.
When he first received the letter notifying him of this visa appointment in Ciudad Juárez, he toyed with the idea of disappearing. He was almost sure they were tricking him into leaving the country. At length, he decided he’d have to show up, for better or worse. Now, in the passenger seat next to me, it occurred to him he may have made a mistake. The closer his interview got, the less he was able to talk about it. We did what we could to keep our minds off it. We took an Uber to legendary Mexican crooner Juan Gabriel’s house. We walked around the Catedral and Plaza Central. We ate. We watched a different Mexican movie every night. And though I’m sure the distractions were welcome, they were insufficient. I could feel the tension building inside Antonio, like radio static taking over his body, drowning out all other sounds.
The night before the interview, at around 11pm, I turned out my bedside lamp and he was still sitting up, on top of the covers, a sea of documents spread out on his bed. He was double-checking every line. It made him feel safer. And watching him obsess over each form, I knew this man had learned, through hard experience, the power of papers.
In the morning, we took the hotel shuttle to the US Consulate. We didn’t speak. He handed me his backpack and his phone and walked inside. I waited.
Behind the consulate walls, mojados and ilegales were being transformed into permanent residents through a sacrament of stamps and questions. They filed in wearing their best blouses, their whitest shirts. They spoke their smoothest English. They sat down across desks from office workers on old chairs. Squeak. As they sat down, they were regarded as “not [Mexico’s] best . . . bringing drugs . . . bringing crime . . . rapists.”
Their poverty line was $1 a day. But answering a few questions to the satisfaction of the office staff could change everything. If they succeeded, a stamp and a signature would announce their transformation. And when they rose again from that office chair—squeak—they would be entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on American soil. Their poverty line would skyrocket to $24,600 a year for a family of four.
Outside, as the sun sailed across the sky and the shadows shifted on the sidewalk, I sat and hoped with all my strength that Antonio’s visa would be approved. And yet, I was angry at the power of the clerks and their stamps. Angry because I knew that without them, Antonio would lose so much, and with them, his life would change for the better. Angry because I knew he was a great American before he ever entered the consulate at all.
A few weeks later, Antonio reentered the US with a visa. That morning, from the Houston airport, he posted a smiling photo on Facebook with the caption: “Ya de regreso en mi tierra. :D” Back in my homeland again. Not long after that, he called me to say he received his green card in the mail. “¡Hasta los pinches ojos se me están poniendo azules!,” he bragged. Even my damn eyes are turning blue!
Soon, he enrolled in school, eligible for financial aid. He began a new job search. I assured him he could count on my support, that working and going to school would be tough, but worth it.
“A eso no le tengo miedo,” he replied. I’m not afraid of that. “Yo le tengo miedo a quedarme como estoy. Ya con papeles, sería una vergüenza.” I’m afraid of staying as I am. With papers, not changing would be a shame.
English translation of song lyrics
Stop me on the street
On my way to work
Ask me for my papers
Tell me to go to hell
Say I’m to blame
For your bankruptcy
Call me a wetback
And believe yourself a patriot
But this is my land, even if it’s forbidden
I risked my life to reach it
And even if they tell me it’s illegal
I won’t stop loving it
This is my land, I’ve worked it
I’ve suffered for it, I’ve sweat over it
And though I’m from far away
I, too, deserve freedom
You wash the dishes
You clean the bathrooms
You sweat in the fields
For a few years
Leave your family
To work the land
And then come and throw
The first stone
I’m a Turk in Germany, a Lebanese in Paris
A leaf that fell in autumn, so far from its roots
A Moroccan in Barcelona, in Arizona a Mexican
But with or without papers, I’m your brother
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