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La Casa De Seguridad
The wind’s force stings my face as I manage to keep a tight grip on the bicycle. It is a struggle to keep my balance as my husband speeds down the dirt road. I grow frustrated, mud splattering on the back of my floor-length purple skirt, an attempt to blend in with the Mexican culture. However, I keep my head up, cautious in looking for any suspicious activity around us.
I am always fearful that our Guatemalan roots will show itself in time. It’s frightening, being constantly concerned that there is a security agent who will ask us for our papers. However, I try to best to on guard at all times.
I strain my head to look ahead, and I see the Suchiate River. A large man stands next to a makeshift raft. He gives us a swift glance, eyeing our worn mountain bicycle and the torn plastic bag hanging on the bike’s handlebars. There’s a sudden glow in his eyes, and he gives us a malicious grin. He sees through our façade immediately. My husband stops the bike several meters away from the river’s edge, while I attempt to reason with the man.
“¿Podemos cruzar el río en tu balsa? (Can we cross the river in your raft?)” I ask, praying that he would answer yes, but a hint of doubt begins to form in the back of my mind. I suspect that by the way he looks at us, he has already pinned us down as illegal migrants.
“¿Tienes sus papeles? (Do you have your papers?)” he asks, looking back at the trampled grocery bag on the handlebar and scoffing at his presentiments of my answer.
“No, no los tengo, Señor. (No, I don’t have them, Sir.) ” I reply confidently, striving to see the wicked idea behind his spiteful grin.
He replies immediately, “Si ustedes no tienen sus papeles, necestian pagar cinco veces más que la tarifa normal (If you all don’t have your papers, you have to pay five times the normal fee).”
I look over to my husband and give him a nod, signaling him to hand over the money. Andrés turns in the direction of the bicycle, cautious in keeping his actions private. In one swift movement, he removes a ripped envelope from a pocket stitched on the inside of his shirt. He finds the allotted money in the case and quickly puts the remainder back in to the secret, stitched compartment.
He turns towards the hefty man once more and hands him the money.
“Es todo el dinero, (This is all the money.)” Andrés says. The man eyes the stack of bills in his hand and grabs it in a gruff gesture. He gazes suspiciously at my husband and I once more. I suspect he is pondering about what else he can get out of us before he is forced to take us to the other side of the river.
The stranger then steps on the loosely built raft, holding his hands out to keep his balance. My husband places one foot on to the structure; I watch his every movement, and as soon as he seems to have his feet steadily planted on the ground, I hand him the bike. Andrés positions it right beside himself before reaching out his hand to help me get onboard the raft.
Padre Montemayor scratches his rough, grey beard. His bones seem to protrude from under his thin layer of skin, and wrinkles crease the areas around his forehead and the edges of his eyes. He leans on a worn, wooden cane, his back almost parallel to the ground. He paces in front of the multitude of desperate people that are seated in his small shack, situated fifteen miles away from the Mexican border. The wide, lime green doors of the house are held wide open by large rocks, and a few gusts of wind pass by, small breaks from the baking heat of the sun.
The men and women on the floor anxiously converse, each awaiting Padre’s first word.
“Señoras y señores (Ladies and Gentlemen),” he begins.
The chatter goes down to barely audible whispers as he continues.
“Es una aventura peligrosa y ustedes tienen la opción de continur y dar una vuelta. ¿Ustedes quieren ir a los Estados Unidos después del cruzar la frontera del México? (This is a dangeroud adventure, and you all have the option of continuing or turning around. Do you all want to go to the United States after crossing the United States border?)”
The migrants were unified in answering “Sí, Padre. (Yes, Father.)”
Padre Montemayor nods his head in a knowing manner, and his years of experience shows through the way he says his speech, as if carefully rehearsed.
“Está es la primera vez de ustedes en esta situación, pero no el la mía. El nombre de esta casa es ‘La Casa de Seguridad.’Pueden quedarse en esta casa por cuatro días. En este tiempo, recibirán los alimentos, el agua, y un lugar seguro para quedarse. (This is the first time you all have been in this situation, but this is not mine. The name of this house is ‘The Safe House.’ You all can stay in this house for four days. In that time, you will receive food, water, and a safe place to stay.)”
Before speaking once more, Padre Montemayor takes a sip from the plastic cup sitting on the pile of thin mattresses stacked next to his feet.
“No es mi trabajo para decirles que ir a México o tomar la vuelta cuando ustedes pueden Sin embargo, es mi trabajo para decirles esto: hagas lo que hagas, pero sé valiente y fuerte. (It is not my job to tell you all to go to Mexico or return while you can. However, it is my job to tell you this: do what you do, but be brave and strong.)”
After these last words, Padre Montemayor takes a moment to stare at the crowd, as if registering each new face he sees. He gives his audience a faint, thin-lipped smile before exiting the room, leaving everyone to talk amongst them selves.
We approach the other side of the river, and my hands immediately begin to sweat as I see a man wearing a soldier’s uniform pacing up and down the bank. I meet Andrés’ eyes and see his pupils widen ever so slightly, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. I lift my hand to my face, my chest, my left shoulder, and then my right shoulder in the formation of a cross. We had been caught. Andrés and I had walked in to a trap. I knew this was the end of our journey, but I clung desperately to hope.
Once landing on the other side of the river, I struggled to exit the raft and get a strong grasp of ground. The soldier’s feet touched the tips of my fingers as I crawled on to land, yet he didn’t bother to look down. Once I attempted to stand, the soldier looked indifferently down at me. I recited a silent prayer and met his gaze.
“¿Puedo ver su bolsa? (Can I see your bag?)” the soldier asks.
“Por supuesto, Señor, (Of course, Sir.)” I answer, careful to cover my anxiety.
I take off the worn plastic bag from the mountain bicycle’s handlebars and hand it to the soldier. He takes the bag and shuffles through the contents, uninterested.
“Necesito comprobar su bolsa para ver si tú tienes drogas or armas, (I need to search you bag for drugs or weapons.)” he explains.
I wait fretfully for him to ask us for our papers, and his question soon comes.
“¿Ustedes tienen sus papeles, (Do you have your papers?)” he asks indifferently.
“No, no los tengo Señor. Lo ciento, (I don’t have them, Sir. I’m sorry.)” I reply.
“Necesito dos cientos pesos para que puedan cruzar, (I need two hundred pesos to let you all cross.)” he says.
I look to Andrés once more, and he looks as if he is scratching an itch on his stomach. I smile at his cleverness as he pulls out the pesos from seemingly nowhere. Andrés hands the money to the soldier, and the soldier steps out of our way. Andrés and I continue walking on the dirt road that starts merely a few meters from the edge of the riverbank.
We make sure we are out of the soldier’s earshot before we begin to converse. I lean over to whisper in Andrés’ ear.
“¿Qué vamos a hacer ahora? (What are we going today now?)” I ask.
“Anda la bicicleta. Aquí es donde empieza ser más difícil, (Get on the boke. This is where it begins to get dangerous.)” he says.
I hang on to my husband’s back as he pedals down the dirt road. He asks me to tell him whenever I see a large building on the side of the road, or any edifice that looks suspicious. I see a moderately large, worn brick building on our left.
“Ve, (Look!)” I tell him, pointing to the structure.
He immediately veers off to the far left, and I struggle to maintain my balance. We now ride on gravel, and the bicycle jerks because of the uneven path.
“Podría haber sido un puesto de control de la migración, (It could have been a migration checkpoint.)” he says.
We continue riding, and the only landscape is a scattering of dried trees. The bicycle ride becomes almost nauseating as we hit the bumps due to the rough ground. I maintain my grasp on the handlebars, a few inches away from my husband’s fingers. The sun’s rays are directly on top of my head, and I am almost blinded when I attempt to meet the sun’s dizzying gaze.
“Debemos dejar a la próximo ciudad que vemos, (We should stop at the next city we see.)” I say.
He nods in agreement and I resume my search for large, suspicious buildings, this time seeking a safe place to stay for the night.
Padre Montemayor returns and announces that dinner is ready. Hordes of people make their way to the kitchen area, where a vat of black beans and brown rice is placed. Each person takes meager servings, for they know that the vats aren’t sufficient food for the number of people there. However, it is enough to live off of, and that’s all the desperate migrants could truly ask of Padre Montemayor.
After everyone has taken a spoonful of both beans and rice, Padre receives a plate and eats whatever is left, barely a third of a spoonful.
“¡Vamos a comer! (Let’s eat!)” he says.
Everyone takes a bite of the food, and within several minutes, not a crumb is left. The migrants all sit down outside of the entrance to the house, while Padre remains inside, roaming about.
While lying underneath the night sky, the migrants chat about their plans for the future. Some say they want to keep pushing for the United States, while others doubt that they will be able to survive the journey. Conversation without laughter is often heard coming from the people outside, and Padre leans against his mattresses, listening to the migrant’s discussions through the paper-thin walls.
Padre decides it is time to go to sleep, and he wishes everyone outside goodnight.
“Buenas noches, (Good night,)” he says, “y buenas suertes. (and good luck.)”
He then turns around, looking for a comfortable mattress. He puts down his cane and eases his body on the floor. Padre sits on the makeshift bed for a few minutes, his hands clasped in prayer.
“Dios, mantener estas personas a seguridad, (God, keep these people safe.)” he says, before laying his frail body on to the mattress and falling asleep.
Andrés and I stop at a seemingly unknown village. There are a few street vendors selling tortillas and children’s toys on the corners of the roads, but for the most part, the area looks deserted. Andrés sees a small house on the side of a dirt road. On the top of the house, scribbled on a piece of cardboard, is “El Hotel De Sanchez.”
I cross my fingers, as Andrés knocks on the front door, painted in a summery yellow but withered from the peeling paint. Within several seconds, an old woman comes to the door. She is short and stocky, but a smile is plastered on her face. Andrés takes her warm expression as a sign to ask her if we could stay.
“¿Podemos quedarnos en su casa esta noche, (Can we stay in your house tonight?)” he asks.
“Claro (Yes,),” she answers, “se puede aparcar la bicicleta allá. (you can park the bike over there.)”
Her hand points to the side of the house, and Andrés walks to the plot to park the bicycle. She gestures for me to come in, and I leave the door ajar for Andrés. Once entering, I smell the appetizing aroma of tortillas being made. The house is old and the furniture is dusty and has numerous holes. She leads us to the back, where there is a small room. One twin-sized mattress lies on the floor. Once seeing that this is our room, I turn to the woman to thank her.
“Gracias para este cuarto, (Thanks for the room.)” I tell her.
She nods her head before returning to the kitchen.
I close the door after Andrés arrives, and I wait for him to comment. After seeing that he is thinking about other things, I decide to start the conversation.
“¿Es suficiente? (Is this sufficient?)” I ask, looking around, before meeting his gaze.
He takes a moment before whispering. “¿Por qué crees que no hay un hombre en esta casa? (Why do you think there is no man in the house?)” he asks.
“No sé (I don’t know,),” I reply, confused, “por qué esta materia? (Why does it matter?)”
Andrés simply shakes his head, and he replies urgently, “Tenemos que salir que aquí tan pronto como nos sea posible por la manaña. We have to leave here as soon as possible tomorrow morning.)”
The sun shines brightly among the sleeping migrants as the first begin to awaken. Slowly, entire masses of people yawn and stand up from lying on the dry ground. Some grab their mattresses and head back inside of the house to stack them along the wall, just as Padre had done.
A small, middle-aged woman is the first to enter. Her six-year old son hangs on to her pants as the woman tries to inch her way back to the main area of the house. Once passing the bright, lime green doors, the young boy notices Padre Montemayor laying on a mattress near the front wall.
“Padre, padre,” the boy exclaims.
Before his mother could get a hold of him, the boy runs to Padre and yanks at his T-shirt. Padre doesn’t stir, so the boy shakes his sleeping body.
His mother runs over to her child.
“Déjalo en paz. Él está durmiendo, (Leave him alone. He is sleeping.)” the woman explains.
“No, no,” the boy exclaims, shaking Padre’s body even harder.
“¡El necesita despertar! (He needs to wake up!)” the boy repeats over and over again, frustrated that Padre wasn’t awakening.
The woman looks us at Padre’s limp body, bewildered. She gently nudges the boy aside and stares at Padre’s chest, noticing there is no movement. She then places her hand under his nose, seeing if he was breathing, but no air was being inhaled or exhaled.
Panicked, the woman looks around, while her son tugs on her shirtsleeve, wondering what was going on.
“¿Está bien? (Are you ok?)” a man asks, coming in to put his mattress up.
“No-no,” the woman says.
The man notices Padre below her and senses something has gone amiss.
He points to Padre. “¿Qué sucedió con él? (What happened to him?)” the man asks.
The woman looks back down at Padre’s frail body. She returns her stare unto the man. “Pienso que Padre murió. (I think Father died.)”
The sky outside the small window in our room is pitch-black. I decide it is time to go to bed, and Andrés decides the same. We both lie on our own halves of the tiny twin-bed mattress. I sense Andrés’ uneasiness.
“¿Está bien? (Are you ok?)” I ask, concerned.
He merely shrugs, and I take it as a sign to stop asking him questions. Soon after, my brain wanders off, and I begin to fall in to a light sleep. However, within several minutes, a loud thump is heard from the front of the house. Once hearing the echo, Andrés immediately jumps out of bed. He stands up and rushes to the front door. I see our host, the women, as well. She stands near the door, with her hand on the knob, her face obviously worn with anxiety. Andrés nudges her, and she removes her wrinkly arm from the doorknob.
After the initial knocks, a hostile voice is heard from the other side.
“¡Abre la puerta o nosotros abriremos para usted! (Open the door, or we will open it for you!)” the voice demands.
Andrés steadily opens it, and I see a young man at the foot of the door. He is large and muscular, and he carries a gun in his right hand. He holds the weapon to Andrés’ face.
Andrés grows anxious and begins to sweat profusely.
“¿Qué quieres? (What do you want?)” Andrés asks.
The man pushes Andrés away from the door, and several other large men file in to the room. The person holding the gun to Andrés’ head commands the other men.
“Encuentran el dinero que pueden, (Find all the money you can.)” he says.
After a few hours, all of the migrants were buzzing, not knowing what to do. Some begin to moan, and others begin to converse about the next step to go about Padre’s death. However, all chatter and conversation are drowned under the sirens of cars and the din of buses rolling over gravel. The assembly of vehicles is excruciatingly deafening. A man’s voice is amplified by a blow horn, barely audible among the cracking and crunching of gravel and rocks under tires. All of the buses become parked in a circle around the house, trapping the tens of frightened migrants. Uniformed soldiers and security officers exit the cars and create a tight-knit circle around the large cluster of people.
“Estamos cerrado La Casa de Seguridad (We are closing ‘The Safe House.’)” the voice says, coming from a large man with a blow-horn. Adults anxiously glance to their left and right, desperately searching for a hole or weak spot in between men.
Children begin to cry as soldiers harass and push them. They whine as their mothers drag them to safety. Some men scream and retaliate as well, and a horde of adults gather together to fight the police officers, knocking one to the ground because of a blow to the chest. Gunshots ring out as the chaos continues. Women shout the names of their husbands and children as frustrated security agents shove them.
“Te llevamos a un centro en el que será deportado, (We are taking you to the center where you will be deported.)” the voice explains.
The chaos continues as fights break out between migrants and uniformed officials. All that is heard is the distressed calls of mothers beckoning their children, the exchange of hostile words between men and soldiers, and the gruesome noise of several gunshots. The crowd is forced and loaded on to the buses, and after several hours, there was not a trace left of the once lively house.
The man lowered the gun from Andrés’ head once his men found all of the money that was hidden in our clothes. Just as they had come, they left, and we were forced to deal with whatever little we had. Andrés turns to the woman, “Necesito salir, (We need to leave.)” he says.
The woman merely nods her head, as if she had presentiments of his conviction.
Andrés gathered our items and we mounted the mountain bicycle.
“¿Dónde vamos próxima? (Where are we going next?)” I ask.
“Vamos a La Casa Seguridad, (We are going to ‘The Safe House.’) ” Andrés replies.
He steers the bicycle for more than two hours as I strain to keep my eyes open. I daze off every few minutes, only catching a blur of shabby houses and the open night sky. We reach a house located in the middle of nowhere, miles off of the dirt road. The doors are propped open with large rocks, and the inside walls are stacked with thin mattresses. The body of a man lies on one, and Andrés tries to shake him awake.
“Él murió, (He died.)” Andrés says after several minutes. He rushes outside of the house and puts his hand flat, parallel to his forehead, shielding the rays of the sun from his face. I wait patiently inside the shack, knowing that Andrés needs some time to think alone. I sit down on one of the thin mattress piles stacked on the floor. After a few moments, Andrés returns. “No podemos quedarnos aquí. Parece como si todas las personas se han movido. (We cannot stay here. It looks as if all the people have been moved.)”
I wait for him to continue, knowing that he must have thought of some plan of action. After he remains quiet, I coax him along. “¿Dónde vamos a ir ahora? (Where will we go next?)” I ask.
Andrés merely nods his head at my inquiry and looks around the house. He goes in to several rooms, coming out empty handed. He then decides to search Padre’s pockets. When he gets a hold of a torn piece of paper, Andrés smiles, as if finally finding what he had been searching for. He looks to me, and I return his stare with a confused expression. He proceeds to read the writing on the sheet of paper out loud.
Ciudad Jaurez, Padre Ruíz
Andrés hands me the paper and returns outside to retrieve the mountain bicycle. I follow him, walking in to the glare of the sun, and I mount the blocks on the bike. Andrés pedals, knowing I had understood the piece of paper. We continue our long journey, riding over miles of terrain.
As we ride to Juarez, I can’t help but believe that we will encounter this new safe house. I know the United States is where Andrés and I belong, and with God’s help, we will reach there sometime soon. The migrants who were most likely sent to deportation centers, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, or wherever they came from, was probably where they rightfully belong as well. As for Padre Montemayor, he was truly meant to spend the rest of eternity with God. All in all, no matter where a journey may take Andrés and I, or wherever we may go, we will always find a path leading back home, taking us to where we rightfully belong. That much, I can confide in.