Transcending Frontiers

image by qgil : borrowed from creative commons

image by qgil : borrowed from creative commons

This article appeared in the NYT. Although Arriaga’s account highlights the struggles of a Mexican migrant family, similar things could be said about some Dominicans that have arrived recently to the US. Throughout these past months, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk to several Dominican men who have recounted painful stories of border crossings and family detachment. Some have not seen their wives and kids for years and others have had to pay huge sums of money for a chance to be reunited with their kin. These men work 2 or 3 jobs, mostly in the service trades, to send money home, survive in costly US cities, and build a nest-egg for their loved ones. Although phone calls, email and sometimes video chats help shorten the distances between them, their transnational lives are somewhat incomplete because, as Arriaga says, they long to return, if only briefly, to reconnect face-to-face with the land they call home and the people who they love and support.


April 11, 2009
My Friends, the Illegal Immigrants


The Estrada Brothers don’t know how to read or write. They’re Mexican peasants with a very modest income based on fishing for tilapia in a local dam, harvesting chiles or onions as day laborers on private farms or growing corn, with little luck, on communal land. I’ve known them for almost 30 years.

Lucio, the eldest of the three, is my compadre; I’m surrogate godfather to all his children. Pedro is a close friend. I made a small homage to Melquiades, the youngest of the three, by naming a movie after him — “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”

The characters of one of my novels, “Un Dulce Olor a Muerte” (The Sweet Scent of Death), all bear their names and the names of their wives and children. The novel takes place in their small village, where no more than 150 people live.

The Estradas are generous and joyful, some of the best people I’ve ever met. I’ve watched their children grow up, as well as some of their grandchildren.

Many of them I met once and never saw again: They emigrated to the United States and haven’t returned. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t wanted to return; for many, it is simply too risky.

The United States has every right, as a nation, to forbid entry to illegal migrant workers. It’s the law. But reality has exceeded the confines of the current law. It’s time for a more humane legal framework that takes into account the real lives of real people. Like my friends, the Estrada Brothers.

The Estradas grew up on the outskirts of Ciudad Mante, in the northeast of the state of Tamaulipas, near the Gulf of Mexico. There, summer temperatures can reach 40 degrees. It’s subtropical. Most of the Estradas who emigrated live and work in a town in the northern United States. There, winter temperatures can plunge to 30 degrees below zero.

The first to leave were Lucio’s and Pedro’s sons, both named Pedro. The Pedros were barely 15 when they left. They did it with a sense of adventure and, obviously, with the desire to raise their incomes above what they could earn at home, in a rural area increasingly devastated by the tides of the economy.

With no chance to study beyond middle school, with a limited future in which they were destined to help their parents in their labors because other jobs were practically non-existent, they saw leaving as their only choice. It hurt Lucio in his heart to see his eldest son leave so young.

Melquiades followed, leaving his pregnant wife and four boys behind. For years he was unable to return — too complicated to come and go illegally. He was finally able to meet his youngest daughter when she was 9 years old. He didn’t have it in him to leave his family again. He couldn’t bear the thought of spending another nine years without seeing them. He decided to risk everything, and took them all to the United States.

Throughout these 30 years, I’ve known about the realities of immigration through these friends who are so close to me. I’ve seen them go mad with jealousy. While they sometimes work two consecutive shifts to send money to their wives, they don’t know if they’re being cheated on or if their wives are spending their money with another man. It is an act of faith to send money every month — for years — to a family they only know about over the phone or through photographs. They drink and smoke until the pain is anaesthetized.

I’ve also seen the wives stay behind without knowing if the fathers of their children, the men they love, will ever come back. They can’t know for sure if their husbands have started a new family on the other side of the border. Sitting at the dinner table, they become lost in their thoughts as they try to imagine the distant world where their men live. Men and women, both, end up wrecked by jealousy, doubt and the uncertainty of love.

I’ve seen them crying in the fields, staring at the horizon, because for months they haven’t heard a thing from those who decided to cross over to the other side. This was the case of Rosa, my friend Pedro’s wife, who disappeared for a long while. They knew Rosa would cross the river tied to the inner tube of a tractor’s tire, pulled by ropes. That was what the “pollero” — the smuggler hired to get her across — had explained to them. They also knew that Rosa didn’t know how to swim.

Desperate, Pedro and his children looked through list upon list of Mexicans who had died while attempting to cross the river. Their search was in vain. Nothing. No trace of Rosa, no trace of the “pollero.”

Pedro couldn’t stand the sadness. He prayed, he begged God, the saints. He promised not to cut his hair until she returned. Rosa appeared eight months later. Safe and sound. And frightened. She had been arrested and incarcerated. She tried to cross the border with fake papers, which is a crime. She was kept in jail for seven months. She couldn’t tell anyone. Despite the risk of a longer prison sentence if she’s caught, she still plans to try it again. She wants a better life. The last time I saw him, Pedro’s hair was still long. He looked like a hippie.

None of the Estradas speak English. But they’ve managed. Pedro, who left for five years, befriended his boss, who spoke no Spanish, just through signs. For entire afternoons, they sat down and talked about their families, their worries, their hobbies. And they understood each other.

Lucio’s son Pedro married an American girl — a soldier who fought in Iraq and doesn’t speak Spanish. Pedro’s children were born and grew up in the United States. They only recently met their grandparents, Lucio and Evelia. It was hard for them to communicate. That language barrier. The grandkids can barely babble in Spanish.

This, then, is when the problem of illegal immigration ceases to be a legal one and becomes a political, social and even moral question. Human lives are at stake. The lives of people who fall in love, pray, laugh, love their children, suffer and forgive. It is for good people, like the Estradas, that the terrible matter of immigration must be confronted — in the United States or any other country that depends on migrant labor. Not doing so is inhuman.

I know this because I know dozens of immigrants: Most of them want to return to Mexico. Their purpose in crossing the border is to find a job and the means to live with more dignity than their country can offer.

They do want to come back. They don’t want to spend entire nights chewing over their jealousy, imagining their women in the arms of others.

They don’t want their children’s lives to go on without them. They don’t want to be separated from their lands or their homes.

They want to work, to make an honest living. And then to return. It’s that simple: to return.

Guillermo Arriaga is a Mexican author, screenwriter, director and producer. He received the 2005 Cannes Best Screenplay Award for ‘‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.’’


For those of you who are interested in the issue of border crossings, I suggest you see the film Sin Nombre. Here’s the trailer.


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