ILLEGAL From Terry Greene Sterling

Read a penetrating chapter from former Phoenix New Times investigative reporter Terry Greene Sterling's book: ILLEGAL: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone

For teenagers like Inocencio, life in the village could be stifling. The village sat near a dry lakebed pocketed in the Sierra Madre del Sur. It was no tourist resort. Occasionally, a group of Mexican university students or Americans would visit to study the local pre-Columbian ruins, where highly sophisticated, clay figurines had been discovered decades before. Those figurines were at least 2,400 years old, and now sat in museums and private collections far away from the village. Some of the villagers, including Inocencio, had facial characteristics—prominent, downturned noses and full lips—that resembled those of the figurines. The visitors were more interested in the antiquities, though. They might stop in town for a soft drink or a beer, then be on their way. Inocencio couldn’t speak English, so he was unable to ask them about Going North.

The villagers were predominantly Catholic, and celebrated Easter and Christmas and Day of the Dead with feasts and colorful processions that blended indigenous and Spanish traditions. Inocencio took these in stride. They were okay, but he wasn’t terribly religious. He’d tried reading the Bible, but it always put him to sleep.

For fun, as well as a food staple, Inocencio would accompany his family to the outskirts of town, where they’d harvest wild grasshoppers, or chapulines. They’d head to nearby meadows and fields and return hours later with bags full of the insects, a local delicacy. The chapulines weren’t just any old grasshopper; they were delicately flavored and could be prepared a number of ways. They could be fried in hot oil, salted, then eaten alone as a crunchy snack or as a meal encased in fresh tortillas, seasoned with red chilies and lime juice.

Ground up dried chapulines, when mixed with raw egg, could be formed into little balls then fried like falafel. Or the insects might add flavor and texture to a soup.

If grasshopper hunting was one of the community’s main diversions, the village was in the backwater, all right. Ironically, one of the most cosmopolitan resort cities in the world, Acapulco, sits on Guerrero’s Pacific coast, perhaps a two-hour bus ride from the village. Nevertheless, Going North seemed more attractive than Acapulco to Inocencio, who had never left the Sierra Madre del Sur. He was curious about the United States. He’d heard so much about it from migrants who had returned to the village.

When he got on the bus to join his brother-in-law in faraway Phoenix, Inocencio knew he’d miss home. He knew he’d miss his five siblings, his father, and yes, even his mother, who was still mad at him. But his homesickness was overpowered by excitement – finally, he was Going North.

The bus trip to Nogales, Sonora, was long and uneventful.

During the trip, Inocencio had carefully guarded his savings - the peso equivalent of $250. He’d heard from other immigrants that this sum would pay for his border crossing; it was easy enough to walk into Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora. You just needed to pay to borrow the visa of a Mexican citizen and walk right through.

The con man in Nogales, Sonora, took one look at Inocencio and knew he’d found his mark, an indio from the south, the kid in country clothes who looked so bewildered. “Give me your money, and I will go get you papers, and you will cross with no problem,” the thief said.

Inocencio handed all his money to the man, and when the man didn’t come back, he realized he’d been robbed.

He was penniless, and he still hadn’t Gone North.

Inocencio promised the next coyote that his brother-in-law in Phoenix would pay the smuggling fee. The coyote dressed Inocencio up like a tourist, in shorts and a golf shirt, and gave him fake papers to cross at the port of entry. He handed Inocencio a beer for “courage” in case La Migra stopped him.

But no one stopped Inocencio at the port of entry. His brother-in-law picked him up in Nogales, Arizona and paid the coyote. Then he drove Inocencio to Phoenix.

Inocencio found work almost immediately, as a dishwasher for $3.75 an hour. He felt rich. He soon found a second job at a janitorial service. He cleaned houses and offices and restaurants. He didn’t care about saving money. He was a small-town boy in a big American city. He’d never felt so free. He danced at the big Latino clubs, like the Capri Lounge. He drank Budweisers until he couldn’t see straight.

His big brother drove from Los Angeles to Phoenix and took Inocencio back to Los Angeles, where he could keep an eye on him. “You’re going down the wrong path,” his brother said.

Inocencio didn’t think so. And anyway, Los Angeles had its own magic. It was as if the Virgin of Guadalupe herself had plucked Mexico and transplanted it in SoCal. In Inocencio’s neighborhood Mexican immigrants were everywhere. People preferred to speak Spanish over English. The place even smelled like Mexico. Chilies. Garlic. Street food. For a while, Inocencio sold tacos from a truck. Sometimes, he worked as a cook in Mexican restaurants. Days off, he had his Budweiser and his bailes (dances). If he craved a taste of home, and if he looked hard enough, he might find a corner store that sold bags of fried grasshoppers imported from home.

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