Longform

ILLEGAL From Terry Greene Sterling

Page 4 of 10

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.

After Inocencio got his green card in the amnesty plan passed by the Reagan-era government, Inocencio traveled freely back and forth to Guerrero. Soon, only his parents would remain the village. Everyone else in the family had opted to Go North. In 1994, Inocencio moved back to Phoenix, where most of his siblings now lived.

He began to think about settling down. The Budweiser and the bailes no longer interested him. The young women in the bars bored him.

He was changing physically, he could see it. Growing a little fat. When he combed his thick black hair in front of the mirror, he’d spy one or two threads of grey. Smile lines were beginning to etch into the tawny skin on his face.

In 1999, on one of his trips south to see his parents, he ran into Araceli, the smart girl who used to bring corn to the mill.

She was the same age as Inocencio, and she intrigued him.

She was so different from the girls at the Phoenix bailes.

She didn’t wear a lot of makeup – some days she didn’t wear any makeup at all. She had a no-nonsense, almost brusque way of talking. She wasn’t much for chitchat. And sometimes, when Inocencio cracked a joke, she didn’t laugh.

Araceli had gone to school for twelve years, and had trained as a social worker. After she graduated, she’d gotten an excellent job offer to be a social worker in a larger town, but her mother wouldn’t let her accept it. Araceli was bitterly disappointed, but she obeyed her mother. As a reward for her obedience, Araceli’s family set her up with a corner store in the village. The years passed, other girls married. Araceli remained single.

When Inocencio proposed, she thought: “Why should I be single the rest of my life?”

One night in April, 2000, a few days after she’d married her husband in Guerrero, Araceli prepared to cross into Arizona through the desert in sandals.

Araceli had bunions; close-toed shoes never fit. She could do this thing in sandals, she told herself. And she did, for a few hours, until the Border Patrol picked her up, along with the rest of her group.

Inocencio had been monitoring Araceli’s progress, and met her when she stepped off the Border Patrol bus at the Mexican border. He took her to Nogales, where a deal was struck with a different coyote. This time Araceli would attempt to cross using the borrowed visa of a Mexican citizen. Inocencio agreed to pay the smuggler $2,000 if his bride crossed successfully.

There were probably a lot of reasons that Araceli didn’t raise the suspicion of the American officials who checked her visa. She was a small woman with shoulder length brown hair and light skin. She must have resembled the woman whose picture was attached to the visa she borrowed. For sure, she didn’t look like Inocencio or other dark-skinned indigenous-looking immigrants entering the United States from southern Mexico. Her Spanish showed she had schooling, and many immigrants who were pouring into Arizona at the time didn’t have a lot of schooling. What’s more, all those years of being a shopkeeper had taught her to keep a neutral expression on her face because you can’t judge the customer for what he buys. She had nerves of steel. She had confronted thieves who’d tried to steal from her store in the village, why should she back down when border officials tried to trip her up on her story?

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Terry Greene Sterling