By Joanna Michal Hoyt
Originally published in On Loss, June 2019
Translations from the journal of Cristina Fuentes:
April 7, 1954
My name is Cristina Guadalupe Fuentes Espinosa. I am ten years old. In this book I will write the story of my adventures with my papi in El Norte, where we are going tomorrow. We don’t have money for me to go to school here, and in El Norte they will not let me go to school even if we have money. But Papi says that is no reason to be ignorant. So I will not be ignorant. I read every day in the Bible, and now I will write every day in this book, and in El Norte… in the United States… I will learn English too. Papi says I have to keep learning, and I do what he says.
But when he said to stay here with my Aunt Lancha while he went North, I said no. I told him he is all the family I have now and I am all the family he has and we have to stay together.
“All the family we have in this world,” he said.
“This is the world where I live,” I said. “Anyway Aunt Lancha doesn’t like me.”
He said she did like me, only it was hard for her having so many children to take care of and not enough money.
I said I was old enough to take care of myself if I went with him, and in El Norte there would be enough money.
“It’s not safe, where I’m going,” he said. “You know I don’t want to go.”
I know that. I know he wants to stay here with me but he has to go. He is very good at fixing things but so are a lot of the other men who can’t find work, and he is very good at making beautiful things from clay, things that are a little bit alive, but nobody pays money for things like that, and we can’t eat them. In El Norte there is work and money for everyone. There is more money for the people who had enough money here to pay the officials so they could go to El Norte and stay inside the law, but there is some money there even for people who have no money here. I knew that was why my papi has to go there. I knew, too, that I had to go with him. “It’s not safe anywhere,” I said. And my papi agreed to take me with him.
Soon I have to stop writing and finish packing the bag that I will carry across the river and the desert. But there is not very much to pack, just clothes and tortillas and the Bible and this book and the family bowl Papi made with all the hands around the rim. Anyway Papi is happy to see me writing.
We are here on a big farm in El Norte. We found an easy place to cross the river, and a short place to cross the desert, and I was hungry and tired but we came to a town where Papi bought food and found people who spoke Spanish. Those people told us which way to go to find work, and Papi found this place before we were all the way out of money.
It is a good thing Papi brought me with him, because I can help. Not in the fields: Pedro is doing fieldwork and he’s just thirteen, but Papi says I shouldn’t do that. But I can take care of Doña Lupe and Doña Marcela’s babies, and I can boil the beans for the workers to eat at lunch and at supper, and I can bring good water to them while they’re in the field. There’s a water pump not far from the edge of the big melon field, but if you drink that water straight from the pump you get sick-sick-sick. Doña Dolores drank some that way last month.
Doña Dolores doesn’t have children who are still alive. She is a little bit crazy. My papi says not to stare at her when she talks funny, or when she stares at me. She has cracks, my papi says, but God has breathed into them.
Anyway, the water is safe if you boil it, so I do that. We have two great big pots, too big for me to carry, and four little pots that I can carry even when they’re full, and one wagon. I pump water into all the little pots and put them in my wagon and pull them back to the bunkhouse and boil them, and then I put a big pot in the wagon and pour all the boiled water into it, and then I pull that pot out to the field and call for someone to lift it off the wagon; then I take the mostly-empty pot they’ve been drinking from back and I do everything again. Sometimes my papi comes to take the water pot out of my wagon, sometimes somebody else. When Don Fermin or Doña Lupe come they smile at me and call me Senorita Fuentes the fountain girl. When Doña Dolores comes she looks at me with her hungry face and doesn’t say anything. And then they go away and I go back to singing to the babies or to reading or to writing in this book.
I have more books to read now, because of my cousins. Doña Concepcion is my mother’s second cousin, but I call her Aunt Chon because it is easier. Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel came to El Norte with their parents long long ago. They have a casita of their own on the edge of Mr. Martin’s farm a mile up the road. They stay there all year, even in winter, to take care of his animals, and their son David goes to school with other Mexican kids who stay all the time in El Norte. So instead of sleeping in my the bunkhouse with my papi and the other workers, I go with David every evening and eat supper with my cousins and sleep on a pallet by my aunt’s bed, the way I used to sleep near my mami when I was little and she was alive. And I get to borrow books David takes home from school.
I won’t have time to read much today because I have done so much writing. That is okay.
There is not much to write about today. The things that change from one day to another day are small. Yesterday my papi and the others picked rocks up out of the field and threw them into a big wagon. Everybody was tired and sore and even Don Fermin did not smile at me. Today they are planting, so they will just be sore from bending and not quite so tired. Yesterday they were in the north field. Today they are in the east field, which is a longer way to pull the water wagon. Tonight maybe it will rain, and they are hurrying to plant before the rain comes. I am not hurrying. I am waiting for the water to boil and trying to write so I will not be ignorant.
Today at the lunch break I told Papi I didn’t know what to write, and he told me to think of three beautiful things every day and write about them. I will do that.
When Doña Marcela walked back out to the field after eating she sang one of the songs about La Guadalupana that my mami used to sing. Her voice is very beautiful.
Last night the moon was so small that it was almost gone, and there were no rain clouds, and the sky was full of stars all low and close like fireflies.
That is two things. My papi didn’t say to write only beautiful things that happened today. So I will write now about the family bowl that Papi made, because that is the most beautiful thing.
Papa made it after my little brother Santiago—Chago–cut his leg playing in the river and got infected and died. I was seven then, still a child, and I stopped singing and stopped eating and stopped talking. My papi sat down by me and told me Chago and my mami and all the dead people are still with us, even though we can’t see them, and after we die we will see them again. I said it would be better just to be dead right away and see them. He cried, and he went away, and I was afraid I would not see him again either. But after work—that was in the three months when he had work on the road crew, before the weather turned bad and they sent him away–he came back and told me to come with him, and I went.
He took me to the raw bank where they had just cut the new roadbed, and I helped him get good clay dirt out of the bank and put it in a big glass jar. After he’d soaked it with water I helped him squish the wet mud and break up all the clumps. While we squished he talked about Chago, about how he went straight from scooting on his stomach to walking without ever learning to crawl, about the time when he carried the king snake home and Mami thought it was a coral snake and was very very afraid, about the time he found the dove’s nest and brought it back to see if we could hatch the eggs. Then Papi told me to sleep while the mud soaked up water. In the morning he went to work. While he was gone I did what he’d told me to do. I saw the line that separated the clay water from the rocks and other kinds of dirt in the bottom of the jar. I poured off the clay water into a new jar, dumped out the rest. I did that over and over, and while I worked I sang every song I could remember my mami singing.
After the cleaned clay had dried, hung up in one of Chago’s shirts, Papi took it out and started to shape it. Sometimes he told stories about when he and my mami were young. Sometimes I told what I remembered about Chago and my abuelita and all the other ones who are dead. And while we talked his hands shaped little figures in the clay, and shaped another piece of that same clay into a round bowl.
The bowl is painted black like a night sky with no stars, and the people pressed all around the outside of it are the reddish color of the clay. There are spaces between their bodies, spaces full of shadows, but at the top their hands are clasped together. Their faces look alive. One of the people has my face, and one has Papi’s, and there are other people who look like Mami and Chago and Abuelita. In between us are five other people with faces that don’t look quite like anyone I know—and I swear their faces change every time I look at them. Papi says those five are for all our people on the other side, the ones whose faces we don’t remember.
Sometimes I think the people are holding on tight to each other so the wind out of those dark empty places doesn’t blow them apart. Sometimes I think they are dancing.
The bowl stays under Papi’s bed in the bunkhouse. The bunkhouse is crowded and ugly and smells like sweating people and mold, but people have their home things in it—Lupe’s icon of La Guadalupana, and Don Fermin’s guitar, and Papi’s bowl that holds us all together. Sometimes while I wait for the water to boil I sit and I hold the clay hands of the people on the bowl. Sometimes when I touch my mami’s hand I can hear her singing. Sometimes when I touch Chago’s hand I can hear him laughing. And sometimes when I touch the hands of the other people, the ones with the changing faces I feel something, I understand something…. I don’t have words for that. I have words for everything else, Spanish words and now some English ones, but I don’t have words for that.
There. That is a lot of writing. Now the little pots are boiling and it is time for me to pour them.
Now Papi and the rest of the workers are weeding all day every day. The melons will not be ready to pick for two more months, Don Fermin says. He also says harvesting will be hotter, harder work than weeding. But when I am hot and tired pulling the water wagon I think about eating a whole watermelon and spitting seeds the way I used to do with Chago.
I think about fruit a lot now. That’s because on Mr. Martin’s farm the plums are ripe, and the plum smell comes in the window of the room where Aunt Chon and I sleep. Sometimes the smell is almost too much because the air is so heavy with heat. And I go to sleep wanting plums and I wake up wanting plums. But if Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel want plums they have to buy them; if the crew boss sees them eating plums or taking them away they could lose their job and their casita too. Still, Aunt Chon says tomorrow morning, Saturday, when Mexicans are allowed to shop where the Anglos are, she will buy me a plum.
It is very different from home. Aunt Lancha had two pear trees in her back yard, and when the pears were ripe enough so we could smell them we could eat all the pears we wanted and it did not cost anything.
Fruit is the easiest thing I miss. I miss the way the sky looked and the ground smelled back home. I miss Aunt Lancha even though she didn’t like me. I miss fiestas in town.
But I don’t miss worrying about money. Here we always have enough to eat, and on Sunday special things like spicy sausages or plums, and still my papi is saving money to take home this winter. He keeps half of the saving money in his shoe. I keep the other half in this book because that is what he said to do. I have almost stopped worrying but my papi has not.
Uncle Miguel is worrying too. He bought a newspaper yesterday and talked about it with Aunt Chon last night when David and I were all supposed to be asleep. I was hot and thinking about plums, and I heard him talking about the President. First I didn’t listen much. Complaining about the President is just what grown-ups do, in Mexico or here. But then he read a piece out of the newspaper—the English paper—and I listened hard because that helps me learn English and not be ignorant. Some of the words were too hard for me to understand, but I heard some words I knew from David’s books or from other newspapers. Criminals. Invasion. Stealing jobs. Invasion again.
Invasion… I knew I had seen that in David’s history book. That is when soldiers attack. That is a very bad thing. Like when my abuelita’s abuelita was a girl and the norteamericanos invaded Mexico and took a big piece of it away to be part of their country, and they burned the house where my abuelita’s abuelita lived, and she screamed at night after that, and later she had a boy with blond hair and blue eyes who had the same last names as her because she wasn’t married—not then, but she was married later, when she had my abuelita’s mama. It was bad, too, when my papi was a boy and the soldiers burned their house down, but that was the civil war not an invasion, which means it was all our people fighting, which means it is not quite as bad, maybe, I don’t know.
I got up and pulled my serape around me and ran out into the kitchen where Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel were. “Where is the invasion?” I said. “How close are they? Can I get to my papi before we have to run?”
“You’re supposed to be sleeping, not eavesdropping,” my uncle Miguel said.
“But if there are soldiers coming…”
My aunt sighed. “Come with me,” she said, and she walked me out through the dewy grass toward the plum trees. And she explained.
It wasn’t soldiers coming. It was us. Mexicans. The paper writers said people like my papi were invaders coming to steal jobs from the real Americans, and maybe to steal other things
“My papi does not steal,” I told her. “I do not steal.” I meant to say it strong and angry, but I cried instead.
These are my three beautiful things from last night:
The smell of the plums.
The noise the crickets made all around us.
Aunt Chon holding me like her very own and only daughter until I had finished crying.
I am too tired for a long write, but these are four beautiful things from today:
Tomasito chasing butterflies on the edge of the squash field. He is four and he has a big laugh like his mama Doña Lupe and he doesn’t seem to mind that he never catches the butterflies.
Doña Marcela’s twins José and Rosita curled up together all sweaty and asleep and smiling and not pushing each other for a while
The star that fell down the sky while I walked to Aunt Chon’s house.
My papi giving me an extra kiss before I went, and sitting with me for a few minutes with the family bowl between us, not saying anything, remembering. He looked sad. I hope that was just from remembering.
I am writing because my papi told me to and because when Aunt Chon comes to check on me if she sees me writing she does not fuss around and try to cheer me up. I am not cheered up and I do not want to have to act like I am cheered up when my papi is gone.
She wants to make sure I do not run away after my papi. I am old enough to know I cannot run fast enough to catch up with the truck they took him away on, even if I knew the right way to go. Anyway Doña Dolores says Papi told me to stay with Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel, and even though she is crazy I think that part is true.
This is what happened:
I left Aunt Chon’s house at six-thirty this morning. We walked down the road with the light still new around us, and I sang a morning song my mami used to sing. But before we got down to the fields we heard trucks coming up the road, and David told me to get down in the ditch right away. He said it in a voice like my papi uses when there’s no time to ask questions. I didn’t ask questions. I hid, and he hid with me, and we heard the trucks going by. Even when they were gone he didn’t stand up for what felt like a very long time, and when I asked why we had been hiding he didn’t answer.
We got up and started walking again. The hem of my skirt was all wet and sticking to my legs and I kept pulling on it. And then Doña Dolores came running up the road toward us, and she didn’t look a little crazy any more. She looked very very crazy, like all the cracks in her were getting wider and wider and maybe it wasn’t just God breathing through them. She waved her hands at us like she was scaring chickens and said go back, go back, go back. And I said where’s my papi, and she said he was gone where I couldn’t go, which is what Jesus said to the disciples when he knew he was going to be dead.
I thought she said that just because she was crazy. I ran toward her, ducked when she grabbed at me, ran past her. There was nobody in the melon field. Nobody in the squash field. No pot under the pump. The wagon was tipped up on its side. I ran to the bunkhouse. There was nobody there. The blankets were gone from the beds, and the boxes and bags with clothes in them were gone, and Don Fermin’s guitar, and La Guadalupana. There were gouges in the wall that hadn’t been there before, and one window was broken. My papi’s bowl was gone too.
I thought Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel had lied to me. There had been a real invasion after all.
I looked for the bowl. I kept thinking if I could find it I could find my papi. But all that I found was a shoe with the heel ripped out—a shoe that had been Don Fermin’s—and a dirty diaper that must have been José’s or Rosita’s, and a crumble of clay-colored dust on the floor.
David and Doña Dolores found me sitting on the floor with those clay crumbs in my hand. I wasn’t crying. My eyes felt hot and hard and dead.
Doña Dolores held out a wadded-up bandanna, and I thought it was for me to cry in, and I shook my head. Then she unwadded the bandanna and pulled out what was inside. A piece of the bowl. The piece had me in it except for my left arm, and one of the people-who-went-before, whole, and another left arm that I knew had been my papi’s because he was on the right side of the before person who was on the right side of me. I held onto his clay hand while Doña Dolores told us what had happened.
The men with guns came at sunrise, when Doña Marcela was nursing the twins and everyone else was pulling their shoes on to head out to the fields. The trucks came loud, loud, and pulled up all around the house, and somebody shouted in English, which most people didn’t understand, and then they said it again in bad Spanish: come out in ones with your hands up, don’t make any jokes (she thinks that wasn’t the word they meant) or we’ll shoot.
Don Fermin was the first one out that door, going very slowly and holding his hands over his head and not saying anything because he didn’t know what they might think was a joke, and the people inside waited to see if the men would shoot him anyway, but they didn’t; so another man went after him, and the gun men didn’t shoot him either, but they shouted for everyone else to come on out, hurry up. My papi didn’t come right out, he was putting things into his bag, and then he took out the bowl and looked at it like he didn’t know what to do with it, and then two of the gun men came in and grabbed him. They dropped the bowl on the floor and it broke. They stuffed most of the pieces into his bag, but they missed the piece that went under the bed. Doña Dolores saw that before they made her come out too.
By the time Doña Dolores went our people were standing with their hands held up behind their heads, and the men with guns were feeling them all over to make sure they didn’t have guns or knives or anything—they took away Don Pedro’s whittling knife and my papi’s pocketknife and everybody’s razors. They were going to feel Doña Dolores too, but when they went to touch her she was afraid and she screamed and fell down. That was for real, but when they backed away she did more screaming and rolling around and acting crazy so they’d stay away. They didn’t touch her, though one man kept a gun pointed at her. And then they made all the people pile into the backs of their trucks, shoved in tight like steers going to market; but when they tried to make Doña Dolores go she acted crazy again and they left her.
My papi told Doña Dolores to give me the piece of our bowl that was left, and to tell me to stay with my aunt and uncle. He said it in very fast Spanish and she thought the gun men didn’t understand. Then they put things like cages over the backs of the trucks where the people were and they drove away. Doña Dolores couldn’t ask where they were going because she had to keep acting crazy. Don Fermin did ask. She said they didn’t answer. Maybe she said this so I wouldn’t go after him. She wouldn’t even point which way they went. David made me stop shouting at her to show me, and he walked me back to his house.
Aunt Chon went back to look for Doña Dolores and see if she needed help, but Doña Dolores was gone, I don’t know where. I hope she is safe. But if it was a choice between her and my papi, I would want him to be the safe one.
There are stories in the newspaper today about wetbacks getting arrested. Aunt Chon explained that means us, because of crossing the river—though I was not wet when I crossed, because I sat high up on my papi’s shoulders. One story says that the President had to send out the gun men to push back the engulfing tide of illegal aliens. I am learning a lot of English and I do not want to, I do not want anything about this country any more, I just want to be safe away from it with my papi. But I can’t do that.
The other story talked about aliens being kept in big dirt yards near the cities that have bus and train stations. One is almost an hour west of us even for people in trucks, and the other is about that far east, and the papers didn’t say which people went where. It said some of the men that were arrested acted like animals and threw rocks at the newspaper people. If I had a rock I would throw it at the men with the guns instead. Only then maybe they would shoot people, so maybe I would not.
My papi, I think, would not throw rocks at anyone. But they should not keep him out in the dirt like that. They should not make him go back to Aunt Lancha’s house without me, and without his pay for the week (they were supposed to pay him on the day when they took him away instead).
And what if somebody else throws rocks and my papi gets shot?
Aunt Chon says to pray instead of worrying. Padre Vincentio said the same thing during the Mass, and again after to me when Aunt Chon took me to see him. But Padre Vincentio’s father is not standing in the dirt somewhere with gun men around him so it is easy for him not to worry. Padre Vincentio has a telephone, so he called some places and tried to ask about my papi, but they said they didn’t have a list of names, and they wouldn’t take a message, even if we could have thought of a safe message to leave.
Aunt Chon hugged me and I pushed her away. She gave me a plum and I tried to eat it but I cried and choked instead. She tried to talk to me but I ran to my alone place under the juniper and I held onto my papi’s clay hand, and when I came back I started writing right away so that she would leave me alone.
I am not going to tell Aunt Chon what I saw, because she would maybe think I am getting crazy like Doña Dolores. But I think what I saw was real and not crazy. I do not want it to be real, but I think it is.
Yesterday when everybody else was gone to work or to school and I had swept the floor and washed the dishes and put the beans on to soak I sat down and held my papi’s clay hand again and I tried to pray. I am not good at praying. But I could feel my papi’s hand getting warmer, and then I felt like I fell into a hole in the ground, like the time I was eight and fell in the cistern where the boards on top were rotten and I thought I would die there but instead my papi found me. Only this time when I fell through I found him.
I must have been hanging in the air like an angel—no, not really like an angel; angels talk to people and tell them not to be afraid and give them good news and keep them safe, and I did not have any good news and I was afraid and I shouted for my papi but he could not hear me at all. I could hear him, though, and see him.
He was still in one of those cage trucks, in a long line of cage trucks bumping down a dusty road. There was dirt on his face and his hands and his clothes. There wasn’t dirt in his hair because he didn’t have any hair. His head was all bald and sunburned. One of the newspapers said they were shaving people’s heads so they couldn’t come back to El Norte without being recognized. My papi looked older and uglier and sadder being bald like that. His head drooped down and his shoulders drooped down and he held something in his hands. I looked all around the truck and all I could see was tan sand with bits of dead grass growing on it like fur on a mangy animal. Somebody in the truck was cursing, and somebody was praying the rosary out loud, and my papi wasn’t saying anything at all. I thought it was maybe a rosary he had in his hands, but when I looked closer I saw it was a piece of the bowl. He was holding my clay hand.
Then the truck stopped. My papi put the piece with my clay hand in his pocket, and he kept his hand on it there. Three of the gun men got out. They unlocked the cage and unlatched the back of the truck and said to jump down.
“Here?” said the man who’d been swearing. “But we left Mexicali more than an hour ago, and out here…”
“You won’t be back over the river in a hurry, will you?” one of the gun men said.
One of the other gun men reached up to help a woman get down out of the truck, and he looked like he wanted to cry, though maybe that was just from being hot and dirty. “What about water?” the woman asked him. He gave her a big bottle and then he walked away looking even sadder and climbed into the front of the truck. A man asked the other gun men for water, but they didn’t give him any. Another man tried to climb back into the truck, but they hit him and he stopped.
When my papi and all the people with him had gotten down out of the trucks, the gun men got back in the trucks and drove away. The dust shone in the sun like stars falling. I could just see and hear, not feel or smell, but I knew how hot it must be from the shine in the air and the way the people breathed. They stood there, looking all around for shade, but there wasn’t any, and for water, but there wasn’t any.
Someone said it would take too long to get back to Mexicali, and someone else said it would take longer to get anywhere else, and my papi didn’t say anything, but he took José on his shoulders, with his extra shirt spread out over José’s head to keep the sun from beating on it. That was Dona Marcela just had Rosita to carry, and she tied her in a sling in front of her. Then they all started walking back up the road. I wanted to be there with him and have José back in El Norte with people who would try to talk to him and feed him plums. I would not sit on my papi and make him tired. I would walk beside him. I would help him.
They walked and walked for a long time, and they went slower and slower. Rosita started to cry, and instead of singing to her or taking her in her arms Doña Marcela put her hands over her ears.
I remembered something then. I opened my eyes, so I could see the casita as well as the desert, but I kept my hand tight on my papi’s clay hand, and even with my eyes open I could still see the desert light. I found my Bible and looked in the very first book for the part where they send Hagar and her baby out in the desert without enough food or water or anywhere safe to go. There was sort of a light around the words, the way that sometimes there’s sort of a light around the clay things my papi makes. I can’t put life into things with my hands the way he can, but sometimes I can with my voice. So I read the words out loud. I read this:
“When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes.Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there, shebegan to sob.”
I was starting to sob then too, but it was not time for sobbing, it was time for reading. I read the good part too: “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.”
I shut my eyes and saw the desert again, and Doña Marcela with her hands over her ears. I waited for clouds to come over the sky, or for someone to see green trees in the distance and know there was water, or for a truck full of kind people with water jugs to come down the road. I said the good words again and again, but none of those things happened. The people kept walking, and the baby kept crying, and the sun kept getting higher in the sky, and the clay hand in my hand felt dry as dust and I thought it was going to crumble apart.
After a long time, with me saying the words dry-mouthed and gasping, and them gasping and not talking, the land started to twist around them: a big slope of sand went up on the left of the road, a big slope of sand went down on the right. The sun was coming from the right, so there wasn’t any shade for them. My papi’s eyes looked wrong, like he wasn’t really seeing the things in front of him. Do something! I said to God again. But all that happened was that my papi stumbled. Someone took José off his shoulders. He straightened up and took a few more steps, but then he stumbled again and fell on the edge of the road. He flailed out with his arms to catch himself, and I saw the bowl shard in his right hand fly up and away, and then down, down into the sand that sloped away. And then I couldn’t see anything at all. I had fallen back through the hole and my papi was gone.
Every day I cry. Every night I want to dream about my papi and I do not. Instead I dream about water that disappears when I try to touch my hand or my lips to it.
Every day I read something in the Bible or in David’s books and I write something in this book because that is what my papi told me to do. When I can’t think of anything beautiful I write that I can’t think of anything beautiful.
Every day Aunt Chon makes me get up, and makes me eat, and because I have eaten and because I have to do something with the day I work a little in the house although she would not make me do that.
Every morning and every night I put my hand on my papi’s clay hand, but I do not feel any warmth. I do not see anything. I do not keep it in my pocket any more because it was flaking into dust there. Now I keep it by my pallet but it is flaking into dust there too.
Translation of a letter from Angel Felipe Fuentes Ortiz to Cristina Guadalupe Fuentes Espinosa, care of Concepcion Soledad Navarro Reyes
July 15, 1954
To my dear daughter:
This is to tell you that I am all right. Your Aunt Lancha gave me the message that Padre Vincentio called in to the town hall here saying that you were safe at your aunt and uncle’s house, thanks be to God. But she didn’t have a number to call the priest back, so I am writing you this letter instead. Write back to the town hall, not to your aunt’s house—by the time the letter gets here it may not be your aunt’s house any more; I am looking for work, so is she, but I do not know if we can pay the rent next month. Write, but stay where you are. I am sorry, but there is not money to buy you a ticket, and there is not money to keep you here. You know your cousins Raul and Felipe were working in El Norte and sending money home to your aunt Lancha. Well, Felipe came back with his head shaved, and Raul has not come home at all. Felipe was lucky: the train he was on left people right in Nogales, so he could call from the church there and tell his mami he was all right. Raul… We hope Raul is all right.
I did not want to tell you anything about the danger there is for people who are sent back, but Lancha tells me the papers have stories about the people who died from being left in the desert in the heat, so you will already know and be worried. Don’t worry. Raul wrote his mother a letter the day those people died in the desert, so we know he wasn’t on those buses. And I am safe, I am all right. They put us in the desert too, but not so far in, and we found water. How we found it is a strange story, but I think you will believe me when I tell it, Cris.
I hope you still have the piece of the bowl I gave Doña Dolores to give to you. I kept the other pieces, and I held your clay hand and asked God to keep you safe. I was still holding that when they put us out in the desert and we started walking back. But I fell, and it flew out of my hand and off the road in a place where the slope dropped off steeply. I felt as though I was losing you again, and I ran after the piece, and then my feet slid and the sand slid under me and I went down, down, and I didn’t know if I was strong enough to climb back up. When I stopped sliding I kept my eyes closed for a little while because I was afraid to look up and see how far I would have to climb. But they were shouting to me from the road, and I had to sit up and open my eyes. And I saw an opening in front of me, going back into the sand bank. Just a little opening, one I could go through on my hands and knees. But it was dark inside that opening, and I thought how cool it would be, and I crawled in. And just a little way inside the rock lifted above me and I could stand. It was cool there, blessedly cool, and I smelled water.
Cris, you have the gift for words, you could say better than I can how I felt when I heard the water. But you know from the Bible, At the scent of water he shall revive. And I did.
I called, and the others came, and we drank, and we rested in the heat of the day, and then we started walking again, and before we could get badly sick from the cave water we came into the city, hot and filthy and sick and tired and very, very glad to be alive. But I was not as glad as the others, because I did not know what had happened to you, or even to the little piece of you that I had left in clay.
Well, that was foolishness. You are safe. I love you, Cris. I will tell you how much I love you when I see you again. I do not know when or how, but I will see you again.
Operation Wetback really did happen in 1954. The Border Patrol rounded up close to one million undocumented immigrants from farms and factories across the country, shaved their heads and shipped them deep into Mexico. 88 people died after being left in the desert on a blistering hot day. Many more survived—but some of them were separated from their families and didn’t get word from their relatives for many years. I made the Fuentes family luckier.