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n 3 CHAPTER 1 Getting Here Imagine that in Mexico you’ve heard the stories from your cousin, your brother-in-law, or the neighbor’s son about how much better life is in the North. “The streets in America are paved with gold,” they say. “Come on up!” If you can’t get here by legal means, how would you plan to cross the border? The best way would be to get yourself a tourist visa and merely stay on when it expires. More than half of those without documentation come over that way. If you don’t mind waiting up to a year, negotiating your way through miles of red tape, answering personal questions, and proving that you and other family members have a decent bank balance, that’s the way to go. That’s what Isabel did. A young widow with an asthmatic child, she left her job as a secretary in Mexico City to earn more money in North Carolina as a chambermaid. Medical treatments back in Mexico for her elderly parents, as well as for her daughter, are expensive, she explains. Some can’t manage that route, though, especially since 9/11 has tightened security, so many come over the hard way—trusting their lives to “coyotes,” guides who may or may not be trustworthy. If you’re coming to an area with an established community of other immigrants, you may be lucky enough to find someone reliable, but it doesn’t always happen, as Luis Herrera will attest from his desert experience.1 4 n Chapter One Events in the very Arizona desert that Luis would cross were the basis for M. J. McGee’s research when he wrote his classic article “Desert Thirst as Disease.” Published in 1906, it is a graphic account of what happens to the body when it has no water. McGee described the “feeling of dry deadness of membranes” throughout the whole respiratory system, as saliva and mucus dry up in the oven-like heat. The tongue “may cling irritatingly to the teeth, or stick to the roof of the mouth; a lump seems to rise in the throat and starts endless swallowing motions to dislodge it.” Throat, ears, and eyes are hurting. As the skin shrinks, the head feels full and there are “throbbing pains in the nape and down the upper spine.” Hearing, vision, and judgment are affected; “the sufferer is a walking fever patient, passing or passed into a delirium.” And that is just the first, or “cotton mouth” stage.2 Luis’s Story Luis knows all about thirst. He is a burly young man, more like a Green Bay linebacker than his smaller compatriots, but even the strongest find it hard to cross the Arizona desert. In March, when Luis and his group of sixty made the journey, temperatures can range as high as the nineties during the day and plunge to freezing at night. In addition to the contingent of young men, there were older men, women of all ages, and children, including a year-old baby. The group was told that they would be walking in the desert for about six hours, and to be sure to bring food and water for that time. They were to carry nothing else, in order not to slow down their travel. As often happens, not long after their start, their guide claimed that in order to avoid the INS they would take a longer way—a march through the desert that would end up lasting a hellish two and a half days, almost all the way without food or water. It was so hot during the day that when they chanced upon water tanks for animals, they rushed to gulp down the green and slimy water—at least most did. Luis, too afraid of getting sick, merely moistened his lips. Along the path, the travelers skirted the remains of one man who hadn’t made it. His body mummifying in the heat, he had obviously been dead for two or three days. Having been instructed to bring nothing but the clothes on their backs, they were not able to bury him or even grant him the dignity of covering his face. “We were very discouraged,” Luis remembers, as the coyote urged them forward. At night in the desert cold, without extra clothing or blankets, Luis and his companions huddled together for warmth. In order not to be spotted, they were told to wear dark clothes and...


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