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Afterword

Freedom Ride
by Published on

My bus is called. Outside, the afternoon air smells of exhaust and escape—the oily heaviness of leaving or being left—and I get in line behind the other passengers. A solid, middle-aged woman with a bad dye-job and perm grabs my bags and tosses them into the cargo hold beneath the bus. The driver takes my flimsy accordion of tickets, rips out the boarding pass, and lets me on. A moment later, as people are still getting seated, I hear my mother’s voice. She wants to make sure I haven’t gotten on the wrong bus.

“No, ma’am,” the driver assures her. “This bus is going to San Antonio.”

“It’s that I heard it was headed to Reynosa,” she says.

The last thing my mother wants is for me to wind up in Mexico, which, in her news-saturated imagination, is about as good as sending me across the river to my own death. Never mind that I’m in my 30s and have been living in the tough city of New York for more than a decade. And that I rode a bus all the

way there when I left the Valley for good and needed the time to think about whether I had made the right decision. This ride to San Antonio stirs up all her wild fears of bus-jackings—and more than likely, those dirty old men who hang out in station bathrooms.

I stand up, searching for my mother through the windshield, hoping she won’t decide to come into the bus for a weepy farewell. Other than her voice still ringing in my ears, there is no sign of her. I spot my father standing inside the bus station. A moment later, my mother heads back to join him. They remain by the windows looking out; they won’t leave until the bus pulls away.

The driver, whose nametag reads “Jesus,” stands at the front end of the aisle and counts the number of available seats. His forehead sweaty, he runs his fingers through his gray hair as if trying to untangle a problem.

The baggage handler boards the bus. Her face is splattered with freckles and moles, and her jaw drops as she makes an announcement, first in Spanish and then English: “There is one person here who has a ticket for tomorrow. Please raise your hand.” No one moves.

“There are also five of you who were supposed to leave on the 9:15 and didn’t. Please show your hands.” Nothing.

“Because of you, there are people who bought tickets for this bus and aren’t able to get on because there are no more seats. Por favor, board those buses you have tickets for; otherwise we run into these kinds of problems.”

She comes down the aisle and stops next to a vaquero wearing diamond horseshoe rings on both hands; his straw hat and bag take up the seat next to him. She tells him to please remove his bag. When it looks like he’s not listening, she grips the hat and bag, stuffs them into the overhead bin, and then turns to everyone and huffs that we should remove our belongings from the empty seats so that other people may sit. As she comes further down the aisle, she stops at a quiet old lady with a long, gray braid down her back. She looks like someone who has only traveled by huarache or burro. The baggage handler calls to the driver, “This woman’s got tortillas all over her seat.” 

She must have bought them that morning at a tortillería and was trying to air them out so that they wouldn’t stick together. The driver tells the old lady to please pack up her tortillas so another passenger can use the seat.

A young mother and her little girl take the final two front seats across the aisle from each other. The passengers on either side of them refuse to move. The disabled vet is willing, despite the fact that he’s wearing a combat boot on one foot and a cast on the other. But the woman in the other seat refuses to sit with him. So mother and child sit apart.

Across from me, a middle-aged woman reminds me of my mother in the way that she reaches under her cantaloupe-colored T-shirt to unsnap her bra, and then flips through the pages of a Reader’s Digest. The cover story reads: “The Hidden Danger of Healthy Foods.”

Jesus shuts the door and goes back into the station. A guy in a “Young Country 103.5 FM” giveaway T-shirt comes down the aisle to get off for a smoke. But now he can’t open the door. 

La Comadre Cantaloupe says, “Ya te quedaste adentro.”

“‘Orita quiebro una ventana,” he says, stomping back to his seat.

Someone in back starts signaling the driver. Maybe it’s the Tortilla Lady. She asks a man across from her, “What time are we going to arrive in San Antonio?”

“Four o’clock,” he says.

“So when am I going to arrive in Dallas?”

“I say around nine tonight.”

Tortilla Lady gasps, calling out the names of several saints, then taps at the window so we can get a move on. She turns back to the man. “Hacen mucha caña.”

La Comadre shows her Reader’s Digest to the woman sitting next to her.

“I read it too, but in Spanish,” the other woman says.

“Me in English and Spanish,” La Comadre says. “Though at times I don’t understand many words in Spanish.”

The other woman says she knows nothing in English.

Ay, they have such good stories,” La Comadre says. “And recipes.”

“And jokes,” the other adds.

“I’ve had this one for a while because I just haven’t made the time.” She puts the magazine face down on her lap. “Did you watch television last night?” She mentions the name of a reality show. “It’s getting good.”

The other woman says she doesn’t watch much television. “It’s that I work nights,” she says. She works at a bakery, packing pan dulce that gets shipped to the local schools and as far away as Laredo. She also works at the El Pato on Old 83 in McAllen.

La Comadre nods and says she likes the television programs on Channel 12. She names a few shows that sound like telenovelas. “But at times they irritate me because the stories are so mixed up.”

Then Jesus gets back on the bus, and the two women quiet down. He slaps the horn, and we pull out of the station. My mother is outside in the boarding area, waving and blowing kisses to everyone on the bus, directing her affection at each tinted window because she can’t see where I’m sitting.

La Comadre and the other woman agree, “El que se quedó, se quedó.”

They go back to the plática about pan dulce. La Comadre says she likes the baked goods from De Alba’s.

“The pig cookies,” she says, sucking at her teeth.

Once on the highway, the other woman turns to the window and remarks how pretty everything looks.

¡Oyes, sí!” La Comadre says.

We’re in Pharr, banking an overpass that heads north, and all around us in a soft haze the Rio Grande Valley seems to fall away as if we are flying on an airplane. Both women say, “Las matas, qué bonitas,” referring to the palms and bougainvilleas planted by the Texas Department of Transportation.

The young mother in front tells the driver about her ordeal, how they told her to go to the Harlingen station when she was in Weslaco. And then after her ride from Harlingen to McAllen, they tell her, sorry, the bus is full, and she can’t get on. She shakes her head and smoothes out the wrinkles of a pink and green serape folded over her lap. She smiles at her little girl in the next seat, bare brown legs swinging over the side, Power Puff Girl chanclas on her feet.

She asks her mother, “Can y’gimme my orange juice?”

It’s really orange soda. The girl takes a sip and hands it back.

“You don’t want no more?”

The girl wipes her mouth with the entire length of her brown arm, from her downy shoulder to her skinny wrist, and says she’s full.

Mom puts the soda away and then fixes her ponytail. She wears gold hoop earrings, a black sleeveless blouse, and sweat pants that match her New Balance sneaks. She looks all of 20, and alone.

La Comadre’s new friend gets off in Edinburg. A big guy, chewing gum, wearing tight black Wranglers, takes the woman’s empty seat. On his lap he has a slim hardback titled Attitude 101.

Illustration of people on a bus by Mike Krone

Ready to get back on the road, Jesus hollers to Mister Young Country, who had stepped off to smoke a cigarette. 

“Turn off the cigaro and let’s go,” he says. “Vámonos.”

“That’s it?” Young Country says, still outside, stalling. “No more passengers?”

Jesus responds with impatient silence.

“Well, I was just waiting for the others.”

Jesus still doesn’t say anything, and by the way he stares out the door we know he’s no longer playing around. The guy comes in and walks down the aisle, the stench of cigarette smoke trailing him.

Fanning away the smoke, the young mother tells the vet about her life. “I was studying for medical records,” she says. “I got certified and worked at a hospital, but I didn’t like it. Didn’t like the paperwork.”

She turns to her little girl and asks if she’s hungry. “You want some tacos?” Mom nods at the same time to convince her daughter that, yes, she wants one. “Your granma made you tacos.” The girl says okay. Mom searches through her bag and pulls out a greasy, foil-wrapped mess. The girl takes a single bite and hands it back.

“Don’t want no more?” Mom says.

The girl shakes her head.

After Mom re-wraps the taco, she turns to the vet. “D’you hear that if you eat meat you get cancer?” she says. “Can’t eat this. Can’t eat that.” She shakes her head and then attends to her daughter, who now is asking for Funyuns. Mom gives her the bag, and the girl puts it between her dusty knees and pulls out one Funyun ring after another. 

As we approach the border checkpoint in Falfurrias, the young mother makes the sign of the cross, kisses her thumb. She looks over and smiles at her little girl. Jesus slows down. The bus shudders and groans as we join the line of vehicles.

La Comadre looks out the window and complains, “This looks like Reynosa. What’s going on here?” She jokes with the guy next to her, “If they take you off, I don’t know you.”

I hear a woman behind me reassure another rider that if there are any questions, a driver’s license should be enough. “It’s enough at the bridge,” she says.

The signs along the road instruct us to dim our headlights; these are federal agents, we are told. Further up they announce that dogs are on duty. The most conspicuous sign posts the year-to-date seizures:

Drugs

49,833 lbs

Undocumented Aliens

7,350

 

All my life, growing up on the border, I was reminded that I never truly lived in the Land of the Free. Anytime I traveled outside of the Valley, I endured this final moment of humiliation, the agent staring you down behind his black-tinted aviator sunglasses, tapping your car door to test for the sound of drugs being smuggled in the panels; the infuriating questions about where you’re coming from and where you’re going and whether you’re an American citizen.

My mother always warned us to answer with a smile. I always offered a resentful yes. But as the years go by, and I’ve seen my beloved homeland become a militarized zone of border agents who not only stop you at the river and as far as 50 miles north, but also cruise our neighborhoods in their window-tinted vehicles, I can’t say I feel so much a citizen of this country as a suspected criminal. The land and its people—my people—are as threatened by armed Minutemen and proposed fences as we had once been by rinches.

So I don’t know why I think they’ll just pass us through this afternoon. 

They don’t.

Jesus steers the bus off to the right, under a tree where another Greyhound bus has been parked and emptied. For a moment I panic that those passengers have all been lined up and shot. I get this terrible feeling in my tripas. A murmur of fear ripples down the rows of seats.

The little girl asks, “Mommy, what’re we doing?”

“Stopping because they have to check the bus.”

Without making an announcement, Jesus gets off.

The bus rocks as the luggage compartments are yanked open. The dogs must be sniffing for contraband. Two agents in their military greens appear at the head of the aisle. One stands with a panting German shepherd on a leash. The other agent comes down the aisle, pointing at passengers and asking, “U.S. citizen?”

When he points at the little girl, the mother speaks up for her without really answering the question. “She’s my daughter,” she says.

The woman next to the girl says, “American.”

La Comadre says, “Yes, sir, U.S. of A.” Just as my mother would.

All I say is yes.

The young mother, a smile nailed to her face, keeps an eye on the dog and then looks up at the agent holding the leash.

She pleads, “It’s not gonna bite me, right?”

The agent says no.

From the bottom of the stairs, Jesus calls, “All clear?”

The agents take a final look at us, head back out, and tell Jesus he can go.

Back on the road, the young mother who wears that smile that is not a smile chews her gum so hard I expect the crack of a molar to sound off like a gunshot. She turns to her little girl and says, “That was fun, right?”

“What?” the little girl says—even at her young age she’s unconvinced. She doesn’t know what her mother means by “that was fun.”

“The dog,” her mother says, snapping her gum and looking out to the road ahead.

We continue north on Highway 281. The landscape—pastures of high, dry grass, wilderness of huizache and mesquite and sage brush—darkens under the shadows of clouds sliding across the sky. Southbound semi-trucks make deliveries to WalMart and H.E.B. “Go Home A Hero,” reads the side of one truck. The bus dips and bucks as we push forward. Nearing San Antonio, the Hemisfair Tower visible in the distance, Jesus clicks on the intercom and wakes us with a grand announcement. “Damas y caballeros,” he begins. We have arrived.

A native of the Rio Grande Valley, Erasmo Guerra now writes in New York.