Once More to the River
BY ERASMO GUERRA
ach summer, as a young girl, Maria Guadalupe crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico to spend the long months at the ranch that belonged to her mother’s family. They rode to the riverbank by taxi, steered by her tío Garcia. “He was fat,” she says, which is about all she remembers about him and the drive to the Los Ebanos Ferry, which she calls el chalán. Her father never went. None of her brothers remember going, though she insists that they did. It may have just been the women: Maria and her sister Belsa, their mother, Victorina, and their aunt Petra and cousin Elvita. The taxi would leave them at the river, and they would board the hand-pulled ferry on foot. The ferry is named after the surrounding community, which is named after the Texas ebony, a thorny tree with horned-moon husks; white wing doves nest in its branches; the black-brown seeds are eaten by wild tusked pigs. The plaza at Los Ebanos itself is not much more than a sun-scorched baseball field and St. Michael’s Catholic Church; it’s one of those communities that upstate folks cannot resist calling “sleepy” and “quiet.” The truth is that everyone is miles away at work on the morning that Maria Guadalupe (no longer that young girl of summer, but my mother, a woman in her late fifties who suffers from high blood pressure and too much free-floating anxiety) drives us through town. Most of the houses are made of clapboard or cinderblock. The smaller, mud brick and straw jacales seem slumped over with the pain of calcified bones. At the local cemetery, the decorative arch proclaims La Puerta; pink and aquamarine funereal bows are tied to the sagging chain-link. My mother turns off at the sign for the ferry; the gravel road turns to dirt. Up ahead, a line of dusty, Chevy pickup trucks and Crown Victorias with tinted windows are parked on the downward slope toward the river; they’re waiting for the ferryboat, which is banked on the Mexican side. But we’re not driving across. We haven’t risked that since the late seventies. We park under the shade of a mesquite and walk to the wooden shack that serves as a tollbooth. A man with an apron heavy with coins charges the 50 cents. “Before it used to be a quarter,” my mother gripes. “Pues, ya no. Now it’s 50 cents.” I hand over the dollar for both of us. Across from the shack are the Border Patrol barracks. Two agents sit outside waiting for the next load from Mexico. As my mother and I wait for cars to disembark and cars to board (the ferry takes no more than three cars per trip), we spot a pair of swim trunks discarded under the thick brush. The drawstring is knotted, the mesh lining bunched and crawling with ants. The Mexico-bound cars start their engines. My mother hurries alongside, covering her nose and eyes against the up-churned dust, threatening to stumble and go head-over-tennis shoes into the dirt or the river. “’Uenas,” she says to the ferrymen, as we set foot onto the metal ramp. Down river, a flat-bottom boat floats between the banks of the two countries and cuts a silhouette against the glare off the water—La Migra. The agents are motionless as they watch us drift. “How many cars pass back and forth each day?” my mother asks one of the ferrymen. He asks the others for an estimate. When they fail to reply, he concludes, “Maybe around 50.” “Now, why do you stop service at four o’clock?” “Because that’s a full day. From eight in the morning to four o’clock in the afternoon that’s eight hours.” “Right,” my mother says, and then she looks at me with an arched brow to make sure I got that. She still plays the sometimes meddlesome, always helpful and forever self-sacrificing mother who does for her kids what she thinks they are too embarrassed to do, like ask questions, get the story. But really, she likes doing this. She tells the ferryman that she used to ride this thing as a girl, on summer trips to the family ranch in Santa Gertrudis. He nods and then joins the others who have distanced themselves from our leisure life. For them, this is just another workday. They are middle-aged Mexican-Mexicans; sunburned brown; who wear baseball caps and T-shirts, except for one in a sweat-stained straw hat. These are the kind of men who do not miss a day of work unless they wake up and find out that they have died during the night. nlike the visits my mother remembers from her childhood, there is no one waiting for us on the Mexican side. We walk to the shade of a few sparse trees, where a teenaged vendor has set up a drink cart and a rack of salted peanuts and chili-spiced chicharrón. “¡Hi’jesú!,”my mother says to him and to the old men who sit nearby eating their lunch. “I haven’t been here in years.” She tells them about the ranch. My mother says that in the mornings, when she’d go fetch the nixtamal for the corn tortillas, the town boys would say, “Here comes the gringuita.” She says it was because she was light-skinned. “I’d tell them, ‘Not gringa and not anything but Mexican. ¡Soy mexicana!’” It’s the first time I’ve heard my mother raise a little flag of Mexican pride. Usually she complains about all the Mexicans coming across to the United States. One old man says that he knows the ranch, which he calls el ejido. He offers a name—Martín—who turns out to be one of my mother’s uncles. Excited, she asks if it’s still possible to get to Santa Gertrudis from here. A moment later, a woman named Rosie, wearing chunky black sandals, capri khakis, and a PRI campaign T-shirt that reads Yo Con Abdala, pulls us to the taxi stand. The taxis—there are two—are parked under the faded billboards for Don Pedro’s and Parillada la Mela, restaurants that have gone out of business. “The economy,” Rosie says, as if that explains everything. She presents us to the driver of the first taxi, a yolk-yellow Grand Marquis, and tells him to give us a ride through Díaz Ordaz, a town named after the buck-toothed leader who was president during the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City. “Give them the sights,” Rosie says. “Un tour,” my mother says. With the way she forever warns me about the dangers of Mexico, I never expected her to agree to a taxi ride, but here she is, getting into the back seat. Maybe the driver, because of his bulk, reminds her of her fat tío Garcia. I sit in front and roll the window down further, what we call “Mexican Aircon.” My mother, relaxed in the back seat, lets the air and sun hit her full on the face, despite her recent diagnosis of skin cancer. A moment later she props herself up between the seats and tells the driver about her childhood, crossing over on the ferry, a truck waiting to take them to Santa Gertrudis. “El ejido,” she says, picking up on what the old man had said. “You’ve heard of it?” He shakes his head no. There is no more talk of the ranch. We remain silent as we drive the two miles into town, where the central plaza looks like so many other small-town Mexican plazas: wrought-iron gazebo, anemic trees with white-painted trunks, cement benches. The church is named for San Miguel, brother to the church in Los Ebanos. There is no one around. “It’s the heat,” the driver says, adjusting his trucker’s cap. We drive to another end of town, a slum where tennis shoes hang from power lines and the skinny houses shouldering each other have their doors kicked open as if from a recent act of violence. The good thing about living in these houses, our driver says, is that “if your neighbor decides to hang anything on his wall, you can take advantage of the nail when it pokes through the other side. You save yourself a nail.” After the tour, my mother finally thinks to ask the driver his name. “Pa’ la otra,” she says, though I can’t imagine “a next time.” Perhaps she cannot let go the idea of having someone—even a taxi driver—forever waiting for her on the other side. As Arturo Acosta Ramírez drives us back to the ferry, he tells us about an accident in the late fifties, when a taxi carrying four women plunged into the river and everyone drowned. Every story written about the ferry mentions this tragedy; in some versions four women died, in others three. According to Acosta, one of the women panicked, startling their driver and causing him to hit the accelerator and send the car into the river. (It’s the kind of sexist morality tale I expect from a macho cab driver.) When we arrive at the ferry station, a soldier nods us through. Acosta parks under the faded billboards, next to the other taxi, a shiny Jetta. Rosie comes over to ask how it went and, I imagine, to collect her commission. My mother and I head to the river. A band has set up under the trees opposite the snack and drink vendor. Rosie says the band plays whenever the mood strikes—which is apparently not right now. I pay for the return toll, but the ferrymen are taking their lunch break. My mother and I sit at one of the picnic tables. Two middle-aged women approach to say that they are going to divine her luck and tell her the future. My mother shrieks and gets up. She lets out a string of “NOs,” shaking her shoulders and stamping her feet as if to shake off a chill. “¡Qué susto! Those things make me scared,” my mother says, ignoring the women and giving them her back. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” the second woman reassures. “It’s nothing bad.” The first woman eyes me. “How ’bout you, joven?” My mother pulls me away. “¡Ya! vámonos d’aquí. I don’t need nobody to tell me my future if I already have God.” My mother is a born-again Christian. As my mother and I head to the ferry, the band finally starts to play “Las Mañanitas.” y mother doesn’t need to know the future when she has the past to keep her happy. She recalls the early morning errands for the nixtamal. She also remembers the house—the kitchen with the dirt floors and the walls made of dried mud, the wool blankets for the night chill. On weekends, the boys from the neighboring ranches came to the windows to sing “Las Mañanitas” to the girls. Of the family at Santa Gertrudis, she recalls the bachelor uncle, Augustín, who liked to play the accordion and guitar: “They say that a woman left him and he never wanted another.” Her Aunt Virginia didn’t marry until she was so old that most of her teeth had already fallen out, and she kept wads of cotton in her mouth. That’s what my mother says. She also says that the husband would shut Virginia in the house and brush the dirt around the front door with a tree branch so that later he could check for tracks; he didn’t want anyone coming in and out of the house while he was gone. My mother stopped going to Mexico when she became old enough to work. Summers she picked cotton and cleared fields. The only time she went back to the ranch was for the funerals. “Over there the caskets are fitted with glass,” she tells me. “You see them dead, but you don’t touch them.” You don’t kiss their cold cheek or their liver-spotted hands. Which my mother forced me to do at the funerals on this side. Until now I always thought it was a Mexican thing. It must be my mother’s way of sending off our loved ones with the hope that they will be waiting for us on the other side of whatever lies beyond this life. ack on the job, the ferrymen wave the first U.S.-bound truck forward a few more inches to make room for a beige pickup they call la Guerita, referring either to its pale color or to the light-skinned, bleached-blond Mexican woman at the wheel. My mother and I stand and watch the dragonflies disturb the river surface with the dip of their tails. La Migra is nowhere in sight. For a moment it’s as if there were no borders, as if this norteño homeland was still undivided. Working in tandem, the four ferrymen lean forward and pull on the rope with their gloved hands. A pulley squeaks against a greased guide rope. The water slaps the lip of the ferry, pushing aside leaves and twigs and trailing a delicate wake of foam. The ride has been clocked at three to five minutes. For my mother it must feel like a lifetime passing. It isn’t until we’re almost midway across that we notice our cab driver standing against the railing. My mother calls and waves to get his attention. She hollers that she just remembered that a cousin of hers died in the nearby river of Comales. “Her car fell into the water and she drowned,” she says. Acosta nods without comment—what could he say? When the ferry docks, he walks ahead, as if to get away. A bald spot gapes through the back of his cap. He is fatter than I had first thought, his white shirt too tight, the epaulets ready to pop their buttons. At the checkpoint, a sober, vaguely antagonistic sign welcomes us to the United States of America. The immigration agent checks Acosta’s “papers”—a single laminated card that he pulls out halfway from his wallet and then puts back into his worn back pocket, where there’s a shotgun-sized hole. The agent is Mexican-American, like us. He asks my mother and me if we’re American citizens. I say yes. My mother says, “Yessir, I’m an American!”—just as proudly as she had said, “Soy mexicana.” Erasmo Guerra, born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, lives in New York. He is at work on a non-fiction book about summers in South Texas.