Rules for crossing border checkpoints for those of us who fit profiles:
1. Keep your answers short, simple, and unambiguous.
2. Make eye contact but not too much. It might be interpreted as defiance or contempt.
3. All jokes will be taken seriously.
When I turned 20 I lived in Israel for two-and-a-half years. Whenever I share this fact with Jewish friends from New York they inevitably want to know why a non-Jew, a Chicano from the Texas-Mexico border, would end up living in Israel for a couple of years. “To learn Hebrew,” I tell them. “What for?” they insist. “I’m not sure,” I tell them. Some insist some more. I learned Hebrew so that I could read the Bible in its original tongue and so that I could pick up Israeli women. My Jewish friends are never sure if I’m joking or not.
The Israeli woman who checked my bags at the Ben Gurion airport security checkpoint wasn’t sure what a dark-skinned, Palestinian-looking guy like me who carried an American passport had been doing in Israel either. Her skin was like sabbath challa bread, light and sweet, the Jewish version of Mexican pan dulce, the kind you dip in milk. It was 5:30 in the morning, I had gotten to the airport three hours before my El-Al plane took off back to Rome, and I was in a half-daze, not fully awake and especially susceptible to female beauty.
“What was the purpose of your visit to Israel?” she asked me.
I answered her in Hebrew. “I came to visit a girlfriend of mine. I mean she used to be my girlfriend.”
She leafed through my American passport and stopped at my East German entrance visa stamp.
“Did you meet or talk to any Palestinians during your visit?”
“Well, there’s Lucia Sarsar, her mother, her father, her brother.”
“What was your relationship to her?”
“We used to be very close,” I said with a smile. I noticed her silver-plated chai earrings, the Hebrew word for life. I imagined she was real tough, a sabra, an Israeli prickly pear. She probably knew how to handle an Uzi machine gun, but her earrings made her look soft and delicate.
“Is this the girlfriend you came to visit?” she asked me.
“No, that was Michal… Cohen. She lives in the Jewish side. Lucia lives in the Arab side.”
“You were involved with both of them?”
“Yeah.” I cleared my throat.
“At the same time?”
“Yeah.” I nodded slowly various times. My face was flushed. I blush easily during interrogations. I get flustered. “But that was 10 years ago,” I added, hoping that would somehow justify me.
“Are you Jewish?”
“No, I’m Chicano.” I was still clearing my throat.
“You’re from Chicago?”
“No. Chicano. I was born on the U.S. side, but my parents are from the Mexican side.”
“So what were you doing in Israel?” My interrogator seemed genuinely confused. She switched from Hebrew to English.
I was going to feed her the line about women, the Bible, and the original tongue but I held back. I did not want to push my luck.
“I… well… I’m not really… I guess I just …”
Finally I muttered something about being enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while I worked as an interpreter and courier for a fundamentalist Christian television crew.
I was already in trouble. My story wasn’t making any sense to her. “Will you please come with me?” she ordered me politely. “Bring your suitcases.” She took me to a different section of the airport, a makeshift room, separated from the rest of the airport with black curtains. It looked almost like the backstage of a theater. She asked me to please open my suitcase.
In Hebrew “please” is bevakasha. I was infatuated with the way she said it. Bevakasha. I decided then and there that she would be the inspiration for the rest of my life, at least for the rest of the day. When King Solomon praised his beloved in the Song of Songs he compared her neck to the Tower of David and her breasts to twin gazelles. Duke Ellington had an even better line: “Darling, you sure know how to make a nice dress look mighty fine.”
But I was hypnotized by my beloved’s earrings and couldn’t come up with anything more eloquent than betach in response to her request. Betach is Hebrew for sure, of course, seguro. It shares the same root with bitachon, which means security. I tried to say it with as much self-composure as possible to assure her that I was safe, I was no terrorist, I wasn’t carrying any bombs.
She searched my suitcase thoroughly. Passed her hand through every possible hidden compartment and a metal detector through my clothes.
“What is this?” she asked, leafing through a notebook.
“My writings,” I said.
She leafed through them. Then she started reading them carefully, page by page.
I was flattered.
The custom officials ordered Joe Diaz to take down his pants. They were looking for drugs up his anus, which I guess makes sense to them. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between an investigation and a seduction.
How many assholes a month do customs officials worldwide get to check? I wonder if they keep any official statistics.
Joe Diaz was in the car with me. It was my fault that they were looking up his rectum. I’ve crossed the Santa Fe Bridge from Juárez to El Paso a few thousand times at least, but almost every time I hit the checkpoint I turn deep Indian red. Interrogations always make me feel guilty.
“What are you bringing back from Mexico?” Usually nothing illegal, but my mind races through the hundreds of possibilities. Maybe Angie left some pot in the ashtray. I’ve been told that even if someone who just smoked pot touches your car it gets the search dogs all riled up.
Or maybe–let me think. I forgot I’m carrying some forbidden fruits in the trunk: guayabas, sugar cane, lemons, mangoes, hierba buena, or anything else that has the potential of propagating on our side of the border.
I’m paranoid I know, but maybe the border checkpoint computer revealed that Joe Diaz and I belonged to P.E.R.L.A., an internationally subversive organization with its headquarters at UT—El Paso. Perla means pearl in Spanish. It was also the name of a beautiful woman we knew. But P.E.R.L.A. stood for Political Expediency Revisited in Latin America. Don’t ask me what that meant.
There were always at least five of us in the group. We protested everything. We would march around in circles at the university’s Old Union plaza. Willivaldo waved around his banners facetiously. Inez walked around with a placard without words, only with his drawings of the planet Saturn. I’m still not sure what he meant by that. Andres, a recent immigrant from Argentina, and his girlfriend of Anglo-Polish descent marched around wearing tight cycling shorts. During a march protesting the contras in Nicaragua we marched around in circles chanting that ancient sixties slogan “Peace now,” but with our international accents people in the audience thought we were saying “Piss now.”
One summer P.E.R.L.A. followed around the joint INS and police patrols that walked around downtown El Paso checking the IDs of anyone who looked too Mexican. A couple of civil rights lawyers hired us to document civil rights violations by city police who were illegally doing the job of the INS. Everyone walking in downtown El Paso is Mexican, but only the INS is trained to recognize the difference between Mexicans-with and Mexicans-without papers. I once read a border patrolman’s memoir in which he claimed that when he tracked Mexicans through the desert he could tell the difference between the feces of an undocumented Mexican and a legal citizen. The shit of a poor Mexican has a distinct smell and texture due to the inferior nutritional content of the illegal alien’s diet.
The customs agent who noticed my discomfort asked us to drive over to a secondary stall. Dogs came and sniffed inside my car. We were led to a small room, the size of a fitting room at a men’s clothing store. I waited on a wooden bench outside while they checked Joe Diaz’s private orifice.
“You can go now,” they told us.
Once the same uncle who invited me to Israel invited me to Guatemala on a church choir missionary tour. We drove in a caravan of private cars and crossed the Guatemalan border from Mexico after dark. The soldiers stopped us and fumigated our cars. They flirted with the young women in the choir. There were fireflies in the jungle and the night was peaceful. Suddenly we heard muffled screams from a wooden shack next to the customs house. I didn’t know anything about Guatemala then. Like the soldiers, I also had been flirting with the choir girls. One girl had been sitting next to me in the car and when she took off her sandals I fell in love with her, her bare feet and her painted toenails. I didn’t know anything about Guatemalan right-wing death squads, the kaibiles, who had received “anti-terrorist” training from the Israelis. I didn’t know their methods included ripping open the stomachs of pregnant Maya Indian women with a knife. I didn’t know back then that you’re supposed to fight terror with terror even if it means killing tens of thousands of communistic-minded indios for the sake of peace. I had no clue why a man was screaming inside the shack at the border. I figured he must be a criminal or a contrabandista.
I was just glad I was crossing the border into the Guatemalan night, sitting next to a girl with beautiful, sexy feet.
I had never seen so many fireflies. Anywhere.
Michal was Sephardic; her mother was born in Iraq, her father’s family had lived in Jerusalem for generations. I dated her for a year. Her sister was dating an Arab, which was quite dangerous in the ’80s, but not quite as dangerous as it would be now. Back then, the odds that a couple could survive a transgressive sexual relationship between an Israeli Jew and a Palestin-ian Arab weren’t too bad.
In the early ’80s there was some level of accommodation between Jews and Arabs. Sure, the language in the Israeli press was often one of extreme disdain for the Palestinian jukim (cockroaches) and schwarze chai (black animals). Hebrew, the holy language, can sometimes also be a godawful language. Ani sone otam, kuulam, I overheard an Israeli soldier sitting next to me on a bus once. “I hate them, the whole bunch of them,” he hissed, oozing globs of acid from his tongue.
But things weren’t so bad. Despite the bombings, the Arab homes razed by bulldozers and the occasional Katyusha rockets launched from the Lebanese border, on most days Israelis or Arabs could still walk into each other’s neighborhoods without getting stabbed, stoned, shot, arrested, or tortured.
The truth is that I liked and respected both sides. Both Israelis and Palestinians were, for the most part, coarse, direct, honest, and intense as hell. Both their cultures were wells dug deep into the desert. Both cultures reminded me of my own.
Michal was Israel to me. She had skin dark like the mud of Qumran and reddish-brown hair with wild curls, wild as everything around her. Her bosom was large and maternal. When I entered her, I entered the land of milk and honey. She had been a paratrooper in the army. Her dream was to visit Mexico and I was the closest thing to Mexico. Although she laughed at me often she never once asked me what the hell a Mexican-American was doing in her country.
I never told her about the time I tried to hide behind a tree stump after hearing machine gun fire near me. I was hiking along a forest near Jerusalem when I saw a small hot-air balloon over my head. I heard shots. I’d heard gunshots before but these were different. These shots were meant to kill. Gunshots that are aimed to eliminate a human being have a different sound; they travel on an entirely different wavelength than non-lethal gunshots, especially if you’re not sure who those shots are aimed at. I awkwardly crouched behind a tree stump that was only tall enough to cover my knees. I heard three more shots, which I thought were coming from behind me, and I instinctively jumped to the other side of the stump. A couple of Israeli fighter jets flew toward the hot-air balloon, which instead of hosting a terrorist attack, turned out to be a runaway balloon set aloft by the local Boy Scouts.
I was afraid if I told Michal what happened that day she would have laughed at me. Michal was beautiful and tough as hell. She once asked me if she could beat me with a leather belt while we were making love. I said no. Michal turned out to be too much for me. I had to leave her and her country behind.
If you were a Mexican maid like my great-aunt Adela, crossing into El Paso from Juarez in 1915, you would be required to take a bath on the American side. You put your clothes in a huge dryer machine. Sometimes they would use kerosene to disinfect you. “Me sentí muy avergonzada. I was embarrassed that they thought I was dirty,” my grandmother-aunt told us. “I once had to put my shoes in the dryer and they melted.”
School districts kept records of how many baths they administered to the Mexican children during the first part of the 20th century. One senator called the Americanization of the dark-skins “the bleaching process.” Germ theory was catching fire in America then. Dirt was more than physical, it was social. Real Americans were afraid of being contaminated by us. Those Americans didn’t see themselves as backward and racist at all. Quite the opposite. They saw themselves as progressive and very scientific.
They still do.
The first time my father crossed illegally into the U.S. through the Tijuana border, an INS agent caught him and handcuffed him to a telephone pole while the agent chased after another illegal. Before handcuffing my father to the pole, the migra, who was pissed off at my father for running, threw my father’s sack lunch at his face. There was a bottle inside the sack that broke and gashed my father’s forehead. “The wound wasn’t too serious,” my father tells me. That was in 1953. My father was 14 years old.
Today my father is a wealthy man. Last year he took a pilgrimage of sorts, which led him to the spot where he was handcuffed to a pole. There’s a fancy restaurant near that spot where he and my mother sat down to eat the most expensive meal they could order. That was all the revenge he needed. My father, who is Pentecostal and a believer in the theology of forgiveness, is not a bitter man.
My mother is also Pentecostal, yet she’s bitter as hell. In a very Pentecostal way. Pentecostalism is a very emotional and intense religion. When my father is being “blessed by the Holy Spirit” his whole body shakes as if he were being struck by lightning. Pentecostals are often at each other’s throats. That’s why they’re one of the fastest growing denominations in the world. They get into spiritual fights, separate from each other, then rent new buildings, start their own churches and replicate endlessly like amoebas.
My mother is one of those fighters. Cursing is sinful–that’s why whenever she’s pissed off at one of her brothers or sisters in Christ, she simply tells them “God bless you,” in the most acerbic tone of voice she can muster. “God bless you” is her way of saying “Fuck you.”
I think I take after my mother’s side. My father won’t say anything bad about this country so I’ll say it for him.
God bless you, America. God bless you.
My airport interrogator kept after me for more than two hours. My notebook was scrawled with poems, observations, newspaper clippings, free associations, to-do lists, phone numbers. I’d never seen anyone fit into a uniform quite the way she did. I wondered how long it would take me to unzip it. She jotted down the phone numbers
and asked who they
To Michal, my former girlfriend who now has a husband and two children; to Yehuda Rapiguano, an archaeologist from Phoenix who teaches at the Hebrew University; to Andrew Burrows, a Biblical scholar from Yale who recently bought a house in Jerusalem. She queried me some more about them, about friends in Israel and friends at home, about the countries I had visited, about my experiences crossing borders. She even asked me about some of the music CDs I was carrying. With a different interrogator I would have probably been irritated as hell. Not with her.
She pointed out a poem I had copied from a Hebrew anthology by Yehuda Amichai. “Do you understand this poem?” she asked me.
“Sure. It’s a poem about being able to love in the midst of war,” I said.
“Do you plan to come back to Israel?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t think so. Not for a long time at least.”
I think she was disappointed by my answer.
At the end of the interrogation, she asked me to step into a different room where a male security agent would pat me down.
“Taaseh ma she atah hoshev,” she told him. Do whatever your gut tells you.
“My gut doesn’t tell me anything,” he answered. He let me go.
She helped me pack my bags and rushed me through passport control, since I was about to miss my flight.
She apologized for holding me up so long.
“I didn’t mind,” I told her and complimented her earrings.
She touched her earrings, revealing the palm of her hand to me and asked me again if I had plans to return to Israel.
Again I told her I didn’t think so.
She seemed disappointed, but I wasn’t sure.
To this day I’m not sure what was just an interrogation and what was more than that. When you’re crossing borders it’s hard to be sure.
David Romo edits the Bridge Review, a bilingual publication about the arts on both sides of the border. This article will appear in Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots and Graffiti from the U.S./Mexico Border to be published in June by Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso.