Leaving Guate male, the office of migration As I finish eating, I look up, and we meet eyes immediately. Smiling like a man who has just walked off the Ark, Ernesto sits down to a large dinner as he recounts his trip. He had arrived the night before at midnight, checking into the hotel as soon as he could. He rode along the remote roads on his bicycle and no one suspected a thing. The roads were empty, and under a new moon he followed them straight into town. The trip had taken eight hours on a onespeed bicycle. Ernesto wants to leave the next morning on the first bus to Villahermosa. Encouraged by his initial success, he is thinking fast now, perhaps overlooking the dangers of such a route. He says that if we move quickly and early enough the next morning we can avoid the INM checkpoints or perhaps catch them snoozing. We also talk about using collectivos \(local breaking the trip up to avoid major immigration checkpoints. This would be more timeconsuming but once we are past Veracruz we can move more quickly. Most of the INM checkpoints are south of Mexico City and Veracruz. I had been warned about taking the gulf highway when I was back in Austin. But I have little more than conjecture to offer Ernesto. Ernesto’s plan involves speaking as much English as he can manage, creating the impression that he is a middle-class Mexican, my guide and interpreter. He explains that the INM are less likely to harass someone who looks wealthy. Whenever there is an inspection, he will be reading a newspaper, wearing the clean dress shirt and designer jeans Angelica had sent. He will present his Mexican birth certificate if needed, to prove he is from Baja California. With some acting ability he’ll be fine. The first bus leaves at 4 a.m. Suddenly the trip seems easy. The next morning we take a cab to the ADO bus station. The mini-bus to Villahermosa is modern and comfortable, with a forward-mounted television reporting the scandals rocking the Mexican government. As we speed along in the darkness, the bus stops every few miles to pick up passengers on their way to work: campesinos in cowboy hats, machetes dangling at their sides, sit next to well-dressed businessmen in shiny wing-tips and neckties. Each time we stop, we anticipate an INM checkpoint. The roads between the border and Villahermosa are the most dangerous. While we are dozing off, the mini-bus stops again in the gray pre-dawn and an immigration official in a grey tee-shirt enters. He takes a look around at the nine or ten people in the seats and immediately steps forward asking me for my papers. Inspecting my passport with tired eyes he asks me the perfunctory questions: Where am I headed? How much time do I expect to be in Mexico? Handing me my documents, he takes one more look around at the other passengers and steps back off the bus. I am happy to be a diversion. The INM agent hadn’t even looked in Ernesto’s direction. The wind and rain slow the bus’ progress on Highway 180, between Villahermosa and Coatzacoalcos in southern Mexico. At about 10 a.m. I see a sign warning all vehicles to pull over for federal inspection. Ernesto says nothing. He just sits reading the Tabasco newspaper. There are only three or four other passengers on the bus, which certainly puts him at greater risk of being searched. Pulling over into the checkpoint area off of the highway, the INM officer boards the bus. “Papeles por favor!” Papers please! The other passengers stand up and pull their carry-on bags down from the rack overhead. In a moment, each has his IFE voter identification, a photo I.D. most Mexicans now carry. Ernesto has no carry-on bag or photo identificationonly a Mexican birth certificate. The officer asks him where he is from and Ernesto tries to maintain a casual manner. Instead, he looks irritated, which does not placate the official. Ernesto can’t give any details about his “hometown” in Baja California. Nor can he adequately explain why he isn’t carrying a bag for such a long journey. It is over in the first 30 seconds. They immediately know he isn’t Mexican. As he is taken off the bus, Ernesto looks back at me with a look of terror in his eyes. I follow, trying to explain that he is with me. They separate us right away, taking him into the small immigration office, examining my passport in the now-torrential rain. I feign that I speak no SpanishErnesto is “mi amigo” and we’d met in Monterey last August. But after looking at my passport, seeing that I was in Guatemala just the day before, they know where he is from, and tell me so in their broken English. “Your friend is from Guatemala City.” They show me his confiscated birth certificate, saying how it is false identification. I try to see Ernesto but they will not let me enter the building, and the bus driver is instructed to leave. I couldn’t start asking them questions about his situation in Spanish because just a minute ago I didn’t know any. They would surely think I am his pollero. I try to ask if there is any way I can pay his fine so we can be on our way. But as the other passengers watch, they don’t respond to the weak attempt at a bribe. Shuffling me back onto the bus, I am on the highway before I can raise an objection. Ernesto is now in a holding tank and I am alone on a bus, in the roar of a thunderstorm. There were no more checkpoints after Coatzalcoalcos. Author’s note: When I got back to Austin several days later, I got a call from Angelica. She had just got off the phone with Ernesto. “How could you fail?” she cried. Ernesto, she had learned, was back home in Jutiapa. There had been no abuse during his three days in the holding tank. He was not stripped of his money . I tried to explain to her what happened, but few words could convey the sense of defeat. She said she now plans to marry Ernesto to make him a Mexican citizen, thereby bringing him one step closer to the Texas-Mexico border. 8 JUNE 30, 1995
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