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The Jaws OF LIFE Story and Photos By JESSE BOGAN It was a marvel that the remains were found, let alone identified. Animals had torn into Cristobal A. Puente Gallardo’s corpse, leaving a few leg bones and vertebra, and a jawless skull. Scattered nearby were shoes, a mangled T-shirt, ripped pants, two video game cartridges, and, miraculously, identification. The grim discovery was made a day or two’s trek from the Rio Grande, in the middle of a vast, South Texas ranch near Eagle Pass, by a heavy equipment operator in March 2007. Authorities gathered what there was and reasoned that Puente died from heat, dehydration, or some other natural cause. His family was notified, the books closed, and the paltry remains taken back to Nieves, Zacatecas, for entombment. Except the jawbone. Whether through haste or oversight, the jawbone was left behind. It ended up sitting on an end table in the home of Raymond Lazarski, a retired supervisor from the old-school Border Patrol who serves as caretaker on the ranch where Puente’s body was found. Sometimes undocumented immigrants who cross the border find work and share the bounty with their families back home. Sometimes they die, leaving their families only questions that will never be answered. N ieves is a town of abandoned mines, no stoplights, and divided families. A regular says, half jokingly, that if a man wants a wife, he can probably find five in the north central Mexico town. Most men go north. Cristobal A. Puente Gallardo fled when he was a teenager. But after attending high school in Dallas, he returned home in 1992. He owned two tortillerias and, unlike the local bean harvesters, carried the girth of success. Though he was a hothead who could be belligerent when he drank, locals respected him as an enterprising businessman. One of a slew of siblings, he was the only brother to return and work in Nieves. The rest moved to Texas for good. By default, Puente became breadwinner to three womenhis mother, widowed by a rollover accident that also took a son; his sister, a single mom; and his wife. That life was only a matter of time. He apparently couldn’t afford to compete when other tortilla makers started delivering door-to-door on four-wheelers. With his wife pregnant with their fifth child, he left for Dallas again in May 2006 in search of better work. Cash hidden in his sneakers, he was a few days shy of his 33rd birthday when he boarded a northbound bus. He brought along sample cartridges of the video games his kids loved so he could buy more at a flea market and send them home. Some of Puente’s siblings had papers; he did not. When he arrived at the border town of Piedras Negras, just across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass and seven hours southwest of Dallas, he agreed to a smuggling enterprise. Not used to the dirty life, his mood soured after sleeping on the filthy floor of a safe house. He complained to relatives by telephone about eating beans and ants crawling on him. So he found a different coyote, named El Borrado for his light eyes. The one-way trip would cost $1,200 and entail a hike through the brush. Puente had always been good about staying in contact, so when his relatives stopped hearing from him, they panicked. After a few days, they checked with immigration and law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border to see if he 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 5, 2007