The Narc and the Smuggler in the Land of Plenty

A dying narcotics agent opens his files, and out pours Miguel, just one of a legion of Mexicans who embraced drug-running as their ticket to the American dream

Three or four months later I told my father I was leaving. I was tired of struggling all of the time and I wanted to go to the United States to make a good life for myself. It made my father very sad. Now he was really going to be alone, I tried to make him come with me, to sell the ranch or just leave it. But I knew he couldn't leave the mountain or the ranch--this is where he was born and this is where he would die. He gave me his blessing even though I knew it was hard for him to see me go. I'll never forget how we embraced, and for the first time in my life I saw my father cry.

They never want to leave their country. After his first killing at age 13, Miguel went down the sierras on foot, almost died plunging into rock chaos of the canyons, came out the Mexican coast and worked for a bunk and beans for year. Then he was ready for the great world to the north.

This is part of the basic American saga, the passage from an old world through the various Ellis Islands of the mind into a new world, a hard journey that in our telling always ends in an all-electric kitchen where we are surrounded by children and grandchildren that are as strangers to our wayfaring souls. There is truth in these sagas but the grit gets lost. Migration from one world to another is not a success story, but a story. And true stories, especially sagas, always have brutal passages. Thus, each American immigrant wave starts out as scum and ends up as a success story and a credit to the nation. The gore in between these two fictions gets lost. This censorship is our custom.

As soon as we had crossed the border the coyote drove us through San Diego to downtown Los Angeles, and dumped us on Main Street, between Broadway and Fifth. The coyote wished us luck: "If you don't make it and you need me again, I'll be there for you." With that, he drove away. Even though my brother lived in Los Angeles, I had no intention of bothering him. I had written for his help twice and he never even bothered to answer. We were in the middle of town and I knew we stood out like sore thumbs among all these gringos. I told Paco we had to find the Mexican part of town where we could blend in. The traffic was scary, much more than any place I had ever been, so many cars and so many people.

It took us a while to figure out the traffic signals. Paco was the first to get the hang of it. . . . We kept walking south because that seemed the natural way to go, back toward Mexico.

We wandered around until we spotted a group of men who looked like they were Mexicans. They were eating at a sidewalk stand that sold chicken with rice, tacitos, beans and seafood. We told them we had just crossed the border (as if they couldn't tell), and needed some help. They had all experienced the same lost feeling on their first trip to the United States, and one guy named Carlos, who seemed to be their leader, agreed to help them. They took us to Torrance, California, where they were staying. Carlos drove the black 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible that the six of them had chipped in to buy. I guess they were all illegals, but these guys were seasoned veterans of the Tijuana Tango. They had jumped the fence many times and knew the country pretty well by now. Sure, they had been caught [by the Border Patrol] several times, and tossed back over the border, but after a short visit at home with relatives and friends they always jumped back across. After a while they learned the language, not very well but enough to work and survive. Now they dressed more like Americans and knew just where to apply for a Social Security card, a driver's license, where to get medical assistance and food stamps. I knew I could learn from them to help me survive.

Three hours after crossing into the United States, we were motoring down the freeway in a fine looking convertible with the top down and I was enjoying every minute of it. The deal was that everyone had to pay his own way as soon as they went to work. In Torrance we drove to a run-down, faded orange, cement block apartment building in the housing project where Carlos told us we could live until we found our own place. I walked into their small two bedroom apartment and couldn't believe my eyes--there were at least fifteen, maybe twenty, guys staying with Carlos. Carlos said we each had to pay fifteen dollars a week to the guy who rented it. The inside of the building was not much cleaner than the outside. Broken down cars stood in front of almost every apartment, some converted into bedrooms for those who didn't, or couldn't, share the rent. The residents of the apartment changed from day to day and sometimes from hour to hour.

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