Hector the Hustler

Basketball in Nogales, Sonora, is like football in west Texas, and Hector's got game. Homeboy busts threes like a blackjack dealer.

Sporting a new pair of Gary Payton signature Nikes--$140 in Tucson, "no counterfeit bullshit"--Hector went five for eight from downtown in the city league basketball championship in May.

Downtown is where Hector's money is, on or off the court.
Nineteen years old, streetwise, and English-fluent, Hector's a part-time, professional middleman. Ask him what he does to pack his wallet with dead presidents, and he'll quote you Snoop Doggy Dogg: "I'm a motherfuckin' hustler. You better ask somebody."

Hector works the fevered streets of downtown Nogales--centro--steering gringos to whatever they want in a city where almost anything's available. Valium, M-80s, Ketamine, $20 blowjobs, or some place with a pleasant terrace, cold beer, and good pollo con mole.

It's all the same to Hector. He knows where it is, you don't. Thus, you pay him to take you.

In five years, Hector says with a straight face, he'll be playing in the NBA. Preferably for the Chicago Bulls. His back-up plan is to be an accountant. Preferably for a maquiladora.

Hector studies accounting five days a week in a technical school, then hustles all weekend. Between customers, he chills on a corner near the border with his homies, scanning the crowd for customers, checking his pager, and sipping a Tecate from a 40-ounce bomba.

About once every six weeks, Hector says, he'll kill a day smuggling steroids to a dealer/bodybuilder in Tucson. It's a 12-hour excursion--half travel and business, half shopping. And Hector's all about shopping.

When he's not in class, Hector wears nothing but NBA jerseys and Nike gear--socks, hats, shorts, shoes, all adorned with the Nike Swoosh. The Swoosh rules downtown Nogales. Every third Mexican is either wearing it or selling it, and who can tell a fake Swoosh from a licensed one?

Hector, of course. And of course, authenticity is essential. "Most of the shit in Nogales is no good," he says. "That's why I buy Nike in Tucson."

The only items in Hector's wardrobe that aren't NBA or Nike (or both) are his hair net and technical-school uniform. Does it bother Hector that most Nike gear is made by young women in Malaysia, working for less than a dollar an hour?

"Hell no, dude. I'd buy them if they were made in maquilas. I don't give a fuck."

Besides--NBA aspirations notwithstanding--another year and Hector should be wearing a collared shirt to work. That's how long until he graduates from tech school. Then he's practically guaranteed a fast-track maquila job, making 180 pesos ($21) a day to start.

"I speak English, and they want that, dude. My friend, he graduated two years ago. He also speaks English, and he's making 300 pesos [$35.30] a day now as the second accountant in charge for a maquila here."

Hopefully, Hector says, he can find a job with a plant in southern Sonora, instead of Nogales. "This city sucks, dude. . . . Once I stop working downtown, I want these streets to stay away from me."

Hector was born in Mexicali, and moved to Nogales when he was 7. He never met his father. His mother died when he was 9, and he moved in with his grandmother.

"My Na-Na, she was afraid I'd go to work for the narcos. She said I was becoming a gangster, so she sent me to Tucson when I was 12," Hector says.

He spent three years in Tucson as an illegal immigrant, living in a house with an uncle, who had papers, and a few other relatives, who did not. He learned to speak English at Apollo Middle School.

Hector was very happy in Tucson, but one day in 10th grade, he got off the school bus in the morning and two la migra officers were waiting for him. "I think somebody told on me. They asked for my papers and I said, 'Well, I don't have any,' and they said, 'You're going home, then,' and I was like, 'What's home, dude?'

"They had me sign some papers, and five hours later I was back in my old neighborhood in Nogales, walking around, all sad. I couldn't remember how to find my grandmother's house. It was messed up."

Hector was 15. He didn't want to enroll in school, so he got a job in a centro tourist shop, selling souvenirs on commission and watching the black market swirl enticingly around him. He scored about 20 bucks a day, but quit after six months to work less and make more leading gringo pill heads to the right doctor's office. At the end of his first $100 day, Hector bought his first pager.

The way Hector tells it, he then became a Nogales version of Jim Carroll's character in The Basketball Diaries--a local teen hoops star who can't help but walk on the wild side. For two years, Hector says, life was basketball, partying and hustling.

"Everybody thinks, the girls who work in maquilas, they're bitches, that you can fuck them real easy," Hector says. "And mostly, you can."

Then Hector met a girl he actually liked. "My friends and I were teaching her little brother to play ball, and we started talking, you know, and going out. Then I got her pregnant, and I was like, 'Well, time to be a man.'"

Hector says he quit working the streets and got a maquila job so he would have federal health insurance (all full-time employees in Mexico are entitled to free, socialized health care).

"I did it for the pregnancy and the baby," Hector says.
He still carries his worker's ID card, and breaks it out on request. Alevensa, it says. A small factory--about 200 employees--that produced acrylic windows. Hector says he made 38 pesos ($4.47) a day at first, but once the plant's American managers realized he spoke English, they made him night shift production supervisor.

"One week I was in training, the next week I managed 45 people, and my pay went up to 55 pesos [$6.47] a day," Hector says.

Hector worked five nights a week--5 p.m. to 3 a.m.--for seven or eight months. He quit soon after the baby was born.

"I was getting sick, from this alcohol we used to clean the windows. It was some factory alcohol, stronger than normal. I started to get all these bumps on my hands, and they kept getting more and more big, and spreading up my arm, so . . ." He shrugs. "I quit."

Anti-maquila activists say the plants routinely tell employees that any toxic solvent is "alcohol."

The backs of Hector's hands are speckled with dark scar tissue from the bumps. "See, it was bad, dude. Besides, the money was no good, I realized, I'm working so much. If I hustle for half as many hours, if the baby gets sick, I can pay a good doctor, instead of a doctor everybody sees."

Hector still supports his girlfriend and son, who's now 18 months old. And for at least another year, he'll stay a hustler. Here's the latest game: A Tucson cable pirate has offered him $100 for every cable box he can pay someone to smuggle out of General Instruments, the biggest maquiladora in Nogales. Hector's got a friend who works at GI and wants to cut a deal. Hector's thinking 70/30, Hector's favor.

So Hector, you can get pretty much anything, right?
"Yes, yes," Hector says impatiently, his usual reply to any such query.
Well, what could someone smuggle into Mexico that you could sell for a profit?

"Guns," Hector says. "Bullets are good, too.


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