El viaje de edad: Crossing the border in old age
By Samuel Bautista
In the early dawn of a Friday in June of 2006, a train’s headlights are becoming more visible as it nears the crowd of people waiting for what they refer to as “The Beast.”
People begin to scatter away from the tracks. Families gather to pray that the journey they are about take is a safe one. Ernesto, 56, digs in to his shirt and kisses a necklace of La Virgen de Guadalupe hanging around his neck. The train passes by in the state of Chiapas, Mexico blowing its horn into the warm, summer air. Ernesto is still standing there.
“All of the horror stories were in my mind at that moment and I couldn’t do it,” Ernesto said. People have fallen off the train and lost limbs due to exhaustion. Most open spaces in the train wagons usually go to families. Lone migrants have to go on the roof of the train and hold the rails on a trip that can last weeks.
“I was too old to climb a moving train. I would take my chances in the dessert and river rather than risk losing a limb,” Ernesto said.
Traveling by train isn’t a common occurrence for many Mexicans looking to come to the United States. Trains are usually boarded by migrants of Central American origin.
Ernesto came to Chicago when he was 21, but needed to return to Mexico 35 years later when his father got sick. After taking his father to the doctor and getting him medicine, Ernesto needed to return home where his wife and son waited for him. He had a financial responsibility to his family in Chiapas and to his family in Chicago.
Ernesto bought a bus ticket to take him northwest to the border city of Hermosillo, Sonora.
Ernesto is a short man with a set of grey hair that gives away his age. His high-pitched voice tries to add some humor to his serious story. His last name is being withheld, at his request, to protect his identity.
Ernesto needed to come back to Chicago in a time when migrants were dying in large numbers in the desert. Over the last decade, more than 2,000 migrants have died crossing through the desert. There was an increased border presence and states were beginning to introduce bills, although many failed, at the time that targeted trespassing immigrants.
However, Ernesto knew his family needed him. He was determined to make it back to Chicago.
The two-day bus ride arrives in Hermosillo with a blazing heat. Weather in Hermosillo during the summer months can exceed 110 degrees. Hermosillo is a border town, where people looking to cross meet up with coyotes.
A coyote refers to a person who is familiar with a route, both in Mexico and in U.S border towns. Their pricing is not cheap and depends on the crossing points the person is paying for. A New York Times report shows the cost per person is around $4,000. However, that includes many advantages for the people who are about to cross.
Coyotes scout for officers at the Rio Grande River, provide transportation once in the United States as well as temporary housing. They tell migrants the best roads to travel to get to their destination.
“The roughest part for me during the whole trip was traveling the desert. You can’t have a lot of water or food because it will slow you down, but at the same time you do need it in that heat,” Ernesto said. “I went through two gallons, easily. We were getting close to Ciudad Juarez when I couldn’t walk anymore. El coyote said we had about four more hours of travel.”
The travel quickly went sour when Ernesto heard someone say “Leave him behind, we’re so close to stop now.” Ernesto was on the ground, a tired and defeated old man. The sun was showing no mercy and beating on the group as they pondered what to do.
“Toma mi mano, vámonos,” Ernesto recalls hearing. Some guy in the group reached out to Ernesto. “To this day, I never found out who that guy was, but I think he pushed me to continue,” he said.
Back on his feet, the group continued to the border of Ciudad Juarez. The group reached the border at around 11 at night. While many would consider the night to be a reward from the heat, you have to be attentive of your surroundings.
“That night about five people wanted to rest, but a lady was bitten on her leg by a snake. Nothing serious because, according to the coyote, it wasn’t poisonous,” Ernesto recalled.
After that incident, no one wanted to rest before crossing.
Coyotes like to wait to midnight to cross, as they feel the time will lead to more tired officers. They tend to carry a pair of binoculars to look at the American side of the river. A sudden movement in the high grass and coyotes will hold back anyone crossing over.
With no movements on the American side, el coyote signals pairs to get ready. Ernesto was in the third group.
“I began to reflect. I came some 2,000 miles to get to this point. Even though I had never swam before in my life, I wasn’t going to stop here. I have a family to support and they are waiting for me in Chicago,” Ernesto said.
Ernesto walked in the water until it reached his neck. He kicked the water as hard as he could to stay afloat. “I became a swimmer that day,” Ernesto said.
Once on the American side, everyone hugged and celebrated their successful crossing. The coyote quickly reminded them to stay quiet so they wouldn’t draw unwanted attention their way. To many this would seem like a completed journey, but Chicago was still far from El Paso, Texas.
Ernesto had booked a bus ride in Odessa, Texas because he wanted to be far from the border to avoid being caught. The fee he paid the coyote included a van ride to Odessa, where he would stay the night before leaving. As a siren flashed the van miles outside of Odessa, Ernesto grew scared. It ended up being a warning for the speed limit.
Ernesto stepped inside the Greyhound bus destined for Chicago on a Thursday morning, almost a week after being on the train’s platform in Chiapas.
He sat in seat number 30, right next to the window. As the bus departed from the station, Ernesto leaned his head against the window looking at the crowd waiving to the bus. Ernesto reached in his shirt and kissed his necklace of La Virgen de Guadalupe.