California – or Busted!

I remember growing up in the U.S., so I guess you can say than I am altogether American, but as I look back, what is most significant about my growing years is that “I didn’t fit”. I like to think that I was the “round peg in the square hole” as opposed to the “square peg in the round hole”: as time would reveal, I fit “Everywhere”. After living half a lifetime in foreign countries and discovering that I “fit” comfortably with just about any world citizen that I had the pleasure to meet along the way, I decided that I was more than American: I was “Worldly”. Strange word that – as it is defined in our culture, it is the farthest from describing what I am that any adjective could be. Let’s take it at face value and understand that I have always felt comfortable with people of other nations and believe that you could drop me into any country on Earth, and I would soon be at home with the “natives”. So, what was my surprise when, returning finally to my country of birth, I found myself, unexpectedly, a “stranger amongst the natives”. Circumstances. Nothing more. But the fact remains. And now we were back in the States …
Brownsville! We were safe! We were still three days away from California and my cousin’s house where we were to stay until we could find a place of our own. But as far as I was concerned, the next part of the trip was already a piece of cake. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I could “feel” that freedom just as if I had arrived at Ellis Island after a three month sea voyage on a tramp steamer from some far away troubled destination.

Brownsville didn’t seem like much of a town. A few nearly-empty streets greeted us as we dragged our suitcases behind us looking for a place to rest for the night. We were too exhausted to consider hopping on a Greyhound and heading out again. I didn’t care what the town was like anyway, so I wasn’t looking. I remember that the streets were nearly deserted. Whatever part of town we were in, it wasn’t where the action was. For all I know, we weren’t even in Brownsville proper yet. Not wanting to use our diminished resources for a taxi, we had walked from the border toward the only distant buildings we could see. Mom became ‘very American” right away, refusing to cross a street on a red light when there was no traffic to be seen for miles in any direction. “It’s against the law to cross on a red light”, she said, and wouldn’t budge until the light turned green. There we stood like worn-out statues waiting for a light to change in the wee hours of the morning, everything closed, streets deserted and no cars in sight, while I kept thinking “yeah, sure, the law… as if we hadn’t already sorely tried the legal system just to get there.”

After walking some distance, we found a hotel that was in keeping with our meager purse and settled in. Mom and I each took a bed and a child, while the cat purred contentedly in her travel cage, and we settled in for a long afternoon and night. As far as I could see, there was “nothing” to do in this town and we had no money anyway. We had picked up some crackers and cheese in a little store near the hotel and took care to set down a bowl of the cat food we had brought with us for Estrella, along with her bowl of water. She was the only one of us who had no reason to worry. Food, water, a place to sleep and plenty of love was all she needed.

The morning found us very early in a line at the bus station waiting to buy our tickets for the final part of our journey. We were tired – tired from our “fantastic” trip to the border, worn out emotionally, physically fatigued from want of sleep and a proper breakfast. We could hardly wait to get on that bus! There we could settle down to sleep securely while “leaving the driving to us”, as the ad says, and from there all the way to California, everything would be all right! With our “direct” tickets in hand, we climbed aboard and proceeded to the back of the bus. I had wrapped Estrella in a baby blanket to escape detection. The plan was to stay out of range of the driver’s rear view mirror and to leave at least one of us with the cat each time we made a snack stop on route. You see, “DOGS, CATS AND OTHER DOMESTIC ANIMALS ARE NOT PERMITTED ON THE BUS. ANYONE TRYING TO BOARD WITH AN ANIMAL WILL BE REFUSED PASSAGE.” That’s what the sign by the ticket window said, in big, bold letters. How was I to know! Such was not the case in Mexico, and I had been gone from the U.S. for too long to be aware of such things.

By now, all things legal had become of second importance to me. We’d made it this far by bucking the rules. What was one more rule. And this cat was special. From the day she was brought to me by a fellow worker who was looking for a home for this little stray, there was no escape. She proceeded to curl up in my “out” bin on top of a pile of papers, and spent the whole day there while I worked on my art projects, looking up at me with those big, tender kitten eyes. I took off work early and made the rounds of the institute, while she cuddled in my neck, asking everyone I met if he would adopt her. Each time I approached one of my co-workers, she would climb to my shoulder, dig her claws into my collar, and hang on for dear life. She was mine!

Estrella was nearly a year old when we made arrangements to leave the country, so much a part of our family, that there was no thought of leaving her behind. I had taken her to the vet’s for the required shots, received the health certificate that would assure her passage across the border, and purchased some Dramamine, tiny portions of which I was to give her to help make her trip more comfortable. She was, as a result, a bit sleepy when we boarded, and it was quite easy to carry her about as a tiny baby. We looked every bit the loving, although somewhat bedraggled, family – Grandma, Mom, two kids, and a “baby”.

Thus began the last leg of my trip “home”. I finally felt secure. We were on our way, and the cat had boarded quite unnoticed by the driver. There was nothing to worry about. We made a stop around noon. Most of the passengers got off to buy some lunch. We stayed on the bus with our cheese and crackers. The driver let us know that the next stop would be at 6:00 that evening. I figured that it would be dark enough for us to get off, give the cat some food and water and let her do “her thing” and we could carry the “baby” back on without notice. It was not to be so easy. The 6:00 stop was not just a food stop. We were to change buses. Worried now that someone on the bus would see through our ruse, we soon learned that we had nothing to fear from the other passengers. They would wink as they walked by, or sit next to me and sneak a stroke of the cat’s head. As for the bus authorities, that was another matter. I was again, in a state of perpetual anxiety at the prospect of being discovered. We had to wait an hour for our replacement bus, while I sweated it out.

Bus came, we boarded, no problem. Whew! This was anything but a relaxing trip home. Two more bus changes followed, and each time, I was a bundle of nerves. It all came to an end when we stopped at Del Rio, Texas, for dinner the next day. We should have stayed on the bus. I had, however, gathered up the change in my purse and decided to blow it all on some well-deserved dessert. So we went into the café, “baby” in arms. One rich, Texas-sized, luscious slab of cheesecake and four forks found themselves to our table. It was enough to give me courage! And with this newfound courage, I took the “baby” out for her food and “business”, while everyone else was dining, rewrapped my “baby” for the boarding, joined my family, and started to step on the bus. Suddenly, a strong arm reached out and stopped me in my tracks, and an angry voice said. “Lady, you can’t take that cat on this bus!” Busted! I do believe in miracles, so undaunted, I smiled my best smile at the driver, who had been waiting for me, and explained: “the cat has come this far with no problems. She was quiet as a mouse. I even have her health papers.. You can’t take the kids cat away from them – it would break their hearts!” I should have saved my breath. He wouldn’t budge. It came down to this: “Either you get rid of it now, of you stay here.” I was given 10 minutes to decide. He wasn’t kidding. Everyone was in their seats, and he “had a schedule to keep.” It was leave the cat, or bye-bye bus! Simple as that.

I went back into the café and asked if there was anyone there who loved cats – I needed a home for Estrella. The cat was adopted on the spot by a waitress with a big smile and a cowboy hat who said she had six cats at home and would love her like her own. The warm little “baby bundle” too quickly exchanged hands, along with the health papers. I got a Texas-sized hug from the waitress, and I high-tailed it back to the bus, fighting back the tears. The silence in the bus as we pulled out was so strong that you could have easily punched a hole through it. To add to my pain, my kids were looking at me as if I had suddenly become evil personified. I saw the silent looks from the other passengers and was sure that meant that they were in league with the driver. I had become “the bad guy – that one trouble-maker that you find in the back seat on every Greyhound trip!” As it turned out, they were fuming mad at the driver. For the rest of the trip, we were the object of everyone’s attention, receiving kind words, shared food and pats on the back. I’m not sure if my sons ever did forgive me. That was the most painful. My only consolation was that Estrella would be loved. To this day, I often think of my “baby” out there, somewhere in Del Rio, Texas, no doubt long gone by now with no thought to the distant separation.

By the time we reached L.A., there wasn’t much you could have done to me – except to take my children – that could have caused me any pain. I was emotionally worn out. We suffered a total of six bus changes over three days, with long waits in between. This was the “direct ticket” to L.A. that we had purchased. Our food ran out on the last day and the kids were practically not talking to me anymore, certain that losing Estrella was all my fault. With the exception of one breathtaking view, far in the distance, of a sun-blessed Santa Fe, backed by distant dark clouds, most of the trip was through flat, dusty brown, tumbleweed-strewn desert for as far as the eye could see, a striking change from the lush green sub-tropical vistas we were so accustomed to in our home in Xalapa. It was like going to the moon.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of Coming Home….

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Going Home … The Hard Way

It was on a beautiful tropical night in May that my two children, my mom, our beloved cat, Estrella, and I found ourselves squashed together in the back of a jeep, crouching under a layer of blankets amidst an array of suitcases, peeking out at a glorious full moon and a star-studded sky. The driver kept reaching back and pushing our heads down to make sure no one would see us. We were leaving our home in Mexico on our way to the United States, hidden in the jeep of a government agent, a friend of my mother’s, who had rounded up her chauffer and arranged for this unusual departure at the risk of her job, had it been discovered. The kids were wide-eyed, the cat was purring and my elderly Mom was having trouble staying in crouch position. I, quite frankly, didn’t know what to think. It was all too fantastic! We bumped and jolted over the cobblestone streets in this position for half an hour as we sped out of the sleeping city at just past midnight.

It was a rough start to my homeward voyage. I had been born in California, studied a few years in France and upon my return to the States, re-connected with a college friend from Mexico. We fell in love and decided to marry and make our home in his country. I lived 17 happy years there – and three not so happy ones. I suppose I never really intended to return. Mexico had become my country. But here I was, leaving with more than that familiar lump in my throat. I was heart-broken!

My oldest son had gone to say some last good-byes and was going to catch up with us at Mom’s friend’s home. We were scheduled to leave from there at midnight. My son showed up just minutes before – with a girlfriend, no suitcase, and the surprise news that he was not going with us. I have been broken hearted many times in my life over the departure of a loved one, but that moment when my son said he was staying, I felt as if I had no heart left. I knew that one day the umbilical cord had to be broken, but I never expected it to be yanked out so brusquely, leaving a gaping wound. I had to fight hard to overcome that sudden feeling of profound loss while attending to the practical matter at hand – getting us all in the car and on our way before anyone missed the chauffer or the borrowed government jeep. It was our only ticket home and we were running a tight schedule.

We left the city all too soon for me: only one thought was running through my mind: “How can I leave my beloved son, my first child and loyal friend behind?” Would I ever see him again? Where was this 18-year-old, whose home had been dismantled and swept clean of family and familiar belongings, going to live?” My bridges had all been burned. I could never have imagined that I would be “burning”my first-born, and a huge piece of my heart, with him.

I had secretly managed in the space of a week, to pack and ship the two big crates that would travel ahead of us to the border, sell all our furniture and the personal things we couldn’t take, clean and vacate the house, obtain a permit for my resident status to travel outside the country, say good-bye to friends, and forge my husband’s signature on the papers that would allow me to take my Mexican-born sons with me. The home we had lived in for several years was now empty. We had been living on the historical “Callejon del Diamante”, the first street built by the Spaniards when they founded the city, right in the center of town. “Everyone” in Xalapa ventured down this street right past our front door, a couple of times a week or more – on foot, as it was closed to traffic. How I managed to do all of this without anyone, not even the landlord knowing it, was a feat in itself and accomplished with no little fear. If our plans had been discovered by my husband, he could easily make sure we would never cross the border, by squashing the legal arrangements I had furtively made.

Our original plan was to travel to Mexico City and take the train to California, but my then-estranged husband had discovered my forgery attempt, found our house empty, and I fully expected his brother in Mexico City to be watching for us there at the train station. My sons had been born in Mexico, and registered at the U.S. Embassy. They held dual citizenship, but by Mexican law, as long as they were minors and lived in Mexico, they were officially Mexican citizens. They couldn’t leave the country without both parents’ permission. Rules are rules! I knew that. But there had been so much pain in the preceding years that I could think of no better solution than to leave and start over. The future in Mexico promised nothing but heartache for me. I was beginning to lose my way, and I could foresee only an unstable future for my sons. It was “do or die”.

Picture again the hasty departure: Two women, two children, a cat in a cage, a variety of suitcases and one collective broken heart – all hiding under blankets in the back of a speeding jeep bound for – not California as originally planned – but Texas! The closest border from the state of Veracruz is of course, Texas, and the chauffer had to be back with the jeep before his work day started or heads would roll.

The relief was short-lived when we reached open countryside and were allowed out of our hiding. Things didn’t get much better. Mom had to use the bathroom, but the chauffer would not stop for “anything”. He was on a non-stop race to the border and that was that! To make matters worse, he took the longer inland route over seldom used roads in various states of disrepair – to avoid the ferry crossing at a river delta on the main highway where the official jeep might be recognized by the toll guards. Imagine my mom trying hard to ‘hold it in’, as we drove across some of the worst roads in Mexico. Our heads touched the roof as often as our bottoms touched the seats, as we raced over chuckholes and rocks and bumpy back roads for hours! Mom kept saying “You have to stop. I can’t wait”, to which the chauffer kept replying in a gruff voice: “Sorry, lady, you’ll just have to hold it”. The kids were eating the snacks and drinking the soda pop I had prepared for what I thought was going to be a normal trip. My youngest son lost his soda pop at one particularly wicked pothole and spilled the sticky stuff all over everything. It wasn’t long before the kids ‘had to go’ too. Everyone was concentrating hard on ‘holding it in’ when the cat decided to throw up – all over Mom. There was nothing to do but resign ourselves to our sorry state for the rest of the trip: we were not in control of the situation.

Exhausted and reeking of cat puke, sugary soda pop and a slight hint of urine, we were one motley crew when we reached the border in the wee hours of the morning. Well, almost the border. The chauffer deposited us unceremoniously with our pile of luggage on the side of a deserted road two blocks away from the border. He was not going to approach anyone or anything official. Using the one English word that every Mexican is sure to know, he shouted “Bye!”, and took off in a cloud of dust, leaving us to walk the rest of the way, dragging our luggage behind us.

Mom and the kids were bursting at the seams, I was in a state of disbelief, and with one bewildered cat in a cage, we reached the border guards on the Mexican side. I let out a interior sigh of relief as my ill-gotten travel papers passed without notice and my kids and I were almost home safe. The relief was short-lived. I looked around to see why Mom wasn’t coming. She had gone to the restroom while we were showing our papers. Now she was showing her papers and talking with the guard. We were only a few steps away from American customs and ‘freedom’, and here was my mom making friendly conversation with the border patrol! I expected at any time that someone in Mexican customs would get a phone call from Mexico City telling them to be on the look-out for two American women taking two children “illegally” out of the country. That would mean not only a return to Xalapa, but possible jail time for me, not to mention an extremely sticky situation with my husband and his family! I had butterflies in my stomach. I wouldn’t feel safe until our feet were all standing firmly on American ground amongst the U.S. agents. This was no time for Mom to be charming with the border guard.

I returned to see what was going on and was told that Mom’s Mexican resident papers were not in order. We could come across, but she couldn’t! I had made sure that all of my papers were in order to avoid just such an incident. And here was my mother, obviously an American citizen, unable to get into her own country because she had neglected to renew her Mexican residency papers. That was a “no-no”. Or so they said. Well, you don’t just leave your mother alone at the border in a foreign land with nowhere to go and no way to get there, and go on with “life as usual”. Unthinkable! I told the guard that she was an American citizen and had every right to enter her own country. He quietly told me to ‘follow him”. My heart was in my throat. I was certain by that time that we would never make it. Every time I heard a phone ring, I shrank a little more inside. Leaving my bewildered travel companions with the luggage, I followed the guard into a little private room, expecting the worst. He repeated the bad news. “Your mom can’t cross the border. She’ll have to go back.”

I said, “What can I do?” He replied, “You can either return or stay here at the border until we can call Mexico City and arrange for her papers to be updated here. You’ll have to stay in the holding room until then.” By this time, I was so exhausted both emotionally and physically that I was incapable of rising to the occasion. A call to Mexico City was the one thing I didn’t want. I did the only thing I could think of. I said: “My mom is elderly and she’s exhausted. She needs to get home. I should have stopped there. But I heard myself saying. “How much will you take to get us across now?” I knew that pay-offs were a common solution to many problems in Mexico and I still had the money I had saved to start over once we got to the States. You must believe that I was in dire straits by this time.

With a look on his face that we have learned to associate only with the “Gestapo”, the guard said: “You know I can put you in jail for bribing an official?” Out of the frying pan into the fire! I don’t remember a lot of the ensuing conversation. I know that I was scared. My knees and hands were trembling and I was feeling light-headed. Here was one big, mean-looking Indian guy in a uniform telling this “second-class woman creature”, who was feeling punier by the minute, that he was going to put her in jail. A woman alone doesn’t handle these things successfully in Mexico. This was a man’s territory. I remember him saying: “How much do you have?” My mouth was quicker than my brain and I blurted out – $2000. He smiled then, and said that he “was going to help us out”: he would take the money if I didn’t tell anyone – all that I had! I wonder if he had a mom. I managed to convince him that I needed enough to get to California, and Mom was shuttled across the border without further ado. We arrived in Brownsville with just enough to pay our bus fare and an overnight stay, and to buy some crackers and cheese for the three-day trip to California.

The trip home will continue…..