“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man—the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reasons.”
—Abraham J. Heschel
Benita Hernandez was almost as afraid of running into a rattlesnake as she was the INS. Immigration would send her and her husband back to Mexico. But a snake… The way Jose was insisting she creep across the ground—always staying low, very low—left her feeling so vulnerable. Snakes came out at night, when temperatures cooled. She or Jose could very easily stumble into one. Maybe they’d hear a brief shake of the rattle, but they’d never see its beady eyes or sharp fangs before it was ready to strike. Since they’d lost their coyote, or smuggler, they had only the moon to help them along. And it was barely a sliver—a sliver that looked like a tiny rent in a gigantic dome of black velvet, which was slowly turning purple as the night edged toward dawn.
Although they’d crossed the border with thirty-one other Mexican nationals, they were now alone. Everyone had scattered when the Border Patrol spotted them over twenty-four hours ago. Had any of those people made it safely back to Mexico? Or were they currently in some holding cell? She and Jose had escaped “La Migra,” but she was no longer sure she considered them lucky. Did Jose even know where he was leading her? He said he did. He’d come to America once before. But it had been six years since then. And their coyote had promised they’d have only a six-hour walk. Even if she deducted for the time they’d spent sleeping, they’d been on their feet for eighteen.
As they came to a cluster of mobile homes, Jose whispered to circle wide and crouch even lower. He’d once told her that it was easy to sneak across la frontera. But it hadn’t been easy at all. Although he’d insisted she wear several layers of clothing, the thorny plants that scrabbled for purchase in the rocky soil still managed to sink sharp spines through the fabric or scratch her somewhere she wasn’t covered. Add to that the hunger, thirst, homesickness and fear—fear of snakes, dogs, drug runners, thieves, unfriendly Americans, La Migra—and it was almost unbearable. The whole world felt hostile.
Tears began to burn behind Benita’s eyes. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could go on. She hoped the presence of these trailers meant they were on the outskirts of a town where she could at least get a drink of water, but even if they were close, two miles seemed like fifty when walking through the desert.
“Jose?” She could hear the determined crunch of his footsteps in front of her.
At the sound of her voice, he stopped. “You must be quiet,” he replied in rapid Spanish. “Do you want the people in that trailer to hear you? If they do, they’ll call the INS!”
The mobile home they skirted was one of the nicer ones she’d seen, a double wide with a yard and everything. But its white paint seemed to glow in the dark, making it look like a giant ghost with flat, empty eyes. This was a soulless, Godforsaken land. How could it be the paradise Jose promised?
“Maybe we could get a drink through the hose,” she suggested.
He hesitated and finally agreed. He had to be thirsty, too. But as they drew close, a dog began to bark, so he grabbed her hand and yanked her away.
“Agua!” she complained.
“We can’t risk it.”
“Then let’s try another place. Maybe the next one won’t have a dog.”
“We’re almost there.”
He’d been saying that for miles. Unable to believe him any longer, she quit walking. “I’m scared. I want to turn back.”
“¿Estás loca?” he said, instantly angry. “We’ve come too far. We can’t go back.”
“But…” She swallowed hard. “How much longer?”
“We’ll be there soon,” he promised.
But would she be any happier after they arrived? They were going to a safe house and then the home of his cousin, Carlos Garcia. She’d met Carlos on two different occasions and didn’t like him. He enjoyed playing the big shot, pretending to be something he wasn’t. She didn’t want Jose to become like him….
Her husband was getting impatient. Benita knew how much this trip meant to him. He’d talked of it the whole time they were dating, painted appealing pictures of the opportunities to be found in America. But…
Gathering her courage, she started after him again. She wouldn’t be a disappointment, wouldn’t make him regret marrying her. Besides, as he said, they’d come too far to turn back. Surely, the number of mobile homes meant they were indeed close to the safe house. Bordertown was as far as they had to go tonight. It was all arranged. They’d recover, then they’d call Carlos and he’d pick them up and take them to Phoenix. There, they’d live with him and two other roommates and, hopefully, find work so they could help pay the mortgage until they’d saved enough to afford their own place.
“Aren’t you concerned about snakes?” she grumbled.
“Snakes will be the least of our worries if you don’t shut up.”
Sighing, she tried to move faster, but with every step she wished she’d managed to talk Jose out of this. They were young and in love; they could make a living in Mexico somehow, couldn’t they? She didn’t want to come to America. Maybe he could make more money here—big money, like he said–but could they ever be happy living in a foreign land? A land that didn’t want them? And what if they were caught and deported after they’d begun to build a life here?
It was a risk Benita didn’t want to take. “Jose, I really, really want to go home.” The tears she’d been holding back finally got the best of her and began to stream down her cheeks.
He didn’t even turn around. “You’ll be glad we did this. Just… trust me.”
She thought of the water bottle they’d finished hours ago. Would they find themselves lost in the desert when the sun came up in less than an hour? Would they stagger around in the 115 degree heat without food or water and eventually die a terrible death?
The mere possibility made her shudder. All she had left was a pocketful of nuts. And they were covered with salt.
“We shouldn’t have crossed,” she said. “We should not have done this.”
A gruff chuckle alerted them to the presence of a third party. “Well, well…what do you know? It sounds as if someone is coming to their senses.”
Benita squealed before clamping a hand over her mouth. A dark amorphous shape stood in front of them, blocking the faint rays of the moon. She couldn’t make out specific features, but she knew he was a stranger. And she was pretty sure he was wearing a cowboy hat and holding a gun. He had something in his hand….
Was he white? She might’ve thought so except he spoke perfect Spanish.
Her husband inched toward her, placing his body in front of hers, and she let him. She hadn’t yet told Jose, hadn’t wanted to worry him before their trip el norte, but she’d just found out she was pregnant.
“Disculpe, señor,” he said. “We—we mean no harm. We are only passing through, that is all.”
The stranger switched to English, which seemed to come as naturally to him as Spanish. “What you’re doing is illegal, mi amigo.”
Although he knew bits of English, much more than Benita did, Jose wasn’t fluent. He stuck with his native tongue. “But we are only visiting family. We mean no harm. We plan to go back to Mexico after two weeks. We stay only two weeks.”
It was an obvious lie, and the man was far from fooled. “Shut up.” Again he spoke in English but even Benita understood the meaning of those sharp words.
“Señor, please.” Jose edged even closer to her. “It is only me and my-my little brother. We have no drugs, nothing.”
This time, the response came in Spanish. “Your brother.”
He’d heard her speak, which made this another transparent lie, but Benita kept her mouth shut, in case he believed Jose. Some boys had high voices, didn’t they?
“Si. He-he is frightened. Por favor…please, do not hurt him.”
Benita could hardly breathe. The stories of rape, beatings, robbery and other abuse that occurred during border crossings had circulated throughout Mexico. Parents used them to warn their children to stay home, as her father had warned her. But, other than to insist she chop her hair short and wear a baseball cap and men’s clothing, Jose had shrugged off her parents’ concerns. He said they worried for no reason and promised her everything would be fine.
“Stop groveling or I’ll shoot you both right where you stand.”
Those words and the disgust in the stranger’s voice made Benita start shaking. Who was this man? What was he doing out here? If he was a border patrol agent, he would’ve told them by now, wouldn’t he? Had they inadvertently landed in the middle of a drug run? Or was this a local farmer, fed up with those who trampled his land, ruined crops and left trash, toilet paper and human feces, behind?
“I-I have money,” Jose said.
They didn’t have a lot. It was Carlos who was supposed to pay their coyote once they made it safely across. But at this point Benita was ready to turn herself in to the authorities. She didn’t care if he sacrificed every peso.
The man chuckled. “You think I’m a dirty cop—like the kind you have in Mexico?”
Jose didn’t answer the question. “Forgive me. I am not trying to offend you, señor.”
“Your smell offends me, amigo. Your being where you don’t belong offends me. And the fact that every word out of your mouth is a lie offends me.”
There was a click, and a brief flash of light. Benita covered her face, bracing for the worst. But he was only lighting a cigarette. She caught a brief glimpse of his chin, which was covered with dark razor stubble, before he closed his lighter.
“I’ll make you a deal,” he said, blowing smoke into their faces.
“Si. Money. You want money?” Jose bent to get the cash hidden in his sock.
“I don’t want your lousy dinero. You couldn’t have enough pesos to buy me a new pair of boots, amigo. What I want is for you to undress your little brother here. I’ll use my night vision goggles to take a peek at his chest. If he is, as you say, a boy, I’ll let you pass. You can head on to Tucson or L.A. or wherever else and bleed this country dry just like all your wetback relatives who’ve snuck over the border before you. But…” he took another long drag on his cigarette “…if she’s got tetas…” Another blast of smoke hit Benita in the face, making her cough. “I’m going to punish you for being the lying sack of shit that you are.”
Jose didn’t move. Benita could feel his tension, could tell he was weighing his options. What had the man said? She’d recognized only a few words. Would Jose decide to run? They couldn’t. They’d be shot.
“Okay, I-I admit it. This is my wife, not my brother.” Jose’s voice was raspy with desperation. “But…she’s barely twenty, señor. And she’s frightened. Please, I beg you. Let us go. We will head back to Mexico. Right now.”
The man took another drag. “Until next week or the week after. Then you’ll come creeping across the border again.” He switched to Spanish, probably to make sure she could understand. “I once read an article that said you wetbacks try at least six times before giving up. That takes some pretty big balls to be so bold, you know what I’m saying? Besides, someone’s got to die. Might as well be you.”
Die? Benita sank to her knees. “No, por favor!”
“I’ve got to make an example of you.”
“But I-I didn’t even want to come here,” she said. “I’d rather go home. I’ll stay home. I’ll make sure Jose stays with me. Don’t hurt us.”
He made a tsking sound. “How could you put your wife in such danger, Pedro?”
He had never asked for Jose’s name. He was using Pedro as a racial slur. She could feel this man’s hatred as palpably as the heat of the sun when it beat down at midday. But she was glad Jose didn’t complain. He squeezed her shoulder. Probably to comfort her. Maybe even to convey an apology. You were right. We should’ve stayed. “I was just…trying to give her a better life,” he said.
A light went on in the closest trailer. When the man turned to look, Jose grabbed a handful of Benita’s shirt and jerked her forward. He wanted her to run, but she couldn’t get up fast enough and they lost the precious second that might’ve allowed them to escape.
The cowboy swung back, and they both froze with fear. Thanks to the light coming through the trailer window, the barrel of his gun was now limned in silver, and they could see that it had something on the end.
Benita knew what that something was; she’d seen a silencer before. Her brother hadn’t always lived the kind of life he was living since he’d settled down and had a couple of kids.
“Someone’s awake,” Jose said. “They’ll see you. You’ll get caught if you shoot us. Let us go.”
The stranger didn’t seem the least bit worried. Chuckling deep in his throat, he tossed his cigarette on the ground and fired so fast Benita didn’t realize he’d actually pulled the trigger until Jose collapsed. Her husband’s hand clenched at the same time, dragging her to the ground with him, so the shot intended for her went over her head. But that was all he could do to help. In the next second, he made a funny noise and went still, and she knew the man she loved, the father of her unborn child, was dead.
“You killed him!” she wailed, crouching over his body. “You killed him!”
“Hey, what’s going on out there?” A woman had opened the door of the trailer and called out in English. Although Benita couldn’t understand her words, she thought the interruption would make the man run away. But it didn’t. With a curse, Cowboy brought up his gun and aimed again.
“This oughta teach you spic cockroaches to stay in your own damn country,” he ground out and pulled the trigger.
Benita felt a flash of pain between her eyes. Then she felt nothing at all.