a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I am in a restaurant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, worrying about my daughter’s disregard for danger. The century has turned. We are a few years in now.
I read an article that brings strange news. Statistics show that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States. I click off the computer screen where I have been writing. I try not to think of my brothers in all that trouble living near the border in La Luz, New Mexico. I call my mother. My mother’s laughter is a thing of such beauty, so young sounding. She takes in discarded children. She arranges calls between prisoners and their loved ones on a party line. She talks to those who have no one else. To me now, she speaks of all the problems our country might solve if the government would simply legalize drugs. At least it’d be a start. Why do we send sick people to prison? Why do we make a market for drug cartels and dealers? I am thinking of visiting New Mexico, dropping down in El Paso and driving on over to La Luz. My brother, Chris, tells me that if you know where to look you can see the crosses honoring all the dead women from the road. I think someone told me they’ve stopped with the crosses. There are too many and the magnitude of the numbers contains not just women any longer.
In my birthplace of Mississippi, I have returned looking for family history. In this restaurant in Mississippi you can sit and watch raccoons and cats eat scraps of fish and leftovers beneath pine trees. There are windows all around. I like to watch the animals getting along. Outside cooks and waiters discard so much food. In the restaurant I’ve heard people come for the buffet after church and talk about the aliens crossing over the border. Everyone’s heard all that hate. That’s not news. Mississippi is where my life began. Mississippi doesn’t contain that hatred. It infests our country.
In New Mexico where I grew up the sky is something else. If you haven’t already, you should see how a comet blisters down through the sky. Coyotes call and scavenge, trick prey into following them into the waiting pack. What profound silence after they’ve killed their prey. I lost a kitten like that once.
I am in Hattiesburg though. I have all these notes. I want to know about my mother, who she was before she had me. I want to find her stories that were silenced with, or shamed away after, a gunshot that damaged her memory. Family secrets manifest themselves in the children and I want to understand this in my own family. But I can’t focus. I can’t stop thinking about El Paso. All those hundreds of young women’s bodies, many just children, strewn in the desert. Someone saw innocent dark eyes, full lips, long hair. There was a type for a long time. Pretty girls that made them think of mutilation. Cops mocked the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of dead little girls. Mira! Mira!
What stops me and haunts me is this: there has to be more than one person committing these murders. No one is getting to the bottom of it because of the drug trade and the power and corruption involved. But just across the border, El Paso remains safe.
In that Mississippi restaurant after church, a man throws more scraps from the backdoor. Someone wonders whose job a Mexican has stolen. On the television up high in the corner, there’s hatred, fear fanned by talking heads rejecting hardworking people who don’t speak the language, were born just beyond a dividing line, coming here hungry, like they come to Juarez since NAFTA to work in those factories making American products for pennies, where someone waited outside for a young woman, a little girl to be sent away from work. It’s not the same hatred that leaves the girls dragged through the dirt, pummeled, and brutally raped, nipples bitten off, breasts severed from their tiny bodies, almost all of them around ninety pounds, but here it is the same disregard for the poor and voiceless that leaves them ignored in their own country and ours.
I’m thinking of shantytowns you can see from the highway, of cardboard houses, of girls who don’t eat so they can afford a bus ride, tangled electrical cords so you can’t find the stolen source. How the horror would be too much to believe and you might walk home from the factory to save money, how no one maybe had ever really hurt you before, and you might walk home anyway because who would believe something so unspeakable could happen to you, looking up at that giant Christ on the cross where Mexico, Texas and New Mexico meet, because you would see that giant crucified Christ as you prayed for mercy while suffering to death among hundreds of dead girls in the desert.
You might even take your shoes off to save them for later. You wouldn’t want to ruin what would cost so much to replace and you’d think there’d be a later, no matter how hungry you were, how long you’d been helping your mother, carrying babies on your hip, walking to work so young and faking your age.
And the man in the Mississippi restaurant at another table calling over because he has noticed something in the way you looked at him, saying don’t you, don’t you think these people should stay in their own country and you’ve been to the border that really isn’t much of a border at all if you’re going the other way into Mexico and he’s telling you that you’ve got to think about what’s being stolen from you, and it’s over twenty years since those murders began and nothing, nothing has been done about it, and it’s more than twenty years we’ve been profiting from the work of those tiny girls in the factories. No one talks about the bravery. At least it’s not much news. The brave women who are becoming police officers. The courageous parents dreaming of one step over into another world where there are safe cities.
My Dog, Catfish, and I March with Immigrants
In Oakland, I was walking around Lake Merritt with my dog when I ran into an immigrant march. It was 2006. Afraid my dog might bite someone, I thought about turning around but instead we started marching along, my dog, Catfish, and I. He was awed into his best behavior. There were so many people marching and crying out passionately in Spanish. It sounded like home, like New Mexico.
“XEROC 80, Juarez, Mexico,” the woman identified the radio station in Spanish twice per hour. I listened in my bedroom in the twelve-foot-wide trailer we moved into when I was thirteen. I’d cried when I realized I was getting the small room instead of the bigger one my brothers shared at the end of the trailer, but of course I got the smaller room, there were three boys and another one on the way. At least the small space would be my own room and that incredible music came over the airwaves from Mexico, the station strategically placed right across the border so the DJs could break rules.
This was in Alamogordo in 1974. We finally had a home in one place and were going to stay. When I turned fourteen, I became a pothead kid and started drinking at school. I sat on the couch nights at home sewing patches into the worn out places of my jeans that we wrote on outside The Tiger Den: peace, love, freaks. I felt cool in my clothes, especially when the preppy kids rode by in their nice cars shouting out, “Freaks!” At the end of the ninth grade I cried from remorse and embarrassment because I had passed out sick from drinking vodka one morning at school. In response, my father told me I could drop out. The thought sank fear in me, the finality presented inside that end of possibilities. I never mentioned being anxious about school to him again. The next year I made all As and Bs and took Speech class which terrified me but I believed it was a pathway to somewhere. For current events I reported on sports which we watched evenings inside that 12-foot-wide trailer, my mother, brothers and I. Each night, my mother helped me study.
Before my family had moved to Alamogordo, we’d been in Chama living in that eight-foot-wide trailer. The babies slept on the fold out sofa. Jamie and I had bunks in that hallway room and I put posters all over the walls and the doors of Donny Osmond and his brothers. By then that trailer had taken us all over New Mexico. Chama was beautiful but my best friend Cheryle and I were mad at each other so when my daddy asked, “Where would you like to live?” I said, “Santa Fe” and he went on and on about the awful crime-ridden city. Santa Fe and Albuquerque were out of the question. So I picked Alamogordo where we’d been before, where I first attended school at Yucca Elementary, where we lived after the last stay in Mississippi and the place where my dog, Boots, who survived all that time we’d abandoned him, got shot for roaming around near chicken coops.
Along the way of the march in Oakland, I tried to understand the Spanish I had heard all my life and studied a little. People chanted, “Si, Se Puede!” like Cesar Chavez. So many signs, “We are not criminals. We are hard workers.” I was dressed in old sweats. I noticed that everyone’s clothes were old. There were many babies and young children crying out. A couple of men scurried delightedly down by the lake and racketed back up with a grocery basket. They put three children inside and pushed on, gleeful to be resting their arms.
On the march, I tried to stop wondering why I hadn’t got a call from my daughter, stop wondering what the hotel she was living in was like. She said she had a job as a dog walker. The last time I saw her she had a fever. She has joined the ranks of drug addicts that riddle our country.
Along the way of the march, I asked a young man where we were going and I had to keep asking he was so puzzled. Finally, he smiled and shrugged politely. I realized he could not translate what I was asking and all the Spanish words I should know left me. We kept marching on.
In Alamogordo, we lived 80 miles from the border. There was a border check 20 miles away from my home, outside White Sands National Monument with all those beautiful white sand dunes stretching endlessly against that blue sky with those wispy clouds toward the mountains. Drugs were everywhere and illegal because that’s how everyone makes money, the dealers and the law enforcement. Right out there, too, scientists detonated the first atomic bomb, because the beautiful desert was seen as desolate and dispensable, like hungry people you ship back over the river, or let die in hot truck trailers or jumping trains trying to find work to feed their families. People whose ancestors were indigenous to the land and could move about freely until someone else moved in and drew an imaginary border that determines who can eat well and who cannot.
A white woman drove through the marching crowd in Oakland screaming incoherently with hatred so fierce her eyes bugged out and her face turned red.
The boy who could not answer my question had a friend who spoke for my dog, “Rrrff, rrrff, rrff–rrff!” Meaning “Si, se puede! Yes, we can!” We marched beyond Broadway and I turned back. I wanted to remain but the people were crowding thicker up ahead and Catfish got nervous and I was supposed to be meeting a friend somewhere else.
After we left the march and made our way along the lake toward home, a young black boy on a bike wanted to pet my dog. I told him I wasn’t sure how that would go because my dog didn’t like bikes. He reached out and Catfish growled and barked viciously so I walked away calling, “He’d be all right if you weren’t on the bike.” I figured we’d pushed his limits in the march anyway.
Before Chama, we’d spent those months in Mississippi where the children decided I was Mexican and hated me for it. A teacher asked me to stand up and tell the class what kind of food we ate down in Mexico, and I corrected her, “New Mexico,” but she didn’t understand the difference. So I said, tacos and burritos and let her talk about the cultural differences of food.
My dog and I continued on by the lake and met up again with the boy who’d been on the bike. He’d raced ahead and got off to sit waiting on a bench. I was nervous that maybe I lied and my dog would growl and bite, but the hound just laid his chin on the kid’s knee and offered up his floppy ears. I explained that in Mississippi where I lived when I found my dog I enclosed my porch with wiring like they use in zoos so he could be safe outside in the fresh air when I was away. Some boys rode by on bicycles and shot him with a BB gun. The kid in Oakland said, “He’s okay now. I’m off the bike. You’re okay, boy.” Then he asked in an incredulous whisper, “You lived in Mississippi?” Often that surprises people here in California, who sometimes, after an awkward silence, say, “I’ve never met anyone who ever lived in Mississippi.”
I told the kid my dog’s name. We left with him waving and calling, “Bye Catfish!” We passed a frowning man wearing a turban. You could still hear the crowd in the distance.
In first grade at Yucca Elementary there was a boy named Jesus. My mother teased me I had a crush on him. It was a sweet teasing. He was a sweet boy. We stared at one another without ever speaking. Mom had found me with a little black boy in a store once. We were peeking at each other through a store display, giggling and peekabooing. I’ve never forgotten his beautiful round eyes and luscious lashes and how my mother teased me, that first sensing of the mystery of romantic attraction.
Someone else I have never forgotten is Molino who worked with my father. My sixteenth summer, I flagged traffic for my dad up on the Mescalero Apache Reservation and got sunburned until I was red over the deepest brown. Some Apache kids kept driving by and asking me if I was hot and tired. Then they brought me a six-pack of beer. The Jicaria Apache kids in Dulce had hated me so much that the kindness of the Mescalero Apache kids surprised me. It was such a healing thing that I took the beer but then, there I was standing in the road with a six-pack. Molino saw me in the middle of the road with that beer and shook his head and laughed. What else could I do but take the beer to my dad? I don’t know what he did with it. I never saw my dad drink. Molino sent money to his family in Mexico. Often he slept in a car. He was a gentleman among those construction workers who were all polite to me. I could see he had class and he was concerned about my wellbeing while wondering what his kids were doing in Mexico. He couldn’t speak English but all the white guys who worked with him respected his work ethic and regard for others.
Right before I left the immigrant march, a group of low riders bounced up the rear of the parade, hanging out and bouncing their butts outside the car with the music playing. They looked a little out of place, but those women carrying the babies and men holding the kids’ hands weren’t worried. Those celebrating low riders weren’t bothering anybody. I hadn’t seen anything quite like that since the low riders used to drive by the high school in Alamogordo, bouncing and listening to ZZ Top coming through on XEROC 80, Juarez Mexico, back when I was a pothead kid who might have tried any drug for the feeling.
Back then when I was a kid, I remember wondering about it at the bus stop in front of my trailer park with all the sad buildings across the street and the rocks on the shoulder where I saw a bicyclist land once after a driver coming from a night shift at Holloman Air Force Base had fallen asleep at the wheel and hit him from behind and sent him spinning positioned as if he were still on that bike until his face popped against the windshield. I remember considering what I might try standing outside the mid-high school smoking a joint laced with something, it didn’t matter to me what, I wanted to see how it felt and it felt good to be admired for being daring, standing there with other kids, some of them still wearing jackets from big brothers or dads who never came home from Vietnam, everyone so generous and close without talking while the cops drove around and saw the smoke rising from a joint hidden in our passing hands and never bothered us. One cop’s son was a dealer who had his blond hair cut short and wore nice clothes and strutted around pompous and nervous too, easily selling what the older ones shared. I thought everyone hated him. I considered what the most dangerous drugs might be like and felt the ghosts around me of so many who had died only a few years before, Jimmy, Janice, Jim. We thought of them on a first name basis.
Darlin’ Neal is the author of the story collections Rattlesnakes and the Moon and Elegant Punk (Press 53). “Juarez Stories” is an excerpt from her memoir, HIGHWAYS I ONCE TRAVELED. She is associate professor at the University of Central Florida where she teaches in the MFA Program for Writers, undergraduate creative writing, and Native American Literature. She lives in Indialantic, Florida with a little curly headed human named Ivy, and two canine girls, Skeeter and Junebug.