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Editor's Note



Off the Grid
by Paul García

I came to the United States with my brothers Ramón and Filadelfo when I was fourteen. My name’s Alejandro, but everyone calls me Ali. Our village in Guatemala is two hours from Tuxtla by car. People are poor there in a way that’s hard to understand here, where everything is big—the cars, the meals, the houses, even the people! I left school in third grade to work our field of beans, tomato, corn, squash, chilies... In my prayers, I didn’t pester God too much for favors, just asked Him to take care of my parents. Sometimes people go without a doctor and die for no reason other than poverty. I thought of our mother and father when Ramón said, “Listen, Ali Baba, Filadelfo and I are going north, to work. Do you want to cross the border with us?”

The harvest was in, the sooner we left, the sooner we could help. I said, “Yes.”

Filadelfo, always the serious one, said, “It will be dangerous, you know.”

I nodded yes. I would have followed my brothers to the ends of the earth—not for being the youngest, but to help protect them. Ramón and Filadelfo are very different. Ramón is a joker; his wisecracks can lighten a tough situation. Filadelfo is hard, physically strong. Because he can fight, his nickname is El Perro. He’s uncompromising, stubborn; he latches onto something till its end. Filadelfo is smarter, but he’s the one I worried would need protection.

The village raised a few quetzales for us. Padre Eusebio heard our confessions and gave his blessing. We got a ride to the Mexican border. The guards there are notorious for their cruelty. I’ve heard that they take your money, beat you up, and send you back across. It’s even said that they have murdered people. So, I was scared. Thank God, they were busy with a livestock truck and let us pass without inspection. Our bus trip across Mexico, south to north, from San Cristóbal to Nogales took twenty-six hours. There, we rented a tiny room. Nogales was a big city to campesinos like us. The very next day, I got lost. A group of eight people from Honduras and El Salvador said they had a way to get across the border. They were two families, with mothers and kids, even. I went with them to see where the crossing was, figuring I could return to find my brothers and tell them. At dusk, we crossed the river and walked, walked, walked. That night, it rained, but heavy! The water rose to my knees, hips, chest. All night! How dark it was! And the water rising. There were two little girls in the group about three years old. We took turns carrying them, to keep them from being carried away by the water. I found a post to stand on. The water was to my chest that night. No sleep all that night. In the morning, some of the people were gone. The little girls, too. It was cold, but in daylight at least I could see. It was desert. I did not know people drown in the desert. I slept, woke up alone then walked for two days. When the American border guards found me, I was afraid. They had big guns. They asked in Spanish where I was from.


The one who looked Mexican, said, “You don’t sound Mexican.” I said nothing. He had a lot of muscles. I didn’t want to get beat up. They put a plastic cord on my wrists, and took me to a jail. They gave me food from McDonald’s, then asked me more questions and had me sign papers saying who-knows-what. The next day, they drove a busload of us indocumentados to the border in Nogales. You know, they didn’t treat us so badly.

I found the room I shared with my brothers. They were gone, but a man there told me they went to negotiate with a coyote, someone to drive them into the United States. I waited for their return. We were happy to see each other again. I told them about the night in the rain. Filadelfo said, “You were lucky.” He paused, then said, “We talked with a coyote today. Ten thousand pesos to cross, and two thousand more on the other side. We could never pay them what they want. Maybe your way is better.”

Ramón said, “We are wasting time and money here. We could go to an isolated crossing and take our chances in the desert.”

And we left.

I thought about rain, but said nothing. I was afraid of the water after the last time, but I followed them into the river. Ramón, the tallest, could carry his bag above his head, though the current pushed him downstream. Filadelfo was a strong swimmer, even in his clothes, so he crossed first. The thing was, we could see where we wanted to go, but the water carried us away. Especially me. It was over my head. I swam as best I could, then just tread water. My brothers called to me, to swim for the bank. I tried. I was carried out of their sight, beyond their yells. Then, I caught a tree branch and pulled myself onto the United States side. I collapsed on the wonderful, sweet earth and caught my breath. I walked along the riverbank until I saw my brothers approaching. Ramón called out, “Filadelfo! Is that a water rat?”

Filadelfo said, “We’re all wet rats. Let’s hide in the bushes and dry off.”

Fences, fences, fences. As far as you could see. I found wire cutters in the bushes. Ramón cut a hole in the fence. I put back the wire cutters, and followed my brothers through the fence.

We walked north all that day. It was desert. Toward evening, we found a place with water for cattle. We drank and slept there. In the morning, we filled three plastic milk jugs we found, and walked north. Around midmorning, we met four Mexicans from Chiapas. They were going north, also. They gave each of us a tortilla. We were so hungry we became their friends, like dogs that follow you home. One of them had been in the United States before. He had cut lettuce in California. I asked him a million questions about work. He told me about his experiences. “In California, the field workers are all latinos.”

Is there work for everyone?”

Work for everyone? Even grandparents and the smallest children work in the fields.”

So they are big fields then?”

He laughed. “Lettuce from here to the horizon. Big? Bigger than Guatemala.”

It will not be hard to get work?”

He grew serious. “Don’t even think about work until we get through this desert and away from the border.”

I said, “What do we do if we see border guards?”

Run. Don’t stop. Even if they shoot, because they’ll fire into the air, or just aim for your legs.”

Well, it didn’t work out that way. No matter what we think will happen, God has His plan. That night, the chiapeños shared the last of their food. We all drank the last of our water. After that, how many days we walked, I’m not sure. Filadelfo, Ramón and I stayed together, even when we couldn’t walk, then we sat on the ground, to rest. It was hard to see, and to think, like being asleep. But my brothers were with me. Ramón said, “I’m going to hold onto you, so we all go to heaven together.”

I wondered if I’d be going to heaven or hell. I knew Ramón would need help pulling Filadelfo up there. That’s the way I was thinking, like a dream.

Then the ground was shaking. Or the wind was shaking it. How could wind shake the earth? I heard an angel’s voice. “¿Cómo ‘tán?

I wanted to say bien, but I couldn’t talk. Filadelfo gasped, “Que le dé agua al bebé...[1] 

The angel sat us up with our backs together like those three-headed gods. Heaven is Hindu, I thought. Then he gave us plastic bottles of water. I felt my thick blood flowing again. Seeing was like looking through a tube. I could make out a small one-man helicopter close by. He was not an angel. We were not in heaven. He was the Border Patrol.

The agent told us, “Hay gente en camino. Que no se vayan pa’ ningún la’o.[2]

Like looking through a submarine’s periscope, I turned my head to follow the horizon. There was nothing. Where could we go?

Ramón asked, “¿De ónde es usté? ¿Dónde estamos?[3]

The man laughed. “Portorriqueño. Están en los Estados Unidos.[4]

That really confused Ramón.

And he flew off. Ever since I have loved Puerto Ricans and think of them as angels.

We sat there, drinking delicious water. What joy! Before long, I felt my skin covered in sweat. My eyesight returned to normal, and I could speak. I asked Filadelfo, “What do you mean ‘Give the baby a drink of water’?”

He pretended he didn’t know what I was talking about. “You’re delirious.”

Ramón had trouble sitting up. We took turns holding his water bottle up to his mouth.

Two Border Patrol agents came in a pickup truck. Ramón was the weakest, so he rode in the cab with them. I had been through this before, so when they took us to the jail cell I told my brothers, “They are going to ask us questions and fill out papers. Then they will bring us food from McDonald’s.”

Food from McDonald’s?”

Yes, from McDonald’s. Then they will want us to sign the papers. After that, they will drive us in a bus back to the border.”

And that was what happened.

Back in Nogales, we grew desperate. Filadelfo said, “We can’t get lost in the crowd of day workers going from Sonora to Arizona each morning.”

I said, “No. They’re going to get to know us, especially me.”

Ramón had learned about micas that we could buy. “For twenty dollars each. They even have your photograph right on them.”

I was skeptical. “Do they work?”

Filadelfo said, “Take us to them. If these chueca cards didn’t work, they couldn’t stay in business. Let’s find them before la migra does.”

So two Americans in their twenties took our pictures. One had long blond hair in a ponytail halfway down his back. The other was a black man with an earring like a pirate. I couldn’t help staring at them. In broken Spanish, they told us there was plenty of farm work on the other side; ‘Muchou trebajou’, they kept saying.

The next day we got our I.D. cards. It felt strange to have a new name. Filadelfo didn’t like his age. “Who is going to believe that I am a thirty-four-year-old man? Twenty dollars for this?”

I calmed him down. Ramón gave the Americans sixty dollars. From there, we walked across just by showing a card. I told Filadelfo, “If there’s a problem, don’t fight with the border guards; they have a Mexican who is covered with muscles.”

Filadelfo said nothing. Ramón said, “Bah! Filadelfo would fold him up like a taco!”

We laughed, happy to be in the United States. We found a trailer to sleep in the first night. I could hear trains not far off. They ran all night. In the morning, we were on our way to eat at a house selling cheap Mexican meals when two Border Patrol vans sped by. One stopped in front of the house, the other behind. Agents jumped out of the vans. We stopped walking. People began running in all directions. We ran away from the agents’ vans. I repeated to my brothers what the Chiapas Indian told me, “Run. Don’t stop. Even if they shoot, because they’ll fire into the air, or just aim for your legs.”

An agent shouted, “¡Alto!”

We ran across the tracks. I remembered the chiapeño’s words. Get through this desert and away from the border. A train was coming, but fast! I was expecting to hear a gunshot and when the train blew its horn I almost wet my pants. We crossed in front of the train. It ran between us and the Border Patrol agents. Filadelfo shouted, “We have to get on this train!”

It was a long line of freight cars. Ramón ran with it and got on first. He called to us, “Run! Run!

Filadelfo ran next to the freight cars and grabbed onto a ladder as it passed.

The train was speeding up. My brothers’ voices, smaller, called to me. “Grab the ladder! Ali! Now or never! Get on the train!”

The freight cars became flatbeds of new autos. I ran on the ties, tried to keep up. The train was coming fast. I grabbed the ladder. It almost pulled my arms off, but I didn’t let go. I was on. We were together, still.

My brothers worked their way back from car to car. They found me sitting on the bottom rung, hugging the ladder. My arms hurt. Ramón said, “Ali! I was worried we’d have to jump off!”

Filadelfo was serious, sharp-eyed. “What’s the matter?”

I shrugged. They saw I was hurt. The flatbed we rode on carried brand new Japanese cars. Filadelfo tried the door of one. It opened. We got in. Keys hung from the ignition. The train picked up speed and ran all day. We listened to the radio. I lay on the bench seat in back. The train’s rocking motion, softened by the new car’s suspension, rocked me to sleep. I dropped into dreams before dusk.

At dawn, the car’s horn honked. My brothers were in the front seat looking at me. Filadelfo said, “Shhh, you’ll wake the baby.”

Ramón, in the driver’s seat, grinned. “I’m tired of driving. We should stop and eat.”

Filadelfo studied me soberly. “Ali, the train is slowing. We’re coming to a town.”

I got up to look out the window. It was a big city of brick buildings. The train made its way ever slower. Filadelfo eyed me with concern. “How are you?”

That made up for calling me ‘the baby’. My arms didn’t hurt as much. “Better,” I said.

Sleep is good medicine.”

Ramón asked, “Well, are we ready to get off the train?”

Filadelfo said, “We have to eat.”

I said, “And we have to work.”

They exchanged a glance. I saw they were glad to hear me say that.

[1] Give the baby some water.

[2] People are on their way.  Don’t go anywhere.

[3] Where are you from? Where are we?

[4] Puerto Rican.  You’re in the United States.


Paul García's fiction has appeared in The North American Review and SNReview, among other publications. He earns his living as a translator and lives on the Maine coast.

Copyright 2014, © Paul García. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.