Monday, May 12, 2014

They Wore Levis

The smells are not the first assault on the senses, but they are the strongest. I almost gag when I board the dusty passenger car on the train that connects Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on the US border.

Over thirty years ago I took this ride, but the faces still come to me. They are handsome faces, young, idealistic, strong, desperate faces. 

Diesel fumes, cilantro, sweat, fried pig skin, and various forms of excrement waft through the car as I sit down next to a short grandmother. She wears her best, freshly-washed print cotton skirt and and has a basket on her lap. She tells me she plans to sell her batch of empanadas to pay for her fare to a small town in the state of Culiacan.

When she realizes I speak Spanish, she relaxes into conversation. She does not say so, but I can see her nervousness at sitting next to a six-foot gringo with a beat-up back pack. I don't have the polish of a drug dealer or the hungry hustle of a smuggler. I look just a bit too dumb to be a coyote, someone who will help swimmers cross the Rio Grande. I can see her conclusion that I am harmless enough. All the other seats are taken. Late arrivals are already standing.

Plus I buy her first empanada. It's good. She asks why I am traveling second class when every other gringo she has ever seen travels first class or flies or has his or her own vehicle.

It's complicated, I tell her. I have been teaching in Mexico for over a year and can't afford anything better than second class.

She seems happy with that, but I can see that she thinks I am lazy or insane.

The trip takes almost three days. The train stops at every podunk platform in the middle of nowhere for over a thousand miles.

At one, I see some young men in tight fitting Levis hug relatives before boarding. They are wearing clothes that it took them months of work to afford and the quality contrasts with the home-spun, worn-out garments of those staying home.

I know they are going to "La Frontera," the border.

When they look for seats, they see me, and we share a booth of two facing bench seats.

For the next twenty hours we talk, drink bad beer, smoke, and tell stories. They are nervous about going north and want to know everything.

Something like rapture fills them when I tell them I have a motorcycle, a 750 cc crotch rocket that I bought before I went to Mexico. They want to know all about wages, work schedules, apartment rents, prices of used cars, food, clothes.

Things I take for granted, like the university degree I earned, the confidence to travel, the trust that I will not be jailed by a capricious cop, all amaze these guys.

We want the same things, and talk about work, women, music, athletic prowess, politics. I have seen more of Mexico than they have, but they know the places: pyramids in Yucatan, waterfalls in the jungle of Chiapas, bikinis in Acapulco, the snow caps of Pico Orizaba and Popocatapetl, the enormity of El Distrito Federal, Mexico City, on the biggest cities on Earth.

That I am able to do what I want, more or less, is incredible to them. "You want to visit Mexico?" they ask.

The power of their desires, the imperative to live, all drive them. And they have no choice but to leave. "No hay trabajo," they all say. They will not have a life, won't be able to support a wife or family, won't eat, if they stay.

We want the tools to build a life. I see in them myself. We share human needs. We are part of the same breaking wave that is humanity trying to figure out how to be happy.

But we keep the talk small, immediate. 

"La mejor ropa del mundo," the best clothes in the world, one of them says pointing at his used Levis.

The word I remember from that night is "macizo," which means solid, strong, and draws to mind a rock, a stone face of massive mountain. It is the rock they will embody as they move forward into the unknown. 

We get into Laredo just at dawn.

We are exhausted, a bit hung-over, and need a bath.

We stand for a few minutes in front of the train station and say goodbye. I give them contact information of my parents in Wisconsin. I have no place of my own to go on the other side, and this is the time before cell phones.

We embrace man hugs and shake hands before taking different paths. I go to gate, where I will show my passport, flash my gringo smile, talk the language of membership, create a communion of shared nationhood.

They will find a place to wait. Then, when it is dark enough, they will find a way through the fence, hold their precious Levis over their heads, dry, and walk the Big River, Rio Grande. Then they will run, under the cover of night, into the embrace of fate.

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