The following fictionalized narrative is based upon the experience of an immigrant currently living in Mammoth Lakes.
My name is Isabel. It is three in the morning. Thirty-seven of us wade and swim across the Rio Grande. When we get to the American side, we shiver and run into the night, pushing through willows and tripping over sage brush. Our guide, the coyote, hisses, “Keep up, hurry, or I’ll leave you.” I carry tortillas, rice and beans in a gunny sack and two plastic milk cartons filled with water. The rope tied to my water cartons chafes and cuts into my shoulders and the back of my neck.
The first time I see her, she is running in the morning light, holding her belly. She is big, maybe seven or eight months pregnant. Her eyes are round with fear. We are all afraid of being caught by the border patrols, la migra.
The first morning we hide under mesquite brush in a dry wash, trying to sleep in the day’s heat and dust. I am eleven. My sister is thirteen. The pregnant girl’s name is Maria. She is fifteen and running away from her husband who beats her. We are all running away from poverty, coming to America for a better life. The coyote charges each of us seven thousand dollars. It is a big price to pay.
Maria tells us her baby will be a girl and she will name her Alexandra and she will live a beautiful life in America. She swears that if her husband catches her, she will kill herself and take her baby with her. It is not polite to ask Maria where she got her money for the crossing, so I don’t ask.
Each day when the sun slips below the horizon, we start walking and walk through the night into the morning. The full moon casts cold shadows across the desert. On the fifth night, Maria has cramps and lags behind. The coyote curses her and threatens to leave her. He calls her many bad names.
At the end of the sixth night, when the sun turns the morning sky gray, Maria drops to her knees and can’t get up. She rocks back and forth and holds her belly. Her skirt is soaked. The coyote howls his anger, “We have to leave her. We have two more nights of walking. We are out of water. We will all die without water.” Many of us have consumed all our water and food, and now scoop muddy water from holes we dig in the bottom of dried up stream beds. Some of us get stomach cramps and diarrhea. The smell is very bad.
Two women come to Maria and tell her it is her time. They offer to stay with her, but their husbands take them away. The afternoon grows hot and is filled with angry voices about what to do. The coyote promises he will come back for Maria. We all know he is lying.
An old man comes forward and says he will stay with Maria. He is thin and gnarled and has brown skin the texture of dried leather. He has crossed the border many times to work the fields in Texas and California. He says he has helped with many births: cows and sheep and goats. His granddaughter is Maria’s age. It is quickly decided.
When the old man begins collecting wood for a fire, the coyote kicks the pile of brush away and yells, “No fuego, no fires.” The old man springs like a cat and puts a knife to the coyote’s throat. He says softly that four legged coyotes will smell the birth-blood. Coyotes are cowards, but in a pack they can grow brave. Our coyote is afraid and walks away with his head down.
My sister and I sit with Maria through the day. Her eyes are mostly closed and then they pop open and her breathing comes in short gasps and she cries out in pain. I tell Maria I will stay with her. The old man smiles and says there is little water left, would I drink Maria’s water?
The old man’s name is Hector. Waiting for Maria’s time, he tells stories: a hot day, sitting in the shade of a tree eating oranges, the sweet juice running down his arms; eating a watermelon, collecting the seeds to take home, back to his village; biting into a tomato, having the juices explode in his mouth.
Hector makes many pronouncements: America is a strange land, so many rules and so little common sense. In the fields, there are no gringos. The hot sun drives some men crazy, turning them into dogs gnawing at each other. The field bosses have no honor because they have no dignity and for them money is more important than family.
Hector’s clever hands make a crib from branches and strips of cloth. He tells Maria her baby girl will be a special child, born in a manger beneath the stars. An hour before we are to leave for our walk into the night, Hector goes to each person in our group and asks for alms, clothing, food and water. All give a little, some give money.
The coyote comes around to start us walking. He curses Maria and demands money. She shrugs. “This is not LA.” Hector’s hand is on his knife.
I ask Hector why this is happening, why is Maria giving birth to a child in the middle of the desert. He tells me, life does not apologize for coming into the world, nor should it.
Moments before we start our night walk, Maria sits up, breathing hard, her knees in the air, her hands on the ground behind her. She whispers to me to have a good life, be somebody. Walking into the coming dark, I turn back one last time, she waves. Hector is lighting a fire.