By Taisha Ostler
Though the air was beginning to cool, the back of the van was still hot and humid; dust flew in through open windows and stuck to her face. Her parents were speaking in hushed tones. She knew they were worried. She repeated the mantra that soothed her mind— “Books, there will be lots of books!”—and took hold of her Madre’s hand. Two months earlier they’d sold everything they could to pay a Coyote to bring them to “the promised land”. Her parents had painted a vibrant picture of third grade in the United States. Walls lined with books, a new puppy, and free lunch. The idea of going to school was the only thing that kept her moving on those cold desert nights as her feet shuffled along cactus-lined trails.
Finally, after months of living in tents, trucks, and safe houses, Xochitl and her parents were only minutes from the U.S. Border. The Coyote pulled over.
“This will be the most dangerous part of the journey,” he said. “You will need to split up.”
“That wasn’t part of the deal,” replied Papa. “We stick together, no matter what!”
Others in the group were nodding in agreement, but the leader was insistent and very persuasive that if they were to have any chance of making it, they needed to scatter.
When they made the decision to leave Mexico, they knew they would face a long journey that included the crossing of the Rio Grande. It was the water that scared Xochitl more than anything else. She often startled awake from nightmares about the river reaching over the shore with long cold fingers to drag her under. They would be crossing into a place called Texas. She didn’t know how to swim, so tonight, even the thought of Texas and the books it promised wasn’t enough to settle her knotted stomach.
Seeing the worried look on her face, Mama said, “Don’t worry Xo. You will be safe.” They had an inner tube tied to a rope that Mama would tie around her waist to pull her across. Xochitl knew her Mama was a strong swimmer, unlike Papa, but what if she fell off and sunk before one of them could get to her?
Her life in Mexico had been happy, until her padre’s crops failed; then the joy just seemed to shrivel up like the peppers. Their small chili farm provided just enough profit to keep the three of them fed when it was producing well. Two years of drought reduced the harvest to the point of starvation. They considered staying in Tamaulipas, but the drug gangs made their desperate conditions even worse by demanding protection money. Xochitl often stayed awake at night listening to her parents speak about the dangers of taking their meager harvest to market. They couldn’t afford to pay the gang’s protection fees, which meant they were exposed to having their crops and equipment stolen or destroyed. They feared that Xochitl would be left alone, if anything ever happened to them.
Her only uncle had crossed the border a year earlier and had convinced Papa it would be best to go north, rather than try to make a new start in Mexico. It was a very difficult decision. The small farm had been her Papa’s life for twenty years. He often said, “A man needs a plot of land to call his own if he is any kind of man at all.” The day he sold the farm, she heard him crying after he kissed her goodnight.
They climbed out of the van. The sun had set, but it wasn’t completely dark yet. With each step, Xochitl felt she was stepping toward security, and at the same time stepping away from happiness. The thought of leaving her home made her heart beat like the wings of a hummingbird. She clung to her Madre’s arm as her parents repeated the final instructions.
“As soon as you cross the river, split up,” said the man.
Papa went first, Xochitl held tightly to Mama’s waist as they watched Papa doggy-paddle his way across. She was surprised by the way the water pulled him downstream. She could hardly make out his shape when he finally pulled himself to shore on the other side.
“Okay, Xo, our turn,” said Mama.
She gasped when she stepped into the frigid river. Mama quickly held a finger to her lips. Xochitl clamped her mouth shut and climbed aboard her flimsy innertube. The smell of rubber was strong as she concentrated on breathing through her nose. The river wasn’t too deep at first, and her Mama made quick time wading through the dark current; but suddenly she dropped. Xochitl heard her Mama’s own sharp intake of breath as she sunk into the rushing cold. Xochitl watched anxiously as Mama began to swim through the water. She felt a grip of fear as the innertube lunged forward in an unruly way. She prayed to Mary and imagined herself rubbing the beads of her rosary, moving from one to the next with each stroke Mama took.
Soon, Mama stood again, and quickly pulled the rope to bring her to the embankment. Papa met them and reached down to pull his daughter off of the tube and into his arms. Xochitl began to cry. She was so relieved; she could not help but whimper and sniff. They’d made it! Mama wrapped her arms around them, shushing in Xochitl’s ear to remind her to be silent.
“Don’t look back,” whispered Papa. “I won’t be far behind.” Then he ducked behind a tall bush.
They quickly and quietly climbed the embankment and moved forward in search of the dark shape of the vehicle waiting across the field. For a moment Xochitl thought she saw it, but before she could reach for Mama, she heard a scream. Suddenly she was blinded by lights flashing and moving in their direction. Mama yanked hard on her arm, running in the opposite direction. Xochitl tripped but recovered quickly and ran as fast as her nine-year-old legs could go. They zigged and zagged to avoid the coming lights, but there were just too many. A border agent grabbed Mama by the waist and pulled her to the ground. She felt Mama’s grip slip from her small fingers.
“Mama! Mama!” She screamed. Another agent grabbed Xochitl by the arm and pulled her away.
She cried and struggled; the grip only tightened. Her parents had told her that, if they were caught crossing, they would be taken to a detention center to wait for a decision on deportation. Never did she think that she might be separated from her parents. She reached for Mama again and again. She kicked and screamed and tried to bite the man’s hand.
“Please don’t take my daughter!” Screamed Mama. “Please don’t take my baby. We will go back to Mexico right now and never return. Please just let me take her and go.”
Xochitl was so scared. She was crying uncontrollably now. She didn’t understand why they were taking her away. Mama continued to beg, but Xochitl could see that it wouldn’t make a difference. She would be lost in a strange country. She could picture her Papa; hidden in his bush, wondering what to do. But no, suddenly he was there. Running toward them.
The agent holding Xochitl moved forward, dropping her arm, “Get down on the ground!” he yelled in Spanish. Both agents gripped their guns and yelled for Papa to stop.
He held his hands up high, skidding to a stop, yelling the words over and over, “Take me too. Take me too.”
The agent swung his gun toward Xochitl, “Get down!”
Xochitl dropped. She did not run. She lay still and hoped in her heart that they would send her family home soon. She wanted to climb into her own bed and feel the warm press of her favorite cat as it curled up on the foot of her bed. She wanted to walk to school in the sunshine and read her three favorite books in her small classroom. She wanted to run through the chili field to bring Papa his small lunch and hear him laugh when she ate the last bite (which he always saved for her). She wished that she would never have to see that big river ever again. She hoped that tonight, she and her parents would curl up in each other’s arms and sing themselves to sleep her abuela’s favorite song.
Mama was already in handcuffs, and the men moved swiftly to Papa, forcing him onto the ground, roughly pulling his arms behind his back. It all happened so fast, before she could process all of it, Xochitl was lifted up and crammed into yet another van. She waited for her parents to be lifted in too, but the door slammed shut. She reached for the handle, but there was only hard plastic.
She pounded on the window, “Mama, Papa! Let me out!”
She watched the men load her parents into a separate van. She screamed when her van roared to life, screamed as it drove away and the one holding her parents grew smaller. She screamed until her little voice gave out and she slumped against the window in a numb silence. She wasn’t sure how far they drove, but when the van stopped, she looked behind them for the second van to arrive, no headlights appeared. She was taken into a building and put into a room with a few adults and several children. A woman who was dressed like the border agents gave her a plate of food, then left the room. Xochitl sat against a wall and began to cry.
A boy scooted over, “My name is Pedro. It will be okay. What’s your name?”
“Xochitl. Where are my parents?”
Pedro shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know where they take them, but sometimes I get to talk to my parents on the phone. They say we will all be together again soon. Are you going to eat that?” Xochitl looked at the plate resting on her lap and handed it to him.
She asked over and over again, “Where are my parents?” To which someone would always reply, “We will figure that out tomorrow.”
Xochitl tried to think about books, but found the image made her miss her parents even more. She resolved to never read again, if only she could see them.
“I hate Texas,” she mumbled. Tears streamed down her dusty cheeks. She laid her head against the hard wall and closed her eyes. She imagined Mama’s hand wrapped around her own and the way Papa’s shoulders felt warm when he hugged after stepping inside from the hot fields. She imagined herself sitting on abuela’s lap, listening to her sing the way she had before she’d died. Xochitl heard her own voice, now raspy with fatigue, hum those same notes as she drifted to sleep.