THE WORD WE USE WITH OURSELVES is mojado. It means “wetback.” Or inmigrante ilegal . “Illegal immigrant.” But usually we say “wetback.” I don’t think that’s bad or good. That’s what they used to call the people a long time ago who used to cross the river. I know those old people, ones who used to come to work here every year, for six months or seven months, and then go back. I even know some guys who are still doing it, old guys, every year. But I’ve been here for sixteen years now, since I was sixteen years old, and I have been illegal the whole time.
It has helped that I speak good English. When I got here, I knew words like “table” and “chicken,” stuff like that, but when there was no chicken on the table, I was in trouble. You have to learn English if you want to communicate, to earn more money. I went to school, but not to learn English. Maybe I learned it watching TV, reading newspapers.
It also helped that I’m güero. I have clear skin and green eyes, like my four brothers. That’s because my dad, who worked as a laborer in our village near Guadalajara until he retired, has green eyes. I think he has some Spanish in him. And my mom, who used to own a restaurant, I guess she’s pura mexicana, but she has clear skin. Now, even my wife calls me güero.
My wife is illegal too, and we have been living in Austin for thirteen years. She thinks I’m okay here because I look white, but she gets scared that she might get sent back. She’s got darker skin and her English is not as good and she’s afraid the migra is going to catch her. There were some rumors a couple weeks ago about Immigration being in stores watching people, like at the H-E-B near our house. So for those days, it was me going to the grocery store because I was scared that something would happen to her. We have three kids who were all born here, who are all American citizens. Even if my wife and I are illegal, they have a right to be here. But if she gets thrown out, who’s going to be with the kids? Who’s going to be with me?
So we have to watch out, keep an eye out. And we have always tried to do everything right. I pay Social Security tax every week, and I pay income tax every year. I have a driver’s license, and I always drive with insurance, inspection, and registration. I don’t want to do anything but to become legal and to work and to stay here with my kids. So I do everything right. That’s all I want.
I FIRST CAME TO AMERICA when I was nine years old. My older brothers brought me to Los Angeles to go to school. Total, we are five brothers and five sisters, and three of my brothers and one sister are here. They all got amnesty in 1986, so everybody here is legal but me.
That first time I used one of my nephews’ birth certificates to get across. I was just a kid, so they didn’t ask me any questions or anything at the border. They just said, “Come on.” I went to junior high in Los Angeles for a year or a year and a half, but things weren’t really good. There were family problems, like always. I was not getting along with my brothers, and there were hard times, like no money for rent, things like that. So I went back to Mexico, and that’s when I hung out there for five years.
When you’re in Mexico like I was, it’s always nice when you hear about somebody here. You always want to be here. First of all, you hear that you make money, that you wear nice clothes, have nice shoes. Back there, there’s nothing. You see, when guys go from America back to Mexico, they always have big, nice trucks. It’s hard to buy those back there. So everybody wants to come to America. They think it’s like you pick up the money with shovels here, which is not true. You have to work hard for it.
So I came back when I was sixteen to work. I had been living with my parents and depending on them, and I was ready not to depend on anyone anymore. At that time, what you did was ride a bus to Tijuana, and once you were there, you would ask around for a coyote. Everybody knows a coyote, somebody who can get people across. But you have got to know the right guy, because there are some coyotes that can screw you. They take your money and don’t pick you up, or they leave you someplace bad. I paid $300 to a guy to show me where to go.
I was with a group of men, and for us, there was no river or anything. We just jumped a six-foot-tall fence and ran across a big field. Then we hid under the trees for, like, ten minutes until somebody said run again. Then we crossed a highway, twelve lanes, and after that, somebody else picked us up and took us to a house somewhere in San Diego. They kept us there in the house for, like, a day. That night there were at least fifty of us, all over the house. We were from all over Mexico or South America. Those people were all strangers, but none of them worried me, because I knew everybody in there had family over here waiting for them and that we all just wanted to make it across and start working.
A van came and got some of us a little bit at a time. We all had to hide in the van. You have to sit on the floor in