When I asked Javier what it was like to be a wetback, he smiled at the implausibility of summing up five years of experience, and then he looked thoughtfully at his hands. We had just met and were sitting on a shady curb next to a hamburger stand in West San Antonio; it was one of those first hot weeks toward the end of May when you know it won’t be cool again till fall. Javier’s hands, I noticed, looked too old for his 24 years. The fingers were squeezed out of shape from heavy labor and the skin so thick it was like permanent work gloves. He absently rubbed a scar on the back of his left hand as if it might come off and said:
“Two years I worked on a roofing crew. I worked hard and the boss treated me like I was part of the family. His brother was my supervisor and we became compadres. I went to live in his house and shared a room with his son. His wife cooked and took care of my clothes like she did for all the rest. Every Saturday—we worked six days a week except when it rained—we got paid, and every Saturday the boss said he was holding my Saturday wages to save for me. After almost two years of work, I spilled hot tar on my hand. I went to the boss and said I need to go to a doctor, but he told me to just put dirt on the burn. I went to the doctor anyway and missed a day of work. Not too long after that, I got a cold. It was a bad cold, and I had to stay in bed for a week. When I went back to work, my boss was angry. He told me, ‘Javier, you’re no good and you’re lazy. Get out of here! Go back to Mexico where you belong!’ None of what he said was true and it made me mad. I told him I was leaving but I wanted my Saturday wages. That’s when he said, ‘What wages?’ He robbed me of almost two thousand dollars and there was nothing I could do. If I had complained too much, he would have turned me in to the Border Patrol.”
I commiserated with Javier and said that if I could spend some time with him in San Antonio, follow him around to see how he lived, I might be able to write his story. Javier shook his head and said he was getting ready to leave for Jalisco; he had just received word from his family that he was needed at home. Perhaps when he got back.
“How will you come back?” I asked.
“Swim the river and walk.”
“Then why don’t I go with you,” I suggested.
“Do you mean in a car?” Javier asked.
“No, swim and walk.” I explained that I didn’t want to alter the trip, but would just follow along and do whatever he normally did. “I’ll be your shadow,” I proposed.
Javier looked at me doubtfully. “It’s the wrong time of year. The grass is too high; too many snakes.”
“It would make a good story,” I countered.
Javier looked away, squinting as if to imagine the trip and then began to smile. “If you made the trip,” he nodded his head in approval, “then you would know what it’s like to be a wetback. Así podrías sacar el chiste: that way you could get the joke.”
And so two hours later we left for Mexico. Nonstop—except for sleeping on bus station floors—we traveled eight hundred miles to Jalisco, spent forty-five minutes with Javier’s family, picked up his younger brother, and started back to Texas. Both in Mexico and after we crossed the river and started walking toward San Antonio, I was struck by Javier and his brother’s attitude toward time and space. It is based on the active knowledge that distance—fifty to a hundred and fifty miles—breaks down into footsteps, which in time accumulate and overcome terrain. It is reinforced by a dependence on walking as a major means of transportation. Keeping up with them was one of the most strenuous things I’ve ever attempted.
While in Mexico, I achieved a surprising anonymity in the company of Javier. Unlike other trips I had made, no one treated me like a tourist or showed the least curiosity that I spoke Spanish. In Jalisco, none of Javier’s family asked who I was or why I was with him, nor did his brother during the entire trip. It was as if traveling with Javier, speaking nothing but Spanish, I had submerged my identity. By the time we were headed north, I began to feel that I was indeed Javier’s shadow.
When Javier woke, the bus was splashing slowly through water. It cut a wake that lapped at the houses along the street, and stranded cars rocked gently as the bus proceeded into deeper water. “Está hundido Nuevo Laredo,” a voice in the dark softly exclaimed the obvious. Looking at the flooded streets, Javier thought of the river. If it was flooding, they couldn’t swim. A smuggler would have to take them across. Too tired to worry, Javier leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.
The bus pulled into the Nuevo Laredo terminal at 3 a.m. Javier shook his brother Juan to wake him, and they gathered their belongings to get off. Downtown, the water had run off into the river, and the streets were deserted. Momentarily lost, the two brothers stood in the milky neon glow in front of the Estrella Blanca bus station until Javier went inside to ask about a cheap hotel. He waited meekly at the counter for the clerk to notice him and finally reached out and touched his sleeve.
In Nuevo Laredo Javier and Juan were as easily identifiable as businessmen on a flight to New York City. Their congenital humility and fundamental silence