There’s a promise of paradise on the other side, but once you cross la frontera, you are never the same.
About the AuthorGabino Iglesias is an author and professional book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He is the author of GUTMOUTH, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and ZERO SAINTS. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Entropy, HorrorTalk, Mosaic Magazine, Marginalia, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and many other print and online venues. His latest novel, ZERO SAINTS, was optioned for film, nominated for the Wonderland Book Award, and will be translated and published in Spain in 2017.
La Frontera Redux
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you leave a place to enter a void. You vacate a known reality and change it for something that you have to force yourself to believe, to accept, to understand.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you shed un pedazo grande of your identity and become a different thing, something that’s part apparition, part useless flesh, and part broken memories. You abandon familia, amigos, lenguaje, and the streets you know for a place where you have no rights and are not even considered a citizen, a country in which you will live like a stowaway rat, always afraid of being discovered. So you change. You morph. Te vuelves otra cosa. You start speaking English fast in hopes that your brown skin will be ignored if you at least communicate well. You dress yourself with the comics you read and the books you hated in school and the movies you’ve watched since you were a kid and that thing becomes el nuevo tu. You cover your tatuajes and learn that people on the streets will remember you only if you speak Spanish in their presence. You do everything in your power to become a gringo, to fit in, to become as unnoticeable as the cracks on the sidewalks. Then you start walking with less confidence because everything is mysterious and new and scary and you never feel bienvenido.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that la frontera keeps a piece of you, cuts you inside, hasta el hueso, where you can’t heal yourself. It slashes you in places no blade or bullet can reach and cripples you in ways you don’t understand.
Cruzar la frontera fucks you over en formas que no sabías que podías ser jodido.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that your body becomes a magnet for the bad stuff that has piled up all along that awful dividing line.
La nada infinita.
La noche eterna full of screams.
Crossing la frontera is like crossing a swamp because you end up covered in unpleasant shit no matter what you do. La frontera is a place of crying espíritus. It’s a place of almas perdidas y en pena, all of them looking for a way back, for a way to undo what happened, for a path back to their loved ones and their known places and a time before what turned out to be an awful decision was made.
La frontera is a place where miedo seeps into your bones and the silence you’re forced to keep allows the cries of dead children to enter your soul and break you in half like a dry twig. La frontera is a place where los huesos de los muertos are never buried deep enough and the pain of broken familias and la sangre de los inocentes has mixed with the plants and the air and the soil. All this darkness is what gives el río its peculiar smell and green color. Some things have a bottom but they are bottomless, and el río is one of them because a dark universe hides in its greenish depths. The infinite darkness that hides in that flowing jade vein is what makes white men with guns pull the trigger even when the figure moving under the crosshairs is a woman or a child.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you shatter, you stop being you and turn into a new person that belongs nowhere, that has no home, no roots. Going back is impossible and moving forward is like jumping into a cave and hoping that it’s not too deep, that the rocks don’t mangle you too much, and that el monstruo that waits for you en la oscuridad is not too hungry.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you have to do whatever it takes to survive, and that’s what pushes you into a life of crime. You need money to survive and washing dishes or mowing lawns are easy gigs to get but they don’t pay enough. In this country, fairness is a concept and nothing more. Los pinches gringos will send dinero to Africa and will pay thousands of dollars to chop their cat’s huevos off and remove their nails, but they won’t pay you a fair amount for painting their fucking mansiones and, if you complain, te llaman a la migra. Pinches hijueputas. Why the fuck should you do stuff in this country that you would never have done back home? Why should you smell like the shit you have to clean when you used to roll around with chingos de lana in your pocket? Thinking about that either makes you look for something different or breaks you again.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you want to clean up, find a good job somewhere, meet a beautiful, sweet girl. You want the American Dream. But fuck all that. The American Dream is as false as the meat in your one-dollar burger and the canned laughter you hear on television. And it’s even worse for you. You have no skills and no diploma and no friends and no nada. You’re a problem. Un ilegal más. A beaner. A television joke. A wetback. You’re nothing but an issue brainless white politicians discuss from the safety of their offices. That’s when any offer becomes salvation, any desperate move a solution, every bad idea something that gives you a bit of hope. That’s when you realize that you will always live in a silent war and that anyone who’s not from your patria can be your enemy at any moment. That’s why you easily fall into selling rich white kids drugs while you pretend to work security at a bar.
Desperation leads to the gig at the door and the gig at the door leads to some money and the bills in your pocket lead to an apartment and a sense of accomplishment. You talk to Guillermo and he talks to a white college student who drives a shiny new BMW and asks you for $400 cash and leases a one-bedroom apartment under his name and hands you the key. “You pull any stunts, I’ll have my friends find you. You don’t want that to happen, amigo,” he says. You smile, nod. Pinche gringo pendejo playing tough guy. You want to tell him No mames, güey while you grab him by the throat and slam his head against the pavement until his brain comes out his nose. You want to fill his stupid mouth with dirt so he can feel what many others feel as they try to cross la frontera and end up with their faces in the dirt as the sun devours the flesh of their backs. But you don’t. You stay put and put all your strength on ignoring your desires. Instead of teaching the huevón a lesson, you take the keys he’s holding out to you and enter your new casa for the first time ever. Then you put a mattress on the floor and a small television next to it. You put some food in the fridge and build your altar and start trying to convince yourself that it isn’t so bad. Then you settle in somewhat and stay away from the leasing office, never check your mail, and get the fuck out of there for the entire day whenever they leave a note on the door saying someone will be entering the apartment to kill some cucarachas or check the batteries en los detectores de humo. You don’t know it yet, but this vida de mentira, this hiding around, it starts turning you into a ghost, a transparency on two legs, a shadow that’s not attached to anything solid. Then, when you notice, you also realize that being almost invisible is helpful and that your indistinctness is the only reason no one really notices you working the door at the bar and selling all sorts of overpriced pharmaceuticals to kids who think they’re really cool.
You’re in the corazón of a large city, completely exposed for hours to thousands of faces that come to 6th Street to drink and dance and try to fuck someone, but no one pays attention to you. You’re a darker spot moving within a charco de sombra, just another brown face in a town where brown faces look out at you from every drive thru window and brown hands clean every car and a woman from a country south of the border cleans every mansion and every landscaping crew is full of guys who look just like you and every precious toddler at the park knows a bit of Spanish because his nanny only speaks Spanish when mommy and daddy aren’t around.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that you don’t know what’s going to happen to you and you hustle harder than you ever hustled before and you pray to la Santa Muerte and ask for protección and do bad things that you convince yourself are not that bad because la frontera crossed your abuelos first and no one is really pinche ilegal because people can’t be ilegal and we’re all atrapados en este puto mundo. Then you try to forget about everything that came before, you try to pretend like the familia and the women and the amigos and the laughter and the fear and the bodies and the money and the years are just not there and you focus on making money, staying alive, and being invisible. And the easiest way to be invisible is to be in front of a lot of eyes that don’t give a shit about you being there.
Working at the club is the best way to make money and hide in plain sight. Most Mexicans come to this country and end up doing backbreaking work for fucking centavos because they’re afraid of la migra and think being out in the open and having a visible job will lead to deportation. Al carajo eso. You do what you have to do and even learn to enjoy it a little because you can pay your bills and have plenty of pills at home and own a car and a gun and an iPod full of buena música and even have more than enough lana at home to replace the iPod some pinches mareros stole from you.
What sometimes happens when you cross la frontera is that you go to work the night after some assholes kidnapped you and chopped someone’s head off right in front of you. Being there is weird and your butt clenches every time you think about walking to your car alone after all the rich white drunks have gone back to their homes and dorms, but it also makes you feel like life is already doing its thing and moving on. Because the thing about life is that time gets between facts and memories and as memories turn into what they are, facts start sliding back, moving into a space full of images from películas and skeletons from bad dreams and imagined monstruos and stuff that someone told you. That makes the fear lessen. Then you start thinking about the Russian cruising around in a car like a hungry predator looking for prey. You think about his gun spitting out justice and someone’s head hitting the pavement with a loud thud and then blood running down into the gutter. Between that thought and the knowledge that la Santísima Muerte is watching your back, you give folks their drugs, stuff the money they hand over into your pocket before transferring it to the little box behind the bar, pop a few oxies, and walk to your car without looking back every two seconds while you wish for the call that will let you know que la muerte ha hecho su trabajo.