Wednesday, July 30, 2008

All That is Seen and Unseen

In August, Peter took me out to Anapra in the brown Toyota, a battered pickup that looked like something buried in the desert a thousand years ago and only recently excavated. I braced myself in the passenger seat while he drove over the broken, cratered road. It had been a dry summer and dust clouded the view. Occasional rains packed it down but it always rose back into the air, choking and blinding. We had rolled up the windows in preparation and were sweating profusely because the AC didn’t work.

I first saw Anapra the day I arrived in El Paso. The previous summer I had come from Arizona in a Greyhound bus that roared along Interstate 10 until it reached the city limits and slowed, allowing me to take in the desolate view. To the right, West of El Paso, the town of Santa Teresa sat lonely and quiet on the desert floor. Directly ahead, Juarez, mother of my strange destiny, awaited me. Ahead and to the left, El Paso del Norte was not sure if it was America, Mexico or Texas. All around were low, brown barren hills that couldn’t have cared less about which country they resided in.

The I-10 closely parallels the border as it approaches downtown El Paso and turns eastward. Anapra lays between this multi-million dollar testament to America’s technological advancement and the naked cliff faces opposite in Mexico. Cristo Rey, the giant white crucifix that sits atop a hill in El Paso, can be seen from a distance of many miles, and from this promontory a crucified Jesus looks out over creation.

The full name of the area is Puerta Anapra. It is not a town unto itself but rather a colonia of Juarez. Ciudad Juarez is divided into colonias the way an American city might be divided into zip codes. Except Anapra had not been planned by the city fathers; people just built there, raising homes on the desert floor or carving them out of the sides of low hills. The land occupying this space before the recent settlement must have been as barren and lifeless as the Moon. In the corner of God’s eye, it had become a squatter colony.

I saw the result of this sudden sprawl from my moving vantage point on the bus. The view lasted only seconds and I was grateful when I was carried out of Anapra’s sight and into the slow-beating heart of El Paso.

A week later Peter took me and a few other volunteers on our first trip to Anapra. He drove and talked endlessly about the border and the plight of immigrants throughout history, starting with Abraham and Israel. The other new guys and I, for a variety of motives, had decided to come live in shelters on both sides of the border, working for free. Most had been like me, kids fresh out of college and wanting to do anything besides go back to school or get a job. Some were religious, some were leftists. We sat in the back of Peter’s van joking about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace to take our minds off the poverty and misery we were seeing. The immense shantytown, built on desert sand and into the sides of barren hills, was a stark, undeniable reminder of our own mortality. When you grow up surrounded by food, computers, designer clothing, excellent housing and movie screen television, you never know the eternal enemies of the race: hunger, weather, violence, madness. To see others afflicted by these things suggests a common destiny. Yes, they will die out here, but you will die someplace else.

We tried to listen to Peter’s lecture while our minds browsed memories of home and middle-class security, wondering if we would stay. One of the others left the next day without saying a word to anyone. I was the only one left by the following summer. For reasons mysterious even to myself, I remained.

I had subsequently been out to Anapra a number of times but not since early July, when I went to the fiesta patronal of the small church that served the area. Nothing had changed. It was just as hot, just as disturbingly impoverished, and I still had the diarrhea I’d gotten from eating tacos made with spoiled meat. A year had gone by but I still got weak and feverish once a month for several days at a time.

Peter had called me an hour before and told me why I had to go with him. I’d been sitting, sweating, in the office at Casa Maria, one of Peter’s Juarez shelters, going over the schedule for the last week of August, when he called. He reminded me that the previous summer I had attended a free course about documenting human rights abuses committed by the border patrol. I remembered, sitting there and feeling as empty as a discarded beer bottle, how fervent I’d been at the time I was trained, only beginning to think that I, too, might someday burn out like so many other volunteers I knew. I had been positively anxious for the border patrol to kick someone’s ass so that I could write it up. But I never got a chance. Either the border patrol wasn’t abusing anyone or the people being abused weren’t talking.

"I need your assistance." Peter had said, speaking to me from the dingy office of his decrepit house in downtown El Paso where he lived alone. He spoke in a cold, formal voice, as if he didn’t know me very well. Maybe after seventeen years of being the border saint it was easier not to know any of the transients you met, be they volunteer or refugee.

"That’s what I’m here for." I was drawing up the work schedule as we talked, but focusing neither on that nor on the conversation.

"I just got a call from Rita Melendez." Rita was a woman with four children who inexplicably made a living in Anapra. The organization had been in touch with her for a few years in order to have a contact in Anapra.

"How’d Rita call you?" I asked, somewhat more attentive now. I knew that neither Rita nor any of her neighbors had phones.

"She had to take a bus into town."

That morning a neighbor had told Rita that a man who tried to cross over into the States the night before had been brutally beaten not far from Anapra. He had been taken in by someone just a few blocks away.

"But Rita hasn’t seen the man?"

"No, and I’m aware that this could be a wild goose chase, but I want to act on it. I’d like for you and I to go out there and try to document the event."

I had forgotten almost everything involved in creating such documentation. But I couldn’t bear admitting that to Peter so I agreed to go. A part of me was hoping the poor bastard would die of his injuries before we got there and save me the embarrassment.

As Peter and I entered Anapra proper I recalled the disgust I had felt at my first view. This was the grimmest, lowest level of poverty I had ever seen. Houses were made out of anything their owners could get their hands on: wooden pallets, styrofoam, cement blocks, plastic bags, plywood. Most homes were a combination of this garbage. The floors were usually dirt, packed down by the treading feet of the occupants. There was no running water.

Some residents used car batteries as a temporary energy source. If not, electricity was pirated from nearby electrical poles. Every now and then some poor bastard got electrocuted trying to hook up his house so that his family could listen to the radio, watch TV or run some other rare appliance they might be lucky enough to have. The dirt roads were girded by the tangled cables that ran from these poles to people’s shacks.

As the Toyota struggled through sand, rocks, and clouds of dust to the top of a hill, I looked out over that human disaster and felt pity and empathy rising up out of the junkyard of my soul. I felt compassion for the man I was supposed to interview and hated feeling it. Not for the first time I wondered if I had been wise to volunteer for another year in this slow hell of other people’s suffering.

We stopped at Rita’s ramshackle home. If I had wanted to find out how Rita eked by I could’ve done so, but I never got around to asking. She was one of those unbelievable examples of human fortitude and mercy. The year before I arrived in El Paso, with my college smile and my duffel bag, Rita took in an old man, abandoned by his own children, to live in her home. As if supporting her children on virtually nothing hadn’t been difficult enough, Rita had taken in an old gimp that did nothing but consume and whine. Volunteers tended to speak of her as the soul of charity, but I thought she was nuts.

Her house was made mostly of cement block, which was nice for the area. The dwelling had a low ceiling and a back room made from wooden pallets and semi-transparent plastic sheets. There was a faint smell of wood smoke in the dusty air. By the time we had stepped out, two of Rita’s three boys had come running out of the shack and were babbling something faster than I could understand. Peter contorted his face and listened intently.

Rita, short and brown with a pretty face for her thirty-some tough years, came out as the boys rattled on, probably having long past disbursed any important information and now simply repeating or rephrasing it. Peter was too polite to interrupt. I looked inquisitively at their mother. She smiled, showing a rare mouth with only one missing tooth, and explained quickly.
"Don Luis esta mal. Necesitamos llevarlo al doctor."

Don Luis, the old boy Rita had taken in, was sick and needed to see a doctor. Secretly, I felt good for Rita. If Don Luis died she’d have one less mouth to feed and a slightly better shot at survival. It sounds heartless, but you haven’t seen how she and her kids lived. You haven’t watched those barefoot boys play with sticks and rocks while, a few miles away, American children whined if their parents didn’t buy them new shoes or more video games once a month.

We crowded into her home and stood against the walls. The living room, to the right of the entrance, was small, perhaps ten feet by eight. There was a small, fold-up card table standing uncertainly in the middle of this space, surrounded by a green, plastic patio chair, an actual wooden chair and two milk crates stacked one atop the other. Don Luis occupied the patio chair, arms dangling at his sides, head bowed as if in prayer. On another milk crate sat a battered TV. It showed little more than static.

Rita chattered and Peter nodded, repeating a few times that he would help her.

"What’s wrong with him?" I asked Rita.

"We found him on the floor when we came back from the store." There was a market just a block from her house. "He was shaking and moaning."

I had seen things like this before in the shelters; old men and women, trembling uncontrollably, having fits, shouting incoherently. They might go on like that for weeks, months, or years before dying. In the States such a case would have been diagnosed and treated, someone would have done something for them. In Mexico, they just suffered on the margins of society. Then they died. Until now Don Luis had been a burden, but he had been lucid and ambulatory. I was slowly realizing that things really could get worse for Rita and her children, after thinking for so long that it couldn’t be any worse than it was.

Peter, Rita and I lifted him simultaneously. "Aah…aah…aah." He moaned, exhaling noxious breath. I held Don Luis’s shoulders. His head lolled against my chest. With his eyes closed and his mouth hanging open, the old man resembled an infant. As close as I was, I could smell that he had shit himself a little, just like a baby would do. But another look at that weather-beaten, wrinkled, slack flesh around his eyes and I saw the death in him. Don Luis forever became the personification of Death for me, even though he did not die that day. When my mother was dying of cancer two years later, I sat at her bedside in the hospital and remembered Don Luis. I imagined the old man coming for her, reeking of shit and moaning "aah…aah…aah" as he stumbled down the hallways, shutting the eyes of the dying with a trembling hand.

We staggered outside like a confused, six-legged juggernaut. With a quick flash of his hand Peter cracked open the passenger side door and pushed it wide open with his body. We put Don Luis in the middle of the seat and Rita hopped in to support him. I got out of there quick, just in case whatever the old man had was catching. I had known volunteers who got tuberculosis during their stay. In a year I had managed to avoid that and certainly wasn’t going to risk getting anything worse.

As Peter and Rita tried to decide whether to take him to the clinic or the General Hospital, I couldn’t help but look northward to America. A few hundred yards from Rita’s house, the only thing separating Mexico and her northern neighbor was a low dirt berm. One could easily step over it. I thought of running for it just to see what would happen. It looked so easy. Of course, one could easily pick out the border patrol trucks stationed at regular intervals. They were the real border; magnificent, gasoline-powered, steel machines that vigorously pursued anything that tried to penetrate our defenses. The dirt berm was only a symbol.

But with the trucks so still it was easy to imagine that they were asleep, that one could bolt across the border and into the promised land and hide before the guardians awoke. I tried to imagine having that temptation all the time. From his perch above all the misery, Christ also seemed to contemplate this temptation.

Eventually Peter decided to take Don Luis to the General Hospital. This was a tough decision, since the General Hospital was known for taking off a leg when you needed a kidney removed and vice versa.

"I’ll go with Don Luis." Rita announced. "Veronica will be here in a few minutes. She can show you the way." She spoke the last words to me. Veronica was Rita’s sixteen-year-old daughter. She visited the house occasionally and I had seen her on most of his trips to Anapra.

Rita left her two boys with me. The three of us watched the truck kick up dust as it pulled away, then we went inside to escape the Sun.

Inside was little better. The enclosed darkness of Rita’s dwelling offered no more than an almost imperceptibly cooler environment and brought her family’s stark poverty far too close.

The kitchen was a small space to the left of the front door. Over one corner a mesh bag hung from a nail in the ceiling. The idea was to keep the mice and the bugs out. An onion weighed the bag down. I thought of a man with one testicle. A hot plate sat on the ground below, next to a small tank of propane gas. A wooden stand, holding a few dishes and cups, and a water basin were in the other corner. Rita’s family took baths by filling up the basin with cool water and then pouring in a pot of the boiling kind. That much water was hard to come by so they bathed infrequently and all in the same water, one after the other.

The boys babbled, excited to have one of the gringos in their home. Soon I understood that they wanted to play soccer, futbol, with me. I agreed on the condition that I had to leave as soon as Veronica arrived to show me the injured man that I was supposed to interview.

"Hokay!" They shouted before running out the door. They ran right into their eldest sister, Veronica, who immediately began to scold them in vicious Spanish.

When I walked out she stopped right in the middle of a particularly foul phrase and smiled.
"Ay, que verguenza." She batted her eyes. "Perdoname." She was thin and dark-skinned with jet-black hair and blacker eyes.

"Esta bien. No hay problema." I responded. I told her about what had happened and why they had left me behind, waiting for her.

"Si!" She began, nodding her head vigorously. "Yo se donde esta!" She reached out to take my wrist and pulled me along. I made sure our hands parted as we began our trek.
"Vayanse!" She hissed, turning back to the boys who had started to follow. They scampered back inside the house and let us depart.

"Como esta todo en la casa?" She asked demurely when we came to the end of the street. How is everything in the house? She referred to Casa Maria.

"Bien. Bien."

She turned left and I followed. The conversation carried on, touching on benign subject matter like the house and the weather, until it lamely died a minute later when we reached the house we were looking for.

It was not much different from Rita’s house, perhaps in slightly worse condition but the same size. It had no front door. Instead, there was a heavy blanket hanging across the single doorway. Windows were also curtained with blankets. There was no noise from inside.

"Oye!" Veronica called from a few yards away. "Oye!"

I stood beside her, listening to the distant sound of cars roaring over the interstate, listening to the more intimate sounds of our feet on the sand, the susurration of our breath. The other myriad noises of Anapra were filtered out as we stood there, waiting for a dead man to respond.

After a minute, Veronica spoke to me.

"Aqui es donde me dijeron." Here is where they told me.

I shrugged and asked her if it would be okay to go in, or could we get hurt trying that? Veronica assured me that if she went in front, calling out, we would be okay.

Thus we approached the shack, Veronica in front, announcing the purpose of our visit as we precariously covered the short distance between the gate and the front door. Soon we stopped again, before the curtained doorway, listening. Veronica looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and pushed aside the blanket. Holy of Holies, I thought as I stepped through the doorway, following Veronica into the cool darkness of the dead man’s abode.

Dark it was, but not quiet. Flies buzzed and hummed in the unlit room. I was used to flies swarming all over me, taking whatever sustenance they could from my sweat, but these flies paid me no attention. There was a more attractive dish set for them. The bloody remnant of a person lay on the dirt floor.

With the curtain slightly open it was possible to make out some of the former man’s features. He was dark-skinned, moreno as they say in Spanish. He was small, with black hair. His eyes were, mercifully, shut, so his eye color was not verifiable but I had a pretty good idea of what they would have looked like. The man was probably from Guatemala, an indian from the mountains. I could tell where someone was from just by their appearance. His eyes would have been black. His voice would have been high-pitched, his Spanish fast and mingled with indian terms that made it nearly unintelligible to me. He must have recently died because I detected only the faint odor of unwashed skin, rather than the stench of rotting flesh.

While I was still staring down at the dead man’s face, Veronica turned and threw her arms around me. She whispered hoarsely, "Llevame de aqui!" Take me away from here.

In the moments the embrace endured, while I inhaled her strange mixture of pleasant girl-scents and repulsive body-odor, I wondered what she meant. Was she asking me to take her out of the shack, or out of Anapra?

I pushed her away slowly. She jutted her face forward and up, into mine, her full lips grappling my own. I pulled her back and returned the kiss, hands running up and down her body, underneath her shirt, rasping against her back. She used her arms to force my face against her own. Our teeth clacked together painfully. I slipped her shirt up over her breasts. Her torso, slender and brown, was unbelievably smooth.

Then I became aware of the smell, an awful reek. It was sweat, dirt, blood and the stench of her sex all at once. I remembered the corpse and Don Luis and suddenly wanted to vomit. I pushed her away, against the concrete wall, and stepped outside into the clear sunlight.

I stood there and listened to the sounds of Anapra and the distant sound of America. I heard Veronica crying inside the house, just a few feet away; easy to comfort there in the darkness with the dead.

I stepped through the gate and onto the street.

I waited at Rita’s house and played reluctantly with the boys, kicking around a half-deflated soccer ball that appeared to be older than Peter’s Toyota.

I thought about something Peter had told me and the other new volunteers the day after we arrived. He’d said that we needed to understand that that we did not become volunteers to help poor people. We did it for ourselves. I can remember thinking it was a bunch of shit and feeling a little insulted. I had come to help poor people even if he didn’t think so. After a few months, though, I realized that he was right. In all the emotional turmoil I experienced in those early days I cried on several occasions. But I never cried for the miserable, downtrodden people I met. I cried because I was afraid that the same misery could occur to me someday, that reality was a relentless tide of events that could not be stopped by wishful thinking. I cried because no one else would cry if I ended up on the street, hungry and cold. I cried for myself.

Standing there at dusk in Anapra, I played soccer with Rita’s boys and understood that Veronica, too, cried for herself and not for the dead man. But just as no one could do anything to assuage my sorrows, I could do nothing to alleviate hers. We were two different worlds and the distance between us was not navigable.

Veronica had not returned when Peter and Rita came back with Don Luis, who was conscious but weak, just after sunset. There had been no room at the General Hospital and they had given up waiting there. In the meantime, Don Luis had recovered somewhat. Peter promised to come in the morning and take him back to the hospital.

I told Peter that we had not found the victim and that Veronica had stayed out trying to find him. Peter resigned himself to trying again the next day and I was grateful when we got in the truck and drove away.

Peter called the next day and informed me that Veronica had found the man dead. The whole thing was being investigated by the federales and I could forget about documenting it.
"Keep me informed." I replied dully.

I had two days coming to me. I planned on going over to El Paso to take a shower. Then I was going to go to the library and read magazines in the air-conditioned basement before eating a hamburger and drinking some beer in a clean bar. I was going to be a good American and forget about Rita, about Veronica, about Don Luis and the dead man, about a whole world out there just dying to live.