Work of the Week: Alfredo Aguilar
I’m riding with my father in his truck when he recounts a story—
One night, cuándo estabas pequeñito, you asked me where your mother was.
You couldn’t find her anywhere in the house.
I couldn’t have told you then, of course—
You wouldn’t have understood, but your mother was crossing back from México after visiting family for a few days.
Technically, she wasn’t allowed to leave because of her application.
But she returned through Tijuana without any trouble and was there to hold you in the morning.
It was 1993—
Few knew it then, but on the border a door was beginning to close.
It is 1990—
The Border Patrol’s tactic, the one it’s used for decades, is to wait behind the border and apprehend people only once they’ve crossed.
A common way to cross is to arrive near a city’s port of entry—San Ysidro, El Paso, McAllen—then move through, under, or over the line.
—Or amass a group people, rush a fence, and try to overwhelm the Border Patrol.
Some people get through, while other people are caught and sent back, but will try again another day.
It is 1992—
Juarez and El Paso are two cities that mirror each other.
Many there think of the cities as one; a city split in half by a fence that follows the river cutting through it.
Hundreds of people without papeles cross from Juarez to El Paso every day for work.
The Border Patrol waits behind the concrete channel inundated with the amount of people crossing.
—For every one person they detain, four people get through.
Anti-immigration sentiment begins to swell through parts of El Paso.
Green clad officers patrol the bordering city, often harassing locals who fit a profile.
On television a chief of Border Patrol is interviewed with his back toward the Rio Bravo.
While he speaks about how they’re not properly staffed to handle the situation a person on the opposite bank walks into the channel, starts crossing.
It is 1993—
On a September morning people who cross into El Paso every day for work arrive at the border—
Opposite them is a wall of officers with trucks and floodlights standing on top of the line for miles.
No one attempts to cross.
Eventually the people turn away and return to their homes thinking la Migra will be gone come night or maybe tomorrow morning.
But the Border Patrol does not move.
The officers, their trucks and floodlights stay put; they become a border.
Protests erupt on el Paso del Norte, a bridge connecting the cities.
People on both sides say the blockade strategy is inhumane—
The local bishop in Juarez speaks out—Asks how many people will go cold this winter, how many children will go hungry, if their parents can’t get into El Paso for work?
But the officers stand steady on the border day and night.
No one gets through and Operation Hold the Line is quickly touted a success.
Yet soon after people begin to cross on the outskirts of the cities where they are out of sight.
It is 1994—
In California, residents rail against the undocumented immigration happening on the border of San Diego and Tijuana—the most traversed point of entry in the country.
The place where my own family crossed.
They say they want to “Take California Back” as though it belongs to anyone.
A proposition denying public services to undocumented immigrants passes.
Based on the model in El Paso, the San Diego Border Patrol implements Operation Gatekeeper.
It receives more funds, fencing, armed officers—assigns those officers to be stationed not in the city behind the line, but right on top of the line.
It begins to push migrants, their crossing, out of view into more remote areas.
This tactic is copied throughout the Southwest in the larger ports of entry: the Border Patrol receives more money, miles of metal fence go up, and the country, on our behalf, begins to militarize the border.
At the beginning of my life, the country’s policy on immigration shifts from apprehension to deterrence.
It attempts to keep people from crossing in the first place.
It disrupts the older paths of crossing.
It begins to funnel people migrating north through a more remote and treacherous terrain where no one is watching.
It feeds them into the Sonoran desert.
At the end of the 90’s the disappearance and deaths of persons per year related to crossing, almost unheard of until then, spike from single digits to hundreds.
I have seen Border Patrol officers in the desert spill gallons of water left for migrants passing through and wanted to scream.
I have seen the emergency beacons in the desert that a person can trigger to be rescued, only then to be taken into a detention center.
The detention centers that are beyond capacity, in squalid condition, with some people undernourished and sick while our country decides their fate.
The logic of deterrence is—If enough people die they will stop crossing.
—Yet even now people are disappearing and dying at the foot of our country’s door.
Whatever the official death count the true number of dead is always higher.
This is what remains, scattered:
A yellow backpack
A brown pocket bible
A white comb
A golden-lettered prayer card
A green handkerchief
A pair of black high heel shoes
A wallet sized portrait of a Saint
A set of toys
A red dress
A silver belt buckle with a horse inlay
A pair of dirty socks
A baby bottle—
I don’t need to tell you about the desert.
The boundless burning sand—a terrain that can parch you to point of drinking piss. A heat so brute it will rob you of your skin, then your name. It was thought a body could remain in the desert for a few months with the hope of rescue—but bodies often disappear faster. Particularly those left under rocks by groups who could not carry the dead. Who perhaps had hoped at a greater chance of preserving their friend, unaware that rocks conduce heat. Here is a terrain that erases the people it strikes down Buzzards tear at clothes and flesh A colony of ants marches off with white chips of bone until nothing is left of a person. —Here is a cemetery without bodies.
Alfredo Aguilar is the author of ‘On This Side of the Desert’ (Kent State University Press 2020) selected by Natalie Diaz for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, and the chapbook ‘What Happens On Earth’ (BOAAT Press 2018). He is a recipient of 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Frost Place. His work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2017, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. Born and raised in North County San Diego, he now resides in Central Texas. Find more at alfredoaguilar.net