Letter from Chiapas

Border Crossing: a letter from Chiapas
by d. b. leonard

I descend out of the lush mountains of San Cristobal and near the greenery of Guatemala, ‘el corazon de la Maya..
As easily as I had entered Mexico, I am now permitted to leave. I have come prepared. Two packets of Marlboro Reds. Twenty single dollar bills.

The soldier at the border even smiles at the prospect. Yet a space amounting to some few odd kilometers runs between the two countries— land that belongs to no one, that I need to cross before I can officially leave, and then enter again.

The driver of a tattered station wagon offers his vehicle’s services. A stern gringo sits in the back, impatient with another delay.

Cuanto cuesta? How much? I inquire of the white man as much as of the driver.

Cinco pesos, says the driver.

“It’s a good deal,” confirms the gringo.
That was easy. I smile to the driver and throw my knapsack in the back.

It’s a pleasant feeling to sit in the back of an old station wagon as opposed to the anonymous buses which nobody seemed to own. Those that drive them, along with those that ride in them, only ever commit themselves for the ride.

It is clear that this car, tired as it is, belongs to the man with his right hand rested loosely on the wheel. They are his statuettes of Jesus glued to the dashboard and his photographs of Mother Mary swinging from the rear view mirror, alongside three photographs of young starlets dressed in string bikinis.

I am reminded immediately of New England, driving to the movies with the parents of friends in similar vehicles— rusted cars smelling of smoke and potato chips, with pennies between the cushions and seatbelts that had never been worn; glasses of iced tea that rested between their father’s thighs, which only much later I learn, contained more than a hint of whiskey.

The driver successfully propositions an old Mayan woman dressed in a well-worn, hand-made blouse. She slides in up front and sits next to him. Then a younger darker woman, with a baby in her arms, forces the old woman to straddle the stick shift. I offer my seat in the back.

The driver smiles. “No, no… “ He shakes his finger in the rear view mirror. The gringos would be accommodated in the manner that they had grown comfortable. The Indians could squeeze; they were used to being squeezed.

He pushes his bare foot down hard on the gas pedal, and in a fit of dust, the car wheezes forward; we are all thrown back into our seats.

The driver’s car is a 1971 Impala. The brake pads have eroded and the seatbelts have been cut out, never mind the windshield wipers or the windshield itself, cracked in three places. The car, like most machinery in Guatemala, is a hand-me-down: When cars fail American standards they passed to Mexican hands, and only after these men had sucked out the last of their lives do the automobiles arrive here.

He glances at the Mayan women to his right and is pleased that they share his front seat. They made their own clothes and their own food and their own babies and relied on the gringos for nothing. The realization sparks his pride, which works its way down his leg, to the gas pedal, pushing the car even faster.

There are sharp turns in the road but he has seen each of these hundreds of times. He can predict every bump and pothole and prides himself on this knowledge.

Every man should take pride in his work. I imagine that this is what his father had told him every night after he himself had stumbled home.

If only Papi could see me now. Sitting down all day, reclining almost, when I adjust the seat just right. Even listening to the radio when the air blows from the West.

With the windows rolled down, he imagines himself to be a king. Relative to the men in the silver mines that once dug dirt alongside his father, he most certainly is.

He looks into the rear view mirror and catches my eye.

Gringos. In an instant, he is reminded that his seat is no throne. He is one man in a long line of men that serves the white man. The realization, coupled with the one before it, pushes the car even faster. He loves how the speed transforms the pale faces.

“I haven’t been here in over a year,” the older gringo yells in an attempt to puncture the rush of the wind.

I can’t unclench my teeth to respond.

“Hasn’t changed a bit.” The older American smiles.

The weight of all the passengers shifts to the right as the car again yields to the centrifugal force from the next sharp left-hand turn. This time my belly is not the only thing to buckle under the pressure. To the right of the driver, alongside the mother, the door blows open. All of her possessions are pulled from between her arms and legs by the force of gravity. Plastic bags of eggs, tortillas, shirts and thread are all sucked onto the highway.

Her baby is the last thing to leave her arms.

She screams. As the driver slows the Impala she leaps out before the car has come to a complete stop. I look behind us out onto the highway. A line of broken eggs leads the way to the baby, stretched onto her back, motionless on the pavement. The tortillas are scattered everywhere, one by one, along the blacktop.

My hands shake as I open the door. The mother is shrieking now.
The sun blazes against this stretch of land. I cannot help but thinking it must be the soul of the baby. The glare makes it impossible for me to look at the woman without squinting.

Now she is cradling her baby against her breasts in the same spot where the girl had been cooing just moments earlier. The baby is silent and still.

I have never before seen a dead person. It had always been phone calls that passed the news— with details of funerals in which the dead were washed and laid clean in pine boxes and only then were they lowered into the ground. Never before had I witnessed death so close.

Even if I had, the death that I had known had never arrived strewn with the dirt of the highway. So young.

The driver, the old woman and I stand in silence alongside the mother. Each of us knows that there is no consolation for a mother holding her dead baby, yet each of us reaches out to the woman just the same and lays a hand on her shoulder, knowing that our good intentions would never change a thing.

Perhaps the combination of our efforts is more powerful than each on it’s own accord, because somewhere beneath the mother’s cries, muffled by her breasts, the baby makes a weak sound.

Even as he knows that in the end, the noise might not amount to any more life than the silence, the driver smiles. The old woman nods her head. Jesus can return life, just as he can take it away.

“Vamos!” The driver speaks with purpose and everyone hurries back inside the car.

The mother and her baby straddle the stick shift now, relegating the old woman to the seat alongside the unlocked door. The object now is not politeness and I return to the back without a fuss. I look more closely at the baby and observe no blood. There are scrapes across the girls’ knuckles and one long scratch along her bald head, but that is all. The mother wipes the dirt from the road off her daughter by licking her hand and running it across her skin.

The girl cries now, with more strength. Tears appear like magic on her skin. The driver’s hands tremble against the wheel. The older American is the first to comment.

“Tough kid.”

He had not uncrossed his legs during the entire ordeal.

This piece was published in the BROOKLYN RAIL