It was the second time Shawn was picked up by ICE agents and delivered to Mexican authorities on the other side of the border. Well, it had happened three times, really, but the first time ICE was still the INS and then he was a teenager. He stepped out of the bus into a dirt parking lot, his shirt stuck to his back and his jeans feeling heavy in the 2 p.m. heat.
He had spent 26 hours in a detention center with crying babies, desperate women and resigned men before he was deported. That was lucky. Many people had been moving from detention center to detention center for weeks, some for months, before they were close enough to Mexico to be sent back by bus. Shawn had refused the prison chow and now he was hungry.
He checked his wallet and found a grand total of 12 dollars. In his jeans coin pocket he found a quarter and two dimes.
“Mister, por favor, a coin!” asked a boy, white powder surrounded his lips, like he had eaten a donut and forgotten to use a napkin.
His broken English reminded Shawn of something he had learned on his previous deportations to Mexico: It was clear to them that he was American, though ICE had not bought it and deported him anyway.
He gave the boy a quarter, but kept the two dimes. The boy waited, as though expecting Shawn to give him more money, but Shawn wanted to keep the dimes.
“No más,” he said. The boy shrugged, and walked away, the back of his legs catching dust as his sandal flapped against his heels.
Shaw went on the other direction, his hands stuffed in his pocket twirling the dimes between his fingers. Tijuana was chaotic. The disorganized drive-at-your-own-risk traffic produced nauseating fumes of burnt oil and gasoline and the sidewalk were crowded with kiosks. Vendors screamed as he passed, trying to lure him into buying their trinkets. He walked, followed by scent of gasoline, fried foods and a broken sewer pipe for several blocks, until the smell of carne asada with a dash of cumin compelled him to enter a taqueria. The establishment was too small to have tables and a few people stood, holding paper plates under their chins with one hand and stuffed soft tacos with on the other.
He was happy to see a handwritten sign that read “U.S. dollars acépeted.” He bought two tacos, paying a dollar each. He remembered from his previous deportations that though businesses accepted dollars in Tijuana, they never seemed to have change and he had a pile of pesos back home, which he should start carrying, considering how often immigration was picking him up.
The place with its hot griddle and an open vat of boiling oil was far hotter than outside. He ate standing on the sidewalk, where a California poppy grew out of a crack, its orange petals drooping. His brother would not get home until 6 p.m. that evening and wouldn’t turn on his cell phone until 8 because he couldn’t afford to pay for calls during the daytime.
His brother would have to go find their tio so they could drive to the border and sort things out. He tried to remember if his passport was not expired. What a drag if it were! He never used it to go anywhere. It was not like he traveled, but after the first deportation he had gone to the post office and filed the papers to get his passport. He had used only once (his brother brought it to Tijuana on his second deportation).
“Hey gabacho,” someone called him.
He looked over at the three teens on the other side of the narrow street.
Gabacho, really? Only in Mexico they called him white American.
“Wasup?” another said, but he was not friendly at all.
They were fidgety, as though they were getting ready to pounce on him, but not sure if it was a good idea.
“What is up?” he said.
“Whatch’ you have in pocket?” the “wasup” guy asked. He was obviously the leader, with enough English skills to convey their intentions. His overgrown hair covered his ears and most of his cheeks.
“Mis cojones,” he said.
The “followers” laughed. They were all short, but they were stocky and if Shawn had to defend himself, he’d likely lose.
“You think you funny?” the guy insisted. “Whatch’ in your pocket?’
“Seriously, I have nothing,” he said. “I’m just happy to see you!”
The translator looked puzzled. The others waited. Shawn was in no mood to explain the joke. They talked among themselves and he considered his escape route. He glanced up and down the street. There was an old woman at the window of a decrepit house a few yards away, staring at them.
“Maricón,” the shortest one taunted.
The old woman hacked loudly enough to get their attention. She spit on the sidewalk and, in a thunderous voice, told the kids to get lost.
They called her bruja vieja and told her to mind her own business. She stared them down and they left.
Shawn made his way back to the border and sat on the square, if you could call that a square. It was a stamp-sized piece of partially paved rectangle that at some point had been landscaped. There were remains of a badly dried-up rosebush, and weeds grew around the lonely tree, leaves blackened by smog and other debris spewed by the heavy traffic going by.
There was no place left to sit, the two cement benches being occupied. Some people sat on the ground in circles playing cards or staring at the ground together, as if it somehow made them feel better not to be alone in the misery. For it was a collective misery, no doubt, which he might have to join soon enough if his brother had forgotten to add credit to his pay-as-you-go cell phone.
He could go hang out near the immigration building, where the crowd waited – some to legally cross, and some for a miracle, as if having come all this way and unexpectedly found there were walls, guards and helicopters patrolling the American side they had exhausted the resources to return home or to find another crossing point.
After a while, that’s what Shawn did. He walked up to the border patrol building to cool a little, but soon they asked him to move out if he wasn’t going to cross.
“I am an American citizen,” he said. Sure his English was pretty good, but he had to admit he always had the cadence he had learned from his mother, even a slight accent, and the ICE agent heard it, looked him up and down, and shrug.
“My name is Shawn Kilpatrick,” he said. “Can’t you find me in your computers?”
“Are you Irish?” the agent asked. He had a full hair of red hair and seemed misplaced in that corner of the world. He turned to another agent, a tall white guy with broad shoulders, “He claims to be Irish like us.”
“My father was Irish, I’m claiming to be an American,” Shawn said.
A third agent, a Mexican-American joined them, gave him a once over, and declared, “he’s not Mexican, that’s for sure!”
“No passport,” said the red-headed agent, “no entry!”
He didn’t have his driver’s license; the agents who had picked him up in San Diego had kept it, claiming it was a fake. Even if he had his license, it would not have been enough. It used to be, when as a younger man he came down to Tijuana with his buddies for the cheap alcohol and occasional weed.
The agents shooed him out and he tried to remember the places he used to go to, all within walking distance from the crossing point, on one side or another of International Avenue, which ran along the border luring tourists who didn’t want to go deep into the city – that was trouble and always ended up badly.
He found the Avenida Revolución, once a bustling destination for kids paying a $1 a beer, now a depressed area with most businesses closed. He found a bar where a woman was dancing a top of a table surrounded by American college kids. They were a boisterous bunch, making crude remarks the woman did not understand or pretended not to. She shook her hips doing her salsa moves with an invisible partner, sometimes hugging herself and running her hands down her own torso and buttocks.
Shawn ordered a beer and as the mustached bartender opened it, he immediately regretted remembering he only had a $10 and was going to get a pack of pesos in exchange. He was pleasantly surprised when the man gave him back $9 in American currency.
“If she wasn’t so damn ugly I’d fuck her,” one of the students said, and they all burst into laughter.
“I’d fuck her anyway,” another said.
Shawn would never know why he took this personally. Perhaps there was something in her that reminded him of his sister, who was in the state prison at Chowchilla for killing her abusive husband. Shawn threw a bottle at the students, not aiming at anyone in particular as though all of them were equally insulting.
Almost instantly, he felt the blows raining on his face, his head, his torso. He was relieved when he was thrown out on the sidewalk. The beating could have gone on for much longer.
He looked back at the bar. The two Mexican bouncers, who had beaten him, were at the door ready to give him another beating if he tried to go back inside.
“Go home, Yankee!” one of them advised him.
The students watched him for a moment, then returned to the woman, all laughter and cheers.
Shawn pulled himself up and leaned against the wall, taking a deep breath. He limped for a couple of blocks, holding his bloody nose, under the glare of people who knew he was not one of them, despite his mother giving him her eyes, her accent, and trying to convince him that Mexico was forever motherland.
He stood near the border crossing, every so often using the pay phone to call his brother. Eventually, his brother picked up his call.
“Hermanito,” he said. “I’m in fucking Mexico again. Come take me home.”