Partir es morir un poco/ Llegar nunca es llegar.
To leave is to die a little/ To arrive is never to arrive.
This couplet comes from a prayer found in the pocket of a Central American migrant who died of heatstroke outside of Tucson, years ago, when he attempted to cross into the United States. It’s now become known as the Migrant’s Prayer—the mantra intended to console the masses as they traverse through the hostile terrains of Mexico. It is an assurance of the most thrilling kind, its implications suggestive of what is to come upon arrival: a release from suffering, a recognition of the sacrifice, or perhaps even, a modest part to play in the great American myth of belonging. Those of us who’ve made it to the other side know this myth exquisitely well. It lives buried within us like cancer—an excrescence, divine and discreet in its destruction of our bodies.
Years ago, there was a child, a girl with rich bronze skin and loose curly hair. She was very young when she got lost. I imagine it happened somewhere between her native El Salvador and the U.S., somewhere in that long vicious journey up through Mexico. She moved among adults but she felt isolated, I suspect, agitated by an intense and sharp disturbance brewing in her belly. The adults around her sought the U.S. in hopes of finding a better life, better economic opportunities, safety, a refuge from the harsh realities of their homelands but this girl sought none of that. She was in search of Mother.
Mother had left El Salvador three months before, leaving the girl behind in the care of her aunts. The promise was that once Mother settled into this new place and secured an income, she would send for the girl and they would be together again.
But losing Mother proved unbearable.
The cries commenced seven hours after Mother departed San Salvador. It was an inaudible noise at first, spilling out of the girl in uniform jolts. For many hours, or days, it existed in harmony with the rhythm of the rain—a steady hum, plodding and persistent. It was a weekday in late May, and the first thunderstorm of the season had just rolled in. The air was humid and hot, sweltering despite the cool reprieve of the showers, and the aunts left behind looked severely depressed, or indifferent. Then the child exploded. No words, just bare shrieks fluctuating on their own, hissing out of her body in hard uneven beats. Then language found her: Mamí! Mamí! Mamí! That word became her word, the word she chanted in school and in sleep, over and over again; a holy word switching back and forth between plea and accusation. Mamí! Nothing could calm her now, so the grief accelerated. It burned her lungs. It eviscerated her capacity for speech. She stopped eating. A lifetime went by, and by that point she could only whimper nonsense under her breath. I suspect there was something more permanent in this final epoch of her crying. I imagine the slow sound of a rupture, of life extinguishing itself but not perishing—a lasting death, perhaps.
Finally, the crying reached a breaking point. Not for the girl, but for Mother. She had yet to establish herself in the States, but I imagine her conscience had grown restless at the revelation of the girl’s suffering. A decision was made. By the end of the rainstorm season, the aunts kissed the girl on both her cheeks and sent her on her way.
The first point you reach once you’ve crossed over the Guatemalan-Mexican border is the town of Tapachula. You move quickly, silently, and usually at night. If you are lucky, you roam deserts by bus and cross canals by raft, and if you are unlucky, you go on foot, and if you are both lucky and unlucky—you concede to the limb-shearing freight trains that travel north through Mexico. La Bestia.
There are no passenger services along the routes, so you ride atop these rail-cars, or in the spaces between them to move more efficiently. Death dwells here often—as I imagine it does everywhere—but its presence aboard La Bestia is singularly real, so rich and alive in its destruction, and every day, it intensifies, always after the sun has set, and before too, and anytime, really, whenever it is that your physiological need to sleep betrays you.
This girl endured La Bestia.
Her group mounted the speeding trains at sundown. They clung to their surroundings in silence. Or no. Not silence, because in fact, there was noise—a vicious, hysterical screeching coming from the train beneath them. It was deafening, and it engulfed everything and everyone, so not a thing could be heard, nothing, no cursing, no praying, no crying.
This girl endured La Bestia.
But rather than above it, she was situated beneath it, her small back pressed against the train tracks. A man, another migrant in the group, so kind he had been to her, pulled her away as the group rested beside some bushes. Far enough from the group, he guided the both of them towards the tracks. The girl must have been confused, but I imagine she trusted this man. She trusted him when he offered her his bag of almonds, his water bottle, his hand on the freight trains, his shoulders when she could not bear to walk anymore—and most importantly, when he promised to bring her to Mother, to keep her safe in the meantime, thus it made sense that she’d trust him now too, more so, even as he, without explanation, placed her between the two parallel rows of iron track.
The girl stayed still. She was uncomfortable with the bars pressing into her back, but she did not move. He was pleased, and then knelt next to her, pressing the side of his face against the rails of the track, cupping his right ear with his hand and listening for the vibrations of any incoming trains. He detected none. He looked back at the girl and smiled at her. She smiled back at him, and kept her eyes fixed on his long unshaven face for a moment. Then his face got lost. He became someone with no face, no voice, no clear form. He was just a quiet presence—an all-embracing gentleness with the promise of no more solitude. Then the movements began. She sensed him touch her jeans and pause and then push them down her waist, just slightly, just enough to sink his full hand in. Calluses collided with fragile skin. The girl looked away, unsure of what to say or what to do. It may have been nervousness, or awkwardness, or sadness, or panic, or pain—sharp burning pain—but it did not really matter because she trusted him. All she had to do was remain still atop these tracks, and he would take her to where she needed to be.
She turned her head fully to the side then and closed her eyes. When she opened them, almost immediately, a few feet into the distance, she noticed a pile of small tin cans. Red cans. Soda cans. Coca-Cola cans. Mother had a thing for Coca-Cola cans. She did not drink them. She collected them. Everywhere they’d go, if Mother saw a Coca-Cola at the side of the street, no matter how dirty and old the can was, she’d pick it up, bring it home and stuff it in a garbage bag, and every week, on Tuesday morning, while it was still dark, she’d trudge five kilometers to the recycling center in Cuscatlán with two full bag loads of Coca-Cola cans in each hand. Mother would make the girl come with her and she resented it. Why couldn’t one of the aunts go? Why did she have to go? Why did they have to go so early? Why did they have to go at all? Mother did not give answers, she’d merely give her one of the five Colónes they’d receive from the center and move on.
After many, many weeks, or months, or perhaps even years, the group finally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. It was New Year’s Day. Everyone made it.
Except the girl.
I am not sure when she got lost. I don’t know how much distance she had left to travel. I’d like to believe that she was close. I’d like to believe that she could see the border of California, far into the distance, deep into the horizon, the promised land where Mother would be waiting. I’d like to believe that this girl felt, at least for a moment, the euphoric sensation of hope coursing through her small body. I’d like to believe that she had a wide smile on her face… before the earth formed a hole beneath her, and swallowed her completely. That’s really the only way we could make sense of her disappearance. No one knew where she was. The body was never recovered. She was just gone.
However, one strange thing happened at the end of this group’s trip. Among the adults, a different little girl emerged. She looked eerily similar to the first girl—she had the same rich bronze skin and same loose curls. But they were not the same person. This girl looked older; she had a mean frown etched on her face when she crossed the border. Confusion and despair and resentment resided in her eyes. Those around her did not know it at the time, but this girl had sustained extensive injuries on the trip, most of which were internal, but she was alive and intact, mostly, so it did not actually matter.
She managed to live that way for many years and led a seemingly unexceptional life. After reuniting with her mother near the border, the pair moved to San Francisco and lived in a cramped studio at the corner of Folsom and Cesar Chavez Street. The girl learned English, attended cosmetology school, and obtained a job as an IT specialist at a tax service firm. She fell in love, had children, gained thirty pounds, lost seventy, visited Colorado, went bankrupt, shaved her head, broke a shinbone, and fell in love again. At some point, she became an American.
Then her old wounds began to fester.
It was slow at first, not obvious, but then, very obvious. These injuries began to impose themselves on her, repeatedly, in nightmares, in her behaviors, in her relationships, in her body, on her body. Her suffering unraveled in ways that it had never done before. There was a certain quality of belatedness—an explosive element to it. It was as if her enraged body was just reacting now to the injuries she had sustained decades ago. It became too much for her. Her pain changed her, unhinged her, transformed her into a stranger. A deeply irrational person. She became mean and vigilant and dangerous.
But rest assured, the two girls are not the same person.
The girl who left El Salvador yearned for Mother.
This girl who arrived to the U.S. yearned for death.
And she accomplished that. She died.
Many times, in fact.
She died flying: a pair of bulky hands on her throat, her face slammed hard and fast into a wooden headboard, once, then twice, and then buried into a pillow.
She died sleeping: a drug overdose, and naked, sprawled over the driver’s seat, surrounded by old cigarettes and plastic bags of her own waste.
She died crying: a car accident, trapped inside her burning Corolla, incapable of movement or sound, paralyzed by the alcohol and the violent blow to her head.
She died more times than anybody could count. She perfected the art of dying. I imagine she became deeply attached to it, to the violence, or perhaps, to the powerlessness—to that familiar sensation of lying helpless on her back. I imagine she grew to love it just as much as she resented it. I imagine it was these moments of perfect disconnection that finally released her from her suffering.
To leave is to die a little/ To arrive is never to arrive
Partir es morir un poco/ Llegar nunca es llegar