FIREWORKS by H.O. Santos


©2002 by Hector Santos

ENSENADA is only one hour south of Tijuana but what a difference one hour makes. It’s still a tourist town–gringos contribute a lot to the town’s economy–but it’s more tranquil. Unlike the border town of Tijuana, vendors in Ensenada aren’t always in your face trying to sell you a souvenir or a bed warmer for the evening. As a matter of fact, many commercial establishments don’t have employees who speak English–we do very well without you tourists, thank you very much, they seem to say. Even the popular Hussong’s Cantina with its almost hundred percent gringo clientele is outside of town and doesn’t affect Ensenada’s relative calm.

I love the isolation Baja California provides, all within a day’s drive from Los Angeles. My favorite Baja destination is easily San Felipe, a sleepy fishing village on the Gulf of California side, and that’s where Barbara and I were headed for. There are many ways to get there from Los Angeles but my favorite route is the one which goes all the way south to Ensenada via Tijuana. You then cross the peninsula through the winding road over the mountains to reach the other side.

Close to the halfway mark, Ensenada is a good stopping point to take a break. We hit it at the right time on this trip, at eleven in the morning.

I was with Barbara Westbay, my girl friend of almost two years. In spite of her decidedly non-Hispanic surname, she claims to have Latino ancestors. You couldn’t tell from the way she looked–she had red hair, green eyes, and freckles that showed prominently if she stayed in the sun too long. Lately it had been fashionable among gringos to claim Latino or Native American ancestry. I often wondered if she has been stretching the truth about her ancestry a little too much.

I never fully understood why she put up with my proclivity for these trips since she can’t take too much sun, an almost impossible thing to do in Baja. She’s envious of women who tan perfectly, those who can take on a beautiful shade of bronze without burning. She has to be careful for it’s extremely uncomfortable for her to lie down when she gets burned. I like to think she puts up with these trips because she loves me but I know she does it as much to get away from the madness of city life as she cares for me.

I parked Barbara’s Nissan Pathfinder in the center of Ensenada near the beach. We went to look for our favorite food vendors–the ones who plied the streets in their pushcarts and lunch trucks. She went to a truck that sold fish tacos. I found a vendor who served fresh clam cocktails from his pushcart. He picked a live one from a bucket, opened and cut it up, then put the meat into a large plastic cup. He squeezed lime juice into it, added chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and red peppers and handed the cup to me with several packets of Santos saltine crackers.

We stopped at the corner store to buy two cold bottles of Corona Beer before going to the beach to eat our lunch.

“Have a bite of my fish taco, it’s good.”

“What did you get this time, the usual shark?”

“They didn’t have shark but this tuna is good–it’s not overcooked, just lightly grilled.” I took a bite and agreed it was good.

“Here, have some of my cocktail, it’s pismo clam.” I brought a spoonful to her mouth to let her try it.

“Super. I wish we had these vendors in L.A. They’re so convenient.”

“We’re starting to have them already. I see vendors selling ice cream and drinks out of pushcarts. They’re probably all illegals, too.”

“Come on, you wouldn’t know an illegal if you saw one. Just because you see somebody who looks Hispanic doesn’t mean he’s a mojado.”

“They mostly are.”

“I don’t think so. As an immigrant yourself, I expect you’d be more sensitive to their plight.”

“But I came to America legally. I’m not against immigration, only against those who do it illegally,” I protested.

“You have a lot to learn about how America stole most of the West from Mexico. All of the Western states from Texas to California used to belong to Mexico. The 1849 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo unfairly gave the West to America. Before, those areas were part of Mexico and people could move freely because there was no border. The worst part about it was that land was taken away illegally from their Mexican owners and given to the new settlers.”

“All right, but what are laws for if they’re not going to be enforced.”

“Some laws are so unfair they shouldn’t be enforced.”

I let Barbara have the last word because I suspected she would win the argument. She once told me that new immigrants like myself who have been in the U.S. just long enough are sometimes worse than native-born Americans when it comes to tolerating new immigration. Each new group thinks the door should be closed after they’ve come in.

After lunch, we bought two more six-packs of Corona and stashed them in our ice chest before going on our way. We were soon outside Ensenada going east and climbing along the winding road. Some parts of the mountain range were as high as seven thousand feet although the highway only reached five thousand. I had a chance to enjoy the scenery as Barbara had taken over the driving chores.

Along the mountain road were large boulders that looked like they could roll down and crush us at any moment. Although I knew they had been there for thousands of years, it was hard not to get disturbed. I was happy when we reached the high plateau and left them behind us.

We stopped to buy gasoline at a small town. The mountain towns didn’t have electricity–gas was dispensed in a primitive but ingenuous manner. The dispenser was a graduated glass container set high on a stand. An attendant pumped gas by hand from fifty-five gallon drums on the ground to the container until the desired amount was transferred. The gas was then allowed to flow down through a hose to your tank. We took in fifty liters of regular unleaded gas. I paid in dollars and didn’t bother to count the change which was given to me in pesos. In all the times I’ve been to Baja, no one has yet cheated me on the change owed me.

The gas attendant was an attractive young girl who must have been around ten or twelve. She wore jeans, a Western shirt, and cowboy boots. She had light hair and looked European unlike most of the other children around her who had mostly Indian features.

“You know, she could easily cross the border and won’t even get stopped,” Barbara commented. “None of her friends will make it, though.”

I knew Barbara was trying to tell me looks had everything to do with who was mistaken for an illegal alien in the United States. She was good at giving not-too-subtle hints like that to prove a point.

We were soon on the eastern slope of the mountain. From here on, the road is straight for the most part. It didn’t need to snake around since the slope is gentle all the way to the ocean. The landscape also changes radically here–the marine layer which blows in from the Pacific and makes the western side of the peninsula green doesn’t reach this far. It is an alkali desert–starkly bright white except for the black cinder cones of extinct volcanoes that rose from the desert floor in the distance. Every now and then we would see green farmland made possible by irrigation. I saw a red double-winged crop dusting plane make a pass to drop insecticide on the crops below. I thought of Snoopy–he would have loved to have been on that plane.

After an hour more, we got to the lowlands and at last I saw the ocean in the distance. I soon heard the ocean’s roar and smelled the salt air. Even after all the trips I’ve made to San Felipe, it was still a surprise to suddenly see an ocean at the edge of a dry and desolate desert.

We turned right when we reached the main highway. The road was surrounded by sand dunes on both sides and gently rose and fell but was absolutely straight. The ocean was only a few miles to our left but it didn’t do much to alleviate the July heat. We had turned the air conditioner off to spare the car’s cooling system and get used to the heat.

There were no clouds in the sky and it was hard to imagine there was life around except for the few scrub cactus and stunted mesquite that broke through the chalky soil. I knew from previous visits, though, that they were simply hiding from the midday heat and would come out when it got cooler.

As we approached San Felipe, billboards touting campsites along the beach became visible to our left. We turned left at our favorite, the Playas del Sol, which was two-thirds of the way to the center of San Felipe from where the first campground was. We left a trail of dust on the gravel road as Barbara drove to the campground which was half a mile from the highway. We were lucky to find a cabaña still available–the shade provided by the thatched palm roof supported on four wooden posts made all the difference between comfort and torture.

Our chosen spot was on a bluff fifteen feet higher than the beach. Barbara and I quickly got our equipment from the car and set them up. Barbara then moved her car to the west side of the cabaña to block the sun when it got low. We decided we didn’t need the tent–the wind wasn’t strong enough and we could sleep in the open. We worked quickly and changed into bathing suits so we could get in the water before the tide started receding again.

High tide is the only time you can swim in San Felipe. The water is all the way to the beach then. Fish come close and often jump out of the water. You can see an occasional flying fish skip thirty yards or more before dropping back into the water again.

The water temperature was pleasant–cool enough to be refreshing but not ice cold like it was in the winter. We stayed only long enough to cool off and went back to tidy up our little camp area for the evening. It was better to do this while it was still light because it gets very dark at night.

I had some pork chops marinating in a container in the ice chest. While waiting for the charcoal to get going, I set a couple of beach chairs on the bluff facing the ocean. We sat on the chairs and watched the tide go out. Sea gulls were making their last attempts at catching fish before the tide receded some more. The temperature must have been in the mid-nineties so we were dry without needing to towel off.

We had a good dinner–Barbara’s salsa was hotter than usual so it required frequent washing down with beer. Coronas weren’t heavy anyway and here in the hot climate you sweated off the effects of beer faster than you could drink it.

We took a shower after we washed our pots and pans in the wash area. The camp site had free toilets but charged a nominal fee for showers. Fresh water was trucked in daily from Mexicali which was sixty miles away. The lack of fresh water is what has slowed developers from fully exploiting this place, thank heavens.

By the time we got back, the camp manager had already turned on the generator that provided electricity to the fluorescent lamps along the main camp road. Besides the road, the wash, bath, and toilet areas were also lit. Lights were turned off at eleven o’clock.

At night, there’s absolutely nothing to do in the campground except stroll on the beach. It’s the kind of place that drive Las Vegas types crazy. We took a flashlight with us to look around–tiny crabs scurried away as we made our way through the tide pools. The exposed ocean floor was muddy, and we found an occasional fish or shrimp trapped in the shallow pools of water.

After the walk, we sat on our folding chairs, sipping beer again. I loved Barbara for understanding there were times when you could be with someone and not need to say anything. The connection was made through the silence, not the exchange of words.

In the distance, I could see the lights of Mexican towns on the mainland and an occasional ferry or fishing boat crossing the gulf which separated us from them. Looking out towards the mainland made it clear to me why early explorers mistook California for an island.

I looked up the moonless sky and through the clear desert air saw more stars than I could count. The Milky Way and the reddish Magellanic Cloud were clearly visible. I thought about my namesake, my tocayo, Antonio Miranda Rodriguez–he must have gazed at these very same stars from this same spot more than two centuries before.

I had read he was a Filipino carpenter who passed through Baja in 1781 with a group of settlers who were going to start a settlement, near the San Gabriel Mission, which would later become Los Angeles. He never made it because his Mexican wife and daughter got sick. He stayed behind to take care of them until they died. He ended up in Santa Barbara instead of Los Angeles.

I wondered what made him and countless other Filipinos cross the Pacific on Spanish galleons leaving everything behind, how he must have felt upon losing his family to illness just when they were getting close to Alta California where they would have had a better life. It seemed Filipinos had been going to strange lands to find better lives forever.

I counted three shooting stars in fifteen minutes but didn’t make a wish. What I wanted I already had.

“Do you mind if I turned the radio on?” I asked Barbara.

“No, it would be good to listen to some music.”

I fiddled with the dial–I could only get AM. I got stations from the Mexican mainland, a strong one from Albuquerque, but stopped at a station from Tuczon that was giving a news summary. The temperature had been over a hundred in most places along the border and the Border Patrol had found some illegal border crossers in the desert. Four were dead and seven were suffering from heat stroke and severe dehydration. The authorities were investigating whether their coyote had abandoned them or if they had crossed on their own without realizing how high the temperature would be that day.

“My God, what a terrible way to die,” Barbara said.

“I don’t understand why people take such chances. It’s dumb,” I replied.

“Maybe some day you will. I’ll love you even more when you do.”

“There are legal ways to get in…”

“Most people can’t get in legally. One day you’ll meet a real illegal and you’ll find out why they do things you consider dumb.”

The news was over. I turned the dial to a Mexican station that played boleros. It was depressing to hear about people crossing the border only to die after they make it to their promised land. The music helped me push the thought away from my mind. I had more beer and watched the stars until I fell asleep.

IT must have been already in the eighties when I woke up. The tide had started to move out again and it was getting quieter. It had come in during the night, its roar lulling me to a deeper sleep. Its sound is so soothing you tend to wake up when it goes away.

The sun hadn’t as yet risen but the eastern horizon already had a pink tinge. Clouds over the mainland were slowly turning crimson. Stars were still visible on the zenith and towards the western horizon. After a while, the sun peeked out and the sky was filled with a riot of colors. I don’t think there’s a more beautiful sunrise than in San Felipe. Too bad not many people get to see it because they don’t wake up early enough.

I placed a towel on Barbara to cover her–I noticed she hadn’t bothered to put her clothes back on after we woke up in the middle of the night wanting each other badly. She was still sleeping soundly and I didn’t want to wake her up.

I filled a pot with water and made coffee, then watched the sun rise higher as I drank my coffee. A few people around camp were now beginning to stir and move about and so did Barbara. She gave me an amused grin when she realized she was naked–she hastily put her clothes on. As she washed her face in a small basin, I made her a cup of coffee. She didn’t say anything but hugged me to give her silent thank you before starting to fry bacon and eggs.

Barbara fried our leftover rice with garlic in the bacon fat. I was surprised how easily she had gotten to like the Filipino breakfast staple I taught her to make. She fixes it every time she gets a chance.

It was a lazy morning and by the time we had everything stowed away, it was already nine o’clock and very hot. We went to town to buy more food, drinks, and ice.

When we returned to Playas del Sol, an itinerant vendor was standing in the shade of our cabaña. He politely waited until we got everything out from the car before showing us what he was selling. He had jamacas, a very compact hammock made from hand-tied twine. It was only a few bucks so I bought one. I didn’t necessarily want to sleep in one but I thought it would be handy in keeping our stuff up from the sand.

I was hanging the hammock from the cabaña posts when I saw this young woman carrying a basket on top of her head. She had it effortlessly balanced and didn’t need to hold it with her hands. It had been a long time since I last saw a woman do that.

She was walking towards us. She was petite, must have been only an inch or two over five feet, and had a nice figure. Her skin was deep brown, perhaps from the sun, and she was wearing an embroidered blouse of rough cotton. She looked like a typical chinita poblana, a Mexican country woman of mostly Indian blood, except she was wearing shorts instead of a skirt. She was a pretty sight to look at–good looking, nice figure, shapely legs, and walking like a model on a runway. The basket on her head made her walk in a sensuous manner, her hips and hands swaying gracefully to keep her balance in the soft sand. I noticed that all the men around us had turned their heads to ogle her.

She approached Barbara and showed what she had in her basket–pork and chicken tamales, she said. She had an intense look in her eyes but they looked like they were ready to turn into a twinkle anytime.

“Do you have salsa to go with it?” Barbara asked.

“Yes, of course,” she answered. “It is good and fresh.”

“Let me try one chicken,” Barbara said.

I brought over a paper plate and a fork. The woman put the tamale on the plate and Barbara split the cornhusk wrapper open with her fork. She then poured salsa straight from the jar and started eating.

“It’s good, I can eat another one. Do you want one, hon?”

“I’ll try one,” I said. I got another paper plate and asked for pork tamale. It was almost lunch time anyway and it was too hot to cook. All we needed was cold beer and our lunch would be complete.

I pulled the beach chairs into the shade and offered one to the woman.

“My name is Tony, this is Barbara. We’re from Los Angeles.”

“I am Lita,” she said softly as she sat down. She had been staring at me for a while. I got a plastic cup and asked if she wanted soda or beer.

“Coke is fine, if you have.”

I put ice in the plastic cup for her and poured her some Coke. I got a couple of Coronas for myself and Barbara.

After Lita took a sip, she said, “Dalawa na lang po ang natitira, bilhin na po ninyo para huwag na akong maglakad pa.”

I was pleasantly surprised and smiled, “Pinay ka pala. Kaya naman pala napakaganda mo.”

She lowered her eyes and blushed. I turned to Barbara, “Luv, she’s Filipina. She says she has only two tamales left and was wondering if we want to buy them so she can go home.”

“Why not, they’re good–I’m sure you can eat another one.”

We sat there in the shade eating our lunch. I offered a tamale to Lita but she declined saying she couldn’t eat one–she made them every day. I gave her instead a mango we got from town.

“How did you get to Baja?” I asked.

“It is long story, take too long to tell.”

“Oh, we got time,” I said but Lita didn’t say anything.

“Tell you what,” Barbara said, joining in. “We’d like to invite you for dinner tonight. It’s the Fourth of July and we’d like to celebrate a little bit. Then you can tell us.”

Lita thought for a while then said, “Only if you let me cook.”

“Nothing fancy, we don’t have a lot of utensils here. I was just going to cook what we were able to buy in the market this morning.”

Lita checked the icebox. “We have plenty–I bring what else we need,” she said as she picked up her basket. “Let me go now so I tell my family about tonight–they are very good to me.”

“Do you live far? I can drive you,” Barbara offered.

“No, I can walk. The house I live is near entrance to this camp. Across street, on left, only house there.”

“I’ll see you later then–I won’t start till you get here.”

Meanwhile, the tide had rolled back in. People were now all over the beach frolicking in the surf. To the right, I could see Cerro El Machorro, dark, tall, and majestic. It hid San Felipe from our view. I imagine it was what fishermen used as a landmark in finding their way back to port. I wouldn’t know–I have never been out to sea in San Felipe.

It was a lazy and peaceful feeling, sitting in the shade and listening to the surf. It’s hard to imagine how a hot, barren, and remote place could have attracted settlers hundreds of years ago. But then some people tend to occupy niches and would gladly settle for a less abundant place to call home rather than struggle against other people in a more opulent location. I wondered if I had what it takes to live in such a place or if I would do what many of them do–cross the border to find better life in Alta California.

Barbara had gone to the water to cool off. You can’t really swim very well in San Felipe, the water is shallow in most places. But you can sit on the sandy bottom and let the cool water splash over you and the strong waves rock you back and forth. It’s a great place to pretend you’re a seaweed.

By the time I got in the water, Barbara already had her limit of sun for the day. I stayed in the water for an hour while she dozed off on the beach chair in the shade of the cabaña.

BARBARA and I had already showered and changed when Lita arrived promptly at five o’clock. She was wearing a loose, lavender printed shift that draped beautifully over her body. It showed off her figure quite well. She had with her a wok and a small basket filled with vegetables. It seemed she was ready for some serious cooking and wasn’t going to settle for anything less.

“Lita, you shouldn’t have bothered,” Barbara said.

“I want to cook good food this time–we don’t have much what we cook here in Baja, we’re too poor. And I want to practice, too.”

“I leave everything up to you, then. I’ll help–tell me what you want me to do.”

Lita and Barbara were soon at work–Lita taught Barbara her recipes. I stayed out of their way and helped by washing the dirty dishes, pots, and pans.

It took them a while but when they got done, we had sinigang of mullet, beef fajitas, pepper fried shrimp, and steamed rice. We had more food than we could eat so I suggested they take some to Lita’s foster family. Barbara and Lita wrapped food in aluminum foil and took them there. It was a chance to let her family know how good a cook she was.

While they were away, I managed to appropriate for our use a couple of wooden planks which I set across the two ice chests to make a table. I used an extra bed sheet for a tablecloth. I set the food, paper plates, napkins, and plastic flatware on our banquet table. It was beginning to look like a real party and I wished we had dinner candles to make it perfect.

A man selling fireworks out of the trunk of his car was making the rounds when Barbara and Lita got back. I bought a few each of the different kinds he had. Fireworks are illegal in most of California because they’re dangerous. But what the heck, I was in Mexico and wanted to live a bit dangerously.

We ate dinner out of styrofoam plates using plastic flatware. Lita was a good cook–I especially liked her pepper fried shrimp which was lightly battered and crispy. I kept going back with my paper cup for additional helpings of her sour soup.

“Where did you learn to cook?” I asked.

“I cook at home when I was young girl. Then I live in Hong Kong, and now in Mexico. I learn all kinds of cooking because I always help whoever cooks.”

“Where are you from?”

“I am Bicolana, from Daraga, Albay. I went to Hong Kong as maid. I was sixteen when I left home–I make false papers to show I was eighteen.”

“That’s interesting. How did you get to Mexico?”

She didn’t answer but sipped her tequila instead. Like when I asked earlier, she evaded my question.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into your life.”

She looked at me and said, “I like to tell people my story but nobody believe me because it sound not true.”

Barbara put an arm around her shoulder and said, “Tell me–I’ll believe you.” Barbara was a people person, one who easily obtained the trust of those she met. I was her exact opposite, I didn’t trust anyone and nobody trusted me.

Lita began by telling us how she got recruited from her hometown in Albay by an agent from Manila. She didn’t have enough money for fees and airfare so she signed a promissory note to pay an exorbitant amount for her expenses. The payments would come out of her pay once she started working in Hong Kong. She and several other girls were taken to a residence in Manila where they were briefed on how to behave and how to conduct themselves. More importantly, they were told how a company representative would come around every payday to collect the amount due on the loans.

Things went fine with her–she was able to send a little money home and save a little for herself even after making her monthly payments to the recruiting company. Her dream was to save enough to be able to buy a modest house and start a little dress shop in her hometown when she returned.

It had gotten dark and the camp generator was turned on. People began setting off fireworks and lighting firecrackers. I got mine out and was getting ready to join in the celebration when I saw two local boys looking enviously at everybody else. I called them over and said they could light my fireworks if they felt like it.

“Gracias, señor. Feliz Cuatro de Julio!” one said as they proceeded to argue about who was going to light which rocket. Soon the sky was filled with rockets bursting into multicolored sparklers that floated down leisurely. The pop-pop-pop of firecrackers came from all around. It was strange to see the Fourth of July being celebrated in another country but tonight San Felipe, with all its visitors, was an American town.

Lita continued with her story as we sipped more tequila.

“Everything fine until my master’s wife visit her family in New Territories. My amo came home one night and wanted a woman. He force me–I never been in bed with a man before. I was scared and wish to die. He did it again the next night and until his wife return home.

“I told her what happen but she laugh, say to me I only want money from them to make accusation. I went to Philippine Consulate and they tell me go to office that would help. I learn they could not because I cannot prove–I did not run away or call police when it happen.

“I become so sad. I do not know what to do, then later houseboy next door who was good person tell me he leave for America. A ship take a boat full of people to America. He give money for down payment and pay balance after he work in America.

“I ask to come but I do not know if I have enough money so he tell boat officer we are married so I only pay little amount for down payment.”

At that point it seemed Lita wouldn’t continue with her story. Barbara put more ice in her glass. I poured more tequila and lime soda for her. We watched the last of the fireworks as Lita continued with her story.

It took them four weeks to cross the Pacific. The ship’s captain first tried to dump them off in Canada but a navy ship started trailing them when they got close. Their ship moved south but it was impossible to get close to the western shores of the United States–the Coast Guard must have been warned by the Canadian Navy. The ship’s officers were getting desperate so when they got to Mexico they packed their load of passengers onto lifeboats and let them paddle by themselves to shore in Baja California.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good. A few boats capsized and some people drowned. Most of those who made it to shore were apprehended and taken into custody. Lita was one of the few who managed not to get caught. Her brown skin helped her blend in with the locals–the Chinese didn’t have a chance.

Lita was taken in by a friendly family who lived outside Ensenada. They hid her from the authorities but after a few weeks took her to San Felipe where they said she would be safer. They had relatives there who were just as poor but who understood how it was to hide from the authorities.

After all the fireworks had been lit and exploded, relative peace settled once more on the beach. We started putting things away–tomorrow we’d be on our way back to L.A. Back to routine, back to trying to make enough money to pay off bills and still have enough left for an occasional trip like this.

Unexpectedly, Lita came to me and said, “Manong, if you could be so kind can I go with you to Los Angeles tomorrow? I think I can pass the border checkpoint because they know I am not Mexican and they think I come with you for July 4th vacation.”

I was flabbergasted. I felt sorry for her but I knew what would happen if we got caught trying to smuggle her in.

“It’s not a simple task,” I said. “If they get suspicious, they’ll not only get you but also put us in jail. Barbara has a lot to lose because they can take her car away.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Barbara said. “I think it’s the best time to get her in because there’ll be thousands of other people returning to the U.S. from this three-day weekend. The border agents will have their hands full and won’t be able to scrutinize everybody as much as they normally would.”

“Well, it’s still a big risk–we should really think it over before we say yes or no. If we get caught, they’ll take away my green card and kick me out of the country.”

They didn’t say anything more but gave me a pained and disappointed look. The mood turned dark.

“Let me take you home, Lita,” Barbara finally said. “We’ll get this settled somehow.”

WHEN Barbara returned, she was sullen and quiet. I tried to make small talk but she kept ignoring me. Finally, she blurted out, “Dammit, why can’t you have compassion for other people for once. Here’s your chance to do something good and you refuse to do it.”

“You know I can’t take the chance–you’re safe because you’re American-born. You know what they would do to me if we get caught.”

“You’re so fuckin’ gutless you can’t even stick your neck out for one of your own kind. You know what she’s been through? You haven’t even tasted a fraction of what she’s been through. How can you be so smug in your self-righteousness about what’s right or wrong?”

“I can’t take the chance…”

“Look, if you’re so fuckin’ chicken you can get out from the car before we get to the border. You can fuckin’ walk across–you have papers. Why don’t you let us take that chance? Just make sure you have enough money for bus fare to L.A. because I wouldn’t want you back in my car… Gosh, I thought I knew you better.”

With that she started crying and moved her sleeping bag as far away as she could from mine. Barbara tended to use colorful language when she gets mad but I had never seen her so agitated before. It bothered me because it seemed we truly didn’t know each other very well.

I had a fitful night–I wanted to reach out and touch Barbara but she seemed so far away. I had nightmares about being left behind and walking all the way across the desert to get back to L.A. The sun was mercilessly beating down on me and I wanted water but there was none.

The next morning started out exactly like the last one–hot and muggy. I didn’t feel like drinking coffee so I didn’t make any. Nobody bothered to fix breakfast. I knew Barbara was feeling as badly as I was for her eyes were red from crying and she was unusually quiet. We packed our things and loaded them into her car in silence. So this was how relationships ended. I didn’t know it would be so quiet.

I had a sick and empty feeling as we left the campground. I drove along the gravel road towards the main highway where I had to turn right to get back to California.

As I stopped at the corner to check for cross traffic, I saw through the already shimmering haze of the midmorning heat a lone shack across the road on the left–it looked so far from Daraga. I remembered my tocayo who vainly tried more than two hundred years ago to take his family north from here to give them a better life.

I wasn’t sure whether it was because borders didn’t make sense to me anymore or if I was simply scared of losing Barbara. Whatever it was, I crossed to the other side of the highway and turned left. When she noticed, Barbara reached out to touch my hand and started weeping. Her touch made me feel good again.

WE had Lita sit in the front with me, Barbara moved to the back seat. It would look better that way at the border. Lita only had one duffel bag–I thought it odd that one can move from one country to another with so very little. It made clear to me one doesn’t need much in life except his own wits to survive.

We were quiet on the way back to the border. The long drive gave me time to reflect on what happened the night before–I began to understand how my dreams had shaped not only how others saw me but how I perceived them as well.

Barbara was right–the immigration officer was busy and only asked how long we’ve been away, where we’ve been, and whether we had purchased anything in Mexico. He entered our vehicle’s plate number into his computer and waved us through when he found nothing.

When we got back on the freeway inside the U.S. I told Barbara I needed to stop in San Diego to do something. I got off the freeway and drove to the parking lot at the Amtrak station.

I got out of the car, opened the back door, and picked up my knapsack. I handed Barbara the car keys and gave her a long, lingering hug. I found it hard to keep everything in as I said, “Luv, I’m taking the train home.”

©2001 by H.O. Santos