• What America Has Chosen Not to Understand About the Border

    Charles Bowden on the US-Mexico Frontier

    There is a time at the Chinese place, one with a private menu you must ask for. The guy I work with is much older, banging against sixty. But he is trim and very active. His wife is fat. He leans toward me when the women have gone to the restroom and says, “You’re not thinking of getting married, are you? Don’t do it, trust me.”

    All that was long ago.

    Now I listen to the agent talking about the big bust.

    Everyone wants out. That is what the agent feeds on, this hole he smells in others, the emptiness of old attics with nothing but dust and cobwebs and forgotten trunks.

    For a while, the café is a place they meet because they bankroll it as a way to explain their money. The waitress is all smiles even though the customers are few.

    I asked her what was the nice part of town where people with money lived.

    She said, “Oh, it’s all mixed up, all together,” and her smile was the size of sunrise.

    They are coming, dozens of them, hundreds of them, thousands, millions, billions of them. They are hungry. They are tall and short and brown and white and black and they want what we have or they want what they think we have or they simply want and they are coming, coming over walls, under walls, through the wire, the bathroom window, down from the attic, up from the cellar. This stampede begins before I am born, I see the trampled all around me as a child, poor whites and blacks fleeing the south, displaced persons from the war in Europe, the rural folk of the Midwest driven off the land, grim faces in the mills and slaughterhouses, women with blank eyes hanging clothes on the gray porches facing the elevated trains that stream into the bowels of the city.

    They’ve been coming all my life but there were always stories about more plates at the table, progress and two-car garages.

    And they all want just a little, a taste of the food at the head table. I remember an aunt sewing piecework in a small place by the coking mill. Her dreams were fried chicken, beds of peonies, frilly clothes and very dark nail polish.

    Everyone is fleeing the bad days.

    There are cabins by the lake, the summer hot velvet in the night. There are hard words, a guy from the Balkans calls another man a kike and then holes up in his cabin at one a.m. With a .45.

    The insulted man stands outside throwing rocks at the cabin and screaming threats. He can’t marshal a word as hateful as kike. It is not in him.

    A crowd forms among the cabins that night, as the rocks fly and the man hides inside with his pistol. The people smoke and hold drinks in their hands. There is a murmuring but no one knows what to say. The man in the cabin with his gun and his hate is beyond their skills. He is something they want to forget even exists.

    But they are coming, all broken and maimed and they want what we have and they want what they think we have and what we think hardly matters. Because we refuse to know what they have lived and for that reason we cannot know the hunger inside them or the anger.

    There is the time in the kitchen. I wash dishes, I’m fifteen and the air runs a hundred degrees hour after hour. One of the owners also pulls some shifts as a cook and he fucks the waitresses when he can. The other cooks have at them in the cool room over the lettuce crates. Sometimes the waitresses have black eyes from their times between shifts. The guys who work with me in the dishwashing room or as bus boys almost all have records and carry knives.

    I get off at one or two a.m. and walk dark city streets with a pack of smokes. I leave the cigarettes on a ledge a block away near the Four Square Gospel Church to save trouble at home. I dream of the waitresses, I savor their scent.

    There’s an old guy in the back who cleans the lettuce and such.

    He hates me.

    Finally, he explodes and says, “You don’t belong here, you think you are better than us.”

    I don’t know what to say. But I am learning the sound of them coming, all of them coming for what they dream, the women wearing sunglasses over their black eyes, the guys with long-sleeved shirts to cover jailhouse tattoos.

    Sometimes we drink in the park and I get free beer.

    One night at a party, a bus boy, this one different, this one from a good home, a kid who volunteers on a search and rescue team, he plays tennis and god knows what else. He’s in the kitchen and he says something to one of the cooks, a scrawny guy who seems all skin and bone. The little cook knocks him down and pounds his head into the cement floor, and I see the eyes of the guy on the floor and he looks like a bird just snared by a snake and powerless to resist.

    They’ve been coming all my life but there were always stories about more plates at the table, progress and two-car garages.


    The woman stands in six-inch heels spiking her open platform shoes with red nail polish gleaming. She wears beige slacks, a leopard-pattern blouse and makes a few bare notes in block letters as she listens next to her camera man. The man speaking wears a dark blue shirt with black stripes. He says if he is sent back he will be killed. Behind on the wall is a color print of one of his cousins holding his baby—Dionel was twenty-four when they killed him.

    The lawyer looks on. He is framed by the son and the mother. The son is very fit, the year in prison has helped. There were times, the lawyer says, when the son thought of suicide.

    A reporter asks, “Will you return to Mexico?”

    “Right now Mexico is not part of my life.”

    Six months after Dionel, the father, Servando, goes down.

    A month after that, Edgar, a cousin, is slaughtered.

    On the wall are happy moments. His father at his sister’s high school graduation, she sports a blue cap and gown and clutches her diploma. Her parents flank her, they are all smiles.

    Another photograph is of his grandmother, all gray hair and beaming as she leans over to blow out the candles, surrounded by family and with a green balloon emblazoned HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

    No one who leaves the prison takes more than $50 because they can’t keep anything when they are given up by the Mexican agents and are kidnapped and tortured.

    His grandmother goes nine months after cousin Edgar. It is a family reunion and along with the grandmother, they cut down three aunts, two uncles and a cousin. Eight months after that, another uncle is slaughtered. Then the guy gets a warning and flees across the river and that is how he came to the prison. He entered the country illegally. He had not done his paperwork. He was born on the south side of the river but had spent his life on the north side and never gave it a thought until he got in a scrape, the authorities ran his name and threw him away. After that the killing began. Finally, eleven members of his family were dead.

    The mother watches, her face a mask.

    The son says that when people are deported from his prison, the Mexican agents turn them over to cartels as soon as they cross the bridge, who in turn call their relatives in the US for ransom money. Sometimes the money is scraped together, sometimes not. Sometimes the kidnapped are not murdered.

    No one who leaves the prison takes more than $50 because they can’t keep anything when they are given up by the Mexican agents and are kidnapped and tortured.

    The press listens and has few questions.

    I sit in the back of the room. There is the boy, the mother, the lawyer up front. Then, a bank of cameras. Then the talent, the women who do the standups afterwards before the cameras and they have notebooks or pads and write, always, with very big letters. Then there are the print people with smaller notebooks and they write with smaller letters. Then, the legal staff. And then me. The blood and screams can hardly be heard.

    The people listening want to keep a distance from the story being told and I am no different. There is a wall and it is patrolled by the questions we ask and the words we choose.


    There are places I try not to go.

    I walk the creek, the hawk screams, I busy myself with observations, make notes about sightings and the first flowers that follow the rain.

    There is that night, an October evening, when the family gathers and the killers came in the back door armed with AKs and one of the killers is a woman. The grandmother goes down, some aunts and uncles, a cousin, and it’s better to keep a distance from the pain waiting in the front of the room at the press conference, the eleven corpses.

    On the creek, the trick is to name the bird, not to be the bird. There are lines and crossing them has a cost. Become the bird and you can never return to being the person you were. Become the grandma full of holes lurching with the old birthday cake and you cannot keep what is happening over there.

    A young gray hawk perches on the edge of the field and I see it in the soft light before dawn and the seeping darkness that comes after sunset. I can feel its eyes on me. It is less than a year old but stares with force and leaves a blood trail that soars in the heavens and screams through the most remote sanctuary of the forest, a killer’s eyes looking out on a landscape of murder and yet the drive, as in all birds, seems to be always something ahead, the nest, the eggs, the hatchlings, the future.

    I hear its scream in the half-light just as dawn seeps over the ridge. I cross a line and join the beasts. A man slides out of the tall grass in the growing dusk, a water jug on his hip, small pack on his back and I cross a line.

    On the line, they are always coming, always hungry.

    The final question is this: if you cross the line can you bear the breath of life blowing on the back of your neck and then building to gale force until it knocks you flat on the ground? I lie there thinking this must be death and knowing this has to be life or there will be nothing but death.


    The agent talks about when they took down the head of the ring. He says he was surprised by his house. Modular. And in every room, he sneers, a forty-inch screen. In the kitchen, nothing but a sack of potatoes and a sack of beans.

    The ringleader drives an ’89 Jaguar with bald tires.

    “I’m trying to tell you,” the agent says with finality, “the guy had no taste.”

    There is a recent receipt for fifty grand from a casino.

    He pays his drivers three grand for moving a load seventy-five miles.

    He lacks taste.

    Beans, potatoes, big screens, bald tires.

    The agent says they were moving two tons a week. A local guy says, “I knew them since they were born, their father was a hard-working man, just a hard-working man and the kids, well, they were around and I always knew when something was up. I’d see girls at the stash house and it was just down the street but they were moving a ton a week, hell, they’d be borrowing money for gas and someone, somebody had vengeance, that’s what I think, hell, the one brother got eight and the other twelve and that ain’t no plea bargain for moving some grass, no, somebody got vengeance.”

    And that’s all he says.

    The clouds hang low, the rains have come and then the creek rises. The ground swells up wet and smears the face as leaves float slowly to earth off the cottonwoods. In the store, the tanned man gets three packs of smokes and a twelve pack, the young cashier leans forward spilling her breasts because it is summer and because she knows what is wanted and all of this, every second of this, vanishes when the agents come and take you away to their cages.

    The ravens croak in the pre-dawn gray, the air damp and memories of strawberries well up in my head. I heat some tripe, place the pile on the lip of the creek, watch the black hulks swoop down and remember a day in early May when I enter a farm kitchen with a pail full of strawberries plucked as I crawled on my knees between the rows of dark green leaves and my fingers are smeared red and I reach up to the counter where a porcelain crock rests and take the ladle of cool water drawn from the well and the air still feels the cool of night and the soft damp that will burn off in an hour or so and now the ravens croak and one flies off with a piece of tripe in its bill and I feel nothing less than wonder and want to smear what is left of my life all over the ground and trees and the vault of blue rising about the forest. I walk from the raven and somehow am back in that long-ago kitchen, walk past the crock resting on the old wooden countertop, go into the dining room where fine white curtains with embroidered edges flutter softly in the slight stir of morning, lick my red-stained fingers and look out at the sweep of land—corn, oats, barley, flax, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, red clover—hear the lowing of the cattle, the cluck of hens. I smell her perfume, feel the soft fabric of her blouse brush my fingers, fall into a well of past aromas and sounds and colors and light, a place that provides safe harbor from what I see just over that ridge, the skies going to fire, the rains burning off before touching ground, trees going yellow then brown, the wind up and at night the moon stares at heaped bones that glow in the cities.

    They are coming, there will be plans, speeches, special agents, new guns and walls, still they will come, the mosquitoes and gnats are at my face, first bats of evening, hummingbirds of dawn, a Strauss waltz floats out the door and over the creek, vultures stare from the cottonwoods with red heads and loving eyes and I learn what governments never will know, that there are many ways of being alive. The rose petals falling on the ground, the hardness of her nipple as I brush my fingers against it, the dog worrying a rank scent along the trail, small tracks in the mud, the pad of the lion, they are coming, there are too many of us, still they come, the beasts can barely get to the table, still they come, millions of them, billions of them, hurling through space from some dream in the loins of others.



    From Sonata by Charles Bowden. Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2020

    Charles Bowden
    Charles Bowden
    The author of twenty-six books, Charles Bowden has also been a contributing editor for GQ, Harper's, Esquire, and Mother Jones. His best-known work focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border, which engrosses him because it is a trip wire for issues—migration spawned by global inequality, the rise of stateless criminal cartels—that will shape the twenty-first century.

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