Waiting For Mario's Brother, Dreaming Of The Other Side

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Some old-timers remember when the Nogales border was marked by no more than a chain link fence, perforated by holes they could slip through to do their weekly shopping. Then in 1999, the Clinton administration refortified the border. Along with the wall, the administration installed cameras. More border patrol officers. High technology movement sensors. Drones. Helicopters.

I turn onto the street leading to the Colonia de Buenos Aires, one of the most dangerous colonias (districts) in the bordertown of Nogales. The streets are narrow and cluttered with beat-up old cars. Though paved, the streets are scarred by deep potholes. I drive past the beautiful painting of the Virgen De Guadalupe, the mother of the mestizos, the Virgin Mary of Mexico. There’s a fresh coat of paint on her smile. While the rest of the colonía is covered in graffiti, she remains somehow untouched.

The migrant shelter,
run by Homero Hernandez, provides food and shelter to those returning from failed attempts to cross the border. Homero also helps find jobs in Nogales for those who want them. He often encourages people who say they are planning to cross to go home rather than risk losing their lives, but many try anyway. Having sold everything they own to pay a coyote—a human-smuggler who charges anywhere from $1500 to $3000 to sneak you across the border—they have little choice.

The shelter is a dismal looking place. The back room doesn’t get much light. It has drab, gray walls and concrete floors. When I visit, there are two men in the corner of the room. One is lying under a thin wool blanket. He is wearing thick hipster glasses, very similar to my own, and a band T-shirt. His name, I find out, is Sergio. The other man is sitting up, staring at the floor. He’s wearing a black polo shirt with the word Durango embroidered on the left breast pocket. His name is Mario.

It is hot. Though a mere hint of the scorching summer heat to come, I can nonetheless feel it pulling moisture through my skin. Already I’ve finished off two water bottles, and it is only 10 a.m. Welcome to the desert, where summer temperatures can rise above 110 degrees. I’d put the temperature today around 85, and it’s only April. I remark to Mario about the heat, thinking it a safe topic. He nods, but I note a slightly panicked expression in his eyes.

Later, I find out that Mario’s brother is out in the desert, somewhere, wandering and possibly lost. The stretch of desert Mario and his brother passed through to enter the United States was directly across from a little town called Altar. They call this stretch the “Death Corridor.”

Mario and his brother attempted to cross together, but Mario was caught by a Border Patrol officer. He was in the desert for two days when he agreed to “voluntary deportation,” and another two days have passed since then. He and his brother each carried two gallons of water. In this heat, a Border Patrol officer later tells me, people should be drinking at least a half-gallon of water every two hours. Now it has now been four days, and there is still no word from Mario’s brother.

Every few minutes, the phone at the shelter rings, and Homero yells, “Mario! Teléfono, para ti!”

Mario accidentally takes a call on speakerphone, and I can hear the voices of the missing brother’s children laughing in the background. His sister-in-law’s voice sounds shrill, edged with panic. He turns the speakerphone off, and says something softly into the receiver. I can see he’s trying to be strong for her, but there’s a naked, vulnerable look in his eyes, even as he whispers comforting words to his brother’s wife. After he says goodbye, he walks over to me and slides down the wall to the floor, briefly putting his head in his hands before flashing me a smile. So macho.

“No word?” I ask. He shakes his head.

“He’s 23,” Mario tells me. My eyebrows arch. His brother’s only a year older than I am. “He has a wife and two kids. A two-year-old and a four-year-old.” His mouth quivers into a grin. “They’re troublemakers, but he loves them. He almost turned around and went back after he’d been gone a week. I think if they’d asked him, he would have.”

Mario looks at me. “He’s my little brother. I was supposed to take care of him.”

Still no word from Mario’s brother. I’ve been making a point of coming every day. I stay for a few hours. Three. Five. Six. We talk, joke. Exchange stories. We’re sitting on the front porch. Mario smokes as I sip watery coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. He’s still wearing the same shirt he was wearing the day I met him; I realize it’s probably the only shirt he has with him.

“You shouldn’t drink coffee.” Mario remarks to me with wide-eyed earnestness, gesturing to the cup with his cigarette. “It’s bad for you.” He takes another drag, and I toss my empty cup at him, looking pointedly at his cigarette. He grins and offers me one. I shake my head. We’ve been sharing stories about home. Mario’s dad runs a fruit stand. His mother sells food and mends clothes for a profit. Though mining is the largest economic provider in Durango, it doesn’t pay well, and there aren’t enough jobs to go around. Mario’s family, like many migrants, used to be in agriculture. I ask him why they don’t work on farms anymore. He shrugs. “No jobs.” He hesitates, combing through his hair with his fingers, and sighs. “There isn’t a lot of work. People there usually make less than 40 pesos per day. It isn’t really enough. Eventually, they think, well, if I deal drugs I’ll make a lot more. And it’s true.”

“Is it easy to get in with?” I ask. Mario laughs.

“Getting in isn’t the problem. It’s getting out. There’s only one way out.”

“They kill you?”

 Mario gives me a strange sort of half-smile and scratches his head. Sergio chokes back a laugh. Oh, little girl.

“You. Your family. Your in-laws. Your friends. I once knew of a guy who tried to get out, and they killed everyone. The entire family. I think they were 20. Maybe more. Some of them didn’t even know he was involved.”

Mario yawns and stretches. He hasn’t been sleeping much, always waiting for the phone. “That’s why I’d never get into it. Too risky,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”


Mario is not himself. A stranger might not be able to tell, just looking at him, but we can. He stares at the floor, eyes clouded and unblinking. I hand him a Styrofoam cup of coffee. He takes it, meets my eyes briefly in quick thanks, and goes back to staring at the floor. He seems to have developed a nervous twitch, and the edge of his mouth is pinched, as though permanently pressed into a strange half-smile.

The phone rings. He jerks from his seat and walks into the office with slow, dragging steps. I go out onto the front porch, wondering if this will be “the phone call” we’ve all been expecting. Sergio is outside, smoking a cigarette. He offers me one, and I absently shake my head. He eyes me through his thick frames.

“So what do you think?” Sergio asks me.

He jerks his chin towards Mario. I turn to look across the street. There’s a thick heat haze over the pavement in front of the shelter, slightly blurring my view of the convenience store across the street. The news predicted that the temperature would top 85. I don’t want to answer Sergio, as though voicing our collective thoughts would make our fears come true. I stay quiet, looking into the wavering distance.

“I think his brother’s dead,” Sergio says, matter-of-factly, and takes another drag of his cigarette. I give a subtle nod. We all think Mario’s brother is dead. It has simply been too long.

Mario and his brother left with a group of 20 a week ago. The coyotes broke them up into two parties. Mario and his brother were separated into different groups; the coyotes often seem to do this. I’m not certain why. They stayed in a guesthouse in Altar on Thursday night. By early Friday morning they got to a point where the road dwindles out, and had begun to walk.

That was the last Mario had seen of his brother. Early Sunday morning, Mario began to lag behind the rest of the group. They sat down to rest, and Mario fell asleep. When he woke up, the group had already left; no one had bothered to wake him up. He quickly got lost.

“I was very lucky,” he had told me earnestly. “I was found by Border Patrol, and they brought me back here.”

At the time I had shaken my head, not understanding. “But weren’t you upset about being caught? I mean, you’d already spent all that money...”

“I was lost, Malia. I can always try again. My aunt is sending more money. I’ll make it next time.”

I don’t want to go to the shelter today. It’s embarrassing to admit to myself, and especially to acknowledge that I have the choice. I can escape this reality, return to my comfortable California home. For Mario, Sergio and countless others, escape is not an option. Steeling myself—and feeling like a coward all the while—I drive to the shelter and park in the dirt lot.

Sergio’s on the porch in a rusted folding chair. Smoking.

“Mario’s brother got in last night,” he says casually, as I get to the door. “He’s sleeping.”

I try not to stare at the man lying on a bed in the back room. His arms are striped with deep black scratches and dried blood. His T-shirt and jeans are shredded into strips that somehow manage to remain attached to his body. His feet are a bloody mess. Mario is sitting in a chair next to him. He motions for me to come over. His brother opens his eyes as I approach. I don’t want to continue staring, so instead I extend my hand.

“Hi, I’m Malia. I’ve heard a lot about you.” He shakes my hand with a surprisingly firm grip for someone just rescued from death. “It’s good to see you made it back.”

He tells me his story. Like Mario, he had gotten lost. Like Mario, his group left him because he had fallen asleep. And like Mario, they also did not bother to wake him when they left. Unlike Mario, though, he did not have the luck of being found by Border Patrol. Not immediately. He ran out of water the third day. For the next four days he wandered through the desert, without water. On day five, he was attacked by coyotes (the animals, not the smugglers). He showed me the deep bite marks on his upper thigh. By day six, he was hallucinating.

“I saw the Pope,” he tells me, grinning. “He’s an interesting guy.” He and Mario laugh.

Mario’s brother shakes his head. “I was lucky. I fell by a road, close enough for someone to see. A guy found me, and brought me to the Border Patrol.” I ask him if he is planning on trying to cross again. He shakes his head vehemently.

“I could have died. I almost died. I’m going home. As soon as I get well enough to travel, I’m going home to my family in Durango.”

 “I’m going to try to cross again tomorrow,” Mario tells me. I don’t say anything for a moment. Are you crazy? I want to ask him. But I don’t. He obviously knows better than I do what this decision entails.

Instead I ask, “You’ll call me when you get there?” Mario nods. I give him a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. His plan is to leave the next day. He tells me to wait for a letter or a phone call. If he gets deported he’ll write; if he makes it, he’ll call. I leave the shelter, wondering if I’ll ever see him again.

Four months have passed.
I’m still waiting.



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