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I. El dompe
In Tijuana there is a neighbourhood called el dompe, or the dump. Once an enormous canyon, it is now completely filled with garbage. The first time I visited, driving through in one of the priest’s vans, I saw a man without any pants fighting with a crow for a piece of garbage. The crow was cawing and pecking angrily at his groping fingers. The withered brown dick flopping between his legs was the same colour as the rancid piece of garbage he was fighting for. I saw this in the two seconds it took for Padre Raúl to drive by, and then they were gone, hidden by the mountains of plastic bags, Styrofoam and toilet bowl seats. If you don’t write it down, I told myself, you’ll forget all about it. It’ll be like it never happened.
II. Padre Pepe
In 2007 I spent a summer in Tijuana, living and working with the Salesian priests. Padre Pepe was my favourite. Then in his mid-fifties, he was into ultra-running—he’d come in second for his age category at the San Diego marathon. At 6:30 every morning, when I went downstairs to prepare the chapel for morning mass, I’d pass by him running laps up and down the stairs, huffing and puffing in his grey sweats. Running on the streets at night was out of the question. “By the canal?” he’d say contemptuously, tapping his bushy white moustache with an index finger. “They’ll steal the shoes right off your feet – I should know!”
After the buenas noches prayers at 10 p.m., all the volunteers and priests would sit down together and eat dinner. Every now and then, after everyone else went to bed, Padre Pepe and I would share a Dos XX cerveza and a pack of Marlboros. He smoked cigarettes left-handed, holding it between his index finger and thumb, like a movie gangster.
We talked about my love life, mostly. I told him about how my ex-boyfriend broke my heart and he tut-tutted severely. “You’ll get over it,” he said briskly, sweeping the ash off the table with the back of his hand. It sounded truer coming from him than it had from anyone else: you’ll get over it. It also felt strange saying the words aloud to him, in such a flat, matter-of-fact way: He broke my heart. As though it was something that happened in a single instance, splitting you quickly down the middle, as opposed to something that tore you apart for months and months. He broke my heart. You’ll get over it.
Lukas was the Salesian centre volunteer. He was Austrian and was volunteering in Mexico for a year instead of doing military service. He had beady green eyes that reminded me of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. His Spanish was so bad, his Austrian accent so thick, that half the time I couldn’t understand a word he said to me. I had to lie and tell him I was partly deaf, smiling apologetically and pointing constantly at my ear. I was also slightly intimidated by his extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the Salesian centre: where the mops were kept, who to chase away from the oratory because they did heroin, how to tell when a priest was in a bad mood.
One evening he asked me if I had any extra blankets, and if I would follow him upstairs to the men’s quarters, where women weren’t allowed: “I have to show you something.” I followed him reluctantly into the men’s laundry room. He showed me his wool blanket and the shredded remains of what looked like a Virgin Mary pillow, one of the decorative ones that local mothers were always giving us as presents. The Virgin Mary’s face was now in rags, barely discernible unless you already knew to look for her, and his blanket was embedded with shiny beads.
“What,” I said, “did you do?”
“Nothing! I put them in the washing machine together and this is what happened!” His arms spread wide as though asking for a hug,
I looked at him with my best expression of compassionate understanding. “I’ll get the extra sheets,” I said, and turned to leave.
He grabbed my wrist and pushed me against the wall. I was too surprised to do anything much. Because his accent was so impossible to understand, part of me believed that this was a mistake, that I was somehow confused, that I had missed some important information along the way. When his hands reached under my shirt to squeeze my breasts, there was no mistaking any misunderstanding. His hands felt sticky, as though covered in dried glue. Without even knowing what I was doing, I brought my wrist down and karate-chopped him on the arm as hard as I could.
“Ow!” he said, stepping back. We looked at each other. I turned again to leave.
“Wait,” he said. “The blankets?”
I kept walking, but I went upstairs to the women’s quarters and brought him back a stack of crisply folded sheets. You see, I didn’t want to be rude.
Lalo was the foreman who worked at one of the oratories. His smile was enormous and gap-toothed. Every week a new busload of fresh-faced, eager American high school students or church youth groups would pull into the Salesian centre. It was my job to lead them around Tijuana, show them how to mix cement, translate the homily at mass and so on. Lalo was there to help with the technical details.
As the weeks went by, Lalo remained the only constant at the site as the American kids came and went. Sometimes the little Mexican cholo or gangster-wannabes would hang around while we painted. They couldn’t be more than eleven or twelve years old. One of them had the Adidas logo tattooed in the back of his scabby, shaved little head. They would pester the American kids with questions in what little English they knew: “Do you have a penis? Is it big and hairy? Do you have a vagina? Does it get wet?” They flicked paint at us and each other and kicked the shaky scaffolding with a soccer ball. I’d tell them to leave, to be respectful, weren’t they embarrassed to be acting this way in front of the American guests, and they’d make fun of my Spanish until my eyes burned with tears. That’s when Lalo would step in.
“Andale mijo!” He’d scowl at them heavily, shaking his trowel, and only then would they finally run away laughing.
Lalo called me “mija” and “jefa”; daughter and boss. I had dinner at his house a couple of times and met his wife and five kids. He was only twenty-eight, so we weren’t that far apart in age. Eventually, he started asking me for money. “Ten dollars? My electricity and water have been cut off. Please. I will pay you back.” He would touch my elbow as he asked me this.
One day, in front of the teenagers and the church youth group leaders, he put a heavy forearm on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “Have you thought about what I asked you, mija?” he said wearily.
Pieces of dried cement flaked off his arm onto my shirt. I said something about not being allowed to lend people money, and offered to talk with the priests about raising his salary.
The next week he was gone. Padre Rául had to hire another foreman, someone whose name and face I’ve long since forgotten. I heard later that Lalo had left for el otro lado, the other side. His brother was a coyote, or a paid guide, so hopefully they went together. It made me sad and worried to think of him making the journey by himself, among other things.
I didn’t write much in my journal that week. I probably should have.
V. Aunt Juana, Saint Diego
“You know,” Padre Pepe said, “for a long time I was afraid of becoming a priest. I wanted to die like my father did—loved, surrounded by family, held in my mother’s arms.” He took another sip of beer. I used my current cigarette to light the next one, even though the matches were right on the table in front of me. “But then I was meditating on Christ’s life, and it occurred to me that he also died alone, loved, but in nobody’s arms. He was really very alone, but at the same time powerfully linked to everyone in a different way.”
He paused, and I flicked the ash.
“It made me think, hmm. That could be another way to die.”
That evening I climbed up to the Salesian centre roof. I needed a break from dealing with the American teenagers, from their constant barrage of questions about the cold showers, the blocked toilets, the border wall. “When was it built? What was it made out of? Do you ever see people crossing? Do they climb over it? Jump over, dig under?
Have you ever seen anyone get shot?” Sometimes they made good observations: “Nobody owns a car here. My family owns like three.” Other times not: “Why is everything here so dirty?”
I crouched behind the giant water boiler to smoke yet another cigarette, hidden from view. My ex-boyfriend had been sending me e-mails for a while now, but had recently abruptly stopped. This made me the saddest I had been all summer, and I cried behind the water boiler: first about the e-mails, then about the fact that I was so upset. When the cigarette burned down to my fingertips, I finally wiped my eyes.
The long red border wall was visible from the roof. It was built in the 50’s out of air-landing strips from World War Two. Behind it was the wall with the floodlights and barbed wire; behind that one was the enormous wall of concrete. Buried in the ground were the motion detector sensors, and overhead was the constant chopping sound of helicopters. The city lights of San Diego on the other side looked like pinpricks on a piece of dark construction paper, lit up from behind by a giant flashlight.
I sat on the roof and looked out over the two cities. Despite the faint glow, San Diego was the one that seemed like a big black nothing. Tijuana itself was alive, rubbing against me crudely, mockingly, lovingly. I went back downstairs to write it all down in my journal, but when I got to my room I just sat there. I stayed like that for a while in the dark. It felt good not to have any lights.