Black Like Me – I read it on the Canada trip – is the 1950s story of a white man who dyed his skin black and shaved his hair so he looked like a black man. Then he went to live in the segregated deep-south for a few weeks. It’s a classic book, and really showed what a terrible thing racism is.
Latin Like Me was going to be the story of our foray into the world of illegal Mexican immigrants. We were going to dye our skin and hair, grow moustaches, and speak only in spanish. Then we were going to hop freight trains north and sneak across the border without documents. Not any more. I decided it’s all just a little bit too much. I mean, imagine what would happen should we get caught? And I’m not just referring to La Migra (U.S. immigration) either.
We had nailed the perfect freight… fast, comfortable, safe and scenic. We had even got the timing just right so that we´d see all the best bits of the canyon in daylight. We had water, food, warmth. No headaches. Nothing. Everything was absolutely ideal. Too fucking ideal.
After a few hours, just a few minutes before sunrise, the train pulled into a desolate yard and the workers started adding wagons. We went back and forth a little, and at one point, the train was split right at my wagon. I wasn’t overly concerned… until I looked down to the other end and found that, somehow, our wagon was sitting all on its own on a different track!
Of all the freight cars on the train, and there must have been over 100, they´d ditched ours, and only ours!
I shoved my stuff in the bag and ran to get Bo. We darted back to the rest of the train, which was now pulling out. Once again, it accelerated surprisingly quickly. I started to panic… only this time, we weren’t so lucky. Nothing came and soon the train was zooming past us at over 30 mph.
It took a while to sink in, but we´d completely blown it.
And now we found ourselves stranded on the high sierra, miles from anywhere. No more freights would be coming through for 48 hours and even then, we couldn’t be sure they would stop.
So we started hiking up the track. After a short time, we came upon a little village where the people stared at us. There was a bus pulling out. We took it. And then another, and another….
Then we took the passenger train through the Copper Canyon. It cost $35. It was comfortable and bland. And the view through the window was nice.
And every now again I´d doze. And then I´d drink an icy coke from the snack car. And then I´d wander down to the bathroom and splash water on my face and wash my hands.
We arrived in Los Mochis at 1 am, where we slept on the waiting room floor at the train station. At dawn we went to the beach. We had tacos for lunch…. and blah blah blah…
We’d blown the first attempt, but now we had a reprieve… we could try to catch the Canyon freight back to Chihuahua.
The major freight junction on Mexico´s Pacific coast is called El Sufragio. There´s a large freight yard. That´s all there is. There isn´t even a town, just a couple of coca cola stands. We got there just after dark, expecting our train to leave around 11 o´clock. The place was a hornet´s nest.
Immediately we were summoned over by a couple of soldiers with assault rifles. They wanted to fuck with us. They wanted to know why we wanted to ride the freights if we had money. Or why I had a UK passport even though I said I was from USA. I thought they wanted a bribe. They asked me why I was trembling and asked me to hold my hand steady in the torch light. It didn’t tremble, even though I fully expected it to. Then they told us which train we needed and walked off into the dark…
We walked into the yard. One train had dozens of immigrants on it. It was headed for Mexicali on the California border, and was about to leave.
These were rough desperate people from central America. Hondurans, El Salvadorians, and Guatemalans, and they all use the freights to get north through Mexico. If a Mexican wants to sneak into the USA, he takes the bus to the border and then crosses illegally. But if you are from Honduras, for example, you have to enter Mexico illegally first. And because you are illegal in Mexico, you can’t ride the bus (If the Mexican police catch you, they’ll fine you and deport you.) So the Mexican freight trains are packed with OTMs (Other Than Mexicans).
We avoided the departing train, not wanting any trouble from the hoboes, and tried to find our train instead. Then another soldier called us over and asked us to open our bags. He was carrying a pointed scythe.
We complied. But then the train to Mexicali started rolling and many more tramps emerged from the shadows, distracting him. He was trying to prevent them from boarding. But there were too many. He snapped at us to go back to the platform and keep out of the way so he could deal with a gang of Guatemalans who had just appeared. They seemed so poor and down beat. But I bet they got on that train.
Then we got chatting to some Hondurans… until we thought they were planning to rob us, so we moved on. Then we met this kid who said he was heading for USA. He didn’t have any money. He knew no one in the USA. He didn’t even have a way to cross the border unlike the Hondurans who had already paid a coyote to take them. He said he´d find someone up there who knew what they were doing and cling on. He wanted to buy a car to get around, said he´d heard cars were cheap in the USA. I admired his gumption.
Anyway, it turns out that the train the Chihuahua, the one through the Canyon, the one we wanted so desperately, never left. I found a worker to find out why. He shrugged and told me he didn’t know but that it wouldn’t be leaving for another 24 hours. Ggggrrrr.
We found a spot on an old platform near some other soldiers for safety and slept. It was a restless sleep. All night the mosquitos gorged on my bare legs – I no longer have a sleeping bag or jeans – while freight cars were smashed around just feet from my ears…