We were in the grocery store and she was looking at the pancake mix again. She loved pancakes, but what she loved more than pancakes was making them. Especially if was for me and her mom. I gingerly watched her as she traced the letters on a box of mix and furrowed her brows, right away I knew she was reading it and then sounding it out so that she could make me repeat it. She always did that, she loved to teach me, she thought it made me smarter. I sounded it out and my accent caught at the word butter, I couldn’t manage to make the “u” sound the way Americans do. She looked up at me and giggled, revealing her little scattered smile, a mixture of baby teeth, adult teeth, and empty gaps waiting for the latter. I remember grabbing the box of pancake mix and sticking it in the cart thinking “maybe this time her mom won’t be so mad about her using the stove.”
Once we got to the register, the cashier complimented me on how beautiful she was. I graciously nodded and smiled, avoiding conversation. My daughter peered up at me and squeezed my hang, encouraging me to speak but also sweetly accepting that I wouldn’t. My little angel.
She was having a giggling fit all the way back to car once I let her piggyback on my shoulders. I swung open the backseat door and she swiftly hopped down from her tower to help me unload the groceries into the car.
“No daddy! Not like that, the milk will smash the bread!”
“How? If the milk is up here, then it won’t touch the bread.”
“No but what if you hit a bump? Then the milk will tumble onto the bread!”
“Okay okay, have it your way. But we won’t be hitting any bumps.”
After I let her carefully fix all of the groceries, she begged me to let her sit in the front seat with me. I abided and helped her climb up into the passenger seat. Once in her throne she giggled and buckled up, then wiggled her stubby legs – the little dance she did when she was excited. Then she peeked up at me said yelled “go daddy!” I abided again and started the engine.
I had my hand out the window, delicately touching the air as it rushed through my fingers and passed my finger-tips. I glimpsed over to see her doing the same, her curly hair was standing up on the top of her head as the wind gusted it into separate directions. We were listening to my favorite song by Los Horoscopos de Durango, and she was loudly singing along with me like she knew the words. I remember chuckling, that little girl loved me and I love her. I switched my eyes back to the road and noted some flashing lights up ahead.
I carelessly thought it was maybe a car wreck.
Maybe just an ambulance.
I remember briefly deliberating the lights, but the thought left my mind as quickly as it came. All I was worried about was the traffic, we were in a rush. We were only supposed to pick up limes. I remember dreading getting home late, Marisol would’ve thrown a fit. Especially if she found out it was because I let our daughter pick out random junk food and a toy or two at the store. It was safe to say we got a little distracted. I wondered what she was making for dinner that night… I was hoping it was chiles rellenos or empanadas de pollo, but then again she probably didn’t need limes for that.
I focused my attention on the road and noticed that all of the cars ahead had come to a complete stop. “Great,” I thought “Now I’m really in for some trouble.” They were moving so slow, I should’ve known. I remember thinking that maybe I was right in discerning it to be a car accident, and maybe someone died. I glanced down at my daughter. the red and blue lights reflecting off of her little face. Her tiny arm was wrapped around mine and she had her head resting on me. I ran my fingers through her curly mane one last time. I tried gathering it all into a pony tail, thinking that one day I would master “the pony tail” and she would be so proud of me. I looked back up at the scene, and my entire world froze, my heart dropped, and warm tingles of dread and panic flooded my body.
It was a checkpoint.
☆ ☆ ☆
I scanned my surroundings and looked for any way for me to leave the line of cars. The police officers maybe foresaw this and made sure to have every area where a possible U-turn could happen closed. I considered peeling out and driving away as fast as I could, but after I looked at my rearview mirror I saw that there were 4 or 5 cars already behind me. I didn’t know what to do. I sent Marisol a text quickly. I told her to meet me on the corner of Alien Avenue and Oust Street, and informed her of the traffic checkpoint.
As my diluted-coffee colored Chevrolet blazer eased up closer to the stout police officer checking ID’s, I remembered that my little girl was in the car. Sensing my concern, she looked up at me and asked me if I was okay. I told her everything was going to be okay. To this day, that’s the only lie I ever told her.
The white van in front of me let go of his breaks, and he was off, to live his simple free life. I rolled up to the officer and nervously rolled my window down. The first thing he did was shine the flashlight in my face and then at my daughter’s face, and then into the backseats of my car.
“Hello sir, how’re you doing this evening?”
“Good sir, how you?”
“I’m doing alright. We’re doing a mandatory license check, we have reports of a stolen vehicle in this area and are trying to catch the suspect. Some piece of shit. Where are you heading?”
“Home, my wife is making dinner.”
“Uh huh, where are you coming from?”
“Where are you coming from sir?”
He flashed his bulky bright light into the car again, peering into the backseat hoping I was hiding pounds of illegal drugs n the backseat while I had my daughter sitting promptly in the front.
“Um… Walmart sir.”
“Which Walmart did you come from?”
“Uh the one—“
“ Jeez, do you speak English?
“The one on Emerson mister.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Yes you speak English, or yes you know you didn’t answer my question?”
“Yes I speak English sir.”
The police officer surveyed me. Freckles littered the man’s face and he rocked a short buzzed haircut that attempted to disguise his receding hair line. One of his front teeth was chipped, and a hairy bit of his belly could be seen peeking out from a gaping button near the bottom of his uniform. After looking back and forth at me and my daughter multiple times, the officer turned around and walked away from the car. I looked down at my little girl and her wide-eyes followed the police officer to his car as he approached another officer. The two stole quick glimpses back at my car and I considered just driving off right there, but I regretfully waited and the officer came back with the other officer. This one was a tall lanky white man, whose head looked too heavy for his body which also rocked the same haircut as the tubby one. I took a peek at his nametag and noted that his name was Officer Henders. Somehow, the giant succeeded at bending himself down into my window to peer right into the car and directly into my face.
“Good evening sir, would you hand over your license and registration?”
“Uh yes…” I rummaged through the glove box, panicked because I knew I didn’t have a license. I found Marisol’s registration, and handed it to the officer while still fumbling through the glove box in an attempt to save time.
“I need your license sir.”
I pulled out my wallet and briefly looked at it before I handed him my Mexican license. I had no other choice and that was the only way he could identify me.
“Sir, do you have a legal US license?”
“I do sir, I can’t find.”
“Do you speak English sir?”
“Is this your child?”
“Yes, her name Mila.”
“Hi sweetie, how old are you?”
My daughter looked intimidated by the officer but she respectfully answered the man and told him that she was eight.
“Sir, are you aware that it is illegal to have a child as small as yours ride in the passenger seat of a vehicle? Especially of this size?”
“Oh… No sir, sorry. She just wante—.“
“That constitutes as child neglect, and in some states as child abuse Mr. Reyes. She could have been in a lot of danger; she could have died.”
“Sweetie,” the office cooed at my daughter, “I’m going to take daddy out of the car to go for a walk with me. You just stay here okay?”
Mila nodded to the officer’s commands and worriedly exchanged glances with me. I looked over at the officer, unaware of his plans to take me out of the car. He signaled me out and I promptly followed.
“I’m just going to pat you down quickly and make sure you aren’t hiding any weapons.”
The officer briskly checked me, and turned me around. I heard the jingle of keys and already knew what was coming. The cold metal pressed against my wrists as the officer jiggled and tightened the hand-cuffs. He turned me around again and regarded me, his face was half disgust and half entitlement.
“Mr. Reyes, I’m sorry. Let me get this right, you said you had a legal US license, correct?”
“Well, my partner over here just ran your name into our system and we found out there isn’t a registered Cesar Demario Reyes in this area.”
“Oh is right Mr. Reyes.”
Silence followed as the man stared me down. I avoided his gaze and tried to be as respectful as possible, hoping that Marisol was on her way. My thoughts about what to tell the man were interrupted when he asked,
“Where do you work?”
“The meat-packing plant?”
“Yes sir, I work in the Schuyler warehouse.”
“Hah, should’ve known. That place is always paying illegal fucking beaners to do their dirty work.”
My heart sank. This man was not my friend and each passing moment alerted me of this.
“Mr. Reyes, how long have you worked at Cargil?”
“9 years sir.”
The man let out a loud laugh, his body bouncing up and down as he shook his head from left to right.
“Even fucking better. You’ve been mooching off our system for 9 years?! Hah, all you dirty mother fuckers just leech off of our tax money huh?”
“No sir… I make money for family and for food.”
“Oh god please don’t tell me there’s more of you illegal fuckers littering your house.”
“No sir. I have daughter.”
“What a shame.”
The officer spits out a glob of what I assumed was chewing dip onto the pavement next to me. He scoffed at my reaction and then turned to the other officer. I watched as Henders walked back over to the other officer who I found out was named Officer Yoder. Then I stole a glance back at the blazer. I saw my little girl’s face pressed up against the driver’s seat window, tears streaming down her round cheeks. I couldn’t imagine how scared she was to see her dad in handcuffs like a criminal. When the officer came back, I tried to reason with him.
“Sir, my daughters scared. My wife pregnant. I want no trouble; I did not break law.”
“Oh you didn’t break the law? You think you and your little family of wetbacks aren’t breaking the law? You should be ashamed of yourself for coming into this country and stealing jobs and money from rightful American’s. You’re fucking disgusting.”
And before the words left my mouth the officer kicked in my right knee without hesitation. In response I collapsed onto the ground in excruciating pain as he roared “Shut the fuck up. As soon as we get the okay from our station we’re bringing you in. You bet your ass you’re spending the night in jail…” he chucked, “and then it’s back to Mexico for you, Dirty Sanchez.”
The pain shooting through my body stifled any response I could have had. I heard my daughter in the background screaming from the car. As I looked up at the officer he made eye contact with me. While I hoped for pity and mercy he geared his right leg back and kicked me repeatedly in the face with full-force. Without being able to use my hands to guard me, I could not stop the blood running from my nose into my mouth. I gagged and coughed up the warm coagulating blood that gathered into the back of my throat, hoping not to choke while I begged and begged the officer to stop. I heard my daughter screaming “Stop!!! Please, daddy!! Stop!!!” as my vision disappeared into the foot that was thrusting itself into my face, into my vision, into everything that I knew.
☆ ☆ ☆
I woke up covered in my own blood on a cold floor. I scanned the ground around me with my hands before finding the will to open my eyes. I felt the aching in my jaw first. Then I felt the searing pain that swallowed the bridge of my nose and eyes. I tried opening them and was stopped by blood that must have dried and glued my lids shut. I tried again, prying my eyes open to the scene before me.
I was alone in a jail cell with one other man. He looked about 5 years older than me, around 40. He had his head rested against the wall, curled up in a corner of the room like he had been crying the night before. I sat up and scanned the rest of the room, noting in one corner a tiny bunk bed with thin folded sheets rested on it, that neither I nor my cell mate slept on the night before. Across from the bed stood a rusty almost brown toilet. I winced at the jolts of pain coming from my neck as I craned my head around the room. I looked down at my hands and immediately saw the dry blood covering them. I felt around my face and flakes of dried blood littered the concrete around me. It didn’t take much for me to notice the swollen skin around my eyes that hinted to me that both of them were black.
My movements woke up my cell mate, who turned his head to examine me. I groaned and stood up to walk over to the bunk bed. The man in defense stood up too, keenly aware of the battle wounds I garnered as I limped over to the thin bottom mattress. I collapsed on the bed and the man spoke.
“Long night huh?”
“Looks like you had one too.”
“You know how it is.”
“Oh I do. What’re you here for?”
“A white man in Fillmore hired me to paint his house and garage. My cousin and I painted it the next day and when he saw it, he told me he didn’t like the color and refused to pay me. I begged for the money he owed me but he said he wouldn’t pay me unless I repainted the house. I didn’t believe he would pay me after that and I didn’t want to waste my money on the supplies for it if there was a chance he wasn’t going to pay me again. So I didn’t repaint his house.” The man blinked away tears.
“He called immigration, he said that I tried to rape his daughter. The police showed up to my house and dragged me out, in front of my wife, in front of my kids.”
“No! I never even saw his daughter, well only once but on the day he hired me. She was a child; she was maybe 5 or 6 years old. I would never do that.”
I knew this story too well. The man before me told the story of thousands before us.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I haven’t been home to Honduras in 18 years. Everyone I knew is probably gone now or dead.”
“I know what you mean.”
“My wife, I don’t know what she’s going to do. We have three sons.”
“Lo siento. Cesar Reyes,” I told the man as I put my hand out. At this point, he was sitting next to me but on the floor, leaning against the post of the bunk bed.
“Gabriel Jesus” the man responded, shaking my hand.
Silence followed our acquaintanceship. For almost two hours, Gabriel and I sat there in silence, wondering how long we were going to be in that cell, and what would happen once we weren’t.
“Why are you here?”
“I was pulled over. Well, it was a traffic checkpoint.”
“Ah… Where are you from?”
“Matamoros, in Tamaulipas, Mexico.”
“11 years since I’ve been home.”
“Why? It’s definitely closer than Honduras.”
“My brother was killed by the cartel. He got too mixed up in borrowing money to cover our fathers’ medical bills. He was also trying to build us a new home with the cartel’s money. After Carlos’s murder, I was so shaken. They left his body hanging on a tree at the end of our street. I knew his and my father’s debt would fall on me, so I packed up everything and I left. My mother died when I was very young. It was just me after Carlos died.”
“Wow, you have no one back home?”
More silence filled the air.
“Do you have children?”
“One daughter, my wife’s pregnant now.”
I remember the way that I felt after I told Gabriel that. It wasn’t until that point that I finally realized what would happen if I was sent off. My wife would be left alone to raise our kids while I was in Mexico, waiting for permission from Mexico’s corrupt government to come back. My daughter would forever remember the night that I was taken away.
☆ ☆ ☆
After the judge’s ruling the following Tuesday, I was allowed to go home for two hours to pack all of the belongings I was allowed to bring with me. Those two hours flew by. Marisol picked me up, drenched in her own tears. We stopped by McDonald’s and grabbed some food. Then we drove home to our battered little trailer that I spent the last 10 years fixing. We packed up all of my clothes, with the exception of a couple t-shirts that I gave to Marisol for keepsake. I left her my cologne too. I packed up pictures of my daughter and the ultrasound photos of my baby to come. I packed up pictures of mine and Marisol’s wedding. When it was time to go back, Mila was hysterical.
I couldn’t tell my little girl that I would be back soon. I didn’t know when I would be back.
On the way back to the court house, we stopped by the bank and I pulled out $1,000 to cover a majority of my expenses once I got to Mexico – like rent, a car, and hopefully I would get a job before I ran out. The rest of the money in my bank account I gave to Marisol for the babies.
When we got to the court house, I saw the exhaust coming from the vans parked outside. Gabriel was next to one of them, hugging his wife, crying and crying. His boys surrounded him, all of them looking at their father like he was the king of their world. I solemnly watched as Gabriel placed a kiss on all of their heads. I watched as a strong, 40-year-old man, was stripped from his family and everything that he worked for his entire life because his citizenship status considered him a felon.
The way that Gabriel’s sons looked at him was the way Mila looked at me the last time. I opened my arms to take in my girls, stealing a glance back at the vans. I thought about where they were headed after we got in… first to the airport, then to customs on the boarder, and then to Mexico. Marisol’s eyes looked up at me, her eyes as sad as my heart. I kissed her one last time, trying to treasure our last moment together for God knows how long. Finally, I knelt down and embraced my daughter, I told her I loved her and she was always going to be my little girl. That was the last time she was.
☆ ☆ ☆
These memories have been playing over and over again in my head as I’ve sat in this cramped airplane seat. I’ve been on the plane for 7 hours, and the flight attendants have neglected to refill my beverage so now my throat is raspy from the dryness. All that I want to do is stretch my arms and legs, but what waits for me at home scares me. Apprehension, fear, disconnect, mystery, heartbreak, it all awaits me at that entrance of the airport. I look down and note that I’ve bitten down my fingernails to the skin. I observe my wrinkled hands, speckled with freckles from age and labor. Attempting to stretch, I peer out of the airplane window, taking in the sights around me. Deliberating whether I should make a run for it and avoid any interaction to this world all together.
The pilot tells everyone to stand up and gather their belongings. I abide and follow the line of people out of the plane. Once in the airport, I stride quickly over to baggage-claim. When I arrive, I see a wall-sized window across from the baggage carousel. I walk up to it and take in the city from the airport– the blue sky, the busy roads, the gardens and parks, and then I finally find what I was looking for, the meat-packing plant that I worked at 14 years ago.
Something taps my shoulder, and I turn around to find my daughter before me for the first time since she was a child. Next to her stands her brother, who’s taller than her. Hiding behind the two of them is a little boy peeking through the space next to Mila’s hip. He smiles and giggles at me as I wave my hands at him, Mila tells me he is her son. She introduces me as Cesar to the young boy, an old friend. She doesn’t call me her dad anymore; her father is the man that my ex-wife married after our divorce. Mila’s son tells me his name is Diego. To Mila, he’s named after her father she says – the man that raised her and never left.