Shortly after Christmas, Juan disappeared. He had been staying with his wife, Ernestina, and their three children at the migrant shelter where I worked, near the border in El Paso, Texas. Ernestina was in her mid-20s and was expecting their fourth child. She believed Juan had gone to Los Angeles where he hoped to find work. The journey was treacherous because of his lack of immigration status, and Ernestina waited in vain for the phone to ring with a call saying he’d arrived safely.
The constant coming and going of people was a feature of our existence at the shelter. Often people left without us ever finding out what happened to them. But this was different. Juan was gone, but not gone because his family was still with us, waiting.
Ernestina, her 9-year-old son, and 3-year-old boy/girl twins shared a small room on the second floor of the elongated brick building that housed the shelter, down a creaky wooden hallway where eight such rooms were reserved for families with young children. As a full-time volunteer I lived there, too, in a collection of rooms tucked behind the office on the first floor. Three years prior, when I was in college and looking for something I could put on my resume as an internship, I’d spent a summer on the border serving with the same organization. I had then finished my bachelor’s degree back in my home state of Illinois and spent almost a year at an unfulfilling office job before deciding to return.
I wasn’t always sure myself why I’d made that decision, but the reason I usually gave was that being on the border that summer in college had felt authentic in a way nothing else I’d ever done really had. It made me feel like I was on the right track, even if I didn’t yet understand how or why. Now I was looking to reclaim that sense of authenticity. I was looking for a place to land.
After Juan had been gone for long enough to make us all uncomfortable, Ernestina and I walked to the Mexican Consulate—a low, modern looking building with a white exterior that happened to be a few doors down from the shelter. Ernestina wore her dark wavy hair pinned back and favored long skirts, which rounded out at the top from the protrusion of her pregnant belly. We didn’t have a maternity coat to give her and the one she had was too small to zip over her stomach. Her feet had swollen so much that, although it was January, she preferred to walk outside wearing men’s sports sandals and several layers of socks. I had been keeping my eyes out for a better coat and shoes from among the many donations of clothing that we received from the El Paso community. So far this was the best we could do.
Inside the consulate, we were directed to a waiting area in the middle of a big room until someone standing behind the counter labeled “Protection” was ready to help us. A cheerful young diplomat took all of Juan’s information. If Juan came into contact with any authorities—police, hospital, coroner—the Mexican government would likely be contacted, and the young woman behind the counter promised to get in touch with Ernestina if that was the case. Ernestina, soft-spoken, always polite, smiled and thanked her profusely.
We returned to the house and she resumed her wait—waiting for news from Juan, waiting for the baby, waiting to know what to do next. She had lost the support she’d been depending on, and was faced with the question, Where do I go from here?
Eight years prior, shortly after graduating from high school, I had set off on an around-the-world backpacking trip. About two weeks into the trip, while I slept at a backpacker’s hostel on my first night in New Zealand, I was robbed of almost everything I had taken with me. I woke up the next morning on the foam rubber mattress, the dorm room quiet, and stretched a little between the mismatched sheets before looking around me and realizing my backpack was no longer next to my bed where I had left it. It had contained my clothes, wallet, passport, airline tickets—the works.
During my last semester in high school I had daydreamed and planned the trip using the money I’d saved from two years of working at Steak ‘n Shake. It wouldn’t be fair to say I wasn’t afraid when I left on that journey, a black backpack on my shoulders. I felt a healthy amount of apprehension that bordered, at times, on sheer terror. But I’d felt safe when I fell asleep at the hostel in New Zealand, a hostel I’d specifically chosen because it had security staff on duty 24 hours a day.
As soon as I realized what was going on the next morning, I ran out to the front desk and told the hostel worker that my backpack was missing. She was shocked, but could only apologize and shake her head helplessly. After a few frantic phone calls to my parents and my credit card company, I got directions to the police station to file a report.
It was Sunday morning. I walked quickly, in the only outfit I now had, the tan pants and navy blue t-shirt I’d been wearing the day before and hadn’t put away, my waist-length dark hair uncombed and frizzy The streets of downtown Auckland were mostly deserted, so I felt I could safely indulge in the tears I’d been holding back. I could barely think or process what was going on; I just sobbed and pushed myself to take the next step, hoping that someone was going to give me the key to getting out of this mess.
At the station, a polite red-haired officer wrote up a report and gave me a copy, then excused himself to deal with a man who was making some noise in a holding cell behind him. He didn’t say it, but it dawned on me as I stood there that they weren’t going to send out a detective to look for clues to a backpack theft. So that was it, all I could do. I was alone in a foreign country where I knew no one, without any form of ID or so much as a dollar.
Over the next few days my parents checked me into a hotel by calling in their credit card number. They faxed me copies of my birth certificate and social security card so I could get my passport re-issued and helped me get my traveler’s checks refunded and a new debit card sent. I trolled through the discount shops of downtown Auckland, buying a new backpack, clothes, and camera.
As the dust settled, I found myself thinking. What would I do if I didn’t have my family waiting with credit cards and technology to help me through this? What would have to have happened in a person’s life to choose (however desperate and necessary the choice) to enter this kind of situation, alone in a strange land with nothing and no one? What if this had happened in a place where I didn’t even speak the language?
I felt how lucky I was to be so supported, how rich. After two or three nights at a hotel I had collected myself enough to return to a backpacker’s hostel, and for the rest of my three-month trip other travelers I met gave me gifts of things they didn’t need anymore—pens, books, skirts—and encouraged me to keep going.
Not long after our trip to the consulate, I stood in the shadowy basement of the century-old shelter building, in a room filled with a variety of shelves and racks where we stored things that had been donated until we needed them. One large wooden cupboard, painted white, was filled with nothing but soap—stacked cases and boxes of it in a variety of pastel colors and scents. I had planted myself in front of it to read label after label, looking for some unscented soap for Ernestina.
It was excruciating to accompany Ernestina as she waited for news of her husband, agonizing to be stuck with the thoughts everything that might have happened to him. Had he been kidnapped by an unscrupulous smuggler who hoped to use him to extort some money from the family (as if they had any)? Had he gotten hurt somehow, or worse? Was he in an immigration jail somewhere? Ernestina didn’t voice her fears, but these were the questions I was asking myself.
The family was from El Paso’s twin city of Juarez, the big industrial metropolis just across the river in Mexico. Although in different countries, El Paso and Juarez both grew out of one original settlement that had existed there before the borderline was drawn in the mid 19th century. They were nestled together on opposite banks of the Rio Grande, in a valley at the tail end of the rocky mountains. Juarez was full of factories where low income workers made consumer goods, or components of them, for the U.S. market. It was also home to a drug war that was then just heating up, as rivaling organized crime cartels battled for control of drug trafficking routes. More people kept dying there by the day. Ernestina and Juan were hard workers and devout evangelical Christians with family ties in Juarez. But they struggled with only having beans to eat most of the time, with scraping and never quite having enough. They worried about their children’s future in a place like Juarez. So they had crossed, thinking it would be easy enough to get out of El Paso and on to another part of the States.
Before he left for L.A. and disappeared, Juan was the rock of their family. Slight and a little stooped, with close-cropped dark hair, he went out to look for work everyday, sometimes finding it and sometimes not. Ernestina, with her gentle smile, spent the days watching the children and sometimes doing a little work cleaning houses. On Sundays the family got up and went to church together. Ernestina was quiet and soft with her children, indulgent and loving but not good at meting out discipline to the often-unruly three-year-olds. Juan had been the one who kept them in line, who pried them off their mother and made them mind her orders. Without him the twins ran wild; they didn’t fully understand what was happening but they knew enough to be upset. The 9-year-old understood far more, and although his mother begged him to help her with the younger ones, he became withdrawn.
There was no way I could alleviate the strain of Ernestina’s constant waiting, so I searched for anything that might give her some small comfort. When she told me that her doctor thought a rash she had might be a reaction to dyes and perfumes in her soap, I stood in the basement reading every label on every box of it, hoping to find some that wouldn’t hurt her.
It was late in January. El Paso never got frigid like the midwestern winters I’d grown up with, but only certain parts of the shelter were heated. None of the shelter was weather-proofed, and the windows always let in a bit of what was going on outside. We all made frequent trips to the clothing bank to scrounge for warmer socks, hats, scarves. I wore six layers most of the time and slept under four blankets in my unheated bedroom. We covered the windows with plastic sheeting, trying to keep our shelter warm.
When Ernestina’s family had first arrived in the beginning of December, they had been optimistic. They planned to stay only a little while to investigate the best way to try to move on. Because of the strong Border Patrol presence around El Paso—with checkpoints on the highways and at the airport, bus and train stations—it was just as hard for migrants without papers to get out of the city as it was to get across the border. When Juan went out daily to work, he’d also try to talk to people who could give him information about how to get past these checkpoints. He always gave the sense of being sure of himself. He was calm and gentle but commanding, as though he understood the world and wasn’t afraid of it.
Not long after they arrived, I had been put in charge of the Christmas Eve meal, to be shared by a large group after a performance of the Christmas story and Mass celebrated by a visiting priest. The shelter guests did all of the cooking there, and, although their abilities varied, it seemed like there was always someone around who could get food on the table. I’d recruited a guest with particular culinary skills to be the master chef for Christmas Eve. Because it was a special occasion, we planned the menu days in advance and bought whatever we wanted for the meal on the shelter’s dime instead of relying on donated food like we usually did. My chef planned to make pozole, a popular hominy stew served with a garnish of cabbage.
On Christmas Eve, as the hour to begin cooking neared, I couldn’t find my chef anywhere. Other guests told me that a woman had come that morning looking for a worker to clean her house and my chef had gone—like everyone in the house she wasn’t in a position to turn down paid work. She had thought it was just going to be a few hours, but I repeatedly walked through the living room and up the stairs to the women’s dorm on the second floor to look for her—it was clear that she wasn’t back.
After a few of those circuits through the house I began asking every adult I passed whether they could take over the responsibility of making Christmas Eve dinner, but they all said they didn’t know the recipe and wouldn’t know what to do with the ingredients. I had tears in my eyes and was on the verge of trying to make it myself with a little help from Google. This meal was supposed to be special, but in any case there had to be food.
I was gathering the pozole ingredients in the office (where we stored all the food) to carry upstairs to the kitchen and try to patch together a meal, when Juan, who had also been out working, got home. When I heard the door open I poked my head out into the living room area that was right inside the front door. It was already at least an hour after the cooking should have started. “Juan, any chance you know how to cook pozole?”
I knew nothing about pozole but I wasn’t a complete stranger to the kitchen. Back when I’d begun college after two years of traveling I also began a job as a cook at a large Italian restaurant, where I would work for the better part of four years. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed school and occasionally flirted with the idea of dropping out and going to culinary school. I took great satisfaction in making something delicious and attractive, getting just the right texture in the mashed potatoes or the focaccia bread. I loved the constant scent of sizzling garlic and the rhythmic clatter of plates being stacked and unstacked, chefs calling orders over the din. I loved caramelizing the creme brûlées with a golden brown layer of crunchy sugar and adding a garnish of strawberry and mint. And I appreciated the frenetic pace of the kitchen, the way the shifts flew by in a storm of organized chaos and I barely had time to look at the clock.
The other cooks at the restaurant, all but one or two of them, were immigrants from Mexico, while most of the servers were university students. I wanted to work in the kitchen because I enjoyed it, but in doing so I realized I was not where others expected me to be. I was on the other side of a line. And once I realized it, I began to think a lot about the line itself, and to explore the terrain where I found myself. My co-workers were men (and a few women) who worked two full time jobs and lived 10-deep in a two bedroom apartment just so they could send as much money as possible to their families in Mexico. They rode their bikes everywhere because they couldn’t get driver’s licenses, or if they drove they always went the speed limit, always came to a full and complete stop—to do otherwise could have severe consequences since most lacked legal permission to be in the U.S. They were muscular guys, with tattoos and scars, dark hair tucked under caps or in ponytails down the backs of their uniform jackets, and they ruled in the kitchen, always showing off their toughness, speed, and endurance when the dinner orders came pouring in and the grills and ovens heated the ambient temperature far beyond what was comfortable. But they also knew they were vulnerable, whether they liked it or not.
After a while I began to think of my co-workers as friends and they treated me like one of the gang. I would ask about their families and they’d take pictures of their kids out of their wallets, the paper thinning a little from exposure to airborne cooking grease. Their lips would slide into smiles under bristly mustaches while they told me the names, ages, and quirks of their progeny, but their eyes often turned glassy with the sadness of separation.
I started learning Spanish and wondering more about where my co-workers had come from and how they’d come to be working alongside me in a college town in central Illinois. At work, they were in control and I was struggling to keep up, never as good, never as fast. But in the world I knew, there was a gulf between us. And for their sakes, for my sake, I needed to understand why this was and whether there was anything I could do about it.
I began to read every book I could find about Latin America and took economics and political science classes. I learned about the free trade agreements between the U.S. and Latin America that allow stuff, material things, to flow freely across borders while making no provision for the free movement of labor. I learned about how the U.S. sent all of our government-subsidized, cheaply produced corn to Mexico under one of those free trade agreements, leaving the men and women who grew corn in Mexico unable to compete and with few options other than migration. How the factories in cities like Juarez received tax breaks that allowed them to make enormous profits while the wages they paid often weren’t enough for the workers to buy the basic necessities. The inquiry that began while laboring in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant would soon carry me off on a different path.
For the next couple of hours on that Christmas Eve it was like I was back at the restaurant and among my coworkers again. After Juan confirmed that he knew what needed to be done and was willing to help me, I worked with him and a another helper he recruited to prepare massive quantities of hominy stew—with turkey and without, spicy and not spicy—for the roughly 75 hungry mouths that awaited it. While the guests sang quiet hymns in the room that served as a chapel, I ran up and down the kelly green stairs retrieving spices and ingredients from the office at Juan’s command. He and his helper chopped onions, chiles, and cabbage at record speeds, and we boiled broth, mixed spices, and blended everything together.
Juan’s manner in the kitchen was calm and quiet, but he knew exactly what he was doing. He didn’t grow frantic about the rush like I did; he just gave directions and kept working steadily, bringing a spoonful of broth to his lips now and then to test its flavor as the room filled with the warm smell of cooking chiles and meat. That he had been out all day working at a construction site was nothing to him; he hadn’t balked at my request for assistance and he didn’t hesitate or grow tired throughout.
After we ladled out seemingly endless bowls of pozole in assembly line fashion and handed them to the waiting shelter guests, after everyone had eaten around the long table that filled the dining room and I finally began to relax, I shook Juan’s hand and thanked him over and over. He made light of his feat of heroism. “It’s nothing,” he assured me. “I’m at your service,” he added in the courtly way people often do in Spanish. And then he went to put the twins to sleep.
Not many days later, Juan was gone.
It was many years after my backpack was stolen in New Zealand before I made any connection between that moment and the work I ended up doing at the border. At the time of the theft I had a momentary awareness of how lucky I was, of what it must be like for people who are driven to migrate and must find a way forward without money, belongings, or much support. I believe the seed for my work was planted there, but it lay dormant for years after that. When I began to work alongside Mexican immigrants in the kitchen of the Italian restaurant, the seed began to find its life.
I realized the contradiction—some people in this world work to find meaning and give up material things to seek community and purpose. Others scrape for the basic dignity of feeding their children. In college, I had learned the historical explanations, the structures of colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and so on, that had created this world. But that book knowledge was never enough without a way forward.
When people asked me why I was on the border, why I was doing immigration-related work, I would tell them about the cooks at the Italian restaurant or maybe about the time my backpack got stolen in New Zealand. But there were these other reasons I was there—the search for a balanced life, a balanced soul. The search for the people who could support me and help me keep going as my view of the world changed.
Juan eventually called Ernestina from Juarez—after he’d been gone for a several weeks and shortly before their fourth child was born in an El Paso hospital. He’d actually been back in Mexico for a while, never having made it far outside of El Paso. He was detained at the first Border Patrol checkpoint on the way to L.A., held for some days, and deported. He’d found a job in Juarez making around $50 a week and was too weighed down by the shame of all that had happened to call his wife and tell her where he was. Upon hearing from him, Ernestina was immediately impatient. She wanted nothing more than for them all to be together. “So what if we only have beans to eat,” she said.
We were able to serve our guests at the shelter only because the community supported us, donating the clothes and food that sustained us. We could provide meals only because guests volunteered to make them, many hands joining to do the work of running the house and making sure we all got by. We, the volunteers, were able to serve only because we’d been supported on the journeys that had lead us there. We could never meet anyone’s needs completely, not even our own, but we all had enough to keep going. I hated to think of those kids with only beans to eat, but I tried to trust that the family would find the support of a community, a way to carry on.
After the baby was born, a little girl swaddled in purple blankets who we held and cooed over, Ernestina began to pack. She had to wait until she could go to some follow up appointments with her doctor, who worried that she wasn’t making a full recovery from the birth. But she didn’t wait long. As soon as it was safe for her to go, Ernestina bundled up her kids and they walked back across the bridge to Juarez, over the Rio Grande. They carried bags of donated clothes, snacks for the trip, and plenty of soap.
Author’s note: all names have been changed.