Migrant Labor-2: Crossing the Border


29 November 2007 Tijuana-San Diego US-Mexican border. The crosses represent the deaths of failed crossing attempts. Photo: Tomascastelazo

29 November 2007 Tijuana-San Diego US-Mexican border. The crosses represent the deaths of failed crossing attempts. Photo: Tomascastelazo

Of course it’s pretentious of privileged gringo me to try to walk a kilometer (or several hundred kilometers) in the worn shoes of a Mexican migrant laborer, but I had a little help on this. Let me rush through the obvious things.

His name is Juan and he has a wife and four children and there is no more work in the pueblito of 800 where he grew up. He used to work hard tending the elote (corn) fields, land that his father had to sell to CFoods after the flood of cheap U.S. (subsidized) corn from NAFTA.

The short-hoe work on vegetables earned him barely enough for rice and beans for his family. Then CFoods switched to growing only strawberries to bring in more money in North America and they only needed half of the workers. So Juan knew he had to go north just as many of his relatives had. He said good-bye to everybody he’d ever known. You know all this sad general stuff, don’t you?

Here are the things you don’t know, the advice that Juan had to learn over the years and from other experienced border-crossers.

First, never hire a coyote (border-crossing guide) near the border. They wait like proxenetas (pimps) at the bus station, and at the border walls and rivers. They can see who you are and they can take your money and kill you, or rape you, or hold you for ransom.

And never ever carry a package for a coyote. You can guess what’s in it and you could spend the rest of your life in an American prison. He won’t. If you even whisper his name, you and your family might soon be dead.

If possible, hire an amateur coyote near your home (experienced border-crossers are everywhere in Mexico.) In any case, make sure your family knows his name and where his family lives. Only wire the money or have your family hand it over when you telephone them to say you are safe in El Norte. Go with a small group so you can help one-another.

The going rate today is about $2,000 to cross from Mexico and get to a “safe-house” in Phoenix, a bit more to L.A. The migra has surprise checks many kilometers from the border, but a good coyote knows how to bypass them or knows when they are closed.

If the Mexican police catch you before the border (this is for Central Americans mostly), the going bribe is 1,000 pesos. Any less is insulting.

Practice a few English phrases over and over like “Get real, man, I’m from L.A.” so you sound like an annoyed norteño. Be confident, even cocky. It might work in a quick road check by a lazy migra.

Know a likely L.A. address to offer (try one in Hawthorne or East L.A.) Migras will pretend they don’t speak Spanish, but they do so be careful what you say.

Swimming a border river is not a good idea but if you must, pay the $5 for an inner tube. Too many border crossers have drowned. Don’t worry, somebody will be waiting there to sell it to you.

If you have to cross a desert in El Norte, and you probably will, fill a small backpack with two gallons of water, warm clothes and some food to eat on the run plus some painkillers. Wear dark clothes and two pairs of strong pants, for warmth at night and against cactus spines. Bring a U.S. baseball cap against the sun, preferably L.A. Dodgers.

If you go with a group, try to stay with them or retrace your steps to where you had to split up. Those who are alone and lost in the desert are the ones who die.

Also bring several packs of cheap cigarettes. If you need to sleep at night in the desert, you can crush the cigarettes and spread the tobacco around yourself to keep away rattlesnakes. It’s best to sleep in the day, but you must find shade, a tree or canyon or even a sheet of cardboard.

Hide some American bills, ones and fives, in your underpants. Put your name and home village in your underpants, too. If you die (God forbid), you can have a Christian burial at home. (300-500 migrants die every year, mostly of exposure and dehydration, but also drowning and being hit crossing freeways.)

When you get to L.A., try to dress like the locals you see–the young ones call themselves Chicanos but the guëros (blondes, but it’s polite for gringos) just call them Mexicans like you.

When you’re settled, try not to do anything at all suspicious in El Norte. Beware of loud parties, fights. Don’t ever let yourself get drunk outside. If you must, buy cheap tequila and go inside where you stay. Use your sense to stay as ordinary and invisible as you can. Sometimes if they notice you the police will call the migra for anything, especially in Phoenix. Not In L.A., yet.

Always keep an eye out for long-term jobs. Most of them will be east of the 110 freeway or with Mexicano contractors who won’t cheat you. If you need to try day-labor, stay alert at the Home Depot. Befriend the other migrants there and learn their advice. Remember names and phone numbers of any employers who don’t cheat you. Try to be their “good friend” even if they act like pendejos.

The going day-rate is slowly becoming $100, but $80 is still common, and the good ones will buy you a hamburger/taco type lunch. (Next year the new city minimum wage will take a day’s work up to $120 but it doesn’t apply to you and don’t remind these pickup truck-guys. They’ll just get angry and dump you.)

Many of these pickup-truck guys are cerdos (scumbags) whose whole job in life is fixing up old houses quickly and badly to resell or moving furniture cheap, but most of them will pay what they say, and some will use you again if they like you. Though don’t be astonished if one gives you the norte finger and just drives away without paying.

Never be alone or fall asleep or get drunk outside Home Depot. That’s doom.

About the author

John Shannon

John Shannon is the author of a series of mystery novels based on L.A. and California social history, The Jack Liffey novels. This blog is from a series based on the labor and social history contained in these novels. The blog only goes out by e-mail and if you’re interested please write jxshannon2@aol.com. He has also written a three-generation saga novel of the American Left—Socialist, Communist, New Left—called The Taking of the Waters. This was published in a small edition here and in France but got him more-or-less “blacklisted” in New York from his major publishers. It will soon be reviewed at length in the L.A. Review of Books and republished as a Kindle e-book. View all posts by John Shannon →

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One thought on Migrant Labor-2: Crossing the Border

  1. Briefly.. As one who recently saw rebroadcasts of the newsreels (what’s that??) from FDR’s time showing working building roads and bridges, I wonder if things would have been different if Obama had actually begun to do something about the infrastructure? It sure put people to work, and it built lasting community through buildings in Tilden Park, etc…etc….

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