Frontera: Mexicali, Baja California, Norte, 1990
The Mexicali bus station is bustling with people, some dragging their
luggage across the floor by a strap like a pet on a leash, others sitting
as they fan themselves to cool off, their suitcases prone like coffins
at their feet. The grainy voice over the speakers announces gate numbers,
schedule changes, arrivals and departures in a flat, disinterested tone
that seems to ridicule the level of anxiety in the lobby. Armed policemen
walk about with a sense of purpose though visibly bored, and the taxi
drivers accost anyone with a packed bag.
“Taxi, amigos?” a man
in a yellow guayabera asks us as we stand at the entrance of the station,
trying to figure out where to go.
My father waves him away.
“ Where are you headed?” the taxi driver insists. “I’ll
make you a good deal.”
“ Michoacán,” my father says.
The driver quickly turns to a couple with a child in tow passing by. “Taxi,
amigos?” he asks them.
“ First class is in the other lobby,” I point out. My shirt is sticky
on my skin. For some reason I decided to wear white and I’m dismayed I’ve
already collected grime on the brief car ride to the station. The blue Mustang
will stay parked at my aunt’s old house, though I doubt it will remain
unused. I can already picture my cousins joyriding into the sleepiest hours
of the night. When they dropped us off at the bus station I detected that
mischievous glint in their eyes.
“ I don’t have enough money for first class, you,” my father
My body spasms, giving me a clear signal that this is the start
to another bad ending.
“ Well, I don’t want to take a bus that’s going to break down
half-way to Michoacán,” I say.
“ But first class is a waste,” he argues. “What are you paying
for, a can of soda? Some stale peanuts?”
“ No, I’m paying for a working toilet and air-conditioning.”
“ But I can’t afford first class,” he says.
“ I can,” I say.
“ So you’re going to pay for a first class ticket when second class
is half the price?”
“ Absolutely,” I insist.
“ You could buy two tickets with that money.”
“ Look,” I say, exasperated. “I can let you borrow some money
for your ticket as well, just make sure you get good seats.”
“ Give me the money, then,” he says.
I hand over the money because I don’t want to hassle with the lines.
I’m already hot and uncomfortable, and the constant flow of people
has begun to make me edgy. Engentarse, my grandmother calls this claustrophobia
that comes from getting swallowed up by a flood of people. I stand over
our bags like a chicken roosting over a nest. My father returns fifteen
“ You bought second class tickets!” I complain as soon as I look at
the flimsy paper stubs.
“ You said you were going to pay for my ticket. And I’m going second
class, so I bought one for you as well. Aren’t we traveling together? Here,
I saved you some money. Can I borrow it until we get to Michoacán?”
Unbelievable, I think as I shake my head. My father has done it to me again.
But I let it go. It’ll be my give to his take. We’ve had plenty
of practice this past week since I agreed to travel with him back to Zacapu,
Michoacán, four states south into México, the homeland we
traded for California ten years ago.
We make our way to the gate, nonrefundable tickets in hand. The run-down
bus waits at the end of the station, edged out like the runt of the litter
newer buses. I suspect our bus will stop at every town with a station en
route from Baja California to Michoacán to load and unload passengers. At
that pace, the trip will take over three days, maybe four. Incensed, I make
my father take the aisle seat. I want the advantage of the window, but to my
dismay, it doesn’t open. I scowl at my father.
“ Now what?” he says.
“ It smells in here,” I say.
“ I don’t smell anything,” my father says.
“ No, of course not,” I reply.
The cramped bus begins to incite my claustrophobia so I stare out through the
green glass to watch the soda and pork rind sellers gravitating like bees
toward the bus windows, their goods precariously balanced on tin platters.
the condition of the bus, I’m glad to be safely inside, away from the
flurry. More people climb on board, filling up the bus with bodies, boxed packages,
a crying baby and the whining of children, and the odors of armpits, evaporating
perfumes and oily foods. When the bus finally pulls out of its parking space,
I breathe a sigh of relief. The journey back to Michoacán has officially
started. For the last decade I’ve been going back and forth between México
and the U.S. an average of every three years, the length of each stay varies
depending on the temperament of my adult companions. My father likes the
long stays, my grandfather loses steam quickly and heads back to the states
whim. Regardless, I feel a sense of renewal each time I depart, as if whatever
has happened up to then could be left behind like belongings too bulky
to take along. I look forward to emerging from the bus at the last stop,
out my arms to a new beginning.
My disposition begins to soften as the bus slowly inches forward. I even
turn to my father and exchanged a complicit smile. He throws in a knowing
effect. An open window a few seats up begins to ventilate the acrid odor
of sweat mixed with the polluted fumes. “Here we go,” I declare with
childish excitement. If this journey were a musical, this scene would be the
perfect place to break into song. As if on cue, the bus driver turns the radio
on. Los Tigres del Norte—or one of the group’s many imitators—plays
an upbeat norteño, heavy on the brass. The tune isn’t exactly
what I have in mind, but it will do. Suddenly I’m easy to please.
I make myself comfortable against the itchy seat, relax my head against
and sigh once more.
And then the bus pulls over to the side to let the first class buses exit first.
“ Santa mierda,” I say. I’m positive I’m not the only
one on board to curse.
When the bus driver turns off the noisy engine, the music grows obnoxiously
loud. The old bus stands parallel to the back wall like an overworked boom
box sentenced to the misery of its cheap speakers.
When I look over at my father he grins apologetically. I can say something
now or save it for later. Since I get motion sickness when I read, I don’t
bother bringing a book on board with me. Speaking to my father will be the
only way to kill time. He’ll be the intimidating tome I get through by
consuming it piecemeal. Except that I’ll be forced to reckon with my
father more frequently since he’s sitting next to me on a bus. I
cannot escape him. I decide to save my complaint for later.
When the bus finally squeezes out of the station, picking up speed as it
makes its way through the blackened façades of Mexicali, the tension in my
muscles begins to ease. It takes only minutes for the bus to reach the outskirts
of the city; the arid desert looks reddish and damp through the green tint
of the glass. And once I’m visibly relaxed, my father pipes up as if
he’s been waiting to seize the moment. He asks me abruptly, “Do
you remember your mother?”
I hate it when my father comes at me like that. Invoking the memory of my mother
is the fastest way to make me raise my defenses.
“Of course,” I say, slightly indignant. I immediately turn my entire
body toward the window, my reflection superimposed on the passing desert
and a row of wooden shacks with clothes on the lines that look like party decorations
the day after the party.
“ You must never forget her,” he says.
I see my chance. “You mean like you did,” I say.
“I haven’t forgotten your mother,” he says in alarm. “Why
do you say that?”
I think the answer is obvious so I don’t bother with it more.
I focus on a child bent over a basin with water. He stares out at the passing
bus as if he has to pose for the passengers because in the next instant
gone, quickly forgotten. On the glass I see my father pinch the small scar
on the right side of his chin. He had a mole removed a few years back because
he kept cutting it open when he shaved. Now he fondles the flesh when lost
in thought—a habit he didn’t have when the mole was still there.
“ Does your grandfather still work in the mercado in Zacapu, you?” he
“ Don’t change the subject,” I say. “And quit asking me
these dumb questions. You know he still works there.”
“ Look, son,” he says to me in the low tone he adopts when he grows
serious. “We don’t need to start the trip like this. We have three
days to go and plenty of time to throw punches, so can’t we just have
a friendly conversation for now?”
Bajar la cresta, my grandmother calls the act of calming down your anger. I
picture the agitated rooster lowering its neck, the corolla of neck feathers
folding down, his comb becoming flaccid.
I nod my head in agreement. My fingernails are already dirty, the edges
looking like inked-in frowns. My father tries to chat again but I’m not in the
mood, so I simply rest my head against the window and close my eyes. I want
to remove my glasses, but without them I can’t see the view through the
window each time I open my eyes, so I leave them on my face. With the vibration
of the bus the frames keep tapping against the glass. I hear my father sigh
with exasperation. All around us people are talking and laughing. The baby
stopped crying when the bus started rolling and I imagine him collapsing with
relief into his mother’s arms. I zero in on the hum of the motor.
When I feel my father elbow me on the side I’m ready to turn around
to object and ask him to leave me alone for a while. But when I turn I
realize he has accidentally bumped into me as he twisted his body around
the people in the row behind him.
“ To Michoacán,” I hear him say.
And then a little later, “Oh, that’s my son. He goes to college
in the United States. He studies letters.”
I imagine the people nodding politely, perhaps picturing me hunched over an
old book and a magnifying glass, an amplified Cyclops eye scrutinizing the
varying lengths of the ls, the dissimilar bubble-mouths of the os.
As I nod off to sleep on this first afternoon on the road to Michoacán,
I promise myself that I will try harder at communicating with my father the
next day. Promises are so easy to make in a warm bus steadily reaching the
falling night. My grandmother used to say that in order to remember a thought,
she had to go back to the place where that thought was originally conceived
because place triggers her memory. By dawn the bus will be in a different town—a
different state altogether in fact. Tracing the promise back to its source
will be impossible. My father and I are both headed forward, at the same
speed for a change. And yet, we continue to go our separate ways.