Chapter 20

After a few watch-less hours, a couple of policemen show up at the door. Several of the guys scramble over to them and they shout to be heard above each other. The others who stay seated keep their eyes down; obviously not looking forward to whatever comes next for them. I don’t envy those guys. I don’t envy anyone in here. I don’t even envy me right now.

One of the policemen shouts some stuff in machine-gun Spanish and everyone quits talking. A few of the guys near the door laugh.  “Soy Pancho Villa!” one of them says.

“No, yo soy Pancho Villa,” says another.

Then they all chime in, “no, no, blah blah blah, Pancho Villa, ha-ha-ha.” Whatever.

Great! One guy points to me—the white guy—and everybody laughs even harder. Even the guys sitting in the back all quiet-like are smiling at that one. Wonderful. I get shit for my name in the US, and I get shit for it here in Mexico too. Thanks Dad—asshole! I take back that envy thing. I envy everyone in this jail for not growing up named Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

The policemen are checking me out. I guess I should talk to somebody and find out what I did. There’s no place in here to hide anyway.  I must stick out like a biker at bible camp. What am I thinking? I stick out like a white dude in a Mexican jail.

Standing up is so . . . dizzy. I hear the others laughing and saying stuff in Spanish as I lean against the wall for balance.

One of the policemen has something in his hand. Oh, great—evidence. I should lie back down and pretend I’m sick.

. . . I don’t understand a thing the cop is saying to me. It may take a while before I’m able to translate anything from Spanish to English. It’s taken me this long just to focus my eyes—hey, is that my picture?  What does he need my picture for? “Si, It’s mine.”

Immediately his rapid-fire Spanish has me regretting I said that in Spanish. “Me hablas poquito espanol.”  Laughter erupts again from the other inmates.

The officer who isn’t holding the picture says, ”You name Pancho Villa and you no speak Español?”

The laughter is deafening. I grab ahold of the bars for support and look around the cell. Every single person in here is laughing their ass off. There are no longer two different sets of guys in here, just one big happy mob. Shit! I’m starting to laugh. I guess it is kinda funny when you think about it.  “Ha ha ha, okay, okay,” now they’ve got me going. “Ha ha ha ha.” Ouch! My jaw hurts when I laugh. “Ha ha ha.” I can’t stop. This laughing is contagious. “Ha ha ha.“ Hey! Why am I laughing? I’m in a fricking Mexican jail. I could be here for life.

“Yo soy Jose Feliciano,” someone behind me says. I turn to see another guy step forward and announce the name of some famous Mexican guy I never heard of.

“Yo soy Ricardo Montalbon,” another guy says.

“El avion, el avion,” the chubby little guy says in a miniature voice. Everyone is struggling for air, pounding the ground. Some of them sit down before they fall down, and the ones still standing are leaning against walls and each other. Laughing makes my face hurt even more, but I can’t help it. “Ha, ha-ha-ha-ha.”

“No mas,” someone struggles to say.

“Si, No mas.” I am definitely caught up in this laughing fit too. I try laughing without moving my facial muscles because laughing makes my jaw hurt. I’m glad there’s no mirrors in here. I bet I look like someone who had their whole face botoxed five minutes before going to a comedy club. I know I’m gonna feel stupid about this later.

The officer holding the photo is smiling, but apparently he’s had enough. He walks over to me, holding out a photo and pointing to someone in it. His finger is on a young man in a police uniform. I look closer at it, trying to get my eyes into focus. Hey! I look at the cop holding the picture, I look at the young policeman in the picture—holy shit! He’s pointing to what looks like a younger version of himself. Ow, my jaw. This is who my Mom told me about. What was his . . .  name-tag says Villa—like that helps.

“Where did you get this photo?” Villa asks.

“It was my mothers.” The two cops look at each other, mouths open. Then they look back at me. The laughter behind me fizzles out. The police officer points to someone in the picture, and Villa nods, and the other policeman disappears down the hallway. I didn’t catch his name. I wonder if he’s in the picture too.

“Pancho, I am Carlos Villa, su Tio, or . . .”

“Uncle” someone in the back of the cell says. There had been a moment of silence but it’s broken now and there are lots of “Que fortunado” and “ay-yay-yay,” and a chorus of comments too low, and probably too Spanish for me to understand.

“Calla te!” Carlos says, and they all shut up in a hurry, but continue to watch the drama unfolding before them.

“So you are my . . . “

“Nephew,” someone from the crowd shouts. The others shush him. I look in time to see the big gorilla guy smack another guy on the back of the head. I return my attention to the policeman with my picture. So this guy’s my father’s brother.

He takes a good, long look at me and says, “Did you father . . . come with you?”

Did he actually say that?  “What kind of crap is this? You know where he is!”

After a long moment, he says, “yes, I do now.”

“So, could you take me to him? I have some things I want to say.”

“Take you to him?”

“Yes, take me to him.”

“You said you knew.”

“I do know. You can’t keep something like this a secret forever.”

He thinks this over for a moment. What the hell is going on? “For him you are looking?”

“Yes, why else would I be in this God-forsaken country?”

“You say you knew.”

“I do know.”

“I think you do not.”

“Then why don’t you tell me? Better yet, let me talk to him myself.”

Again, there is a long pause of complete silence. How much does this guy know about me? Does he know I got arrested and deported? Man! He must think I’m a career criminal; two jails in two different countries in two consecutive days.

“Why did you come here?”

“I told you, I’m looking for my father.” If he doesn’t know I got deported, I’m not going to be the one to tell him. “He’s been down here hiding ever since I was born, living with his other family.”

“Other family? Do not speak of my brother like this!”

Oh, I hit a nerve. “I’ll have a lot more to say when I see him.” I wonder how many more relatives I’ll get to pay back for all the years of humiliation they’ve caused my mom and me.


“Francisco, we have not seen Armando since the day he left to be with you and you mother.” His eyes get soft and he stares deeply into the picture. “It was only one year after this photo was taken that I, for the last time, saw him.” He looks up from the picture, “So what know you of you father?”

What? “I never met him.” He looks at me like I haven’t finished. “He left right after I was born—hello?!”

“And he never come back?”

I’ve had about all of this I can stomach,  “I know he has another family down here, and I’m here to remind him of what he did to us.” My voice cracks with excitement. Now it’s my turn to watch for a reaction.  He squirms a bit, but doesn’t say anything. Time to go in for the kill.  “I guess it’s not too fun when the family secret comes home.”  I say it loud enough for everyone to hear. “You pretend to like my mom, dress her up, put her on display in front of all your family, then ship her back to the United States to be laughed at behind her back.” That one was for you Mom. I‘d probably feel much better right now if I weren’t yelling at the one guy who could possibly get me out of here.

“So that is how you think?”

“What else am I supposed to think? He abandoned us like garbage tossed into the street.”

“No! I am now . . . I think he . . . some of us . . .” He looks back into the picture for something, and when he looks up, I don’t recognize his expression. “If this is true, then you are not wrong to be angry. I am now to understand what I think was true for many years.” He takes a giant breath, revealing, once more, the silent crowd behind me. The picture shakes in his hand.

“What is there to understand?”

“Many people go missing, when they go north. Some are caught and come home. Some go to jail and stay for a small time, but they come home.” He stops to take a long, calm breath. “Many hundreds of people every year . . . die.”

“What?” I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A shiver starts in the back of my head and shoots down my spine. “My dad is dead?” I grab ahold of the bars with both my hands, squeezing as hard as I can. “He left us for another family, I know it. I have known this ever since I was twelve. My Grandpa took me fishing at this trout pond. He let me catch a lot of fish that day, and he had to pay for every one. He told me not to think about my dad any more. He said it would do no good. It would only cause me pain, and it did, and my dad never came back to us. Everything else he said must be true too.”

He studies my face and says, “I know something is wrong when my brother did not send the money. He always send the money. You father, my brother, Armando, he was a much . . . good man. Much popular. Everybody love him, and when he bring home a Gringa, at first, yes, we all are surprise . . .”

I have no idea what to feel right now.

“But when we meet you mother—“

He has been dead this whole time?

“—we all could see why he have much love for her.”

I can’t believe it. A few sniffles and some quiet coughs interrupt the library-like silence.

“They marry here in Guadalajara, so the family could be everyone here. We have much love for our Abuelita.” A muted appreciation from the other inmates for that statement quickly came and just as quickly returned to silence. “She live with us and give much help to our mother and father. She was all that was good in the family. We would not think of to marry without her . . . None of you family come.”

A ringing in my ears makes it hard for me to understand him. I think he is attacking my family. “You—“

”You mother never say it, but we think they do not approve of Armando, or the family . . .”

I can’t believe I’m hearing this, “My grandparents were just not social people. They never have been. They were the ones who taught me not to take this sitting down. They taught me self-respect when my father had taken it away. They told me I was not like my father so I wouldn’t feel bad.”

A slight smile comes over his face as he stares into the picture. “It was a beautiful wedding. Everybody come from all over Mexico, and everyone who meet you mother, love her.”

“No, he’s not dead!”

“He is, Pancho.”

“He can’t be dead, he can’t be.

“It is so.”

“I hate him too much for him to be dead. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him! He’s not getting out of this that easy. He left me and my mom alone to come here and he never returned.”

He looks up from the picture, “The last time we see Armando, he was deported and come home with a baby photo. He was so proud.”


“I know this is not easy for you. It is not easy for me as well. I always hope I was wrong and I one day will see my brother, but now I know, never will I see him again.

“He can’t be dead. This whole time? What about his other family?”

His eyebrows raise and bunch together, then he looks back into the picture and goes back to a happier time.

“You mother and Armando stay at the ranchita of my father. He play the guitar at night and sing to them outside the window.”

A murmur swells and then fades behind me. Carlos doesn’t even hear it, he just smiles and stares at that stupid picture, keeping his tether to a happy memory.

“He was a singer, bad, and I was glad it was not me he was singing, but you mother have much love for it. You can see in her eyes, much respect. You mother and my father make friends very fast.”

Someone blows his nose—on what, I don’t know—and is quickly shushed by everyone else.  I look behind me and see the audience of semi-silent spectators, pleading for us to continue. I turn back to Carlos, “you know, there’s probably better places I could have learned my father is dead.”

“Yes, Pancho, yes,” he says as he looks around. “This is where I too must learn it. I am sorry it is like this, but some things . . .” He waves at someone down the hallway. “You papers are soon to be ready. Do you want to know about you father, more?”

I look behind me again, at all the others in my cell who are sharing my most intimate story. A dozen or more hungry white eyes stare back at me. The little chubby guy with a three-day beard nods his vote. Even the scar-faced gang-banger smiles pleadingly. Apparently there isn’t a single man in here who doesn’t watch Mexican soap operas.

I guess it doesn’t really matter much any more. I look back at Carlos, who is patiently waiting my reply. Nothing seems to matter much right now. The world as I know is has been shot to hell, and I am left with no moral compass. I nod. There is a brief appreciation in the audience behind me, then Carlos continues.

“There was much happiness the days we met you mother. They have a wedding, nice. Much family, music, food. I was for the police new, and my uniform was very nice. I very proud and handsome no?” He looks up at me and sucks in his belly. A round of appreciation and even a few whistles register from the crowd, who are now inching their way forward, to be closer to the story.

“Armando took you mother to dinners romantic. They walk at night on the beach. I remember you father, or my father, bring Mariachis to play for her special, one night at a big fire on the beach. No one would admit who pay for them. They both, Armando and Papa, were romantic that way, and to not know who was responsible made the night special more, I think.”

“This will not make all the years of pain and shame go away. Anyone can put a positive spin on things. My family suffered for years at the hands of your family.” He stares at the photo again, holding on to it with two trembling hands, with that far away look. “If you were all so damn sincere, why didn’t anybody try to find us?”

“You think we did not? We phone the work of you father, but he works there no more, and they will not give to me information for employees of the past. I beg with them, but they say they no. We write you letters, and my brother Jose, look for you in San Diego.”

We lived with my Grandparents until Mom could work again. “We moved to Arizona.”

“I’m so sorry. We try so hard for nothing.”

The conversation stops. I see my reflection in a picture across the hallway. It is the strangest thing I have ever seen. I look like a sad and tormented criminal behind bars. The reality of my predicament smacks me in the chest. I feel as guilty as I look. Carlos and I stay within the safety of our thoughts for a moment. He is the first to break the silence, “would you like to meet you family?”

A hushed “si, si, si” and “shhhh,” erupts right behind me. This is humiliating. My brain still isn’t functioning at full throttle. I don’t know what to think.

“I talk to my mother when I see this photo and hear a young American is having it. She is very surprise as well. She never give up hope one day, we will all be together again and this . . . life will be better.”

How is this all going to fit into my life? My real life?

He smiles at me, “I think you will like meeting the family of you father.” He steps closer to me and says, “then we can learn how you and you mother live with this. . . It is possible we can share our pain, and then be free from it.” Everyone around me agrees. A hand finds my shoulder and pats it sympathetically.

But that can’t be the end of this, just like that? All my years of growing up without a father, the anger, the hate, the dreams of revenge, and wham! It’s over?  “You can’t do this. You don’t even know me. I don’t know you. How can you end everything about my life and make it out to be . . . a mistake?

“It is very sad you never to know him—you father.”

“A mistake? My whole life was a . . . a misunderstanding?”

“He was a very good man.”

A tear runs down his cheek. This old wound is freshly opened for him too. “That’s what my mom always tried to tell me.” I can’t believe I just said that.

“She did?” Hope floods into his sad and distant eyes.

Now it’s my turn to unload, “Yeah . . . this . . . my hate was much strong.” Why am I speaking with a Spanish accent?  “I would always get so mad when she defended him, even though I knew she felt as betrayed as me. Everyone else had dads who-o cared—“ I clear my throat to regain control over my voice. “—cared enough for them to be around, and teach them things, and . . .  take them to parks, and the beach. But never me. I never even had an excuse.  When I learned he had run away . . . I couldn’t tell people that, so I just told everyone he was. . .  dead.”

I look into his face to see how this affects him. My tears have been storming my cheeks, and each time my voice stops, a small stream runs down my face. “And my Mother; the shame and betrayal, from the person she loved, was very hard to take, but she took it . . .  with much more grace and dignity than I ever could. I think she even forgave him, and I hated her for that! Hated her acceptance of defeat! Hated what that did to our family! I hated everything about him. . . and I hated her for not hating him too. He was nothing . . . he was less than nothing to me. But whenever I would get so full of hate I wanted to scream . . . she would always come to his rescue, and that just . . . made me hate him even more.”

He thinks about that for a moment, or he didn’t even hear a word I said–I don’t know. The room tilts a bit, and I have to grab the bars to keep from falling over. My breathing is erratic. My chest moves in and out, without my consent, and I’m powerless to do anything about it. The old familiar darkness has me in it’s grip again.

“Yes, they love each other very much.” he says, staring down the hallway, a million miles away again. “I guess not even time and anger can put out that flame.” He seems to glide silently with his thoughts for a moment, while I stand here shooting the rapids between anger and sadness.

“Family will do that,” Carlos continued. ”Family bridges all valleys and make mountains easy to climb.” He looks me right in the eyes, “You should meet them, some of them, the ones who live close enough to come. They are making plans now.”

“They are?”


This is what I came here to do, kinda. My breathing calms, and the floor stops moving. And now I prepare to say the most difficult sentence I will ever speak . . . “Okay. If they are as nice as you, I’m sure I will like your family.”

Carlos reaches through the bars and touches my arm. I feel like I’m being touched by my father for the first time.

“You are my family, Pancho.”




Carlos makes a quick phone call, and he leaves me with his words still bouncing around this cell. I hear a sniffle and I look behind me. “Tu llora?” I hear one of them ask.

“No, No me lloras,” the scar faced one replies. A low murmur sets in as everyone mills about the cell, suddenly looking for something they dropped on the floor.


Carlos quickly returns, and just as hurriedly tells me, “you Abuela has been hard at work to prepare for a party in the honor of you.”

“She has?” This is happening so fast.

“I have to work, but I will come when I am finish. My son Jose will come to take you there. It is not far. “

How do I feel about this?

Carlos suddenly stops and composes himself. “How is you mother?” His eyes stare into mine.

“Fine.” I can’t think of anything else to say.

“Does she know you are here?”

Oh shit. How much does he know already? How much should I tell him?  “Yeah.”

He smiles at me. “Yes, it is very fortunate you are not a good drinker.”

I feel a flush of embarrassment. He knows more about what happened to me than I do, which feels a bit . . . creepy.

“What is her work?”

“She is a receptionist at a real estate office in the daytime, and at night, she waits tables at a diner.”

“Living in California is expensive. I don’t know why people do it.”

“That’s why we moved to Arizona.”

“Oh, yes. Is there not much anger in Arizona?” He sounds surprised.

“Yeah, but it must be pretty good compared to here, with so many of your people coming to live there too.”

Immediately, I feel I insulted him somehow.


“They are your people too Pancho.” His words hang in the air like the acrid scent of a strong cigar.


“I never thought I would have to bail my nephew out of jail.” He smiles. “Meet me in front of the jail.” He goes quickly down the hallway and out of sight.


I have waited a long time for a chance to tell my father where he could go, but now . . . I feel a stinging in the back of my throat, and the taste of vomit seeps into my mouth. I turn around and see all the other inmates staring at me, waiting for something, like people do when a movie is over and the credits are rolling, but with this movie, there won’t be any hilarious out-takes to reward them for their patience.


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