Chapter 58

El Burrito Crazy feels like a frienemy.  Cheech seems like a really nice guy, but I either get arrested or almost killed taking his advice. I must look like such an idiot. But where else can I go? What are the odds that anyone else will try to help me any place else? Of course, there’s the possibility that someone else might actually be able to help me get home, but would they?

He sees me through the window. I might as well go in now.

The aroma of beans and meats simmering in the steam table and the sound of tortillas sizzling in the fryer is comforting. His expression is like he half-expected me to return.

“If you keep coming back, I’m gonna have to adopt you or something.”

I smile, but don’t make eye contact. There are two people sitting in a corner booth. They look at me, then up behind me, and then at each other. It’s that stupid painting. They probably think I’m the fricking Burrito Crazy mascot. I’m more than depressed. I just want to go to sleep and forget this whole ordeal ever happened.

“Hey man, I gotta tell you, I never seen anyone have this much trouble trying to get across the border. Are you sure you’re Mexican?”

“And that is supposed to make me feel better?”

He looks down at the counter. He hands me a paper cup. “Hey, those ladies were asking for you yesterday.”

I don’t know what to do, how to act. My fake, half-hearted smile is frozen in place. I feel like a mannequin in an abandoned store window.

Cheech goes back to cooking, then walks around the counter to serve the two quiet old men who think I modeled for the wall mural. I sit at a booth and Cheech comes over when he’s done.

He is quiet for once, and I can’t stand how uncomfortable that makes me feel. Someone needs to be the first to speak. I figure out where to begin, then let him have it.  I tell him what happened this time, in the hopes that he might understand and not pity me as much as I do. He listens, no jokes, no grins—just listens. When I finish, he just stares at the table, contemplating who-knows-what.

“If I had a dime for every hard luck stories you Guerros . . .” His sentence trails off and he sports a brief smile, but nothing more follows.

“So Cheech, if it’s so hard getting into the US illegally, why doesn’t everyone just fill out the paperwork and do it legally? You know, there’s always that option.”

“You know, it never ceases to amaze me how ignorant you Americans are about how your own country works.”

“We’re ignorant?”

“Yeah, do you know how many years it takes to get an interview for a green card?”

“About a year or two?”

“That’s if you have a close relative who sponsors you. I know one guy, he was single when he applied, he had a family and his kids were halfway through school before he was called for his interview.”

“No way.”

“Yes way. By then it was too late. He already started a business here so he just gave up. You guys are so scared we’ll take over your country, you keep the numbers down to hardly anything. Would you wait fifteen or twenty years to have a better life for your family?”

“Why can’t they get a better life here?”

“Some can—they do. Some can’t—they don’t. It’s not just about can and can’t. It’s usually about what is possible and what isn’t. If your town didn’t have good schools, you probably dropped out to help feed your family by picking crops or something. That doesn’t exactly pay very good, and you know when you grow up your own kids will have the same future. The US offers better pay and a dream for your kids. A better life than what is offered in your own home town.

“What about those NAFTA factories, or whatever they’re called?”

“Maquilladoras? Oh those are great. They pay a couple of dollars a day, house you in crappy company housing, which they charge you for, or you get a bunch of people together and rent a small house. After expenses, you have very little for yourself, or to send home to help your family. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, one day you go missing, and nobody bothers to ask why because it happens so often, and there’s so many more people looking for work that can take your place. Maquilladoras make money for the owners, not the workers.”

“Why don’t you make unions and fight for better wages and working conditions like we did?”

“You ever tried to change something when the people with money who run it are happy with the way it is?”

“So the only option is to go to America illegally, and risk your lives doing it.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the choice some of us have. Stay here and give your family the same life you got, with the same limited choices, or go to the U.S. and make lots more money and have many more choices for how to live your life. Which would you pick?”

“Then what are all the people doing working in hotels and restaurants down here? Do they get paid crap too?”

“Not if you speak English. If you can speak English, you work in the good jobs where you get tips from the tourists. If you don’t, you work the harder jobs, get paid little, and don’t make tips.”

“What about all those nice houses I saw coming up here? Some of you guys are doing pretty good.”

“Us? They’re probably vacation or retirement homes for Americans and Europeans who live cheaper here than they can at home. And that’s another thing, you old farts retire here, buying all the good houses, and driving up the prices, and push us Mexicans out of the market. We can only buy or rent homes in the poor neighborhoods, or out in the wilderness, while all you guys live a life of luxury in the best areas at our expense. Either way, there’s not a whole lot of hope down here for some people. Stay here and live poorly, or go north and live better. Better houses, better schools, better pay. It’s not easy having a rich neighbor so close to home.”

“So the whole world lives by the rules the US makes, which happen to serve only our interests and not anyone else’s.”

“You’re catching on Guerro. Good for you. But you know what really gets me? It’s when you beg us to come and work up there, then treat us like criminals when we do.”

“Where do you guys come up with this?”

He looks out the window towards the body shop across the street. It is dirty, a little run down. “See those guys over there? They’re lucky like me. They make good money compared to the rest of the country, heck, this town has more wealth because it is so close to the US. Lots of American tourists come here for a good time and spend a little money. I get asked a dozen times a week if I have any work.”

He helped me instead of one of his own people. And he helped Jose when he showed up on his doorstep.

Cheech, shakes it off, and smiles again. “NAFTA. You know what NAFTA taught us? Beware when your rich neighbor wants to do you a favor.”

His words bounce around the room like angry echoes. Maybe if everyone moved back to their own countries, everything would even out.

“It doesn’t pay to be angry at how the world works. My father used to say, ‘I can’t change the way things are, and I won’t let this stinky old world change who I want to be.’ “

We both take another deep sip of soda, and exhale our frustrations. Then he continues. “I’m happy with who I am and with what I got. I don’t need any resentment holding me hostage in my own skin. Hey, gringo, take off your clothes and put on an apron and give the ladies a show. Maybe later you can guess what kind of Mexican food I make for you.”

We both laugh, but I feel a little toasted from our conversation.

He grabs my arm as we go back to the dishroom, “Hey, you know I’m only joking about you taking your clothes off right? “

“I thought you said the ladies were asking for me?”

“Yeah, if you attracted beautiful young women, I wouldn’t mind looking at the worst case of plumbers-crack I ever seen, for five hours.”

I dive into the work, trying not to think about things too much—and failing miserably. I clean the bathrooms and mop the floors, somehow I find myself grateful to get Cheech’s help.  As he walks by I point out, “Hey Cheech, I’m working for a brown boss now.”

He keeps walking, and without missing a beat he says, “Yeah, and I got an American dishwasher. Finally there’s some justice in the world,” and he disappears around the corner.

Mike J Quinn About Mike J Quinn
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