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Love Brings Us Here

by Linda Thomas

Three days ago, we crossed the Cordova Bridge from El Paso, Texas, into the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua. As we passed the enormous Mexican flag unfurled in the cold January breeze, our taxi driver told us that a recent census reported over one million people living in Juárez, but because the census takers counted only those who live at a numbered residence, the taxi driver felt certain there must be two million people living here in this sprawling city. "One hundred districts in Juárez," he told us in a Spanish chipped out in the accent of northern Mexico. "Seven times the population of France lives in Chihuahua."

Juárez is big, no argument there; it is the fifth largest city in Mexico. As we traversed the streets toward our hotel, I saw block after urban block of cafes, bars, storefronts, auto repair shops, offices, supermarkets, unplanned buildings half-brick, half-concrete, half-painted, some with the traditional arched portals of old Spain, others sliced into the stark, gray, flying diagonal wedges of postmodern Mexico City. Once called El Paso del Norte, Juárez was renamed in 1888 for Benito Juárez, the revolutionary hero who won a guerrilla campaign against the French and kept the offices of his government here.

Like most Mexican border towns, Juárez has something to prove: that in spite of the Peter Piper Pizza parlors, in spite of the colony of copycat Cancún bars and discos, Chihuahua Charlie's and the obsequious frog, in spite of the El Paso teenagers crowded around the door to the Noa Noa, in spite of the drug traffic and police corruption and the bodies that wash up along the shore of the Rio Grande, in spite of the disbelief and the rolled-eye response to anyone who says they are from this border way station--in spite of all this, Juárez is still Mexico. This is the Mexico that exists in the seductive, dangerous swath of frontier that lies between Mexico and the United States and runs from Tijuana to Matamoros. And today, Juárez has the dubious distinction of being the only city in Mexico where Mexican citizens applying for immigrant visas to the United States can complete their application process.

Which brings me to this moment and the reason I am standing here on the sidewalk in front of the American Consulate General on Avenida Lopez Mateos at 5:45 a.m. in the pitch black cold of a January morning when the temperature is an ear-aching 25°F. Of the five hundred plus people lined up on this sidewalk, I and my daughter are the only Anglos. I am here because I love this daughter. And she is here because in October of 1995, she began exchanging email with a man who worked for "Diario de Yucatán," a newspaper in Mérida, Yucatán.

She--professor of Spanish language and literature, Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Fiction at a university in southern California. He--graphic artist and art student at the professional institute in Mérida. Each thirty years old, each the prized, beloved eldest child of their family. To make a long story short (though it could not be any sweeter than it is), Elsie and Rafael fell in love, and last July, they were married in Mérida in the presence of their families and friends.

And so we are here--my daughter, my son-in-law, and me--in Ciudad Juárez on this the third day of our quest to secure legal United States residency for Rafael. We have with us a file box crammed with letters, photographs, and documentary evidence that this marriage exists in good faith. We have the volume of forms and affidavits required for immigration. We have the results of Rafael's physical exam from two days ago, including a huge plastic folder containing his chest x-ray. We have photos of his face taken from every imaginable angle. In money belts hidden beneath our clothes, we have two hundred dollars in American cash to pay for the interview inside the Consulate. We have the paper noting our appointment date as today, and the warning that we should talk to no one on the streets of Juárez since visitors, especially those seeking visas, are prey to robbers and tricksters.

And we are cold. All around us, people stand in silence. Now and then, a baby, bundled in a blanket, cries. A woman, whose legs are bare and whose dress is thin against this icy air, stirs and moves nearer her husband. A very old man, swathed in a sarape, a scarf wrapped around his head, scrapes his feet against the curb just to see if they still move. Across the street, an open fire blazes on the corner near a dilapidated lunch truck where a woman brews coffee, hot chocolate, and cinnamon flavored atole. In a little while, she will cross the street with a tray of steaming cups and offer them for sale to those waiting for the huge orange iron gates of the Consulate to slide open. A man will pass by, pushing a cart loaded with a caldron of hot menudo. Young girls will pass by, offering tiny packets of gum or a pair of dimestore gloves. Few will buy; few have money.

Much will happen in the next twelve hours. The gates will open, Rafael will show the letter affirming his appointment, he will wave to us, and we will be told by the Consulate guards to move across the street. Across the street are sixty or more men, many wearing bulky jackets marked with the logos of American ball teams--Chicago Bulls, Dallas Cowboys. "Perdóneme," one might say and offer for a high fee to help those who appear lost or confused to get across the border. If anyone is foolish enough to pay him, he will disappear into the crowd. By daylight, the vendors will have increased, and there will be a man pushing a cart stacked with coconuts and plastic cups of fresh fruit. Buy one and he will sprinkle it with chili powder and squeeze over it the juice of two fresh limes. There will be a taco vendor, a man carrying a tall pole of cotton candy like pink clouds, a woman with red hair selling sunglasses. Two dogs, thin and angular as coyotes, will sniff the gutter where trash has caught in the mud.

At noon, we will feel the caffeine jangle our brains, and a woman whose threadbare white sweater hardly stretches across her narrow chest will say to Elsie, "Isn't this scary?" And my daughter will agree. At 2 p.m., Rafael will suddenly appear from the boxes of buildings behind the gate, wheel through the turnstile, and fall into our arms. He will tell us that he is hungry, and that he has been told to return at 3 p.m. for his border crossing packet of more papers. He will say that the Consulate interviewer claimed to have called his name three times, but he had not. He will square his shoulders, but I will notice that his chin trembles.

At three o'clock, Elsie and I will wait again across the street from the Consulate, this time for two more hours, while the crowd grows more weary and the scene more surreal. I will watch a man in a leather jacket watch a mother feed her two small girls bits of candy she peels from cellophane. I will catch the eye of a tall young man who paces the street waiting for the tiny figure of his mother to appear, and in his expressions, I will see the pitiful effect of bureaucracy. At five, Rafael will again emerge from behind the orange gate.

We will take a taxi, its interior smoky with exhaust fumes, to the Ysleta Bridge, and there we will wait again, this time for three more hours, for the stamp on the page in Rafael's passport that says he is a resident of the United States. When finally after 9 p.m. we pass through the last turnstile, the border guard there will ask if we have liquor or firearms in our suitcases. We will say no. He will not say, "Welcome to the United States." But in the parking lot beyond, in El Paso, Texas, U.S.A., we will hug one another and say it for ourselves: "Bienvenidos."

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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

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