by Manuel Luis Martinez

Novel. In CROSSING, Manuel Luis Martinez explores the American obsession with mobility, the irrepressible hope that there must be something better somewhere and the relentless desire to move on in search of this elusive goal. Inspired by a newspaper account of thirteen undocumented workers left to suffocate in a boxcar outside El Paso, CROSSING tells the story of


Novel. In CROSSING, Manuel Luis Martinez explores the American obsession with mobility, the irrepressible hope that there must be something better somewhere and the relentless desire to move on in search of this elusive goal. Inspired by a newspaper account of thirteen undocumented workers left to suffocate in a boxcar outside El Paso, CROSSING tells the story of Luis, a boy who leaves his small town in Mexico to seek his fortune in the United States. Martinez was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and is now an assistant professor in the English department at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Editorial Reviews

David Murray
We are, above all, curious to know how the tenacity and resourcefulness Luis has learned in this violent darkness might serve him in a sunlit world. -- The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Bilingual Review/Press
Publication date:
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5.58(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.38(d)

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Chapter One

The men were all there. We had been told to meet at nightfall near the railroad stop at the slaughterhouse in Monterrey. They stood waiting in a field. I walked toward them, stepping through the brush and around the small mesquite trees that crowded the stretch of land.

    There were twelve, besides me. Many of them looked like criminals. They were dirty, seeming to me the kind of men who stayed at the cantinas all night drinking and causing trouble. I didn't want to talk to them, so I sat away from them, watching. They didn't act like ruffians. They were very quiet; some sat on the ground, a few even slept. Two men stood whispering under a small tree. They seemed to be the only men talking. I tried to hear what they said but could not make it out.

    One of them was tall and well-built. I could see he had been a farmer or even a rancher. He wore a straw cowboy hat. On his belt I could faintly make out the name Alejandro. The other man was shorter but looked even stronger than his friend. He was dark, with a thin mustache and small ears. His hair was slicked back and he had a habit of spitting. I heard Alejandro call him Pablo. He said something into Pablo's ear and laughed, but the shorter man didn't react. He seemed to be appraising the other men, measuring them against each other. Alejandro said something again, and Pablo nodded sharply. "You," he said, pointing at me, "get over here with the rest." I moved closer to the other men. "Don't bother making any good friends. You won't have time. And keep your mouth shut."

    Then I noticed the old man. He satalone, like me, slightly apart from the rest of the men. I couldn't make out his face, but in the dim light I could see he had only half of his right hand.

    We waited for Rosales, the labor contractor. When he got there he took our money and told us we were to be silent until we got off the train. He had three men with him, one of them wearing a federal uniform. I don't know if he really was one or not. I didn't think a federal would get himself mixed up in such a thing as this. Rosales told me it would be a difficult journey.

    "You won't like the train, boy. It gets very difficult. Hot. Men get ill-tempered. You see that old one over there?" He pointed to the man with the mutilated hand. "He's too old. He'll probably die. Does that scare you? To know you'll have to ride in the boxcar with a dead man?"

    "No," I said, "I've seen dead men before in my village."

    "Well, we'll see. You're young. How old are you anyway?"

    "I'll be seventeen at the end of the year," I told him, fearing he would think me too young for the trip.

    "Well, you look strong. I think you helped your father on a farm." He smiled, exposing a mossy set of teeth. "Your shoulders are broad. You'll be able to carry large sacks of fruit and such. I think you'll do very well." He stroked my shoulder. I drew back. "Then again I don't know for certain. Stronger men than you have failed to survive the trip. Many have gone mad in the darkness or from thirst. How you comport yourself within those walls means everything. You're going back to the womb." He smiled again, this time with anger in his eyes. "You must pay me now, just in case."

    I handed him two hundred thousand pesos, which he took without counting.

    "The rest you work off. It won't take a strong boy like you very long. Now remember, when you get into the box, don't make noise. You must all be silent." He smiled again. "You do want to go to Texas, right?" He then collected the rest of the money from the other men, and after telling one of his companions something privately he left.

    For the next hour or so we walked. I did not know where we were. I thought of my mother. She had begged me not to leave. The night before I left, she had cried. "You don't have to leave, mijo. I want my handsome boy here."

    She held my face in her hands, and for a minute I knew I should not leave. I weakened. "I know, Mamá. I'll stay. I won't go. I won't go." But as the words left my mouth I hated her. I felt like shaking her hands from my cheeks and running.

    Her face brightened at my surrender. "I knew my boy wouldn't leave me alone. Since your birth I knew you would always be here for me. You're my handsome, dark boy. Every day you look more like your father." She ran her fingers over my hair.

    I left that night after she fell asleep. I had to go. Ever since my friend Jorge had told me of a man who would provide a job and transportation to Texas, I had begun to save and plan.

    "Yes, Luis, we'll go together. This man told me that in Texas we can go on the piscas. We pick cotton in Texas, then go to California for grapes. In Michigan we pick tomatoes. He told me that in Texas there's a lot of genre. `If you get into trouble, there's always someone to ask for help. Every one of those Texas towns has a barrio. All you gotta do is walk around till you find it.' He says when he was there he was young and stupid like us and he found friends who showed him where to go and what to say to get work. My tío, he's never gone, but he has friends who've made the trip, and they said Texas was the best place to start. We'll find a place to live, maybe we can even get one or two other men to live with us. That way we can afford to send more money home. We'll learn inglés like that cabrón Ernesto who went to California a few years ago. We'll go, right?"

    I agreed readily. Even though we disliked Ernesto, it was an opinion rooted in envy. He had already gone to the U.S. and found work as a machinist. He sent money home and his sisters would sneak over to see him, always coming back with good clothes and enough money so their parents wouldn't have to work as hard. Ernesto had come back two years before, wearing a gold wristwatch and spectacles that looked expensive. He told everyone he had his own car in Los Angeles and described the highways and tall buildings. When one of the old men told him that Los Angeles sounded like Mexico City, he laughed. "It's nothing like Mexico City. In `Elay' everything works right. You don't have a bunch of kids hanging off the back of every bus. The cops there keep order. It's true they don't like Mexicans or blacks, but things are orderly. You can get anything to eat any time of night or day. They have movie theaters everywhere and you can choose from dozens of flicks. That's what they call them there. You can even watch the corny Mexican stuff if you want." Ese cabrón se cree muy americano, went the gossip around our village. That didn't deter us. From then on, Jorge and I began to plan our own move al norte. But in the end only I went.

    Jorge came over the morning I left. He couldn't say what he wanted to say. He wanted to say he was ashamed and he knew he was a coward, but he only wished me luck. He tried to give me a few pesos but I turned them down.

    "Look, Luis, take them. You can pay me back when you start making money in Texas."

    "I won't need pesos in Texas. They don't take those there. There they have real money. There you get paid and you get paid American money."

    I refused to use his name. When he said goodbye, I nodded but didn't shake his hand. He left. I felt sorry for him because I knew he would never leave this little village, and I was going.

* * *

    Soon I could smell the sweet-rotted stench of the stockyard and knew we were near the place where the train would pick us up. When we were in sight of the tracks, the man dressed like a federal told us to stay back.

    Within a few minutes a train pulled into the stockyard. The train was very long. I could not see the end of it. It seemed to stretch endlessly into the darkness. The federal waited a few minutes until a man on the train got off, then went to him. They talked for a few seconds and then the man got back on the train. I became scared that something had gone wrong and that we would not be going after all. But then the federal waved to Alejandro and Pablo.

    "Shut your mouths and follow us," Alejandro said. They led us to one of the cars near the end of the train. It was a large wooden boxcar. They unlocked the large door, sliding it open noisily. The screech made us hover nervously around its mouth.

    "Pendejo," cried Pablo. "Do you want someone to hear?" He turned toward us. "Hurry up, you idiots. And remember you all have to keep your mouths shut."

    As the men started to enter the car, Rosales took Pablo and Alejandro aside, explaining something to them in quiet tones. Neither said anything in reply, although they nodded often.

    As we filed up to the entrance I strained forward, trying to glimpse inside the chamber in which I would ride to my freedom. The old man stood behind me.

    "You seem very anxious to enter," he said. "Don't get too excited now; I think you may be in much more of a hurry to get out by the time it's over."

    I did not say anything. I only craned my head farther.

    "It's not such a bad idea to look now," the old man continued. "You won't see anything once they close those doors."

    A lightpost hanging in front of a tool shed threw a dim light into the car. Most of the interior was in shadow, but I could make out a haystack in the center of the floor. In one of the corners stood a small metal barrel.

    The man in front of me climbed in. I stood in the doorway for a moment, unsure.

    "Ándale," someone snarled from behind me. I slowly lifted my knee onto the floorboard of the car.

    "Go on," the old man said gently. He put his hand under my arm as if to lift me up.

    I pulled away roughly.

    "I can do it myself," I said, and then I jumped quickly inside. The floor was made of old unpainted wood. It creaked as I made my way to the farthest corner. I threw my bedroll down but did not unroll it. I sat on it instead and leaned against the wall, which was made of rough, splintered wood. It had been painted, but long ago. The paint had come away in large strips, exposing ancient planks.

    The old man sat down against the same wall, about ten yards away. The rest of the men sat as far away from each other as possible unless they had come together, so that all four walls had men leaning or sitting against them.

    "This barrel has water in it," said a long-haired man, tapping the barrel with his finger.

    "Leave that alone," said Pablo, climbing into the boxcar. Alejandro followed him inside. "That's for later. I'll tell you when." The long-haired man pulled his hand away from the barrel and sat down without a word.

    After everyone was in the car, Rosales's men slid the door shut from the outside. We all listened as they latched and then padlocked it. The click of the padlock echoed in the darkness.

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