Miguel has dreamed of joining his parents in California since the day they left him behind in Mexico six years, eleven months, and twelve days ago. On the morning of his fifteenth birthday, Miguel's wait is over.
Or so he thinks. The trip north to the borderla líneais fraught with dangers. Thieves. Border guards. And a grueling, two-day trek across the desert. It would be hard enough to survive alone. But it's almost impossible with his tagalong sister in tow.
Their money gone and their hopes nearly dashed, Miguel and his sister have no choice but to hop the infamous mata gente as it races toward the border. As they cling to the roof of the speeding train, they hold onto each other, and to their dreams. But they quickly learn that you can't always count on dreamseven the ones that come true.
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By Ann Jaramillo
MacmillanCopyright © 2006 Ann Jaramillo
All rights reserved.
I should have known Elena would find a way to go north. If I'd kept my eyes open, if I'd been paying any attention at all, I might have seen what she was up to. After all, I'd dreamed about crossing la línea for years. Why should my sister be any different? But it was my fifteenth birthday, and Elena was the last thing on my mind.
I opened one eye and looked down at the wooden crate at the foot of my bed. Abuelita always left something for me to open, and I always knew what would be inside. Calcetines, una camiseta, chones. Something useful. Something my grandma could afford. Something I needed. Something I didn't want.
But there was nothing. No present. Nada. I rubbed my eyes and checked again. No, nothing. Not even the usual pair of underpants this year? Of course there was never enough money for a gift I didn't need. But any small thing would be okay. Cualquier miseria. I rolled over and covered my head with my blanket.
What I wanted was a pair of jeans, like the ones I saw Juanito wearing last week. They weren't like the pants I wore to work on the rancho every day, the knees patched and darned by Abuelita, frayed on the bottom. The jeans I wanted were bigger and looser and hung low. They got frayed because you let them drag on the ground and you stepped on them — on purpose, just because you could, because it didn't matter if they wore out or not.
But what I really wanted couldn't be wrapped up in a package. It cost thousands and thousands, and only Papá could give it to me. And he was thousands and thousands of kilometers away.
What could I remember about Papá? I thought I could remember sitting on his lap as he read aloud to me, when I was still little enough to sit on his lap. I liked the faint scent of his hair oil, the clove gum he chewed to cover up the cigarettes he smoked behind my mother's back. I liked the slow, careful way he pronounced each word, and how his moustache curved up when he read a line he enjoyed.
Abuelita made sure I didn't forget the important things about Papá. Every chance she got, she told the story of how he educated himself. He went to school only to the fourth grade. After that, the government closed la primaria in San Jacinto. He had to work on Abuelo's rancho, anyway, to help the family.
"He herded the goats and watered the corn with a book in one hand, and still he did more work than anyone else!" Abuelita always said. In those days, Papá could save a peso here and there. He used the money to buy books. The few he had, he read over and over until he knew long passages by heart.
I was the firstborn, so Papá should have named me Domingo, after himself and Abuelo and Bisabuelo and Tatarabuelo — and all the Cervantes as far back as anyone could remember. But Papá declared I wouldn't be like him, starting with his name. Miguel Carlos Octavio Pablo de Cervantes, he named me, after the authors he admired. Those were his saints, so those were the names I got.
And Papá proclaimed I would get an education. I would have a good, important job, one where I didn't have to break my back to put a few frijoles y tortillas on the table. No quiero que sufras como yo. That's how Papá put it.
I leaned over the side of my bed to pick up the pants I'd left on the floor the night before. On top of them lay a plain white envelope. Well, at least I got a card. I sighed. Abuelita loved me. She wished she could give me more. This year, there had been no money at all. It wasn't her fault.
But there was no card inside. No Feliz Cumpleaños Nieto. Instead, there was just a small folded note.
"It's been six years, eleven months, and twelve days since I left to go north across la línea. It's time for you to come. Go see Don Clemente. He'll help you." It was signed, simply, "Papá."
Papá had never written a note before. He'd never asked me to see Don Clemente before. And I didn't know until then that he'd counted each day since he left, that he numbered them one by one, just the way I did. I'd been waiting for this moment ever since I was eight. Could it be true this time, finally?
For once, I didn't care about a birthday present. If Papá's note was true, my real life was finally beginning. This was day number one.CHAPTER 2
I picked up my soccer ball and twirled it on my index finger. It was scuffed and stained and the plastic insides bulged out in two places. Soccer was just a memory now. I hadn't made the cut for the best team, the one I had to get on if I wanted a chance to turn pro. I remembered el sueño I'd had just before waking. I knew the dream by heart. It was the same one I'd had a thousand times.
In my dream, when my turn came, I didn't go north to California. Instead, I played soccer for Cruz Azul or Chivas, America, or Necaxa. I was famous. I was very, very rich. I returned to San Jacinto in a shiny new black SUV, riding up high, around and around la plaza, looking down on the people. They looked back up at me, but they had no eyes, no noses, no mouths. I didn't know who anyone was.
I brought Mamá, Papá, and the twins back home. I built us a mansion, the biggest one in the whole state, ten times the size of Don Clemente's. I always woke up, in a cold sweat, just as I put the key in the door. I shook my head hard. Soccer was just a dream now, and a dead one. Ya basta. Olvídalo.
I heard Abuelita shuffling around our little kitchen. She'd been up before five and had already stoked the fire for breakfast. She talked quietly to herself as she moved about.
"Ahora, las tortillas. How many will Miguel want?" Abuelita mumbled. The masa slapped softly in her hands. "And Elena? ¡Sabrá Dios!"
I looked over at my sister. She slept, curled up in a little ball, exhausted. Every night that she couldn't sleep — like last night, like most nights — Elena pulled Mamá's letters out of a little woven bag she kept under her bed. She read them, over and over, one by one, in chronological order.
In almost seven years, we'd seen Mamá just once, a little over three years ago, for three days. She'd slipped home for her sister's, Tía Consuelo's, funeral, using up all the saved money to pay a coyote to get her back across la línea.
Elena had to grow up without a mother, so she hoarded what she could of Mamá, her letters. The words were like little drops of water to a person dying of thirst — enough to give hope; not enough to make a difference.
I threw on my pants and shirt, tucked Papá's note in my pocket, and stepped quietly out of our room. Abuelita stood at the stove, spooning my birthday pozole into a bowl. I kissed her on top of her head. She touched my cheek and made the sign of the cross on my forehead.
Abuelita set the bowl on the table. "Eat, Miguel. Eat."
I took a handful of oregano out of a bowl, rubbed it in my palms, and watched it land on top of the steaming soup. Abuelita gave me two of her handmade tortillas. I tore one and dipped it into the pozole. The pungent maíz mingled with the smell of roasting chiles and the beginnings of sopa. One of our chickens had already been killed for dinner. Abuelita plucked the feathers from its lifeless body.
She turned her back to me. "Don Clemente has gone to la capital," she said quietly. "He won't be back until Sunday.
"I'll tell Elena the news if you want," Abuelita continued. "But it's better coming from you. She deserves to hear it from you."
"Sí, Abuelita." I said it respectfully. I sounded obedient.
I didn't want to be the one to tell Elena. She'd have one of her famous temper tantrums. She'd cry for hours. Nothing I could say would stop it — except to say I'd take her with me. And that was not going to happen.
Ten minutes later, Elena dragged herself out of bed and into the kitchen. She rubbed her eyes and yawned. She looked like she was three years old instead of thirteen.
I couldn't tell her. The words I needed to say felt like mud in my mouth. Abuelita let out a deep sigh, turned her back to me, and stirred the frijoles bubbling in the pot on the stove.
I walked out, barefoot, and stood at the edge of our ranchito. I dug my toes into the soft, dusty dirt and stared out at the cornfield. The stalks were dry, the cobs stunted and diseased. Every year, the drought got worse. We tried diverting the springwater. We'd carried water by hand. Nothing worked.
And even if our corn didn't die because of the drought, even if the corn grew tall and green with silky golden tassels, we couldn't sell it for more than a few pesos. Mexico was flooded with cheap foreign corn. Our market had dried up, along with el maíz.
If Papá and Mamá didn't send a little money every month, we would starve. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't help here anymore.CHAPTER 3
Every year on my birthday, Chuy, Lalo, and I went up to the waterfall to swim. Gracias a Dios for my friends. I had to wait days for Don Clemente, and I'd go crazy if I stayed at home.
Halfway up the path that led into the hills, Chuy and Lalo sat lounging under the shade of the big tree. "¡Apúrate!" said Chuy.
He jumped up, pocketing the carving he was working on. "You're late."
Most of the springs had dried up, but we knew one secret place, far back in the hills and higher up. We climbed and climbed until we came to the narrow crevice in the cliff we'd discovered years before. We squeezed our bodies through and into the small gorge.
Our little waterfall had dwindled to a trickle, but the pool was there. It wasn't deep enough to dive into, so we stripped down to our underwear and floated in the clear blue water.
"Remember that time up here when we practiced farting?" Chuy asked. He stood up and demonstrated once, just to show he could still do it.
I laughed. "Yeah, we tortured Moreno real good. He never caught us, either. Our farts were quiet, but deadly."
Señor Moreno was our fifth-grade teacher. We'd hated him because he smelled like old onions and picked on Chuy for no good reason. We figured the pedos were at least self-defense against Moreno's bad breath.
"¿Y el año pasado?" I pointed at mi amigo. "Tú, Lalo. You got all that tequila and beer and dared us to drink it. Man, I thought I'd never quit throwing up."
Lalo didn't say anything, just smiled. He knew I wasn't mad. Up here, we felt hidden from the world. Here, we tried everything first, just to be able to say we'd done it.
I pulled myself out of the water and retrieved the three cigarettes I had sneaked from Tío Esteban's stash. We lit up. Chuy and I coughed. Lalo inhaled once or twice and blew the smoke out expertly, like he smoked a pack a day, and then ground the cigarette out on a flat gray rock.
Lalo dipped his head into the water. When he came up for air, he shook his dark, thick hair like a dog, spraying water all over the three of us.
"Me voy," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm going to la capital. My aunt knows the director of a good preparatoria there. I can get in and live with her."
I wasn't surprised Lalo was finally getting out. He wanted to be a doctor, and he couldn't do that in San Jacinto. He always said he would go. Lalo didn't belong in San Jacinto any more than I did. If he was really leaving, maybe that meant I'd really go, too.
We let the sun dry us for a long time, taking in Lalo's news. "Good," Chuy said finally. "Good. Y no seas burro. Don't quit."
He didn't say anything else. We all knew Chuy wasn't going anywhere. All of a sudden, he leaped to his feet. He pulled his wiry frame up the toeholds in the rock at the side of the gorge until he reached the top, then motioned for us to follow.
The three of us sat cross-legged, gazing down at the valley below. The roofs of San Jacinto glinted in the sun. Smoke curled up from the ranchos. Chuy pointed to the East, to two figures in an empty field, one atop a small tractor, the other walking behind.
It was Chuy's father and his older brother, Everardo. They'd vowed not to give up on San Jacinto. Chuy's father had formed a group to try to attract tourists. His mother even had some crazy idea about selling her indígena weaving to the norteamericanos who came. I didn't know why anyone would want to visit San Jacinto. Chuy knew he was part of his father's big scheme. He seemed resigned to the plan.
"Mira." Chuy pulled his carving out of his pocket. It was one of his fantastical, mythical animal creations. This one had horns, claws, fangs, and wings, painted in a dozen brilliant colors. Despite its scary looks, the creature seemed good and kind. Like a little boy playing with a toy, Chuy lifted the figure up and made it fly through the air.
I imagined it life-size, carrying me through the sky to the north, across la línea, to California.
"I'm going, too," I said suddenly. "I got a letter from Papá. I'm going soon."
Twice before, Papá had announced it was time for me to follow him north. Both times, I'd told Chuy and Lalo that I was going for sure. In the end, there wasn't enough money. Both times, I'd had to admit Papá's failure to make good on his promises.
Chuy and Lalo looked at each other, not at me. Chuy started laughing. Lalo punched my arm playfully. He shook his head in disbelief, scrambled to his feet, and pointed down toward San Jacinto.
"Ay, Miguel," Lalo teased. "No te engañes. You'll grow old and die here, along with all the other viejitos."
I couldn't say anything back to Lalo. Maybe he was right. Papá had let me down before. It could happen again. Half the time, I wasn't even sure if he wanted me with him in California. Wouldn't a father sacrifice whatever it took to bring his only son to his side? If he missed me, really missed me, wouldn't he have come for me himself, a long time ago?CHAPTER 4
Elena was like the weather vane on top of Señor Mendoza's house. She picked up on every change in the wind, no matter how slight. The day after my birthday, she seemed more alert than ever. She followed me everywhere I went, a silent little shadow. I ignored her. I didn't talk to her, or look her in the eye. I tried to hide it, but she sensed my excitement about Papá's note.
I had to tell Elena about my trip across la línea. I couldn't put it off any longer. The sooner she knew the truth, the sooner she could get used to the idea. Late Friday afternoon, I dug out my last few pesos. I'd take Elena to San Jacinto. I'd buy her mango ice cream, her favorite, and tell her in public. Maybe she'd behave if we were around other people.
"Let's go to town, Elena," I said. "We'll get some ice cream and hang out."
She squinted her eyes and frowned slightly. I never asked her to have fun with me. She didn't trust my invitation.
"Okay." She was too glad to go to refuse my offer.
On the edge of San Jacinto, Elena stopped. She pulled up her special pink Tshirt, the one Mamá sent from California, so her belly button showed, for the whole world to see.
"You look trashy. Cover up." I reached over with both hands and jerked her T-shirt back down. "Mensa. Así deshonras nuestro nombre."
Elena backed up and tugged at her jeans. They moved lower on her hips. She hooked her thumbs in her belt loops, and stuck her chin out defiantly.
"Tú no eres nadie para juzgar," she said. "Who are you to judge?" I looked her up and down. My sister was pretty. She really didn't need to show skin for boys to notice her. I could scold her about dishonoring the family, but I wasn't her parent, and she knew it. She wasn't about to let me tell her how she could dress.
Elena reached deep into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out an envelope. She'd chewed each fingernail off, way down, a sure sign she was worried about something. Her slender fingers fumbled with the letter.
"Abuelita got this the other day," she confessed. "It's from Mamá. I'm sorry I didn't show it to you before. Don't be mad at me."
I grabbed the paper roughly, jerking it out of Elena's grasp. It was Mamá's usual letter, full of news. There was even a new photo of the twin sisters we'd never seen, three-year-old Maria and Liliana. They sat almost as if they were one, hands clasped. Their lips turned up in identical grins, deep dimples on each cheek. Their noses crinkled up the same way and their faces were framed by curly black hair.
Excerpted from La Línea by Ann Jaramillo. Copyright © 2006 Ann Jaramillo. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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