UC Berkeley anthropologist Seth Holmes spent five years out in the field (picking crops, crossing the Mexican border, getting arrested, etc.) traveling up and down the West Coast from Oaxaca on north. His latest book documents how market forces, anti-immigrant sentiment and racism undermine health and health care. This is an excerpt from the book, "Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies."
The Road from San Miguel
(excerpt by Seth Holmes)
It is early April and our group is leaving the Triqui village of San Miguel in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, each of us wearing dark-colored, long-sleeved clothes and carrying a small, dark-colored backpack with one change of clothes, a plastic bag with coyote fur and pine sap made by a Triqui healer for protection and called a suerte [luck], along with many totopos [smoked, handmade tortillas] and dried beans to eat. I was instructed by Macario to bring these things. Each of us carries between $1,000 and $2,000 to pay for the bus ride to the border, for food at the border, for rides on either side of the border, and some for the coyote [border-crossing guide].
Our journey begins with a two-hour trip in a Volkswagen van from San Migued to the nearby mestizo town of Tlaxiaco. After buying our bus tickets, we walk around the town’s market, buying food to share with each other on the bus. Joaquin chooses mangoes, Macario oranges and peanuts, and I miniature sweet bananas. Macario buys a slingshot to use against rattlesnakes in the desert and asks if I want to carry one, but I don’t have much experience with slingshots. When we return to the bus, the two nuns from San Miguel are waiting to wish us well as we board. The younger nun explains to me that they go there every weekend to pray for border crossers.
The bus ride in itself is exhausting. The bus is packed with people, mostly men, all headed to the border except a half dozen who plan to go to Baja California to harvest tomatoes. We ride from 3:00 p.m. on Saturday until our arrival in Altar at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, a total of forty-nine hours. We pass through five army checkpoints between the state of Oaxaca and the border. The checkpoints all have signs that say in Spanish, “Permanent Campaign Against Narcotraffic.” Before each checkpoint, the bus driver or his assistant announces loudly that all the bus riders should say that they are going to Baja California to work so that the stop would not take too much time with questions about crossing the border into the United States. Each time, the driver tells me to say that I was just hitchhiking to the next tourist town – Mazatlán, Hermosillo, Guadalajara, depending on where we are at the time. Before each checkpoint, the bus becomes quiet, and people seem nervous about the possibility of being interrogated or sent back south. Two or three soldiers board the bus each time in green army fatigues and ask a few seemingly random people for identification and search a few bags while other soldiers look through the windows with rifles over their shoulders.
Interestingly, there are three army soldiers riding the bus with us, going to their base in northern Mexico. They, as well as everyone else, play along with the story. The oldest of the soldiers, seated next to me, is convinced I am the coyote leading my friends to a job in the United States. He explains to me that these military checkpoints are paid for by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in order to stop drug smuggling across the border and to stop undocumented immigration to the United States. He tells me to take the driver’s assistant to “El Norte” for free since he is so nice to everyone on the bus. The driver’s assistant – who collects fares from the passengers, enforces the schedule at food stops, and makes sure everyone makes it back on board after meals – simply smiles in response. I reply that I am not a coyote. The soldier laughs and asks in Spanish, “Then why are you taking all these guys?”