tv Moyers Company PBS August 12, 2012 8:00am-9:00am PDT
there is no stretch of territory in the world quite like the borderlands between the united states d mexico. a vast swath of terrain, a long and tortured history, and an endless stream of humanity both separate and join our two countries. it's as complex a coupling as you will find anywhere. from brownsville and matamoros on the gulf of mexico, the border runs along the rio grande river to intersect with the continental divide. where it turns toward tijuana and san diego on the pacific ocean. 1,969 miles snaking through desert and desolation, dividing towns and cities marked now by stretches of steel and concrete fence, with infrared cameras and sensors, national guardsmen, and border patrol agents. well over 100 million people cross this border every year, one way or another.
one day in may eleven years ago, 26 mexican men set out across the murderous stretch of desert known as the devil's highway, heading for arizona. and hopefully, for work. 12 of them made it. 14 were scorched alive by the torrid sun. their story became a stunning work by the author, luis alberto urrea. no one writes more tragically or intimately about border culture than this son of a mexican father and anglo mother. born in tijuana and raised in san diego, he grew up in both worlds, and they appear and reappear in his acclaimed novels, essays and poems -- 1books in all, including his most recent, "queen of america." luis urrea remains close to the people and places of the border -- from the garbage pickers he knew
in tijuana to the desperate travelers on "the devil's highway." welcome. >> thank you. >> i'm delighted to be here. >> i can't believe i'm here. >> you must grow weary of talking about "the devil's highway." >> tired of it. >> which is a classic. but anyone who's read it can ner foet those 2men setting out across that inferno, can feel the heat of the sun on the sand, can sense the foreboding of the mountains. can experience the thirst on their lips. and it still awes me today and humbles me to think what they will go through to try to get here. >> it's unbelievable what people go through. and, you know -- >> what's the mirage that seduces them?
>> life. you know, we have this illusion that they're criminals, or they're coming to steal welfare or, you know, take our jobs. you know, i've got to say, if you at all travel the country, you see the jobs that people do who come here. i'm not going to do those jobs. and it, for example, a couple years ago, the strawberry crop came into washington state, massive strawberry crop, the same yeathat the undocumented didn'thow . the work crews, for whatever reason, stopped coming. those crops rotted on the ground because they couldn't get u.s. citizens to come out and just pick them. even for free. take them. people wouldn't do the effort. that's, you know, it's shocking, too. i feel like, you know, if people just stopped for a second and looked at what those guys, first do, and second accomplish when they get here. what fascinates me is the people who are the most angry at those walkers seem to be kind of social darwinists, you know.
posayn rand "fountainhead," "atlas shrugged" kind of characters who see these foaming hoards of alien critters coming in here. and, you know, the truth is that the entrance exam is so stringent and so incredibly brutal that the people who do make it here, i think, have proven themselves to have mettle. and to have vision and strength in the kind of discipline that's hard for us to even imagine. >> although many of them don't get here. out of the 26 who went along the devil's highway in your book, only 12 came out. and it still grips me as to why these men would endure this inferno, temperature you write at midnight is 97 degrees, to come to this country to do stoop labor. >> people don't know that these folks are often recruited.
these guys were in veracruz, you know, they were, most of them had small plot coffee, traditional little coffee stands in the hills, that their family passed down. and they could augment their work with coffee, and coffee prices took a dive. the mexican economy took a dive. one of the men was a bottler at a pepsi-cola plant, he carried bottles around. and so they were in trouble. and these guys sent this character known as a hooker, "el engachador." not a hooker as in prostitute, but, you know, an angler. and he went in there and he made h prence felt, anhe rooked them. he told them, "look, we'll send you to the united states and one summer of work, picking oranges. how hard can that be? that's not hard. and we make you all this money." and they said, "we can't afford the trip." and he said, "we'll lend it to you at a high interest rate." these are men who've never had credit cards, or --
so they sold themselves to the company store, basically, blood to a shark. it was a mafia operation. and then they come to the u.s. and they're turned over to guides. the experienced guide didn't show up, so the inexperienced guide, being macho and bold, says, "i'll take them." and that walk isn't rely harrowing. the walk is up a ridge. you walk for basically two days, mostly at night, and you get to a ridge above ajo, arizona. you can see the town below. and they wait until the border patrol is gone, and they walk down the hill. guy calls on his cell phone, cars come out of the reservation, pick you up, and take you to phoenix. you go to a safe house with an attached garage, garage door opens, car drives in and closes, no one ever sees you. you get sent to florida the next day. now, at hpened is, the guy got lost, and they're in hell, and they can't find their way out. but more and more people died that way. >> but earlier, before "the devil's highway," you went back to tijuana as a missionary?
>> well, yeah, i guess, relief work. i call it missionary, you know, they -- but yeah. they -- it was a group out of a baptist church. and people had been telling me about this pastor, pastor von. "you've got to go see pastor von." and they'd always tell me, "you know, you won't like him that much because his politics are to the right of attila the hun." you know, i'd say, "oh wow, great. that's tempting to me, a baptist preacher who's a right-wing -- that's what i want to." but it turns out that von was just the most real and wise. i call him a zen baptist instead of a zen buddhist. >> i know them. it seems to me that you were the one who was converted when you went back to tijuana. you-- >> well, i -- >> even today when you talk about those garbage pickers and the kids eating dogs. and they're looking out and seeing the american dream like a mirage across the border, it seems to me that you flipped to
see the world as they saw it. >> i did, because you can be from a place but not know it. do you know what i mean? sure, i was born in tijuana and i had known tijuana my whole life. but that doesn't mean that anybody i knew had ever gone to that tar paper or cardboard shack. nobody had ever gone to the garbage dump to talk to garbage pickers. in fact, if i was radicalized, which i think i was in some ways, the radicizing moment ca when i was a lile boy with my dad and myunt and so of my cousins in downtown tijuana. and we had gone to a restaurant to eat, we were going to eat chicken, mexican style brassiered chicken. it was a big deal. and we were walking into the restaurant and there was an indigenous woman begging on the sidewalk, probably mixed. what they call marias, you know. and she had the outfit and she had the baby. i still remember her. and she had that "limosna por favor," and put her hand out. and my aunt kicked her.
she said, "largate perra!" "get the hell out ofere,og!" and kicked her and went inside. and i was so shocked because, you know, this was my auntie, right? what's this violence? and i was embarrassed and i was mortified and horrified -- i didn't know what was going on. and we went inside to eat and it was very clear to me that here we were, the white -- this is where i started understanding. we were superior and that was a dog. and my cousin, margarita, we were allating and i noticed she was taking the food when no one was looking and putting it in her lap in the napkin. and she snuck out and fed the woman. that haunted me. it's always -- it still haunts me to this day, that moment. so when i walked into the tijuana garbage dumps and one of the women, mostly indigenous people, one of the women put her arms around me. she said, "you know why i love you? you're not afraid of us." how can you not change?
and pastor von was very sly. he saw what i was like. i had my hollywood hair and all this stuff. and you know t first job he ge me washg thfee of e garbage dump pickers. that'll transform you. you think you're doing something nice for them and you realize that you're on your knees washing these feet and you start wanting to cry because these people are trusting you. and they end up blessing you instead of you blessing them, it's the weirdest thing. >> describe the garbage pickers and the world they live in every day. you do it beautifully in many passages. in fact, it's confusing to me as to why you started writing about them because american writers don't make money writing about -- oh no. it was aistake. >> -- marginalized people like that. john steinbeck might have, but -- >> it took him a while though. >> it took him a long time. but these are the lost and depraved of the world and you deliberately chose to write about them. and you describe them, you know, sleeping in boxes, picking trash, eating the dead dogs, selling their bodies. what are they like? who are they?
>> you know, i love them, they're my friends. they're people i -- truly there for the grace of god, right? i mean, who's to say we won't fall into bad times? >> the grace of a border? >> the grace of a boer. yeah, i always tell ople, you know, if i had my choice i would have been born in hollywood. i would have been jimmy stewart's grandson. but that's not -- that wasn't the choice. you know, here's the scenario as the dump, for example, exists today. the one i write about in the first books was in a different location. it moved to this place which is actually, in a weird way, beautiful. it has a view of the ocean and there are islands off the shore. and it used to be a canyon, kind of an edward abbey desert canyon wh a little seasonal waterfa, de, qul do in there, coyotes that fed out to the ocean. there's a hill here, okay, to the west.
and then there's this canyon. and then there's an arc of graves. and at this far end there's a crematorium that burns human bodies. on this hill is the potter's field for babies. anyone can bury a child who's died. you just dig a hole and stick your child in there. the haunti thing is the headstones are often their cribs, and the cribs have the names painted on them. the canyon fills with garbage and becomes a plain and then becomes a mountain of garbage. and on the other side of the arc of graves is the community where the people have built homes to live. that's the modern dump as it is now. now, the garbage technicians who drive the tractors and so forth as a humanitarian act bring out the backhoe once a month and they scoop out 7 or 14 holes so that anybody cabury anybody. that's the world they're in. they are mining for glass,
they're mining for copper. they're taking out cans and so forth. >> didn't an editor say to you when you proposed writing about these people, "nobody cares about starving mexicans"? >> yeah, direct quote, yeah. and that book -- and i have to tell you -- >> it's true, isn't it? >> it is true. i was kind of stupid. i was naive. you know, i thought, honestly, i thought if i write a book about people nobody cares about, it's going to be a hit. because everyone will read it. hat s i inki? but here's what happened. i wanted to be stephen king or led zeppelin. i didn't care who -- what i wanted to -- you know, i was a poor boy. i wanted to be famous because if i was famous, i'd be rich. i would never worry about money again. i would never eat a ketchup sandwich on white bread again. you know, i would never watch my mother and my father tear themselves apart. a lifetime of no dentistry because there was no money. i wouldn't -- none of that would happen.
and i wt into that world with von,nd von is the fit on who proped it to me. he said, "you know," >> the pastor? >> the pastor. he said, "nobody who has access to this world writes books. you do. and you should write about the -- you should give witness to these people." and i thought, "wow, that's a really --" because it hadn't occurred to me. and it certainly had not occurred to me to write nonfiction. so i started keeping notes, right? and i was keeping notes. and the moment, you talk about my -- this is my damascus road moment, i'll confess to you. you, me, and, you know -- >> and for the -- and for the benefit of the rising generation of atheists in a secular world. >> yeah -- >> that damascus moment is when the -- >> oh yes. >> paul is converted in a blinding flash -- >> blinding flash -- >> -- on the road to damascus. >> that's right. >> and becomes the apostle who changes the world by preaching the gospel. >> for better or worse. >> yeah. >> yeah. >> what was your damascus? yeah, for better or worse -- >> this was my damascus road, but it was -- >> you said it, i didn't. >> it was a blinding flash of smoke, pretty much, not light.
but i was at this place called ladrillera, the brickyard. and ladrillera is outside of tecate, where our tecate beer comes from. a wonderful, bucolic border town that i just adore. anyway, i'm there, and i'm keeping my notes. i was writing in my journal, and a man was walking by and he was looking at me, he was a worker, completely black, covered in oil, diesel fuel. and he had a handkerchief on his head, four corners tied in knots, like a skullcap. and he had a big stick. and he walked over to me and he was looking, he said, "qué estás haciendo?" "what are you doing?" i said, "oh nothing, i'm just writing in my journal." "ah. what's a journal?" i said, "you know, it's a diary, right." "oh good, yeah. what's a diary?" i said, "well, it's a book, and i write in it." he said, "what are you writing about?" i said, "writing about what i do, what i see." and he said, "wait a minute. you're writing about this place?" and i said, "yup." and he said, "are you writing about the people here?"
i said, "yeah, i guess." and he said, "are you writing about me?" and i said, "i probably am now." and he said, "is anybody going to read this?" and i said, "i hope so." and the man said to me, he said, "you know, that's good, that's good. write about me. write about me." he said, "i was born in the garbage dump. i've spent my entire life picking trash. and when i die, they're going to bury me in the garbage." he said, "so you tell them i was i don't know if that was a blessing or a curse, right? >> well, you did learn from it because you went on, i mean, "into the beautiful north," which is one of your memorable stories. you make heroes out of undocumented people. and reading it, one has to wonder why, if a people who are so god forsaken in one sense, is god so important to them?
how does -- why does that hold on down there? >> i think people who are god forsaken seem to cling to god very strongly. i mean, you know, look at the roots of scripture, right? those guys weren't high rollers. i don't know what it is. it's an unbreakable bondf faith. fascinating to me, i think partially -- a shift in my own perception from working on things like "the hummingbird's daughter" and being deeply embroiled in the indigenous world in mexico as well and realizing that there's a kind of an absolute faith that is based on experience rather than church. they feel that they see god everywhere in every way and that god les them perhapbecause they have to.
but you think of someone who is despised at home and they come here and are despised here as well, sometimes to their great shock. so a lot of those folks come here thinking, "i'm going there to serve them. i'm going there to help. i'm going there to work hard." and they're shocked that they're hated. where else do you turn? you can't just absorb and swallow the belief that you're nothing. that you don't have right to your place on this earth and that you know, you are completely abandoned in the universe. and so they cling to god. you know, you need someone to hold on to. >> well, you refer often, or frequently to miracles, to grace. well, i'm wondering where you are in this journey. i mean, i know that you had a tough ten years. you started writing, you were broke, right? >> i was -- >> you were down and out.
and for a whole decade you got one rejection note ter another. >> my sunny disposition hides i think a black desert with a howling wind inside because i've come through a, you know, a long, tough journey. but everybody does. and i realize that's part of the message. i think that everybody, you and i, deal with somewhere in their lives has had the tijuana garbage dump experience. even if it was -- >> oh i think that's exaggerated. >> no, i think everyone has had -- >> i haven't haa tijuana garbag-- >>o but -- >> i'm a very lucky >> b everyone s lo someone dear to them or has faced some heartbreak, or is sitting on cancer. or everyone has had what i call the tijuana dump experience. not that extreme certainly. but everybody -- >> because tomorrow can bring something different. but for the garbage pickers, tomorrow brings more garbage. >> unless pastor von comes. there's always a tomorrow. the whole point of this i think is hope.
when the hope ends, your life ends i believe. >> in your most recent book, teresita who was at one time queen of the yaqui indians, right? >> that's what they said. >> and then she was -- had dreams of being queen of the world. when she comes to this country he says, "you have to have a different dream in america, a different hope." what is that american dream for people like teresita? >> the things about the united states that intoxicate people. i mean, if people understood i think that the people i write about are enacting a love letter to america, not eviassat. this is, this is hope. you know, for example, this sounds like i'm not answering your question. but i'm trying to answer it the way my mind works. there's a scene in "into the beautiful north" where the people come to san diego and
they see lawns for the first time. that was me. i didn't see lush green lawns until fifth grade. and when we went up to clairemont -- san diego, clairemont little, blue collar commuty, i saw these green lawns. and i thought, "oh my god. americans are rich." americans are -- i'd never seen anything that beautiful in my life as these stupid little lawns. they were so green and because we could throw water away. so, you know, that you could come to a place where your children can be healthy, where yo can have access twentfour hrs a day tstuff that you n't have elsewhere, where you can, you know, lead the good life. yeah, that is expressed in physical stuff, better
underpants, better hygiene products, whatever, tv, all that stuff -- yes. but also a clean street, you know, a pretty garden, a culture where there's not a potential death squad coming after you. if people had called this propaganda war about illegal aliens something different, what if the people had been called refugees? what if the people had been called pilgrims? that might have been a completely different mindset. >> conquistadores. >> well, i always tell people, you know, "my family, the original illegal aliens. they were conquistadores." they came here uninvited. they hit peru first, the urrea brothers and burned their way up to mexico. we were undocumented for sure. so, you know, i -- >> that's quite a lineage from visigoths to -- >> it is. -- conquistadores. >> the visigoth hit northern spain. the urrea family came out of the visigoth invasion.
they say that the genetic packet came from, let's say, involuntarily received visigoth genes. that's politically correct. and then they came to the new world and they set this journey north. and, you know, i talk about this in several books. but one has to understand that our manifest destiny pointed west. we have a long, broad continent and we wanted to go west to get stuff. their manifest destiny went north and south because they have a long, narrow continent and it made sense that they kept going north. we didn't like their manifest destiny. we liked our manifest destiny. i write columns for "orion magazine" now. the next one coming up is called "manifest density." and it's about a moment that is germane to our conversation that really changed some of my feelings about a lot of this
story. and that was driving west, went soh data which i love. i have a lot of brothers pine ridge reservation. whatever reason, really close to a bunch of oglala guys. and we were heading to see some of those guys and we were going to the badlands. and they had sodbuster huts. original sodbuster huts preserved. and my wife and i both love history. she's a journalist. so i say, you know, let's go see the sodbuster huts. this is great. and we went in and i'm walking in american history, american pioneer history. e entered into the sodster hut. and it was as though you'd hit me in the face because it was in every detail including the residual smell, this far later, the shack of a tijuana garbage picker. the same color, the same beat up wood, the same homemade
improvised furniture, the same newspapers put up on the walls, the same dirt floor, even the same bugs. they just had a sod roof. but otherwise it was the exact same dwelling. the same size, the same darkness, the same odor. everything was the same. and it was like somebody put the world on a spinning pivot because i thought, "holy cow. this sad little shack is heroic to us because it's our myth. but that shack is depraved and filthy because it's not our myth." you see what i mean? >> so why is this subversive literature? somehow i wasn't surprised being familiar with your work that two of your books were among those banned earlier this year by the tucson school district that declared an end to mexican-american studies.
and then went, actually went into the classroom if i heard this story right, went into the classrooms and in front of the children took away the books that were about the mexican- american experience. and two of yours, "by the lake of sleeping children" and "nobody's son" were included in those. >> and that one. >> "devil's highway"? >> yeah. >> as well? >> they told me last year, last year at the tucson festival of books, i was stopped by a tv camera crew. it's one of those gotcha moments, you know, "what do you feel about superintendent blah, blah, blah, going to ban 'the devil's highway?'" i said "what? what's -- why?" and the guy said, "well, it's been called anti-american, and it has devil in the title." and i thought, "you know, this is a comedy, right? it's ridiculous." and i said, "anti-american." i said, "you know, it's being taught to border patrol agents at the acade. so if it's good enough for the border patrol they're hardly marxist, you know, invaders."
and i said, "as far as devil in the title, it's on the map. are you really going to try to change history and remove things that you don't like off the maps? you can't do that. that's --" and i didn't take it seriously. so later on this thing happened. now the tucson unified school district's take on this is that you weren't banned, you were boxed. >> what do they mean by that? >> they didn't really ban it. they just took it outf brown hands. they banned mexicans basically. they got rid of mexican-american studies. they put all of the books that they took away from the students, they boxed them and put them away. the catch-22 seems to be that anybody who's not from that ethnic studies world could teach it but that there would be disciplinary action as i understand it if anyone complains about those being taught. so in essence they've been, what i call a soft-banning. they're out of the picture. and -- you kno here's the situation, it's not aboubooks. it's aboutthnity.
it's about the power in phoenix -- what i call the "arpaiocracy." >> joe arpaio. >> joe arpaio. and governor brewer and that whole crowd i think. if the tucson school district does not comply with what the big boys, the big bullies tell them, you know, they're going to lose $15 million in funding. then what happens? so everybody's between a rock and a hard place. >> what effect has this had on the kids, on the students? >> it's heartbreaking. they cry, you know, they're -- when you come into something like ethnic studies and mexican-american studies, there's a good chance that you're slightly disenfranchised to begin with. you know, you're in a population that's frowned on by the power structure. you're an ethnic student, mexican-american or indigenous-american or black-american. you're probably not wealthy. you're often from that other side of town like i was.
and you come into a world where you will be expected to read "the gre gatsby" or something like that. and it's sometimes a very large gap to jump. and so you go to ethnic studies which give you literacy through themes that you understand and are comfortable with. and it is a gateway. if i had anything i could tell the tusd people or governor brewer, though she'd never listen to me, it's a gateway into americanness, not out of americanness because literacy opens your world. and sure, it's not going to be 100% perfect, you know, college attendance. but if you look at the numbers of that school district, you know, those kids were doing well in tests. they were doing well in placement. the teachers were award winning teachers that -- it's all gone because of this craziness. and it's about mexicans. that's what it's about. let's face it.
it's about that other. >> this is pledgtime for public television. some stations with be stepping away from us briefly to ask for your support. for the rest of you, we will resume in just a moment. >> announcer: we now continue with moyers & company. >> so what's happening now luis. i mean, you've got alabama passing a severe anti-immigration law. you've got the turmoil in arizona. you've got the -- whatever they call -- it's book banning. you know, saying, "kids can't read these books." tell me whatou see is appeng. >> i have to say my usual, you know, sunny facade is cracking because i'm starting to feel just, it's hopeless. you know, i know it isn't. but in my darkest hours i just think, "what, you know, if
these --" and maybe this is what they want. but if these people could go out and see the effects on these beautiful, beautiful kids, the heartbreak and the, you know, you liveour fe le this at a flinch. you know, you see kids who think the color brown is bad. you see kids who feel like there's no place for them. that is heartbreaking. that is, like, i feel like the world is being taken over by villains from dickens. and you know, all i can do -- i've tried everything. you know, and i think we all have tried everything. all i've got is art. and i keep flinging art at it and flinging art at it. and people are listening. things happen in small ways and perhaps that ultimately is, you know, is the answer.
>> do you have sympathy for the anglos in arizona who say, "we don't want to change our community. we like --?" >> their community? >> well, this is what they say. "we don't -- we want our neighborhood as it was." what do you say to those people when you just -- if you could -- you must talk one-on-one with some of them. >>ll the tim >> so what- te me about that exchange. do you see their plight? >> oh yeah, absolutely do. i'll put it in a microcosm, i was in missouri. i was speaking at truman state. and -- >> college there, right? >> yeah, great college. and there was a poetry reading and my host said -- because it was one -- typical student poetry with a lot of outrageous stuff. and my host said, "wow, the limbaughs aren't going to like this." and i thought, "the limbaughs? oh, that's funny. yeah, rush limbaugh's from here." and he said, "no, the limbaughs, they're over there." and i looked over there and there with this family listening tthis stuf and thought, "holy cow, really?"
and he said, "yeah, that's rush limbaugh's cousin." so i thought, "wow." you know, and they were kind of like, "you probably don't want to talk to him, you should leave him alone." the next day there was a barbecue at a faculty house and the limbaughs came. colonel john limbaugh, fine army colonel, and i said, "how do you do, sir?" and he said, "you can call me john." and i said, "well, i'm, you know, i was a military son." so i said, "no, sir, you're a colonel and i'll call you sir." d he lookeat me, younow, and sai "you know, i've been reading "the devils highway" and i've been trying to figure out your agenda. and i haven't found a liberal enda." and i said, "well, i am a liberal, sir, but my agenda was to tell the truth even if i didn't like it." and he warmed to -- you know, and then we sat and spent the afternoon, to the great shock, i think, of some of my pals, having barbecue. and i think if we can -- the limbaughs and me, unlikely pals,
having barbecue in missouri, how can that not be fantastic bridge? and we -- they came to the reading and, you know, we had a really good time. i think in america we forget that we love each other. we forget we need to love each other. and part of the task, i think, is being able to speak. and that is fully aware of the horrors of civil rights. >> but if what you say, luis, is true, why is their rhetoric so feverish? why is the anr sooisoned? if we really love each other i can, you n't say that about the people who passed the law in alabama. >> no, no, no, no, but -- >> the people who passed the banned the books in tucson. >> i think people forget. people forget. my ultimate message is always there is no them, there is only us. and we function so well having a them. we always have to have a boogie man. there's always somebody that's a bad guy lurking.
and you know, part of the issue with the latino, of course it stabs me, it hurts me, and it outrages me, i'm angry about it. but i understand that part of what's haeneds a relentss ropanda war. illegal, illegal, illegal, alien, alien, alien. often, you know, the angriest people i confront are people who are good christian church-goers. and i always ask them, "let's open the bible together and let's find out how many scriptures tell you to kick around the widow. how many scriptures are there that tell you do not care for lost travelers or wanderers or the hungry or the poor or the oppressed or the downtrodden? how many tell you do not care for the orphan? let's see how many bible scriptures tell you to go out there and kick the butt of a poor person wandering in the desert?
let's see that." >> so what's behind it? what's behind the -- propaganda is propaganda because it works. >> it does work. >> words change reality, right? they can change the reality within us even if they don't change the reality around us. so you've got this incredible vitriolic conflict going on. what is it in human nature? >> don't know. it's a poisonous thing. i grew up with it. i was born in tijuana, and then when we moved north just a few miles to this little suburb called clairemont, which i wrote about sometimes, i suddenly was "other." i didn't know i was an "other" until i got there. i did not know i talked with a tijuana accent, you know? i thought people were called "vato." >> vato? >> and then i found out vato -- >> vato meaning? >> dude. >> dude? >> comes from the spanish conquests where the spaniards apparently in those days called each other "chivato," which means, you know, goat. "ay chiva, questas hacienda chivato?" and it became vato and it went, passed down through the ages as dude, guy.
but you know i had that talk and i had that accent and though i looked irish. and we got to this neighborhood and suddenly i went to fifth grade and i was in the restroom my first week of fifth grade and this spectacularly white boy, you know, freckles, bright red hair the epitome of who i'd be with from now on said to me, "you're a greaser wetback." and i thought, "what is that?" and i said, "i'm a what?" and he said, "you're a greaser wetback." and all the boys laughed at me, walked out of the bathroom. and i remember sitting there thinking well, you know, you're a kid and you internalize these things and you take them concretely. and i was convinced somewhere on my back there was a patch of grease i couldn't find, right, and i was looking for the grease, i couldn't find it. and that was the most spectacular moment for me when i realized i was other, i hadn't known it before.
>> well, now, that's a common experience for immigrants in america, wop, spic -- all of that. how do you process it? >> i came home that day and my father processed it for me. and this may be partially why i'm a writer. but i got home, my father worked in bowling alleys night crew, he was a very smart, literate man who had achieved quite a bit in mexico, couldn't get there in the united states. he couldn't find his way in a lot of ways. he, you know, he knew english was paramount, so he memorized the dictionary, five pages a week. i had to give my father english tests. but i got home and my father was getting ready to go to the night shift. and he always smoked pall malls, and he would tip his head when he had a point to -- he'd do this. and he was looking at me when i came in and he said, "what's the matter with you?" and i said, "nothing." and he said, "mi hijo, que traes?" and i said, "nothing." "i can see you're upset.
what are you upset about?" i said, "oh, they called me a name." he said, "really? what name did they call you?" i said, "they told me i was a greaser." and he looked at me just for a second, and i knew because he went like this and i thought, "oh, here it comes." and what i thought was going to happen didn't happen, because i thought he was going to go on a diatribe about these people. and he says to me, "mi hijo, in the western expansion across the united states the americanos came in covered wagons. the wagons were made of wood, entirely of wood. the axles, los ejes was made of ood, mi hijo. so they would get to about texas and the friction heat up the wood." he said, "y se quemaba todo." the wagons would burn down. he said, "you know who the only people in the world with the technology to grease the axles was mexicans." and i was looking at him, and he
said, "so when they call you a greaser hold your head up because it's a term of pride." and i knew my dad was lying. you know, i knew he -- but it was so brilliant. even as a fifth grader, i saw my father take a moment of shame and through a story, right, turn it into something to try to lift his kid up. and then he went off to the bowling alley to clean toilets all night. >> now, he was born in mexico? your mother was born on staten island, in new york? >> my mom was from originally, yeah, she was born on staten island, but the family are virginians. >> but here's this paradox -- there's many paradoxes in your story, in your life. your parents battled over your ethnicity, over who u were. your mother ed to scre at ou. what would she say? >> well, i can't repeat it on the air, but she would get so flustered. you know, she was a lady, you know, she was a junior league lady with those roots in virginia. but she was under siege by
poverty and mexicans and spanish, and she could not make me understand that i was something other than a border rat. and so she would basically say, "i'm so sick of your mexican --" we shall say shenanigans, you know. and she called me luis. luis or dear boy. she'd always move her hand like this and say, "dear boy." and she'd make me use a demitasse cup, you know, and all the fineries. and my mexican relatives thought, "what is this? americans drink coffee out of doll cups?" they didn't get it, you know. >> and your father, what'd he think about this? >> didn't like it. "luis, luis, eres mexicano, eres mexicano." and as their marriage got worse and worse, i mean, you know, people wonder why i write about the border. it's not just that i came from the border, it's that the border i always tell people this, the border ran right down the middle ofur dressed lite apartment. kitchen was the united states, living room was mexico.
walter cronkite was the ambassador to both countries. that's the only time we came together is we would sit down to watch walter cronkite. and my father had a chair that never moved and my mother had a chair that never moved, so much so that the little holes from the legs were sunk in the carpet. they never moved, they never got close to each other. there was a little table in between with a bowl of fritos and cashews and a glass of thunderbird or sherry, and everybody sat there watching the television, very tense. they had separate bedrooms, it got more and more separated. so i felt like this weird border ran down the middle -- not only of the apartment, but of our lives. so part of the time i was an american boy, part of the time i was a mexican boy and they didn't cross. >> the twain didn't meet? >> that twain did not meet. >> have you decided on which side of that border you really belong?
>> i'm an american, aren't i? i mean, this is where i live, you know, and i consider myself american. i was educated here, i love it here. i choose english as my chosen art you know, to craft. now, when i go to mexico if i'm there a couple of days i start dreaming in spanish. isn't that interesting? so i am very proud of my roots and my cultures that i share. but see, i have this illusion from the way i was raised that i believe everybody is at least bicultural. but my task, i think, all my life as a writer has been to find that common ground, that communication zone where we can talk and we can get our souls together, you know. >> keep trying to take that fence down metaphorically. >> bridges are better than fences. >> is that deliberate? >> yes, sir, it is. it's not necessarily that fence. like i said, you know, the fence went through my house.
the fence -- the mexican border is a physical metaphor for everything that separates human beings. and all you have to do is turn on any debate, turn on fox news, you know, turn on rush and you'll know that there are fences everywhere, on the right and left, white and black, gay and straight, male and female still, christian, muslim, jew. the fence is everywhere. and any audience i speak to has border fences everywhere. >> i brought just a page from "devil's highway." would you read it? >> i would. oh. >>tell me about i >> i think that human details are hunting and tell stories all by themselves. and when i realize that these men who died were people, like i said earlier, they were disparaged at home and certainly disrespected here. and were disrespected after their death on the american
side, mocked, you know, used for political gain. on the mexican side i thought, you know, hypocritically used as suddenly folk heroes. "oh our heroic suffering brothers," you know, and they were given this big state return of the corpses with big grandiose promises to help the families. and then as soon as the bodies were out of camera range that was it. the families were abandoned and left to their own devices. and these guys, you know, they were victimized over and over even in death. and when i started the investigation the angry mexican console allowed me into his death archives which were the endless piles of paperwork of all the dead. and in these files there are manila folders, file folders, there are zipc baggies with whatever they took out of the pockets. and as soon as you opened the baggy the stench of a rotting corpse comes out. and one of the first things i got was a guy's comb and it had hair and looked like brill
cream. and he's gone. that's all he left in the world. and they don't know his name. and i'm smelling him. and the women are lighting candles. and i think in my naivete they're doing a beautiful religious -- and it's because it stinks. and each -- like a jasmine, vanilla. they're all, you know, supermarket scented candles because they don't want to smell that. that crushed me. and i realized that if i could somehow make people understand this is what is in the man's pocket, maybe it would make him alive to you even though he's gone. so that's what this passage is about. somebody had to follow the tracks. they told the story. they went down into mexico, back in time, and ahead into pauper's graves. before the yuma 14, there were the smugglers. before the smugglers, there was the border patrol. before the border patrol there was the border conflict. before them all was desolation,
and desert, itself. these are the things they carried. john doe number 36 -- red underpants, mesquite beans stuck to his skin. john doe number 37 -- no effects. john doe number 38 -- green socks. john doe number 39 -- a belt buckle wita fightingock inlaid, one wallet in the right front pocket of his jeans. john doe number 40 -- no effects. john doe number 41 -- fake silver watch, six mexican coins, one comb, a belt buckle with a spur inlaid, four pills in a foil strip -- possibly advil, or allergy gel caps. john doe number 42 -- furor jeans.
quote, "d a lorepiece of paper in pocket." john doe number 43 -- green handkerchief, pocket mirror in right front pocket. john doe number 44 -- mexican bills in back pocket, a letter in right front pocket, a brown wallet in left front pocket. john doe number 45 -- no record. john doe number 46 -- no record. john doe number 47 -- no effects -- one tattoo, maria. john doe number 48 -- converse knockoff basketball shoes. john doe number 49 -- a photo id of some sort, apparently illegible. they came to the broken place of the world, and taken all together, they did not have enough items to fill a carry-on bag.