What I fear most is this: that I will be safe, that danger will spare me entirely, that I'll die conventionally--smug and purposeless, having never savored its menace. I fear who I might become if I live my whole life in the middle, never pushed into the dark margins. The human race moves with a force launched by centuries of misdirection, pillage, and neglect. I fear never knowing the intensity of life, threatening as a stinging blade pressed to the throat, its edge a border to cross; this is what I hunger for.
The world today is not at ease; anyone who is has disengaged, lives an illusion, swallows life's shocks daily, forcing them down. Consequence waits, a circulating, swelling anxiety held just below the surface. Uneasy and overwrought, we sit in boardrooms while the birthrates and the interest rates climb. Desecration, assaults in the streets, people hunted as prey . . .all the while we tremble in our detached sectors, our divided zones. We alienate, anesthetize, we shut down. The choice belongs to every one of us, like a line silhouetted on the ground: push what is unpleasant further toward the fringes of life and shrink back from the inevitable day when the very demons we've created will close in on us, or force ourselves to look reality in the face and step into the shadow.
* * *
The Jinx Project, assignment 09662, a special report: I live on the U.S.-Mexican border in Ciudad Juarez, the largest metropolis on the Rio Grande, a sharp roughness where the First World and the Third World have not fused together: An unnatural boundary, a wound that never healed, a land where the roots of hundreds of thousands of Mexican people were plowed under. The pronounced ugliness of this place is an unhealed laceration; those who live here are caught in the darkened scar tissue between the two worlds. Two thousand, one hundred-miles long: A low wage economy nestled against a prosperous giant, the border is a region of acrid irony. Job seekers from Mexico stream northward toward the United States, toward the fortifications built to keep them out, toward the very dominance that displaced them one-hundred and fifty years ago. Valor grows from desperation. With prayers to the beloved virgen morena on their lips and dreams of the promising dollar, they go para el otro lado to the other side, to the border where the racism that has been brewing for over a century awaits them. La migra stalks the "wetbacks" with helicoptors, magnetic footfall detectors and infrared body sensors. This is the crisis we have come to: a line that splits us. People are hunted down, and every day the gash is reopened. Spilled blood clots on the soil, giving life to nothing but bitter fruits.
* * *
"No hay mal que por bien no venga," proclaims Penelope, my neighbor and my only friend in the city. "You see, there's always some good that comes out of a bad situation." He's seated across from me with a compact held in one manicured hand, applying a ghastly reddish-pink lipstick with the other, his elbow resting on the wobbly fold-out table where we're waiting for our tacos. My money is gone after two months in Ciudad Juarez, my meals few and far between, and still I have not been able to get a job. This is the bad news. The good part still evades me, I tell him, impatient to hear what he has to suggest.
Before I spent even twelve hours in Juarez, I encountered this unlikely, delectable individual named Penelope. It was during the peculiar hour that usually gets lost somewhere between the-night-before and the-next-day. The heat, dozens of cockroaches crawling in my bed, and the sound of sex in neighboring rooms had kept me awake and distraught. It had been a fearful and sleepless night, the first of what would be many to follow. I came out of my room; Penelope, who stood on the stairs, flaunting expensive cleavage in a red satin slip, was collecting what he charged by the hour from a pimply-faced American boy. Before he led the boy inside, he turned and introduced himself. Being as utterly alone as I was, I felt quite obliged at this. Almost at once he captured my gratitude and sparked intrigue.
Though it was some time before I was able to attach any background to Penelope's unique persona, eventually I came to realize that, over the course of his life, he had been brutally ostracized and was deemed inharmonious to society everyplace he went. It was for this reason that he was inclined, or was pushed, toward the outer proximity of his country and his culture.
Penelope came north from Mexico, moving along with the current migration pattern, the direction of hundreds of thousands of people. I, however, came south to the border, a decision that clearly went against the grain and baffled most everyone I knew. "Why would you want to go to such a horrible place?" they persisted in asking. I never knew what to tell them.
Everything I had been given in my life felt like a preparation for something--for what, I still don't know, but I didn't want to be protected anymore and I didn't want to wait for it to come to me. Thus I went south toward a place said to be hideous and dangerous. Sitting on the greyhound bus, in time with the rhythm of the tires on the road, I could feel my life beginning.
La frontera, the border, is where we live now. It is neither his country nor mine; it is a crossroads where you discover that the side you turn to is also the one you run from. Much of what I see here greatly disturb me but it's as if I'm lost in action because I haven't figured out how to fight back yet. Penelope has lived his whole life straddling a border: an absurd notion that says he must behave like a man and not a woman, that he can only be one and not the other. He tells me that I too will learn to step over borders and break rules. In the meantime, it lightens my days to see his character thriving in this place.
Sex is what constitutes the fundamental pillar of his moneymaking. Therefore it has some relevance for him, though he thinks it to be trivial and inconsequential to the true spirit of a woman. The subtle aspects of femininity are what draw him: dresses, perfumes, cosmetics, jewelry, the grace of crossing one's legs, tilting one's head, hearing the faint, barely perceptible rustle of lingerie under one's clothes. He has learned to move his large frame seductively, with such delicacy that he succeeds in giving an impression not of fragility, but of sophistication, of total refinement.
"Intimacy," he says--and I don't doubt that he means it--"Is impertinent in my life". He's actually a businesswoman in addition to being a hooker, though I can't say I understand his other business. I only know two things from watching his interactions: that everything stays incognito and that he, Penelope, is always in charge. Strangers come into his living room, sometimes while I'm there. Clearly, they are willing to wait for him. He'll strut in at an hour when--and only when--he feels like it. Smiling, batting his fake eyelashes, he showers his guests with gracious greetings (Pero que sorpresa! Que gusto verte!) before they leave to deliberate, negotiating something he chooses to keep secret from me.
* * *
I'm still waiting to hear what good could come of my not having a job. Penelope orders two more tacos and sits down again. "Te tengo un trabajo," he proposes, pressing at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. I stop short with the tortilla I was about to bite suspended in front of my mouth.
"What kind of a job?" I ask, suspicious. Just then, we're interrupted; everybody around us springs from their chairs, knocking over the aluminum tables and running towards a cluster of people: some commotion in the street. I hear the sound of flesh pounding flesh. It's the cholas. Apparently they've been disrespected. These gangstered-out girls (who can't be more than fifteen years old), with eyes and lips thickly-lined black, lean against buildings smoking cocaine, defying anyone who should dare to glance at them sideways. Locking their offender between their bodies, they surround her, closing in for the kill. Spitting in her face, they claw at their victim, force her to the ground, and begin drop kicking her head. Their eyes are like insects', beady and black, erased of all sentiment, burning.
The violence leaves me with a deep sense of fatigue. I feel a darkness that seems to suck the energy from my soul, like a water stain descending down a plaster wall, like a slow uncoiling inside me. Living in Juarez is continuously throwing myself into an arena. My virtue, like splitting skin, opens; what I have left of innocence spills out.
Days have melted into weeks, one long baking, sizzling heat wave. Daily I cross the border to El Paso to look for work. I go early, at first daylight, when piles of vomit, telling the story of the drunken night-befores in Juarez, are still left on the sidewalk that goes over the bridge. Headlines read that it's the hottest summer in the history of the border region. Dogs lie dead next to rotting heaps of garbage, not able to withstand the intensity of the angry, unrelenting sun.
Nights offer no relief from high temperatures. After long, draining days of job-hunting to no avail, I go back over the bridge in the dark. Juarez is just waking up. Neon lit go-go girl signs glow with garish colors. Sixteen-, fifteen-, fourteen-year-old "bailarinas" stand sexily outside the doors of the strip joints, young girls destroyed by what passes for tourism in this country. It is drugs, alcohol and the sex industry that bring dollars over to this side of the border. On every street, in every alley, people venture out under the cover of the obscuring night to sell what they've got or find what they want. Everything and everyone is for sale.
Eighty-nine young women have turned up victims of murder this month in Juarez and the media talks of the remorseless high temperatures as a cause of building tension, as if it were the only one. I repeat this word to myself: Edge. All that we have marginalized, all that we have pushed out of our nice neighborhoods is here, an edge, a blade that cuts. What we fear is already upon us, a fact of life on the border. Here we live with it.
On a mountain against the skyline that is always visible from the city, giant white letters have been put into place, a message to the outcasts who live here, to all those who cross over and through the confines of "normal". A forewarning, a threat, a last attempt to tame the "sinners" who inhabit borderlands, the letters read, "CIUDAD JUAREZ. LA BIBLIA ES LA VERDAD. LEELA." Ciudad Juarez. The Bible is the truth. Read it.
If the city could answer back to the words written on the mountain, it would get its voice from its people. What they would say would come from what they know; it would be precisely what society has always said to them: Ciudad Juarez, the voice of this city would answer the world in defiance, wants to strike you down, crush you, grind you, chew you, spit you out, still alive but writhing.
* * *
Penelope has found me a job. I've accepted and I now understand why he never told me the reason for all of his confidential meetings. "It was a necessary secrecy," he explains, "One that must be taken very seriously when essentially what you are smuggling are peoples lives, their futures." On the night before I will lead three Mexican men to a glitch in the fortifications of my country, I go to a pay phone in El Paso and dial long distance. A familiar voice answers.
"Hello? Hello? Hellooo?" It is my father. I feel a density in my chest that hardens to a sharp, round pain. "Hello?" he says again; he waits, but I cannot respond. In the silence between us I wonder how long it will before I call him again and if it will be from a jail somewhere. The pain turns to a throbbing, it floats to my head and liquefies, becoming a stinging behind my eyes that I hold back. I try to send him something through the connection without speaking, something that asks him to understand why I will do what I'm about to do, why I resent boundaries plotted by politicians who are carving up the world, and why every border crossed is taking the arbitrary back into our hands. There's a click, we're cut off, and all I have left to think about is the approaching day.
* * *
I'll never meet the people that I help to the other side of the border. I'll never see them up close. They're in Juarez somewhere now; I've been told they've arrived already from Mexico City, but I'm one person in an operation that involves twenty or more and Penelope's friends tell me that the less the men know of me, the less is the chance I could ever be incriminated. I'll be at the Mexican side of the bridge waiting, in broad daylight, at the time when traffic at the border is thick and half the inhabitants of the city are on their way over the bridge to go to work. I'll stand there at the soda machine, inconspicuous amid the crowd until some person, an unknown also, will come and ask me a specific question, this being my signal to start walking. I'll then slide two pesos to the person in the booth and go, knowing that somewhere behind me three Mexicans are following, on their way to a new life.
Dressed in running clothes, with a Walkman on, as if I'm crossing the border only to jog on the stretch of grass along the El Paso side of the river, I go with the flowing crowd of people on foot. I stay within the fences that follow the pedestrian sidewalk until I've almost reached the middle of the bridge where the American flag and the Mexican flag billow in the wind. There I get down on my knees to shimmy through a part of the fence that's been cut. Other crossers walking by eye me suspiciously but say nothing. I'm still fairly relaxed because I haven't yet rounded the incline that will put me on the American side of the bridge. The actual checkpoint, where lines of cars and walkers are questioned by officials, is invisible from where I am. There'll be no problem with patrollers yet. I move through the spaces between cars, anxious to reach the farthest lane in which only heavy trucks are meant to pass. Once there, I sit on the cement wall.
Just then I see, maybe a hundred meters away from me, three men that I guess must be them. They see me here, marking the exact place where they must swing over the wall and drop to the space they've been told is amidst the supports of the bridge. I get up and on unsteady legs I move towards the United States. I've led them here to this precise spot and in a short minute they'll be beneath me.
Three-quarters of the way to reaching the checkpoint I hear a loud, evenly-spaced bleeping like that of a vehicle backing up. It's the high-pitched alert that the border patrol car makes when in motion. The vehicle approaches. My entire body tingles from the forceful wave of nauseating panic that runs through it. I don't know if the men behind me have had time to disappear yet, and, if they have, I don't know if I, one nineteen-year-old girl, will be tactful enough to keep these officers from pushing quickly by me and discovering the three Mexicans just underneath us, shaking and praying.
I've been asked a question and must answer. Fight or flight, I think. Will I be paralyzed by this fear or will I feel its very power pumping through my veins? I speak and it's as if I'm far away from the sound of the words I form carefully, resisting the anxiety that would clamp my jaw. My thoughts flit about separate from a body held motionless by fear, fear of this crucial moment and the weighty consequences that will face us all if we are caught.
Everything in me wants to bolt but I stand taut, fighting my instincts. "Yes sir, I know I'm not supposed to be here and I'm sorry," I tell him. I take a breath. I've somehow reacted appropriately, which means we still have a chance in this dangerous game. I continue to address the officer politely. In my mind I see only seconds, seconds I might buy the three men if I keep talking, seconds their fate will be determined by, seconds that will determine mine as well.
"I forgot . . . something," I say, gathering my thoughts as if picking them up as I go along, drawing out my speech to make it as time-consuming as possible. "I , I, I . . . forgot something and since I hadn't crossed the whole way yet, I thought I could save time by turning around here before the checkpoint . . . I didn't want to wait in line when . . . when . . . when what I needed was to get back."
I try to conjure up a positive image, picturing that, behind me, just past what can be seen from here over the slight rise, three bodies have already swung over the wall and disappeared. They will come out onto a highway (this is the only bridge where the highway passes so close at hand) and at precisely that moment a black van will be going by and will slow just long enough for them to get in.
Seconds. A few more seconds is all I will be able to buy them. "I'm not carrying a passport," I tell the border patroller, "but," talking slowly again, as if I'm feeling very tired and can't quite concentrate I say, ". . . I do have my driver's license." I fumble around to find it and hand it to him. Perhaps he'll believe I'm just nervous about being stopped. Seconds. Seconds is all they need.
"Where were you born, Miss?"
"In New York."
"What are you doing in this part of the country?"
Long before I was mixed up in all that I'm mixed up in now, I was trained by the Jinx project to not reveal secrets under any circumstances to the enemies of Jinx. Rather than saying I've been on a mission braving the borderlands for the Jinx Project, I tell him I live in El Paso.
"Miss, you'll need to walk right over there and go through the checkpoint first. Then you can cross again and go back if you want." A meek and sheepish half-smile is all I let him see of what wants to be a wide grin and loud laughter at my reprieve.
* * *
I feel no betrayal to my country because I have come to understand, as have all border-crossers, be it physical boundaries or cultural, class, gender or psychological borders they brink, that there are no real confines. Perimeters built to keep what is good in and what is bad out are nothing but illusions, because dark and light exist simultaneously always, like a keyboard on which we play. I could avoid what is not comfortable, but the darkness would still be there, threatening to enter into my peripheral vision.
Every space I occupy is a borderland and, like Ciudad Juarez, is unsafe. The very fear that sucks the energy from me and leaves me with a deep sense of fatigue, the fear that confounds the moral compass in my gut by whose direction I have always steered myself is what I have to face and brave. I choose to inhabit a border zone because anything less than the poignant insanity of such a place would be an escape and a denial. What we fear is already upon us. To not turn away from it, to look it in the face, to survive it is my act of hope.