The Tortilla Curtain
AL Santoli, a poet, writer, actor and theatrical director, was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He served in the
Vietnam War in 1968-1969.
It was a scene more bizarre than my wildest dreams. As the first light of dawn warmed the raw desert air,
thousands of Mexican men and women, in polyester and denim, light jackets and baseball caps, emerged from
squalid shacks that cover the outlying hills of Ciudad Juarez. They began a rush across the shallow
Rio Grande toward the Texas city of El Paso.
Some rode across the waist-high muddy river on the shoulders of human taxis. Others crowded into a flotilla
of inflated rubber rafts. Hungry-eyed men filled railroad bridges, waiting for a lone Border Patrol van to
pass in a cloud of dust before they began scaling a massive iron gate. Smaller groups of three or four
squeezed through holes in a twelve-foot wire fence called the Tortilla Curtain, then sprinted across the highway. Throughout the day and night, hundreds of others invaded freight yards, hoping to hop trains headed for Dallas, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Denver, or Chicago fabled cities of riches.
Between the wayfaring masses and the promised land are a handful of American border patrolman dressed in
cowboy hats and green uniforms. Their police vans can hold at most six to eight migrants for a trip to a
small station house where they are booked and held for a couple of hours. When the cells fill, they are
bused back to Juarez. Within minutes, they cross the river again.
In 1986, Border Patrol officers in the EL Paso sector, which covers West Texas and New Mexico,
apprehended 312,892 illegal aliens. At least twice that many got through. [ ... ]
Jose: The majority of the people in our apartment building have the same problem as my family. All of us
are in EI Paso without legal papers. I have been living here since 1981.
Rosa: I came in 1984, to find work. After Jose and I were married and we found a place to live, I
brought my children from a previous marriage. We lived across the river, in Juarez. (.....)
Jose: Crossing the river can be very dangcrous, especially if you cross alone. There are fast water currents,
and sometimes the water is quite high. lf you don't know how to swim, the undercurrents can pull you right
down. And in places the bottom of the river is like quicksand that can trap you. The water turns into kind
of a funnel that can drag you down. Some friends of mine have died.
Rosa: I don't know how to swim. I relied on Jose Luis, who is a good swimmer. We were both very lucky.
I can clearly remember an incident where we almost drowned. It began on a Sunday evening, which is a
customary time for crossing. At the time, a man was running loose who was raping and killing women who
crossed alone. So there were a lot of American border patrolmen and Mexican police along both banks.
After the sun went down and it became quite dark, Jose and I waited for a while near the riverbank,
but it seemed hopeless to try to cross the river undetected. We waited until the next morning to try again.
When the sun came up, we saw that the men who carried people across on their shoulders weren't working,
because of all the police. When we noticed that the border patrolmen had left the area, we decided to try
to cross by ourselves. That was a big mistake. The current was very fast that day. In the middle of the
river, we lost our balance and began to be dragged downstream. I felt helpless and began to panic.
Fortunately, another man who was a strong swimmer came to our rescue. He pulled us to the shore.
After Jose and I began living together in EL Paso, I decided to bring my children across the river.
The water was too high and swift to risk men carrying them on their shoulders. So I had the children
taxied across on a rubber raft.
Jose: Another danger for people who cross the river is crime. Packs of men hang around the riverbank
like wolves. They try to steal people's knapsacks or purses. Sometimes they demand that you give your wallet
or wristwatch. If you don't obey them, they will knife you.
Were we ever caught by the migra when we crossed the river together? Oh, yes.
[Laughsl Lots of times. But the patrolmen are really okay people. They arrest you, ask the
usual questions. If you get rough, they will get rough, too. Otherwise they are fine. It all
depends on the person who arrests you. If he has a mean personality, he will treat you rudely, whether you
are impolite or not. But most of the time, it is a routine procedure.
When the migra catch us, they just put us in their truck and take us to their station. They ask our name,
address, where we were born. They keep us in a cell maybe three or four hours. Then they put us in a bus
and drive us back to Juarez. They drop the women off very near the main bridge. The men are taken a
little further away from town. [ ... ]
Rosa: Suppose I am caught by the patrolmen at seven-thirty in the morning. They will take me to the
station and hold me for a few hours, then bus me back to Juarez. I would walk back to a crossing point
and try once again. It is like a game. I think the most times I was ever caught by the migra was six
times in one day. No matter how many times they catch me, I keep coming back.
The majority of the people in the colonia where I lived in Juarez worked in EI Paso, mostly as housekeepers,
construction workers, or helpers in the fields. In the United States there is a lot of work, but in Mexico
we have nothing.
From: New Americans. An Oral History by Al Santoli, New York: Viking, 1988, pp. 256, 267, 269-270.
1. What obstacles do Mexican refugees have to overcome and how do they eventually succeed in entering the US?
2. What are the problems for American authorities if the number of illegal immigrants can't be stopped?
3. What kind of work do these Mexican do? Do you think they earn a lot?
4. What can American authorities do to solve that problem of illegal immigration?