August 11, 2006

The Huicholes at the Border

An essay by Heriberto Escamilla

Part 1

The revolving metal doors that separate San Ysidro and the United States from Tijuana Mexico are quite heavy. I’m tempted to describe them in detail, but that would take too much time and effort. Let me just tell you that you should discard any image of the word “door” that comes to mind and instead imagine a thick, metal pole with a series of smaller tubes welded in a perpendicular fashion from top to bottom. The entire structure creates four compartments that revolve in one direction. You enter the huge turnstile on the American side and exit onto Mexican soil.

My wife cautiously steps into the turnstile first and Don Marcelino follows her in a second compartment. I step in behind them, careful not to push them along too fast and conscious that there is another behind me waiting to merge with the flow.

Once across the border, the thin young man behind me, in his mid to late twenties, looks at us and reaches out with conversation. “He’s from Peru”, he asks, no doubt referring to Don Marcelino and his colorful Huichol clothing. “No he’s from Mexico, from the state of Jalisco”, I proudly announce. The young man is not the first to associate the colorfully embroidered clothes with Peru. Others have assumed that my adopted uncle is from the state of Veracruz or of the Tahumara tribe of Chihuahua. I’ve been surprised that so many of the people we come across have never seen the Huicholes of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

The Huicholes, or Wirrarika as they call themselves have lived in the same area of Mexico, following virtually the same practices and traditions for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Historians believe that while there may be some elements of western ideology and Christianity in their more common ceremonies, they are one of the few people’s that have successfully avoided Spanish and Mexican subjection. They’ve tenaciously held on to other, more occult traditions by ascending higher and secluding themselves deeper into the bosom of the Sierra Madre. Given their reclusive patterns, their anonymity shouldn’t surprise me and until just a few years ago, I had not heard of them either.

“Yeah, I just got out of the Orange County jail”, the young man adds, taking advantage of our budding relationship, his voice slips into a whisper. There’s a little shame in his words, mixed with a perceptible pride. Me and those other guys over there were all released today; he adds pointing to a group of men ahead of us, peering through the vertical metal bars that make up the final fence before entering Mexico. They look comfortable there. They’ve seen bars like these before. It’s a shame people get comfortable in that position. Behind his friends, animated taxi drivers eagerly greet the stream of pedestrians flowing through the gates.

“Yeah, they just threw us back across, without a penny in our pockets” he’s in a groove now. It’s a very short walk from the revolving door to the taxi-lined street, but long enough to get a feel for someone. He’s not used to begging. “Here you go, have a cup of coffee”, I reach into my pocket and hand him a crinkled dollar bill. The offering is not completely unconditional. “Hopefully, I am not supporting a felon, a drug runner, rapist or child molester, I think to myself”. It’s a shame the thought occurs to me. Maybe he was just at the wrong place at the right time? Tonight and for a few minutes, he’s just another fellow traveler.

The young man thanks me, walks away toward his companions and I rejoin my own little group that is already on the newly opened bridge that that crosses over the cars waiting to enter into the United States. Before the bridge opened a few months ago, people coming into the United States had to negotiate a path between the four lanes of cars and the tired, frustrated and sometimes angry drivers that drove them. Before nine-eleven, crossing into the Promised Land was a cake-walk. These days, it’s not unusual to sit in the carbon monoxide saturated air for an hour or two. I wonder what the asthma rate is among the little dark-faced children that make their livelihood selling gum or mass produced trinkets? The pedestrian crossing isn’t much better, often twisting and curving several times along the merchant-lined street. Here, there aren’t any of those plastic little poles that we find at airports or amusement park lines. People naturally and spontaneously decide where the line ought to turn. The trick is to stay within sight of the border and not disappear around the curve. Even though it takes a while to leave Mexico these days, the wait just seems easier if the border is within eyesight.

While you wait, you are a just another stranger in line, constantly being reminded that above all, you are a consumer. Eventually you get hungry, thirsty or something just catches your eye and you buy it. That’s what we on this side of the border do best, we buy and consume things. Most of the world seems to know that.

Don Marcelino arrived two weeks ago, unexpectedly. He tells me that times are bad in the sierra. Last year, the rain stopped falling after September 3rd. The thirsty corn withered away and died. So they have very little food. I can’t imagine what that must be like. You work, hope and pray that the earth feeds you and for some reason, it doesn’t. He’s more distant this year than when I saw him last November. No doubt, he’s pre-occupied with the plight of his family back home.

(Next Week Part II)

Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.

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