August 25, 2006

The Huicholes at the Border

An essay
by Heriberto Escamilla
Part 3 of 4

I follow the regular procedure of stopping where the plastic lane divider ends and await permission to enter. The agent remains silent, but gestures me forward. Without a word, his face asks me why I’m stopping. “Don’t you see there’s no one in front of you, come on.” I feel embarrassed. He thumbs through the pages of my blue passport as I explain our need for a permit. It’s an awkward moment because Don Marcelino, who was standing behind me, is now talking to the agent in the next lane. I feel an impulse to help, but quickly realize that he’s over 65 years old and even though his primary language is Wirrarika, he speaks Spanish about as well as I do. The agents take a few seconds deciding which of the two will issue the orange form that gives us access to the next step in the process.

The three of us make it through security with the half-page orange referral form. As we reach for the door into the secondary inspection area, a clear glass door this time, another agent approaches us. He’s an unhyphenated American. At least that is what I’m thinking, but I really don’t know. With my fair skin and blue eyes, people often think that I’m White. He glances at Don Marcelino and then inquisitively back at the African-American agent. “He’s a performer”, the young Black man with the friendly face explains, in obvious reference to my friend’s clothes. He’s smiling so I’m sure he means no harm.

“He’s not a performer”, I think myself, upset but not willing to jeopardize the permit or myself. These are his regular clothes. Many of the older people in his village still wear these colorfully embroidered cotton clothes. Some people call it traditional clothing, but Don Marcelino tells me that his grandfather wore only a loin cloth and sandals made of animal skin. So as a people, they have not been wearing this clothing for more than 50 or 60 years. “He is not an entertainer,” the dialogue in my head continues. “Don Marcelino is a Marakame for his community. He speaks and listens to the fire on behalf of his people, asking for guidance and protection. He is a healer. He is a Kawitero, an elder that preserves and passes down wisdom to the generations that follow. If you reflect for a while young man, you will find that it is our beliefs that define us as human beings. While we may not share another person’s beliefs, we should respect them as our own.” I preach too much sometimes, worse yet, about things I know little about.

We all have one Mother, Don Marcelino says, as he looks down to the earth. And we have only one Father, as he looks up at the sky. On this visit, he’s repeated these words on many different occasions. “All of us, even though we are from different families, are brothers and sisters, whether we realize it or not.” They’re words that we hear often from so many people, and on the surface, we readily accept them.

My adopted uncle also tells me that his people are currently fighting the Mexican government over the use of water. He tells me that Mother Earth provides them with numerous natural springs. His people are trying to build irrigation systems that would bring the water to their fields, while the government wants the water to sell. It just doesn’t seem right, does it, selling earth, water, air, maybe even the sun some day.

We step through the glass doors and into the muggy night. Yes, a humid night in the San Diego area. I read a report last week that the first 6 months of this year have been the hottest in recorded history, since the 1880s. Across the country, temperatures have been an average of 3 degrees above normal. As I open the door, I wonder if our current temperature rise is part of a periodic weather pattern that we simply haven’t mapped yet, or if we are indeed seeing the direct consequences of global warming.

I’ve lived in the United States for over 45 years and in San Diego for 22. I’ve crossed the border and back countless times. In all of those years, I have observed at least one consistent difference in general patterns of life between the two countries. The American side is more organized and people usually take strong measures to ensure that things move in an orderly fashion. On the American side, one can count on nice, legible signs and directions. In Mexico, well, things are not always so clear. For example, in the US, we can eat while we drive. Women put on their mascara, while talking on the phone and little children watch Dora the Explorer on portable DVD players. Don’t try this on Mexican streets. In Tijuana, Guadalajara and my home town of Monterrey, one has to negotiate vicious traffic circles, where cars and people come close enough to each other to exchange bodily fluids. I often worry that I will enter one of these traffic circles and spend the rest of my life trying to get out. They terrify me. Perhaps, I’ve grown too accustomed to order and routine.

So you can imagine my surprise when I step out away from the port of entry building and into a huge corral of confusion. I don’t know where INS funds are going to these days, but I can tell you that it’s not here.

We immediately see what we believe is the permit building a few yards away. But first we have to negotiate our way across four lanes of traffic. Hum… seems familiar, where have I done this before? There is a traffic light at the crossing, but it doesn’t seem to be working tonight. Maybe, it’s just out tonight? We’ve just made it through the first hurdle. I am feeling a little more relaxed so I give them the benefit of a doubt.

(Next Week Part IV)

Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984.

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