Wrong Turn

The following is a repost of a blog. It is a long read, but speaks for itself. The original post can be found here:
http://cargocollective.com/danizamora#1889803/Exodus

Exodus

On the morning of august 8th, 2011, my boyfriend Eric and I made a wrong turn. 

Unfortunately, for me, this would be a point of no return. While on our way to South Padre Island, in the southeastern tip of Texas, after making that wrong turn, we were stopped by an immigration officer. It seemed just like a regular check, making sure we were not smuggling weapons, drugs, or people. They questioned Eric and had me stay still in the car with my hands on the dashboard. They checked the trunk and under the car, then things got weird.
 
A total of three more border patrol trucks came by and Officer Johnson* simply took a look at me and asked to see some form of identification. I reached for my wallet and pulled my California issued identification. He walked away with it, check it, and I overheard them say that there was nothing wrong. He came forward to me and told me to stop lying to him and tell him the truth about me just having crossed the border.
I said no.

He then walked away and input just my name, and soon after came forth to me again telling me to stop lying. I denied his claim and then he told me to step out of the vehicle. He gave me an ultimatum and told me that if I did not say the truth he would be pressing other charges against me. He turned to Officer Castillo and told him to take me with. I faced the car, put my hands behind me, and felt the cold handcuffs close around my wrists. Their excuse? There were many people with my name who were criminals and had warrants.

Eric looked in disbelief. His sweet eyes as if awaiting to wake up from a horrible nightmare. I smiled at him and told him it would be okay. What was there for me to fear? I had a job permit, a social security number, a state issued ID and had a clear record. As they put me in their truck, forcing me to sit back with my wrists being cut by the handcuffs, I smiled one last time at Eric knowing it would all be over soon.
I was transported to an immigration processing office in McAllen. I was stripped of my belongings and my prints and picture taken. They pulled about every single criminal record they could, from a combination of my name and birthdate to my fingerprints and nothing showed. I saw them print blank page after blank page. All they said to one another was “Still nothing”.

And then he came. Another higher ranking officer, the arresting officers supervisor. He ordered them to pull up my immigration case files, I could tell this was an unusual proceeding, since the officers had no idea on how to do it. After waiting over an hour sitting in a concrete bench, they found something. Something I was unaware of till that point. Something that if I would had known, I could have fixed.
Something that in a second crushed my dreams.

According to the case file, in 2003 I was issued a departure order. They told me it would have come in the mail, but I had no inkling of such letter ever reaching me. Perhaps it got lost in transit. It did not matter. I was told I would have to leave the country voluntarily or go to jail and wait until I could get a hearing, but that it would take months before they could process me.

You know how they say your heart breaks? Well, I don’t think it does. I think your heart hardens. I felt it. My heart became heavy as a stone, and I felt it slowly drag down from my chest to my stomach.

I asked to make a phone call, and I called Eric. He had followed us to the station and waited in the lobby. I told him what they’d found, I told him I knew not, and I was now Mexico bound. His voice shook, told me not to leave, to stay and fight this. But I am not cut for jail, neither was I ready to let a judge decide my fate. His last words still ringing in my ear: “I’m sorry, I ruined your life” I could hear the pain and tears. But I stayed calm. I told him it was okay, and I would be back.

I signed my departure papers, and waited for the officers to finish their paperwork. I put my head down, and for the first time, a single tear rolled down.

I thought of the things that had just passed, the things I could have done, the things I still had to do. But nothing. Nothing made me feel any better.

I asked the officers if I could use the toilet, my stomach sick and ready to expell its contents. They showed me to cell 9, a 10×20 concrete box with a metal toilet in the back. I stepped in, and the cold air and feel of the cell got to me. I went to the toilet but nothing happened. In the cell, Jesus and Miguel. They both had been detained that day, Jesus during his second attempt to cross, and Miguel during his third.
They both had families waiting for them in Dallas, families who had not talked to them in weeks. But they kept their faith. They knew they would be reunited again.

I sat on the cold concrete, staring at the wall, trying to take it all in: tales of hope, love, and a never-ending faith. It was a beautiful hand crafted wallpaper, carved out of the paint that covered the concrete bricks, exposing the white colored layer underneath. People professing their love for others, the names and dates of when they had been there, the names of their children, parents, espouses. It was all very sad. Passages of the bible in Spanish, English, and Chinese. And then I saw the one that stirred my mind. A single brick that read: “Hoy, yo toqué la puerta” (Today, I knocked at the door).

I spent what seemed endless hours looking at that wall, I estimated one person per group who had been held there was who had written. Countless numbers of people.

Then, more people were brought in to the cell, few by few we turned into 29 in that cell. Someone had said to another of the guys that we would be taken away the next morning. Yet, it was impossible to tell time in that cell. I sat there, speechless, unable to say or do anything, thinking how I would pay a fortune to just be able to hold my kitty once again. And I stared at that wall, wondering at the fate of all those people. Had Mariano Lopez been able to cross the border successfully and see his three children in Arlington, VA? Was Ramon with his daughters Mariela, Lucrecia, and Maggie?

One of the other detainees looked at me and asked me plainly if I was ok. The answer was plain and simple. Yet, all I did was stare at him, looking at his tired eyes and skin as the dried river bed. He asked again, and I gave a long sigh. He turned around and told the others that I would not last. That I would probably hang myself at the first chance.

I just looked at them with an expressionless face. I felt hopeless, and truly believed he was right, I could not see the light at the end of the road. Heck, I could not even clearly see a road.

And so the time passed by, unaware of our wait. I sat there, looking at those walls around me, telling me of people long gone by. Some of the men tried to sleep but the room was too cold, then they started to get hungry and talk about food. One guy was talking about Tortas de Pierna, while another talked about the legendary Mole Poblano and freshly made tortillas. And they started to ask for food, but there was no response. Their hunger grew and grew, and with that my desperation did too. I needed to get out, I needed to be free again.

Dinner came to us, a thick piece of foul looking and smelling ham in two slices of white bread accompanied by a cooler of water. I asked for the time. The officer told me I shouldn’t worry, that I’d be back in Mexico in no time. And my hunger died. The thought of the life I had just left behind filled the gap in my stomach as my heart got heavier and pushed down.

After an eternal wait we were ushered outside our holding cell and lined up as they called our names. One by one we stepped outside, the gazes of those still in cells on our backs. There were women, children, Indian people, and even a Chinese man. One of the guys next to me told me that one of the Indian men had paid $20 thousand out of the 55 it would take to deliver him to New Jersey.

Shortly, we were taken to a bus, we were given our belongings back but were instructed not to open anything. I longed for my phone to be there to at least text Eric and tell him they were going to take me away, I peeked into my bag, but my phone battery had died. Yet, one more sad moment. Jesus sat next to me and assured me I would be alright. He then told me he also had been born in Veracruz. How the economy had taken a downturn and everything seemed to be collapsing except for a few people who were wealthy before and now were getting richer. It made me sick but that’s the way economics work, even in the U.S. of A. We talked about his two children, 2 and 5, both born in Dallas. And I thought of the injustice it is to leave two kids fatherless, without means to fend for themselves other than one of the parents minimum wage income.

We arrived the East Hidalgo Detention Facility. We descended into a waiting room were we put our Belongings into a big trashbag, we were told to take our money out and hang on to it, since our clothes would be washed and they would not be responsible for anything missing. Various hiding places were revealed, some of the guys had their money stashed in the drawstring hem of their pants, others in the cuffs of their long sleeved shirts, and one even from the belt loops of his pants. We walked to a long hallway, where we got to a window were we were given a brown suit to mark us as temporary hold, a thin blanket, a sparsely woven linen sheet, a 2″ unbreakable toothbrush, a travel sized toothpaste and soap, and a roll of toilet paper. It was, by this time, 11:30pm. Splitting us in two groups, the guard showed us to a small 10×10 room and told us to change. It was amazing to see her lack of kindness, her eyes cold and unexpressive. We kept our shoes, and I noticed that everyone else’s shoelaces had been taken away as means of preventing them from hurting themselves. I looked at my feet, naked with the sandals I had hoped would have been perfect to use in the beach.

After we had changed, we were taken to another part of the facility, we walked in a line, in preassigned order, towards our holding cells. At one point, 5 of us were instructed to keep on walking while the rest stopped and made their way into the first building to the left. We walked some more, the moon shining above and making the fences all around us glow like liquid silver. We entered a building, were given thin foam mattresses to sleep on, and a cup of apple juice.

I sampled the juice, and immediately a medical taste invaded my mouth, it had been laced with something.
I would later learn from a friend who works in correction facilities that it was a sedative. I did not drink mine, hiding it below my foam mattress. We walked down the hallway, with the gazes of other inmates over us and their voices whistling, asking the guard to leave us with them, and more than once, I heard them ask the guard to let them give me, the one with the sandals, a warm, long welcome. I walked directly to where I was instructed, not crossing gazes with anyone, but fully aware of the gang members, cholos, and apparent criminals surrounding me.

I entered cell 2225. The loud metal door closing ushering me into a 5x8ft cell with a metal bed, a metal toilet and sink, a non working shower, and the smallest ever table and stool. I happily brushed my teeth, the feel of a clean mouth strangely comforting. I made my bed, and set to sleep. Once again, the writings on the walls jumping at me, the Santa Muerte in its many representations looking down upon me, with it’s scythe and glass ball as if able to decide my fate and sentence me there and then. The gang names of all the Valleros along with their respective town affiliations there to remind me of the culture existing in the jail.
I closed my eyes, and one single tear rolled down. I fell asleep for what seemed like countless hours when in reality it was only three. I woke up to a loud knock on the door but did not want to open my eyes, I wished with all my heart that I would wake up next to Eric on our bed.

The guard knocked again, he could not have been older than 23, and when I sat on my bed, he slid a food of tray in. On the tray, a stale biscuit, sweet beans, and, the only edible thing, green beans from a can. Time passed by once again, all I could do was watch the walls. Masterpieces by themselves, if taken out of context. My mind racing trying to remember eerie detail. My heart telling me something good had to come from this.

At 6am the guard came to my door again, told me to get ready, time to go was soon to come. I thought about taking a shower, but a mere trickle came out. Disappointed, I brushed my teeth again, finding the clean mouth feel rewarding and calming. They came to pick me up, I stepped out, and I felt a bit of hope.
We walked out back to the original area where we were brought to, passing through the common green areas where I felt the hopelessness of everyone there. We got our clothes back, if ever slightly cleaner than before, and shrunk. In the room where we stripped before we changed again. My clothes, a welcome
change to the depressing scrubs I had so dreadfully worn. 10 of us had to wait another hour or so in the small room with capacity for 6 before we were moved out of it.

Once again, and this would not be the last time, they moved us to a different room where we waited and waited, and waited. At last, a guard came to get us, in groups of four. We stepped into the lobby area and awaited to enter another room where a gentleman from the Mexican Consulate was waiting to ask us some questions. One by one I saw those before me enter the room, and then came my turn.

I stated my name as asked, my date of birth, my place of birth. He then asked me how many times I had tried to cross the border, I responded none. He showed signs of being confused, as if he did not know what to write down. He asked if I needed him to notify someone of my departure, I gave Eric’s cell phone number. He asked me what my address was. That’s when I cracked. My address, as tears trailed my cheeks, is 8600 FM 620 N, Austin, TX, I said. He shook his head and told me no, he wanted to know what my address in Mexico was. And I lost it. Between sobs I reinstated my address. I could picture BB, my cat, coming over and jumping on my lap, purring loudly as I caressed her ears. She, encompassing all my life was. My high school years in Los Angeles. My life in Grinnell College as a Posse Scholar.The life I had formed with Eric. The life I had designed after graduating Grinnell College and deciding to stay in Iowa. My newly made life in Texas. My life as an artist.

I stepped out of the room, devastated. Having finally understood that this was the point of no return. That I would set foot in Mexico and perhaps never see my kitty, Eric, or any of my beloved friends at home again.
I returned back to the room with the others, and waited for what seemed an eternity. We were given our tray of corn, cabbage, a fishy smelling brownie, and mystery meat pasta. I could only eat the vegetables. My heart sunk as low as it could go. And the wait continued. We Were moved again to the room were we first changed, they needed the rooms for other men who had been captured. Their faces lacking any hope. That place completely drained you.

In the small room, I encountered the guy who had dubbed me El Ahorcado (the one who hangs himself). Hey! He greeted me. He thought I had killed myself at night because he hadn’t seen me in the morning. I looked at him with my empty eyes and said nothing. We stayed in that room for never ending time. The others discussing whether or not they would try to cross again. Jesus asked me if I would cross the border illegally, and I said no. I would come back to my loved ones the way I should. I would apply for reentry and hope for the best. I have trust in the legal system, I said, I believe it punishes but it can also reward.
A couple hours later, we were rounded up outside the room, we faced the wall, and on went the cuffs around my feet. The metal chain hitting the floor and pulling the cuffs down cutting into my ankles. Then I was made to turn around, and my wrists were bound and held close to my belly by yet another heavier chain that went around my waist.

I could hardly walk, and then we were pushed back into the small room. Overcrowded, hot, with no windows or airflow, we waited, I was able to sit down, but few had such a pleasure. The metal rings around their hands and feet making it impossible to move. Two hours we stayed like that until finally a bus came. We were taken to the bus in the order we had come in. The walk an impossible feat. And we boarded the bus.
We rode the bus for another hour or so, till we reached a small commercial airport. There, two more buses waited, both running, waiting to go. The driving officers circled them and went around to the main entrance to the concourses. They stepped out, and in about five minutes came back out, coke and snickers in hand. They parked the bus as third in line, waiting as planes came and went by. They went outside to chat and smoke with the other guards, six in all.
I sat there, the metal cuffs burying deeper and deeper into my ankles for two more hours. I saw my last sunset in the U.S. from a cold metal bus seat with chains holding me down. I cried.

A plane landed, and the guards came back inside, taking us to the concourse. There we saw a large passenger plane. 29 windows, of five seats rows. You do the math. It unloaded many passengers either being released or being taken to the facility from which we came. And when they were all down, their buses gone, we started, one by one, in the order we had arrived, our way up to the plane.

The security team by AKAL formed two lines flanking the plane, and one by one we made our way to be patted down. My turn came and I stepped towards a young blond lady who greeted me with a frown. Her first question was if I spoke English, to which I replied yes. She ordered me to open my mouth and asked if I had any piercings as she patted me down. She then asked me how long I had been in the U.S. I told her 11 years. She seemed surprised. I told her I was leaving all I’d worked for behind, but I looked forward to have it back. She smiled, said my English was very good and I should be back. Just make sure you don’t get caught this time, was her advice.

We flew from that far east Texas town all the way to Yuma, Arizona, 29 of us in a giant air craft. A great use of our tax money, if you ask. We were given dinner, the white bread sandwich with ham and a small water bottle.

When we landed, I knew the journey would be over soon, I was eager to talk to Eric, to my mom and dad.
We landed and were taken to another bus, this one at least had a step stool for the impossible climb up. The bus took us behind a building, to the dark area of parking lot, the guard instructed us, this time in Spanish, that we would step out, in groups of four and have our chains removed. Foreign relations, he said. As my chains came off my heart rose up. As if somehow hope had been restored. I stepped back to the bus this time as a hopeful man.

We rode the bus along the U.S. – Mexico border, a great rusted metal wall, which otherwise would had been an amazing Richard Serra installation. The wall that prevented many dreams from coming true, the wall that would come to signify the separation from my youth.

And so we arrived at the Calexico crossing bridge. We, among many, to step onto Mexican land as if for first time. And my mind was racing for the fight to come. The Mexican flag fluttered in the air, and it reminded me of the pledge of allegiance I said everyday in school. One nation under God, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all. But where had my freedom and justice been these last two days? The struggle was about to begin.

I stepped out of the bus, collected my bag with my wallet and phone, and set foot, for the first time in 11 years, in the land that saw me be born but no longer felt my own.

With all due respect,

Dani Zamora

I have started a fundraiser to try and gather some funds to obtain a studio space in a safe location here in CD Juarez to continue my practice. The money raised will help me pay for studio space, materials, fees to apply to exhibits, grad school apps, and shipping. I am currently unable to get a job due to my lack of Mexican documentation, and my art making will be my only income for the next 4 months or so that it’ll take to get all my documents in order. If you are able to, please help.

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