04 February 2008

"Secret, Okay?"

Lalo's got a secret, and because he shared it with me, I've got a secret too. I don't like this secret, but Lalo's an adult, 21, so I'll honor his request and not mention anything to his family. If they ask me outright that might be another story. I think of myself as an honest person. I don't like to lie. I once said I'd been to Turkey, when in truth I hadn't. That was years ago, and I still don’t know why I said it. Afterwards I had to tell a few more lies, to cover myself, about which Turkish cities I’d been to, and it all felt pretty hairy. So if the family asks me I'll likely just tell them, but they won't ask, unless Lalo gives them a reason.

Lalo and I have worked together two months now. Hard to believe, it goes by so quick. In many respects we're still just figuring each other out. He sees me as a young guy, doesn't realize the ten years between us means I don't like to drink at La Divina, which I call a bar for ninos. He doesn't like that so much, but he laughs. No, he tells me, it's for punks. Kids who like to mosh. Lalo's not a punk rocker, by any stretch, but he is a punk kid, loudly talking trash to his friends, cooing at the ladies in the market, on the street. He especially likes to check out the tourist girls in tank tops. He's not too sly about it, but Mexican men aren't, as a rule. They don't even bother. That would defeat the purpose.

The worst is when he points and says "These . . . they . . . these . . . are . . . good! No?" We're working on pronouns, he still has trouble deciding on the right one. "Como se dice ellas son bonitas?" he asks me. "They are pretty," I say. "And don't point. I don't think women like that. No senales con tu dedo. Creo que mujeres no les gusta." I've broken my own rule, no Spanish during English lessons, but it's for a good cause. If I only taught English during our hour together, but let him be a slimeball, I wouldn't feel very good about the thought of him on the street applying what he'd learned.

It's imperialistic, I suppose. Who's to say there's inherently a problem with macho? I hear the litany of reasons my wife, who works for women's health and reproductive rights, will give me when she reads this. But still, me imposing my cultural imperatives on the kid seems, intellectually, a little pompous. Nevertheless I express my view, consider it a cultural lesson to help him interact with the people, specifically the females, with whom he hopes to one day speak English. Oaxaca is full of creeps who approach the solo, female travelers, looking to "practice English." Lalo's a punk kid, but I like him and I can't stand the thought of him pulling that act on some tired traveler who just wants to sit in the late afternoon and watch the light change color on Santo Domingo. It's a beautiful experience, which everyone should have sin chorizo. Without sausage, if you'll pardon the crudity.

"I . . . to . . . United States . . . do you go? . . . en . . . en . . . en la proxima semana." I'm getting better at interpreting broken English, but this one misses me completely. "Will I go to the United States next month?" Lalo shakes his head yes in the dopey way he has, eyelids half closed, when he hears my tone but not my words. I search his face for a minute, then decide to let it ride and see where we go. Sometimes, I've learned, a misunderstanding makes a worthwhile exercise in the importance of listening carefully.

“No,” I say. “I won’t go to the United States next month.”

“No!” he insists. “I . . . to . . . these . . . United States.”

We’re walking on the Alcala, and I stop to squint at him in the morning light. “You want to go to the United States?”

“No. I . . . am go . . . in United States. Ohio. Voy a trabajar en Ohio.”

I am at a loss. Lalo’s never been anywhere. A Christian camp in Puebla, a trip to Chihuahua. That’s about it. Ohio? Seriously? “Lalo,” I start. “How will you get there?” I want more information, because there’s a likelihood, with this one, that he doesn’t have a clue what he’s said.

“In . . . trailer. Four days. And . . . and . . . Ohio!” He punctuates emphatically. “Is, como se dice, primavera, Ohio?”

“Spring?!” I can’t help spitting this back at him. “Next month?” He shakes his head yes, amiably. “No, Lalo. It’s not spring in Ohio next month. It will be very, very cold.” He has no idea what I’ve said, so I mime cold.

Frio? Verdad?” It’s like he can’t believe it. He’s sure, he’s been assured, it’s like spring in Ohio in February.

Lalo’s going up to work illegally with a crew of friends, one of whom has been before. He doesn’t know how much the pollero, or coyote, will charge to smuggle him up. He thinks maybe 25,000 pesos, or 2,500 dollars, roughly. This number is unbelievable to me. I ask for clarification. 25,000. He’s pretty sure that’s right. It's a sentence of indentured servitude, though there still could be mistakes with the numbers, an extra zero. Even so, I don’t figure Lalo has 250 dollars to spare. No, he confirms, he doesn’t have any money at all. That’s why he wants to go. And for the adventure.

We’ve walked up the Alcala and cut through Conzatti to Parque Llano, where I realize it’s a beautiful morning, one of the most beautiful I can remember. The sky is blue, the temperature is just right, traffic is sedate. It's a perfect day. Birds chirped in the trees overhead. Mountains stood quietly nearby, sheltering the city. Why would you leave this?, I want to ask him. Then I remember walking past two hundred or more police officers clad in riot gear just the other night, guarding the university on law school election night. The candidates for president of the law school are all so corrupt they hired student protesters, and youth off the street, and promised law degrees to everyone should their campaign win. They are all so corrupt they hired armed goon squads to intimidate people away from voting for the other guy. And these are just piddling, small time, law school elections.

I remember reading somewhere that Oaxaca, the third poorest state behind Chiapas and Guerrero, boasts one of the most expensive capital cities to live in in Mexico. Oaxaca is full of stunning contradictions. Indigenas from mountain villages come to town in rags and tattered sandals to sell flowers to tourists, to rich Oaxacans who drive Hummers and BMWs. Bus prices have gone up to 4.5 pesos per trip. The minimum wage in the state is 50 pesos a day. A little less than 5 dollars. If a minimum wage worker takes the bus both ways to work, he or she has spent a fifth of the day's earnings on transportation alone. If he or she brings a child over three with them to work, then the child must have a fare, too.

“Secret,” Lalo says, as we sit on a bench in the shade in the Llano. “Secret, okay? My family . . . they . . . angry.”

I look at him again. What can I say? “Okay, Lalo. Okay.”

“Secret?”

“Yeah, secret.” I ask questions about the trip, about the work. He doesn’t know anything about anything. More, he’s not interested in details. He's only excited for the best prospect he believes he’ll have in his lifetime. He has no idea what lies ahead. He asks me about the life in the U.S., what the people are like, how much a sandwich costs. I tell him that the people are good, generally, though they suffer a lot of racism. I think about what I said, and, unfortunately, I think it’s true.

Racismo? Si?

“Yeah. Racism. And food is expensive. Sometimes a sandwich costs three or four dollars, and sometimes it costs 15 dollars. Depends.”

“Oh.” He asks me, in Spanish, how much it costs to rent a house. I try and explain that houses are very expensive to rent, that you have to pay first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit all up front. This is lost on him. Frankly, from where I sit in the moment, it’s lost on me too. I try to picture where this kid will end up, what kind of room he’ll share with how many others, because he appears poised to arrive literally without a dollar. The conversation depresses me, so I switch gears.

I ask if he’s got warm clothing, and pantomime a large jacket, heavy for winter. The kid has no idea. He’s never seen snow in his life. I tell him to take all his clothing, knowing full well it’s a waste of breath. Anything extra will simply end up as litter on the desert during the long walk through Arizona. If he gets to the border without incident, and if he gets across without incident, and if the border patrol and the local “neighborhood watch” don't find him first, and if the truck on the other side makes connection without incident, then the best case scenario is that he gets into his trailer with little more than a ripping headache for the dehydration. Then the long drive north begins.

Our hour is up. We walk back to the market, he trying to make more and more complex questions from the same dozen or twenty English words, me half-answering, half-thinking how to expedite a couple of lessons in survival English. Lalo’s excited. I’m bummed. He tells me again it’s a secret. He leaves in two weeks, sooner if he can. Don’t say anything to his family, he says. I point out they’ll be worried when he’s gone. No, he says. They won’t miss him. He’ll call from Ohio. That’s the plan. Already he’s just waiting for his phone call, to catch his ride whenever and wherever he is told. One morning I’ll show up at the market for our lesson and he won’t be there. His aunt will say she doesn’t know. He does this sometimes, misses work. He’s flojo, she’ll say, angrily. Lazy. She’ll ask me if I think he’s learning any English, and I’ll say Si, poco.