Early on a summer morning José Antonio Ramos López, a 22-year-old mechanic, left his home in Pabellón de Arteaga, Mexico, and took a train to Ciudad Juárez. He crossed the Rio Grande with the help of a “coyote”—or smuggler—and entered the United States at El Paso, Texas. Two days later Ramos and 18 other illegals were heading for Dallas in a Missouri Pacific boxcar—a difficult trip of some 950 km, but for poor men in search of work, a journey of necessity.
Four hours after climbing aboard, Ramos and his fellow passengers, many from Pabellón, were in desperate condition. It appears that a coyote had locked the car from the outside to avoid arousing the suspicions of border authorities on routine patrol. Ordinarily, migrants riding the rails ensure an oxygen supply by knocking holes in freight cars, but this time they ran into trouble. The car was the insulated type used for hauling beer and, as such, nearly impenetrable. Inside, the atmosphere was dank and suffocating. Already, the supply of water in six one-gallon jugs was running low. The door did not budge.
In those dark and oppressive confines, the men grew desperate. Two coyotes travelling with the migrants fell to the floor and tried to ram a hole through the car with a spike but managed only the smallest of openings. As the temperature went past 50°C, migrants tore off their clothes and scratched and punched one another. They gasped at the tiny gap in the floor, and some tried frantically to make it larger. Finally, sapped of strength, bleeding from their mouths, pleading for oxygen, the men collapsed — Ramos, his home-town friends, the others.
Only one man survived. Miguel Tostado Rodríguez, 21, was able, at last, to hack away enough flooring to permit him to breathe, a humbling stroke of good fortune. “I asked God to help me out,” Tostado said. “But I’m pretty sure the others did the same thing.” Authorities discovered Tostado when the freight stopped at a railway junction in the west Texas town of Sierra Blanca. His shouts summoned border patrol officers, the very individuals the migrants had taken such pains to avoid only a few hours before. “I was happy to see the door open,” Tostado
said. “But the worst part was seeing my comrades scattered all over the boxcar.”
The scene was as melancholy as it was grotesque. Amid the bodies were overnight bags, running shoes, baseball caps, cans of corn, a bag of animal crackers. A spiral notebook contained pages of handwritten poems, including one called “The Illegal” that concluded with these lines:
How beautiful is the United States.
Illinois, California, and Tennessee.
But over in my country
A piece of sky belongs to me.
Goodbye, Laredo, Weslaco and San
Houston and Dallas are in my song.
Goodbye, El Paso. I am back
Your friend, the illegal, has
The dream that lured young Ramos was hardly grandiose — $6,500\ enough to buy tires and materials for a house
At a meeting with reporters, Tostado said that he would never go back to America, but the horror of the boxcar is not likely to dissuade many of his countrymen. Thousands upon thousands of Mexicans see employment in the United States as essential. One day’s labor in a Tex-Mex restaurant or orange orchard may bring more wages than a week of work—if there is work—back home. With such disparity, migrants are certain to cross the border regardless of a new immigration law aimed at tightening the job market and despite the physical risks, indignities and prejudice so common to their experience.
A few days after the railway incident, three more migrants died trying to walk across 80 km of the sweltering Arizona desert, but in El Paso, illegals hanging around the rail yards said that not even tragic circumstances would stop them from slipping into the United States. “My children need to eat,” said a 56-year-old man. “As long as there is work here and not in Mexico, I will come over.” Asked how many times he had been arrested by officers
on the border, the fellow only shook his head and said that he could not begin to calculate. “Countless times,” he said. Observed a social service worker in El Paso: “If you look at the unemployment situation in Mexico, this is still their only hope. People who have always lived a life of hiding will continue to hide.”
These are sad circumstances and not easily resolved. For the wealthiest country in the world to share a border with a nation on the economic skids is awkward, to say the least. On the north, we have robust Canada, which Americans consider rather like a 51st state, as anonymous as Idaho and benign as North Dakota, save for those wicked cold fronts. Fair-skinned, wellbehaved and packing American Express cards, Canadians are just our types. To the south there is long-suffering Mexico, another story.
We are bewildered by the flow of illegals as, generally, we are perplexed by those in the world who have not managed to duplicate the American standard of living. Although inclined to write occasional cheques to benefit famine relief or the victims of earthquakes or typhoons, Americans seldom consider the extraordinary imbalances of global economics, nor, oddly, are we especially patient when the meek of the earth turn angry and assertive. On these shores, the Puritan heritage still exerts a mighty influence. The good shall have two cars, an air-conditioned home, children in ballet class and a bonus at Christmas time. All others shall have much less.
Still, Placido Ramos, the father of José Antonio Ramos López, struggles to remain optimistic. “Maybe something good can come out of this, if Americans understand that Tonio and the others were good men and that they only went to the United States to earn money to make a better life for their families,” he said. The dream that lured young Ramos into the freight car hardly was grandiose. He planned to stay in Texas until he saved $6,500—enough to buy building materials for a house and tires for his truck. Now his wife and three children must make other arrangements. There will be no house, no money, no better life. As Tonio Ramos knew, such things come only to those who leave Pabellón and take their chances on the other side of the border.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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