By Samuel Hernandez
"When did you come to the United States?"
The man with the crisp white button down shirt and skinny black tie stared blankly at Simon across the table.
"Quando veniste al Estados Unidos?"
Beside the man in the crisp white shirt was a dark-skinned interpreter in an untucked flannel shirt with a deep calm voice.
"Cruzamos al pais cuando yo tenia seis anos."
"He came when he was six years old."
"Who did you come with?"
"Con quien veniste?"
"Con mis padres. Come ya te dije."
"He came with his parents," the interpreter kept his focus glued to the wall between Simon and Crisp White Shirt. He fiddled with his fingers and turned furtively to watch each person speak.
"This is in the intake but it's pretty pointless information that I can get from your arrest file. What I'd like to know is how badly you think your situation is and what your willing to do to stay in the United States."
"El dice que..."
Simon cleared his throat, "Do you think I only speak Spanish?"
"Mr. Espinoza we bring in an intepreter because of the majority of people who we pick up and detain are Spanish speaking only. There's no integration. From your file I can see that you completed your college degree at the University of Texas in Austin, but I did not presume anything. I don't speak Spanish, and if you did not speak English I wouldn't be able to communicate with you."
Simon nodded his head, unsure why he was sitting in this sparse office room instead of in his holding cell. He had been picked up by ICE shortly after being booked into the local precinct. The Edinburg Police Department had picked him up because he was walking in a neighborhood he wasn't supposed to be in. The gate had been open and Simon didn't see any signage. He had said that to the policeman, but they'd booked him for trespassing.
When his name had been put in the system, and because of his nervous avoidance of telling them his social security number, ICE had come to pick him up for deportation.
"You'll stay here for some time. Then you'll have a court date that you must attend in which an immigration court will determine whether or not you will be deported."
"Do I get a lawyer," Simon asked.
"You can definitely request a lawyer if you would like," Crisp White Shirt said, "but the system is drastically underfunded and there are very complicated cases that take most of the pro-bono attention. You are not guaranteed a lawyer."
"I have rights though," Simon began to feel smaller in his chair. He had been clearing his head after an argument with his girlfriend. Anna had wanted to move to a larger town, somewhere they could find more fulfilling jobs, make more money, and maybe get away from the ever present border patrol. Anna was documented, Simon her in the shadows boyfriend. Anna had suggested they get married if only for Simon's status adjustment, but Simon had told her that it would be hard because he had entered into the country without inspection and not with a visa.
"You are not a citizen of the United States, therefore you have protracted rights as determined by the federal government."
Simon shook his head but had nothing left to say. His parents had lived in fear that they would someday get picked up by Immigration and deported back to Guatemala, but they had been migrant workers who only had time for work and less to flame the paranoia of the big bad government sending them back to an unlivable situation. Simon felt helpless now sitting waiting for the government agent in the crisp white shirt to tell him what his fate would be. There was nothing he could do, and he knew it. He had celebrated the passing of DACA, but knew that he was too old for it to apply to himself. He had never been in line to immigrate to the United States, he had been born here, knew only here, and now was going to have to dust off his terribly accented Spanish in order to survive in Guatemala.
Crisp White Shirt brought his hand up to his face and pinched his nose at the bridge.
"You're scared," he said, "that's understandable. Mr. Espinoza your fear will not erase the fact you broke laws. I assure you that things will go smoothly for you and in no time you will find yourself back in your home country. We will not unreasonably detain you."
Simon let his head drift downward onto the table to avoid letting Crisp White Shirt from seeing the tears that were forming in his eyes.
"Oh you might be thinking," Crisp White Shirt's voice boomed in the small windowless office, "I've never ever been to Guatemala in my life. My parents brought me here when I was only a child, against my will, and without thinking about future situations like these. I have sympathy for you Mr. Espinoza, but we couldn't possibly let the world think that our borders are porous enough to allow anyone to come in who has enough gumption. We have to do something with you Mr. Espinoza. Wouldn't you agree?"
Simon could feel his throat beginning to close in on itself and he only managed to get a little croak out.
Crisp White Shirt nodded his head as if he understood what Simon was trying to say. He cleared his throat loudly, and then brought his hands banging on the table. "Mr. Espinoza, you may not know this, but it is custom in the United States to look a person in the eye when they are speaking to you. We have a habit of wanting to know who we are talking to."
Simon lifted his head and looked into Crisp White Shirt's broad and white face. For a second, his mouth filled with a rush of saliva, Simon was tempted to spit into Crisp White Shirt's face and tell him what he thought about the US Immigration system, but his face wilted, and he knew he couldn't go one on one against the entire government.
"There's no reason to be so withdrawn and sad," Crisp White Shirt pulled a large folder from his bag sitting beside him. From inside the featureless folder, no labeling or official marks to show what it was for, he pulled a neatly typed letter.
"Because of your age, and, yes, your educational accomplishments," Crisp White Shirt grinned, "I understand that you got yourself a PhD in Labor Economics? It is incredible what you can still manage to do in this country even if you are here illegally. You are qualified to participate in a rehabilitation program of sorts. If you'll just sign this letter I can make this immigration case disappear. You can get the start in the United States your parents always wanted for you."
Simon pulled the letter close to him, read it quickly, and reached his hand out for a pen. Crisp White Shirt delicately placed it in his hand, and Simon signed before he could let the reservations that he felt get him deported.
Three years of migrant work on various farms in the United States, Simon thought, and I get my citizenship. My parents already do that and without the safety net. How hard could it be.
Juan was a year into working along the West Coast as a migrant worker, traveling from farm to farm depending on the season. His hands were seeking out cherries, from bright red to dark and hidden in the shadows. His back creaked when he straightened out. Juan knew that cherries were picked by machines on other farms, large mouths that enveloped the trees and shook them fiercely to get at the ripe cherries.
On this farm 40 workers walked evenly among the trees picking the tiny pink fruits and tossing them into the burlap bags they slung over their shoulders. Juan did not know the stories for the other pickers, and had not had the time to ask any of them if they were participating in the same program. He remembered his first day being oriented into the group.
He had been ushered from the detention center into a large building in the middle of the small Texas town. The exterior of the building was vague and shapeless, a typical box building designed to not draw attention to itself. Inside he was greeted with a large open studio space and busy receptionists who looked like aspiring actors and actresses but who were film and television interns from the state university.
The police escort deposited him in the reception area and unshackled his hands. He nodded his head to the receptionist and she coldly ignored him.
The small impromptu waiting area was devoid of decoration, and he wondered how long it would take before his mind just drifted off into space. He wondered if this was going to be what his life was like now, his mind being shuttered down into a ignorant and empty thought process.
"Senor Espinoza?" His name was called and he had no idea how to proceed. He stood awkwardly and his knee buckled under the sudden strain, sending him back into the plastic seat. Nobody rushed to his side to help him stand or ask him if he was alright. Instead the receptionist called his name again and pointed her unsharpened pencil in the direction of an unlabeled door.
He stood again and proceeded to the door. He knocked gently and a voice in a cool general American accent beckoned him in.
The man behind the desk was wearing a sweater over a button down shirt. His hair was mussed and he had a large and obscene mustache that drew attention to several individual nose hairs that were climbing out of his nostrils. Espinoza shook his hand without thinking and then proceeded to stare at the general unruly nature of the man behind the desk's facial hair.
"Sit down," the man said, "I'm Mr. Johnson and I'll be conducting your placement interview. I've been told that you are completely amenable to the situation but there are some rather awkward details that we have to discuss."
Mr. Johnson laughed and shook his head, "I say discuss but really you don't have all that much say in the matter."
"I understand that you are a college educated individual. So I'm going to give you an option in a couple of matters, normally we would just assign people. As part of the rehabilitation process you will be recorded and displayed as part of our ongoing attempt to develop a reality television style show about migrant workers."
"To humanize the workforce," Simon interrupted.
Mr. Johnson smiled, "There's the in depth analysis that you would expect from someone with a college degree. The very first matter that we will be discussing is your name. Simon isn't going to cut it, and before I give you a chance to protest I will let you know that you have the option of selecting from two options. You are encouraged to begin your life with the new name of Juan or Xochitil. I cannot sway you in any one direction, but I can let you know that few people get the more exotic indigenous name choice."
"Why do I have to change my name?"
Mr. Johnson's smile faltered, "Unfortunately Simon I won't be able to answer any of your questions. You can make a selection or we can just assign you what we would prefer."
Simon nodded his head, "Juan is fine."
The rest of the interview had proceeded with minute details about his new identity. Simon walked out of the office free to find his way to a local hotel that was providing room and board for all new migrant workers who would be going into the program.
Now, no longer Simon, but as Juan, he stopped noticing the cameras and the various recording devices that were placed in and around the farms that he worked. With the current political climate beginning to argue for the rights of displaced workers and jobs that were exiting the country instead of providing good Americans with opportunities, the recording was geared towards creating an older image of agriculture, one that was hard and physically debilitating, and one that was beneath the dignity of the common American worker.
Juan slept in the group dormitories that were set up. In the beginning he had assumed that there would be some privacy. He had befriended an older man, hands rough, and face deadened emotionally. Arriaga had resisted talking to Juan when Juan first tried to confide in him.
"Did they assign you a name as well," Juan had tried to talk to him, "I'm going by Juan but my real name is Simon."
"Disculpe Senor," Arriaga said, staring deeply into one of the visible cameras, "estoy trabajando."
That night when Juan was sleeping in his bunk, three men had woken him up with a heavy flashlight shining into his face. They pulled a bandana across his mouth and held him down. The man at his feet pulled a pocket knife from his pocket. He opened the knife and touched it to Juan's naked foot pressing the cold metal to his sole. Juan gasped inwardly at the sensation and shook his head just before the man at his feet drove the knife inward. He dragged the knife inscribing on the bottom of his foot the four letter name that he had been assigned.
The next week he had hobbled through his work and blood filled his shoes and socks. Arriaga worked next to him that week picking oranges from the trees and passing Juan every one in ten. He spoke haltingly to Juan through clenched teeth.
“We are all someone.”
Juan shook his head and felt sweat slipping down his calves and pooling in the back of his shoes, where it soaked through the padding and then irritated and tore the skin of his feet to a pink mess. He thought about his family back in Texas who had managed to avoid getting detained and then thought that Juan didn't have a family. Juan was just an unattached person that he had to be now.
"Leave me alone," he told Arriaga, and hobbled through his work for the day.
Arriaga stepped back and then eventually faded into the rest of the workers, giving Juan space to work through his emotions.
Juan picked an orange and stuffed it into his bag repeating the process until citrus and skin stained the underside of his fingernails and his back moved automatically from upright to slightly bent the muscles tightening with each rotation and breaking Juan's breath into quick gasps. His steps sunk deep into the recently moistened soil and his soles began to ache with more than pain for the slashes that proclaimed his adopted identity. Every movement of his body was a painful reminder that he was locked into Juan, Juan would be his name until he earned his citizenship, would be his meaningless descriptor until he found himself collapsing into his cot at the end of the day unaware how he had made it through the picking and feeling the heavyweight of the shoes that he couldn't be bothered to remove his foot swollen in their cheap skins.
Arriaga slumped down into the cot next to Juan with a loud grunt. He brushed his shoes off with his feet and then clapped his hands together sharply. On the deep inhaled breath he made, he said,"Sorry amigo, they are everywhere. And talking to you would have made it worse for the both of us." He rubbed his hands together and clicked his tongue quickly to the back of his teeth.
Juan turned around to face Arriaga. "What was your name?"
Arriaga coughed. “My name has always been Arriaga. It's just the right amount of ethnic. Some of us are making a living as migrant workers and this is easier than other jobs."
Juan did not know that life. He didn’t know how hard migrant work was and how much harder when it was the only option that you were given and your family was dependent on you. His own parents had been laborers but they had carefully shielded him from it. When he graduated from college there was a sense of familial pride, but also the deep feeling that he had escaped, escaped some reality that meant to pigeonhole him and force one true outcome down his throat. His parents had not been able to attend the graduation ceremony.
Arriaga spoke, "do your job until you can get out. There is no shame in the work that we do. Our people have been doing it for generations. We are farmers and laborers. These fields, this soil, is our ancestral home more than it is theirs."
A tear sprang to his eye and Arriaga reached over and slapped him hard across the face.
"No lloramos," he said, "this is our life. This is what we have to do to earn our citizenship. It is not given to us just because we come here."
Stunned Juan shook his head and turned away from Arriaga, and there deep in the corner of the dormitory he saw a flashing red light.
"This is all for the show," he whispered.
"This is because you are going to fucking ruin this for all of us."
Juan pointed at the camera in the corner, "did you talk to them? Make an arrangement to try to win me over to your cause. Maybe they offered a deal that would let you get out sooner. I'm doing the fucking job. Take your deal and get out of here."
A smile crept across Arriaga's face and he leaned forward to place his hands on Juan's shoulders. Juan stood abruptly, brushing off Arriaga's hand and causing him to fall backward on to his bed. Juan ran for the door, bursting past the swinging cameras in the corner, and sparing a vicious look towards the guardsman who was casually walking between dormitories.
He wasn't going anywhere, if he ran away, he would be deported. The edge of the compound was brush and wood, nowhere to go except into the depth of his own despair. He was Juan here, a worker doing an archaic job and performing for the benefit of anyone watching. The xenophobic slogans he had heard before being caught, but now his life was more narrowly focused, and it didn't reach him at all. His life was labor, and the stares from the camera persons as they watched him walk from row to row, a zombie without a thought in his head.
He sunk to his knees at the end of the field, leaving behind him all the fallen and spoiling fruit, the overripe pieces that were not picked in time to be salvaged. His hands sunk into the soil and he squeezed.
"Madre, ayudame," it wasn't fair, this had been the job that his parents had done, without complaint, while allowing him to attend school and improve himself. Now he was back toiling, the work of his own ancestors forgotten as he earned his citizenship.
He collapsed into the dirt, his breath coming quickly and his chest heaving. He thought of his family members crossing borders of desert and death, an economic diaspora that never ended. They carried with them their language in neat little exhalations, under the breath mutterings and prayers, a personal invective against their situation. He knew they hated it as much as he did. The labor was merely a means to an end, it wasn’t their life. But how did they survive it all?
Samuel Hernandez works with undocumented youth providing social service referrals. His writing has appeared in The Owl Mag, Quip Magazine, and Long Story Short.