The Veracruz hospitality has vanished.
One woman wrinkles her nose when she talks about migrants. She is hesitant to slide the deadbolt on the metal door of her tall stucco fence. “I’m afraid of them. They talk funny. They are dirty.”
Enrique starts knocking on doors. He begs for food. In Mexico City, where crime is rampant, people are often hostile. “We don’t have anything,” they say at house after house, usually through locked doors.
Finally, at one house, another gift: A woman offers him tortillas, beans and lemonade.
Now he must hide from the state police, who guard the depot at Lecheria, a gritty industrial neighborhood on the northwestern outskirts of Mexico City. He crawls into a 3-foot-wide concrete culvert.
At 10:30 p.m., a northbound train arrives. From Mexico City onward, the rail system is more modern, and trains run so fast that few immigrants ride on top. Enrique and his two friends pick an open boxcar. If they are caught inside, it will be hard to escape, but they count on the scarcity of migra checkpoints in northern Mexico. The boys load cardboard to lie on and stay clean.
Enrique notices a blanket on a nearby hopper. He climbs a ladder to get it and hears a loud buzz from overhead. Live wires carry electricity above the trains for 143 miles north. Once used for locomotives that no longer operate, the wires still carry 25,000 volts to prevent vandalism. Signs warn: “Danger--High Voltage.” But many of the migrants cannot read.
They do not even need to touch the lines to be killed. The electricity arcs up to 20 inches. Only 36 inches separate the wires from the tallest freight cars, the auto carriers. In railroad offices in Mexico City, computers plot train routes with blue and green lines, and at least once every six months the screens flicker, then black out. An immigrant has crawled on top of a car, been hit by electricity and short-circuited the system. When the computers reboot, the screens flash red where it happened.
Enrique climbs the hopper car. Carefully, he snatches a corner of the blanket and yanks it down. Then he scrambles back to his boxcar and settles into a bed that he and his friends have fashioned out of straw they found inside.
The boys share a bottle of water and one of juice. They plow through a heavy fog, and Enrique sleeps soundly--too soundly.
He does not sense when police stop their train in the middle of the central Mexican desert. Officers dressed in black find the boys curled under their blanket in the straw. They take them to their jefe, who is cooking a pot of stew over a campfire. He pats them down to check for drugs. Then, instead of arresting them, he gives all three tortillas and water--and toothpaste to clean up.
Enrique is astonished. The jefe lets them re-board the boxcar and tells them to get off the train before San Luis Potosi, where 64 railroad security officers guard the station. At midmorning, Enrique sees two flashing red antennas. The boys jump off the train half a mile south of town.
Until now, Enrique has opted to keep moving. But here the countryside is too desolate to live off the land, and begging is too chancy. He needs to work if he is going to survive. Besides, he does not want to reach the border penniless. He has heard that U.S. ranchers shoot immigrants who come to beg.
He trudges up a hill to the small home of a brick maker. Politely, Enrique asks for food. The brick maker offers yet another kindness: If Enrique will work, he will get both food and a place to sleep.
Happily, Enrique accepts.
Some migrants say Mexicans exploit illegals for a fraction of the going wage, which is 50 pesos, or about $5, a day. But the brick maker does better than that: 80 pesos. And he gives Enrique shoes and clothing.
For a day and a half, Enrique works at the brickyard, one of 300 that straddle the tracks on the northern edge of San Luis Potosi. Workers pour clay, water and dried cow manure into large pits. They roll up their pants and stomp on the sloppy concoction, as if pressing grapes to make wine. When the slop becomes a firm brown paste, they slap it into wooden molds. Then they empty the molds on flat ground and let the bricks dry.
The bricks are stacked into pyramids inside ovens as big as rooms. Under the ovens, the fires are stoked with sawdust. Each batch of bricks bakes for 15 hours, sending clouds of black smoke into the sky.
Enrique’s job is to shovel the clay. At night, he sleeps in a shed on a dirt floor he shares with one of his friends from the train.
“I have to get to the border,” Enrique tells him.
Should he take another train? Freight cars have brought him 990 miles from Tapachula near Guatemala. Is he pushing his luck?
His employer says he should ride a Volkswagen van called a combi through a checkpoint about 40 minutes north of town. The authorities won’t stop a combi, the brick maker says. Then he should take a bus to Matehuala, and he might be able to get a ride on a truck all the way to Nuevo Laredo on the Rio Grande.
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