Translated by Katrina Hassan
Yeyo grew up watching his dad break his back from carrying so many green banana bunches on those infernally hot tropical days in Chiapas. He saw his mom fill her arms with burn marks as she cooked potato turnovers to sell on the outskirts of the farm. Jacks of all trades, they juggled what they could to survive, being undocumented in Tapachula, Mexico. They always worked in precarious jobs, badly paid, without any benefits. They crisscrossed the state but the pay and treatment was always the same.
They worked during the picking season on the coffee plantations, near Tapachula for three months. The family slept in galleys and ate two meals a day. At first Yeyo was wrapped onto his mom’s back, then as he grew, he helped her at work. He was not able to go to school because they moved around so much for seasonal work. He barely learned to read and write, the other factor to him not going to school was that outside the farmlands there were always immigrant raids.
Near Soconusco, the family worked picking pineapple, papaya and coffee. When it was sugarcane season, in Huixtla, only their dad worked on the farm. Their mom made empanadas near the farm entrance. Sometimes Isaura looked for work as a maid, going door to door in the outskirts of the Tapachula. This was how Yeyo learned to work cleaning houses, helping his mother since he was 5 years old. They lived in a boarding house. His dad lived in Huixtla and slept in the galleys with the other farm workers and with Papayo, the dog his mom and him brought to Tapachula. The family would all reunite at the end of the picking season.
By the time Yeyo was 6 years old, he could make tortillas, grind the corn for the tortillas, pick up wood for the cooking fire, carry water, bathe Papayo and wash his own clothes. He also helped his mom by taking the payments for the food she sold, and cutting up the manila paper and banana leafs they used as plates for serving the food. When he was 8 years old, his sister Ines was born and he became a big brother. Yeyo was now in charge of making the salsa, chopping the wood, and making the dough for the turnovers. Meanwhile his mom took care of his sister while she finished cooking the potatoes for the turnover filling.
In difficult times, they just about managed to live off the sale of the turnovers. Younger workers would arrive and leave the older migrants without work. There were times when they only ate tortillas with salt, the remaining liquid from when you cook beans, bananas, green plantains, and one cooked egg to last you the whole day. They slept in dens made out of nylon and cardboard they got from the loading zones in the farms.
They, like the rest of the undocumented immigrants made their camps outside of all the farms. The police didn’t bother them there. There was some sort of deal made with the land owners, but as soon as they left those areas, there would be rounded up in immigration raids.
On some occasions they managed to find work for the whole year in the coffee plantation. They would prepare the soil, clean the coffee, dried and packed it. Coffee cultivation was yet another trade that Yeyo learned. When they worked those years they had so much fruit and coffee that they were sick of it. There were bags of bread for breakfast and dinner. Yeyo and his siblings knew very little of how their parents arrived in Mexico from Guatemala. He knew his mother’s story about never before leaving her town, going to the capital and finding the bus station. She headed to San Marcos, the area where the border of Guatemala and Mexico is, with Yeyo and Papayo in her arms. Her husband waited for her on the other side of the river Suchiate, he had a head start of a few months. They were meant to go to the USA and they were saving to do so. They had to pay off the coyote and they stayed in Tapachula working on a banana farm. On that farm they hired undocumented workers for one third of the wages of Mexican workers. They thought they would only be there two months, but that became 30 years.
They don’t know any family except for the migrants that, like them, go from farm to farm with their own families. They see them for some seasons, then they might not see them the next. Yeyo’s parents never went back to Guatemala since they left, his mom was 17 and his dad 20. Back home they had a little adobe house, with a palm roof. His mom worked at the mill in the mornings, in the evenings she cleaned various businesses on the main road in the nearby town. His dad worked in the melon, tobacco, chile and loroco season at the plantations and the rest of the year he worked in the slaughter house. His job there was to clean cow hides. They barely managed to reach the end of the month combining both of their wages. After Yeyo was born, they couldn’t manage with the little money they had and this made them decide to migrate to the USA, crossing through Mexico. They didn’t have money for the trip or the coyote and this was why Yeyo’s dad went ahead of his mom. He left with a group of friends that were also from his town. Only his dad stayed in Tapachula, the rest of the group continued their journey.
They roamed from plantation to plantation for 30 years. They lived on the coastal town of Suchiate, on the side of the Pacific Ocean for ten years before the family grew. The family worked ten years in the banana, plantain, papaya and mango plantations. By that time, Yeyo was a teenager with a strong back and arms. He joined his dad in the fields while his mom and siblings, Ines, José and Toño made empanadas to sell. Yeyo’s family never had their own home. He remembers living in 15 different houses, all in different parts of the state. Their belongings were the clothes on their backs, a sack containing a toothbrush and a bit of clothes. The communal sack containing, antiseptic liquid, alcohol, laundry soap, an enamel pot, plastic containers, plastic cups, ponchos and mosquito nets their mom made out of a wedding veil. She bought the veil in a market in Tapachula along with an image of El Señor of Equipales
The family spent 20 years in Mexico without legalizing their status in Mexico, like thousands of other families that work that land. They cried, they screamed and suffered the vicissitudes that undocumented people go through in a land where the locals are the same colour, have a similar physical appearance, and speak the same language. One day Yeyo’s dad had an accident at work on the other side of the banana plantation. By the time the other workers reached Yeyo to tell him, his dad had died. The plantation owners did not take responsibility for any work accidents, much less if the workers are undocumented. The only moral and financial support that Yeyo and his family received was from his dad’s co-workers. They pooled their money and helped cremate his dad. They couldn’t travel to Guatemala, it was too expensive. Yeyo’s parents did not want to be buried in Mexico.
Yeyo took on the family responsibilities, while his mom and siblings never went to school because of their work life. They sold empanadas to make a living. Five years later, their mom died of a stroke. Their co-workers helped raise money to cremate her too. Yeyo felt desolate with the head of household responsibilities. When a few months that seemed like years and one night he talked to his siblings. They picked up all their belongings. They collected their three changes of clothes, plastic containers, enamel pot, cooler box and their ponchos. In one sack they placed the two urns with their parents’ ashes. In a canvas bag, they place three of Papayo’s grandkids; the puppies being only two months old. Instead of heading North they all headed South. This trip was backwards. They crossed the Suchiate river and then got a bus in Tecún Umán, San Marcos. Their final destination was the capital of Guatemala. They had never set foot in the country but managed to find the bus stop to Teculután, Zacapa; place of birth of Yeyo and his parents.
All three siblings cried when they walked through the center of the town of Teculután and they saw the Cashasha tamales for sale. These were the tamales their parents longed for. They talked about them all the time, from the family dinners to the campgrounds of the undocumented outside the plantations. The siblings were surprised by the smell of the quesadillas of Zacapa. They were abundant in their baskets and the hawkers ran after buses to get the drivers to buy them. They saw sacks of mangos, jocote marañon, salted peanuts, pumpkin seeds with chili, kilos of dry cheese, bags of cream, and aired cheese. Just like in a sketch coming to life by the narration of their parents, the ladies selling yuca with chicharron appeared in the central park. The kids selling drinks in a bag, tamarind, hibiscus, and jotote marañon on the street. They felt the dry heat that was very different than the tropical humidity of Chiapas. Thirty years had passed since Yeyo left on his mom Isaura’s back from their town in Guatemala. He has returned to the land where he left his belly button.
The siblings and Papayo’s grandkids walked with their three bags of belongings under the shade of the mango trees. They stopped in the basin of the river Teculután, where their parents played as children. They would bellyflop on to the little pools that all the kids would help make. They began to see all the coral tree flowers, the palo blanco trees, jacarandas and almond trees, and the quick stick trees. The flamboyant tree, that can be seen from afar, with its tall copse, strong branches, that extended like arms, expecting them for years to lull the siblings to sleep. The tamarind tree from his parents front yard greets them too. Yeyo felt a pang in his heart, it started going a thousand beats per minute as he took out his key. He opened the lock, they go in and they are home, where it all started. Isaura’s and Clemente’s kids and Papayo’s grandkids were back.
They dusted the pine table, stretched the cot, caressed the dirt floor and admired the well kept patio. It had cilantro plants, izotes, palos de cafe, almond, papaya and mango trees. This was Maura’s present. Isaura’s best friend never lost hope that she would come back. This is why she filled her house with life, nature was trying to take over. Yeyo had with him only 5 thousand quetzales, of which he handed 1000 to Maura. He gave them to her in the name of his mother, for the 100 she gave her that day. In the cemetery next to the graves of his grandparents, they placed the urns of his parents. Now the siblings will write their own story of return and migration.
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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado