By Leila Kalmbach
When Paola waded in the family’s drinking and washing water supply, I could sympathize. The small Nicaraguan girl had few pleasures in life, and I too wanted to escape the desperation of this town – and for me, it had only been a week. For several minutes I sat watching as the seven-year-old climbed to the ledge of the cement basin that sat bigger than a bathtub, fully clothed, staring at me as though in challenge. Then she crouched down and hopped in. The darkened fabric billowed around her, and she smiled, walking back and forth, giggling and splashing. For the first time I’d seen, she looked happy, hopeful, free. Every few seconds, though, she looked up at me and glared. I watched her watching me.
My body ached from the digging I’d been doing all morning, building latrines for my college service project, and I resented her for bringing me into this. Finally I sighed, stood up and went to find her mother. After all, this wasn’t my call.
Teresa chased her daughter out of the basin, scolded her, dried her off and shooed her away. When she drained the basin, I wondered whether there would be enough running water that day to refill it. Then Teresa came lumbering back to me.
“No sÃ© que hacer,” she sighed, plopping heavily into a chair. I don’t know what to do. I didn’t either.
At 34, Teresa was a single mother of two living in one of the poorest communities in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Briefly, she had a factory job, but had gotten fired for always bringing Paola with her to work. In such a small town, there were no resources for deaf children, so Paola couldn’t go to school. She couldn’t even communicate with anyone but her mom and brother, with whom she spoke in their own improvised sign language. One day, she pointed wildly down the dirt road and made frantic, guttural sounds. Teresa smacked her and signed sternly back.
“She was lying again,” she told me. “She said she saw her father around the corner. She always says she sees him.”
Now, Teresa stayed home during the days, watching TV with the sound turned up high so that Paola could feel the vibrations. During the two weeks I stayed with them, I woke up at dawn, heart pounding, to the sound of sudden, thunderous cartoons. In the evenings, neighbors would appear in the window to weigh in on the Miss Universe pageant or to buy Teresa’s homemade cantaloupe popsicles, which she froze in the corners of sandwich bags and sold for the equivalent of three cents each – her only income, aside from the money sent from relatives in the United States.
I felt bad for Paola, but she grated on me. I’d been told she was a deaf-mute, but that was far from accurate. Although she couldn’t speak, she would throw shrieking tantrums when she didn’t get her way, and it worked her into a jealous rage how her mom doted on me. For me, at age 21 and in my first terrifying experience in a wild, developing country, I appreciated Teresa’s care despite my guilt about receiving it.
Shoeless children in torn hand-me-down American brands would follow us to and from the work sites, staring at us, the older ones yelling, “Hello, hello, one two three!” The men would smirk when we arrived, already dripping sweat in the relentless sun.
Over and over, I wondered what the point was. To the community, we were money. Four of us could do the work of one Nicaraguan; they just couldn’t afford the supplies. Most had never seen a foreigner or heard our funny accents before. They stared at us, talked about us behind our backs and in front of our faces, laughed at us, the weak Americanos who can’t even dig a ditch to build a latrine. What are we even doing here? I wondered. We’re trying to improve their lives, but we’re bad at it, we’re miserable here, and no one respects us.
And who are we to think we can come to their country and improve their lives? But aren’t we, a little? Don’t they need latrines? So give them jobs. Don’t be Big Brother America, always the hero, stepping up to the plate to help for two whole weeks. I don’t have jobs to give. And is that really better? America the boss? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. We were met with resentment tied up in gratitude tied in jealousy tied in disdain tied in reverence for our perceived power as Americans.
“My cousin’s in the United States,” they would say. My uncle, my brother, my friend. “I want to live there too. Can you help me?”
For two weeks, I became Teresa’s friend and her confidante. She told me about how her husband had left her two years earlier, how she was worried about Paola and Josue, her 15-year-old who had fallen in with some bad kids the year before and always seemed felled by intestinal parasites. She was particularly curious about life in the United States. What did my house look like? What did the streets look like? What were the jobs like?
Josue got into it too. He showed me his geography textbook, opened to a map of the United States. No state outlines, just a few random cities dotted on the map. I pointed out Austin, my hometown, and tried to show him Portland, Oregon, where I had just graduated from college, but the northwest was blank aside from three dots: Seattle, Eugene and Yakima.
He also showed me his scar. It was a couple of inches long, deep, on a fleshy area near his stomach. “But I don’t hang around with them anymore,” he assured me. “Now I’m concentrating on studying. I want to live in the United States one day.”
Existence felt so depressing in that tiny Nicaraguan community that I wasn’t sure I could even make it through the short time I had to stay there. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could spend their whole life there, rice and beans at every meal – if you were lucky enough to have a meal – dirty water, never any money, hard physical labor, this horrible pain in the stomach, some people without even latrines, just buckets behind sagging tarps. I felt guilty, because I could leave, and because my country had done this, partly, had created this state of life.
They would tell us about the Sandinistas, and the years of the guerra, how hard it was for them that the United States – your country, YOURS – cut off trade and preferred to fight on the side of the dictator Somoza.
Every night, the exhaustion of the work, the language, the life would close in on me. I would scribble furiously in my journal until the rain started, first a patter and then a crash. The sky would open up to pound the town of Champigny, to punish it, to create an impenetrable moat around every house in the community. The sound could almost drown out even the TV. Then the lights would go out, the TV would go silent and there was only the storm.
A few months later, back in Austin, I had settled back into a comfortable routine. And then I started getting strange missed calls from foreign numbers. One call, another a week later, then nothing for several weeks, and then it came again. This time there was a voice in the message. “Â¿AlÃ³? Â¿AlÃ³?” Then muffled Spanish in the background, several seconds of fumbling, a hang-up. Still I didn’t understand.
The next time, she left a message. She was in Mexico, she said. Please call back on this number. I struggled to understand the rapid Spanish, but the end of the message was clear and haunting: “You have to help me,” Teresa said. “Please, Leila, please.”
I tried to call, but couldn’t get through. Some critical part of the international number was missing. When she called again, several weeks later, it was just before Christmas. I was out with friends one evening, looking at the Christmas lights on 37th Street. When I answered, Teresa was the furthest person from my mind, but what she said stopped me cold.
“I’m in Texas,” she told me. “I crossed the river a few days ago. It’s taken me months to get here. I walked through most of Mexico – you wouldn’t believe how thin I am now! Remember how fat I was?”
She wanted to work, she told me, just for a few months. Just long enough to make money to send Josue to a better school so he wouldn’t join a gang again, just long enough to buy Paola hearing aids, and then return to her family. “But they caught me, Leila,” she said.
She was in a detention center in South Texas. And then she let it drop: She needed to be released into the care of an American citizen, someone who would be responsible for her, watch over her. Would I come get her? If I didn’t, she would be deported in a week.
No, was my first, panicked thought. No, no, no. This woman had taken me into her home. She had fed me, washed my clothes, befriended me. Now she was asking for me to do the same, and I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to do it. I knew how she lived, how her children lived, but I didn’t want to go back to that guilt and the desperation of that place. It wasn’t fair how they lived. But why did it fall on me to protect her from my playground bully of a government, who stole her country’s lunch money and then slapped her when she tried to eat its bread?
But the truth is, once you visit a place, you can never really leave – it becomes a part of you. I told her I would find out more, see what I could do to help her, the responsibility of the favor heavy in my body, my mind whirring. She said she would call back the next day. How could I take responsibility for an illegal immigrant, a woman I hardly knew? How could I not? I thought of Paola, wading through the water basin, powerless and cut off. I had to do what I could. The next morning, I would make some calls. I would find out what to do. I would not be able to help the millions of others like her who were fighting to survive. But I would try to help this one family.
A couple of hours later, Teresa called back, her voice thick with tears. “Leila,” she said. “They’re going to deport me. They’re going to send me back tomorrow morning. It’s too late.”
After so many months, so many hours of walking, she had failed. And I could do nothing. She was going to come back, she said. As soon as she could, she would save up the money she needed and do it all over again, wind through Central America, through Mexico, cross the river, not get caught this time. She would call me when she got here.
I never heard from her again.
In the six years since I last talked to Teresa, I’ve often wondered what twists her life has taken. I’ve searched her name online, imagined the scenarios, created a whole new life for her and her family.
In my imagination, she’s found a good job in a city with a deaf school, where Paola has made many new friends. Josue has graduated from college and found a job, the scar on his side a long-ago memory of a difficult youth. He has a family of his own. In my imagination, she tried again to return to the United States, but didn’t make it. She was raped along the way, transported drugs to earn enough money to eat and pay the coyote, was eventually killed. Her children live with relatives, an angry Paola sitting on the dirty floor in front of an ear-splitting Miss Universe pageant, unable to talk to anyone but her increasingly absent brother. Teresa waded through the water to escape her life and try again, baptized in the pollution of the Rio Grande, but she was thrown out, scolded and sent away.
Travel teaches you who you are by teaching you about where you come from. I may be an Americana, but I am not omnipotent, I am not powerful. I do know that if I get the opportunity again, this is my call to make. I can’t not get involved. Teresa’s words still haunt me: Please, Leila, please, and I wait still for that call, not sure I can pull her from the river, but knowing I will try, hoping at least that she hasn’t already drowned.
Border River Crossing: [email protected]
Nicaraguan Girl: Feed My Starving Children
Nicaraguan Children: Feed My Starving Children
Latrine in Nicaragua: lifesoapcompany
Rice and Beans: Carlos Lopez
Mexico-Texas Border: utahwildflowers
Nicaraguan Mother and Daughter: David Dennis