YOU WERE IN SAN DIEGO
Translation by Sigfrido Ahsen Nuez
Do you remember? You were there. It was one of those lovely, autumnal evenings, the kind in which the world turns red slowly. There were yellow and red leaves in the sky and on the ground. The bus moved dejectedly along the streets of San Diego, in the drowsy, purple California of October. It looked like a tour across the autumn. The vehicle was going slow, like floating, so the tourists observed the leaves flying, explored their own memories in the air and got lost in their minds by looking for the meaning of their own lives.
You were there. Don’t say you weren’t. Autumn is a season of memory anywhere: in the yellow Paris of the seventies, in the San Francisco of the century’s close, in a South American harbour on the Pacific, in a village near El Escorial, in an estate neighbouring to Buenos Aires, or if you have never visited these places, even in a house without windows where evocations and autumn slip in anyway. That’s why you should remember anyway.
In Hortensia Sierra’s opinion, that was the most shining day of her life. She had arrived in California that very morning, and she thought, at long last, that she was happy. That day, she felt light and free like a child or someone who is going to die, regardless of age. While the bus entered one of the principal streets of the city, it stopped suddenly. The front door was opened in order to let by six uniformed persons.
They were members of the Immigration Service. They were seeking illegal immigrants.
“Everybody show your papers! Your papers, please!” said the man who seemed to be the boss. He had to repeat the order because he was chewing gum, and it made his pronunciation in Spanish incomprehensible.
The foreigners were easy to distinguish because they were well-dressed. The women had trendy hairstyles and the men had bought new clothes in order to confuse the Americans, who supposedly think always that Hispanics are dirty and poor. But the agents already knew that, and although the bus was full of black-haired people, they requested the documents only to the best-dressed ones. However, they didn’t disturb those ones who were seated with their feet on the seats –like a yoga pose– or on the back of the front seats, because they could be Chicanos or Latin people who hold a legal visa and had already got used to the Yankees’ manners and customs. Moreover, in accordance with regulations, the officers had to recite politely exactly what was printed in their manuals:
–Please, sir. Your papers, please.
A man, who had no papers, wasn’t getting up. He was alone in a seat for two persons and put forward that he had lost his glasses.
–Get a move on right now. Glasses? What use is your glasses? Is not enough moustache for the Mexicans? Do they have also a place for glasses on their faces?
The officer wanted to be funny, but his boss scolded him with a gesture. He ordered him to leave the bus, control the orderly exit of the illegal immigrants and put them into a green lorry which was parked beside the bus. There was no reason to go too far, because the immigrants obeyed the orders without complaining. When the agents reached the middle seats, they had already uncovered two boys and one whole family of seven members who apparently came from Jalisco.
You may say you were not there because you don’t know San Diego, you are neither Mexican nor anti-Mexican, and that events took place too far away from where you live. But remember that most Americans have a concept of geography which is different than people from other parts of the world. If you are Yankee, it’s normal; if not, it’s because of ethnic reasons, although you were born in Europe or Brazil. Students of many schools and universities believe that their own country’s name is “America” and it’s bordered on the south side by a country called Mexico, which Hispanics come from. According to that belief, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima, Bogotá and Quito are in Mexico. But anyway, wherever you come from, we have evidence that you were in San Diego that day.
The agents had not got to Hortensia, so they didn’t notice that she was trembling and could not hold back her tears. However, a man, who was seated beside her, did notice. He looked surprised at her, but he didn’t dare to ask why she was crying.
He wouldn’t have taken that girl for an illegal, because she was blond and broke the American stereotype of a Latin as a brown-skinned person. Moreover, if he had awoken to her problems and helped her, he would had got into trouble.
Meanwhile, if Hortensia was uncovered, she would confront not only her own land but also her fate. Death would welcome her by shaking handkerchiefs and taking her some pictures in the corridors of the airport. Like a loving mother, death would say her: “Come, little daughter. I have long been waiting for you.” Death was lying in wait for her because of some reasons that were going quickly through her mind.
Death and memories intermingled with red and yellow leaves that were filling the sky and the ground, and were flying over the bus. Some months earlier, in her own country, a team of soldiers had broken down her door at midnight. They said they were looking for a terrorist, but in fact, they wanted to clean out the well-stocked shop that Hortensia and her husband had. Christmas was coming and the soldiers wanted to bring some gifts to their families. Hortensia’s husband was shot to death, but the soldiers had not seen her yet. Where ending cleaning out the shop, they moved a table and found her:
–Where did this Yankee girl come from? We didn’t expect her, but she is really hot. Let’s flip of a coin. Let’s see whose turn is first.
Desperate for escape, Hortensia hit commander’s head with the door handle and he fell down. From then on, she hadn’t stopped running and hiding. She had run throughout a long, destroyed, spacious, cursed continent full of borders. She had entered Mexico with falsified documents, but in the last city, which is the closest to the United States, she threw the papers away and went into a street in San Diego. She wore a blouse and jeans and seemed any other girl who had been born in the North. At the corner of Maple and Main streets, she took the bus and seated herself next to you.
No, please. Don’t say the U.S.A. authorities would grant asylum to her. Yankees ask for proof. They need papers in which the home country’s Government says that woman is pursued for dissent, or an exculpatory sentence written by a judge. However, any judge in Hortensia’s country would have declared her a terrorist without thinking. In that case, the only ones who can get dissident papers are soldiers in charge of pursuing Hortensia across the borders.
But the young woman kept on crying. The man who was sitting down next to her could not resist asking after her health. –I’m not ill. It’s not that. The problem is that I have no papers. I am illegal, and the agents are going to arrest me.
–What did you do then? Good question, isn’t it? You know that according to immigration laws, illegal immigrants are sent back to their own countries, but anyone who helps them can be considered as a people-smuggler and can end up in prison for some years.
The man looked alternatively at the soldiers and the woman who was by his side, and then he could not content himself. He put an angry face. His face turned strangely red, as red as that autumn evening in San Diego.
–You stupid! What are you thinking about, bitch?! Why do you keep sitting next to me?
Perhaps I am wrong and you, reader, were not there. Perhaps neither was I. You possibly have read this story somewhere, far away, but I’m not inventing it. I believe that an old rabbi told something similar about the Hitler’s Germany in the Jewish School of Theology, in front of the Jesuits’, which I used to frequent when I was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. But you and I were in that bus, even though we deny it.
When you are going to somewhere, you have no reason to worry because you don’t belong to any human group that is or have been persecuted or hated. However, you are in the same world, or even in the same bus, and there is always a choice or a challenge that is waiting for you.
Sometimes the challenge requires some risk or personal sacrifice. And then you go forward and meet your fate. It doesn’t mean that you have to assume it. It just means you are going to know exactly which world are you living in and who you really are.
I seem to remember that rabbi telling us that you don’t carry out freedom only by doing what you want. Cowardice, for example, is not a freedom act. But if you accept the challenge that fate has given to you, you turn into a free person. It may be the only way to be free. It could happen in Munich, Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires, Lima, Arkansas, Miami… or anywhere, and at any time that, for any reason, someone by your side, in the same world, is hated, tortured, ill-treated, raped, abused or chased.
–You stupid! And you decide to tell me just now!
The man couldn’t hold back his anger. The agents ask him why he was making such scene and then he lifted his American identification papers with his hand and kept shouting:
–Take her away! My wife has forgotten her papers again… and we are going to waste time in your office… and I am starving. She always does this… you should take her away so I can be single again!
The agents bursted out laughing, made a joke, kept chewing gum and got out the bus. Some years later, in Oregon, Hortensia Sierra told that she had never seen her rescuer. She haven’t even known his name. She said it to someone who told me this story, with a few more details. That’s why I know some secrets about you. I therefore ask it again: Are you sure you have never been in San Diego?
Translation of “You were in San Francisco” Copyright Eduardo Gonzáles Viaña By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2014 by Sigfrido Ahsen Nuez. All rights reserved.
Eduardo González Viaña (La Libertdad, 1941) is a writer and professor of Spanish language at Western Oregon University. He has earned a Doctorate in Spanish Language Literature from the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo in Peru, where he also earned a Law degree. He moved to the United States in 1990 to become a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1994. In 1999, González Viaña was awarded with the Juan Rulfo Award for best short stories, because of the short piece “Siete Noches en California.” His novels include Sarita Colonia viene volando (1987), El tiempo del amor (1984), Los sueños de América (2001), Vallejo en los infiernos (2008), and El corrido de Dante (2008).