Héctor Villa was discovering the hard way that running afoul of the authorities in America is like riding a horse into quicksand, as Rodolfo Fierro, the Centaur’s chief executioner, had had the misfortune to do: You escape from the fatal mire only by miracle (something God had not seen fit to vouchsafe poor Fierro).

For months after Héctor had wound up his yard sale, follow-up letters had continued to arrive almost weekly from the Belen municipal building—letters which, while stating very little in nearly incomprehensible English, appeared to threaten bankruptcy, sanctions, prison, and flogging in the public square.  In desperation, he’d considered pulling up the red-white-and-blue mailbox by its post and renting an anonymous P.O. box downtown as a means to alleviate the sense of personal violation he suffered in receiving the harassing communications at his own home.  He was on the verge of actually doing so when, late one evening in September, his telephone rang—and Héctor found himself facing a crisis compared to which the hovering city fathers of Belen appeared less like ravens than meadowlarks.

For ten or twenty seconds, he heard only a crackling buzz on the line, punctuated by the chink of coins being fed into a coin box.  The sound was followed by cuss words in Spanish, just before the line went dead.  Héctor hung up and was halfway across the room when the telephone rang again.  Swearing himself, he retraced his steps and snatched the receiver from the wall.


¡Oiga!  It is your primo, Eufemio Villa in Namiquipa, speaking!  From a pay phone in Candelario’s Cantina!  How goes it in El Norte, compadrito?”

Eufemio’s words were almost drowned out by the sound track of a Spanish-language romance AveMaría and Contracepción were watching in the TV room next door.  The flash of resentment Héctor felt at that moment had nothing to do with the uproar, however.  He had sent generous remittances by Western Union to his cousin over the past three months and was beginning to feel that enough was enough.  Just the fact of residency in the U.S. of A. didn’t make you a piggybank waiting to be sledgehammered by every lazy, unenterprising Mexican—kin or not—south of the border.

“It goes well enough,” Héctor told him shortly.  “Look, Eufemio, I sent you $100 by wire last month, and $150 two months before that.  I’m not made of money because I have a computer business, do you understand?  Who do you think I am—Bill Gates?  I didn’t invent the goddamn machines; I just work on them, that’s all.”

“Wait, compadrito, wait—you are not understanding!  I do not ask you for money this time—only for a favor, a very small favor; that is all!”

Héctor, suspicious, said nothing.  The last time someone had asked him for a favor, it had been to borrow his driver’s license to present to the welfare office in Albuquerque, where the document had been temporarily confiscated, with great embarrassment to himself in getting it back after a lengthy and highly unpleasant bureaucratic procedure.

“Me and the family are coming north next month to try the U.S. for ourselves!  I’ve paid the coyote the $3,000 he asked for already; he’s going to bring us through near Columbus, where there aren’t enough migra around these days to catch everybody. . . . Listen, hombre: I see by looking at the map Columbus is just a couple hundred kilometers south of Belen!  From the photo you sent me of your beautiful home, only two Christmases ago, I know it is a large one, Héctor.  There’s only eight of us coming north—ten, if we bring two of my niece’s sons as well—and so I feel certain, primo, you must have plenty room for—”

Héctor experienced something like panic, followed by the same violated feeling the city-hall letters had given him.  Somehow, the spirit of Mi casa es su casa failed to carry across international boundaries.  His house, simple as it was (though also tasteful, of course), was his castle, for which he had worked hard and sacrificed much.  Now his good-for-nothing relatives back home in Namiquipa seemed determined to piggyback on his success by moving north—and, what was unimaginably worse, moving in!

“Eufemio, you don’t know what you’re saying!  In the picture, perhaps, my house looked big to you.  In reality, it is not so large!  Consider, hombre, there are four of us, with—!”  He’d been about to add, “with a fifth coming along,” but held back this lie just in time.  Naturally, Juana—Eufemio’s wife—would know AveMaría had had her tubes tied immediately after the birth of George Dubya two years before.

“Listen, compadrito, you mustn’t worry about a thing!  We can sleep out on the lawn or on the roof until the weather turns cold, and after that—we’ll see, we’ll see!  Anyway, the company’s trying to cut us off, and I’m out of pesos to feed the phone with. . . . I’ll call again in three or four weeks, just to let you know we’re safely across the border and headed north to Belen!  A million kisses to Contracepción—and AveMaría too, of course.  ¡Adios, primo!

As Héctor had expected, the womenfolk responded badly to the news when he broke it to them.  AveMaría protested there was no place in her home for a lazy toad like Juana Villa, while Contracepción wailed that she’d never be able to enjoy a wink’s sleep at night under the same roof as Máximo—at sixteen, Eufemio’s oldest son—whom she accused of having tried to seduce her while she was on a visit to Namiquipa the previous summer.  Since the electronic wand wasn’t working after Dubya dropped it into the toilet bowl the day before, and neither mother nor daughter seemed willing to get up from the sofa to turn down the volume by hand, their uproar, added to the din of the TV movie in which the lovers were being serenaded by a mariachi band outside of the Big Cat House at the Mexico City Zoo, was finally more than Héctor could stand.  Clutching at his graying, but still thick, hair, he fled to the kitchen, where, seizing the tequila bottle in one hand and the telephone in the other, he settled down behind the kitchen table to seek consolation from his friend, Jesús “Eddie” Juárez, upriver a few miles in Los Lunas.

For the next few weeks, Héctor tried to put the Eufemio Villas out of his mind, partly in the hope that, like a bad dream, they would vanish at the first penetrating ray of reality, and partly from guilt, since, when he did think of them, he found himself imagining the entire family had been apprehended by the migra this side of the border and been deported back to Namiquipa in the nick of time.  Mostly, he existed in a state of grim dread, like a man expecting a fatal medical diagnosis, as he awaited a phone call from the south.  The call would surely come collect, he thought, with scornful resentment; Eufemio, excepting only the few months after Juana received a small legacy from a rich uncle, had never had so much as a peso to his name.

On a bright hot September in late afternoon, Héctor was in his garden, weeding the chrysanthemum bed and wondering, as he worked, whether city hall would tolerate his placing the antique sod-busting plow he’d admired at a local flea market in the southwest corner of the lawn where it wouldn’t show too much from the street, when a white school bus with the words SOUTHSIDE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, TUCSON painted in blue along the side of it slowed and rolled to a stop beside the mailbox.  From his knees, Héctor glanced up briefly at the bus, then returned his attention to the chrysanthemums.  His mind noted, vaguely, that, for a church bus, this one was awfully noisy: people screaming and shouting through the raised windows.  “Hey, compadrito!”  The voice, bellowing out above the general confusion, sounded horribly familiar.  “We made it, hombre!  Here we are, safe and sound, all of us—the Villas, at last, have arrived in El Norte!”

Héctor took a careful count as Eufemio’s family piled off the bus; they made thirteen or fourteen, he couldn’t be certain which.  Everyone wore a daypack on his back and clutched several bulging Wal-Mart bags.  His heart sank as his cousin—a large, fat man with drooping mustaches, wearing a dirty white T-shirt and a baseball cap—waddled toward him, followed heavily by Juana who, though at least a foot shorter than her husband, appeared to be twice his girth.  The Eufemio Villas, so far as Héctor knew, were still Catholic; the distasteful thought occurred to him that she could be pregnant yet again.  Unnerved, Héctor turned his back on them and shouted toward his house, as though for help.

“AveMaría! Contracepción! The villist—that is, the Villas are here!”

The family stood grouped alongside the bus, watching impatiently while the driver—a pale, weak-chested, bespectacled young man—struggled to carry a dozen or more cardboard boxes tied with string down the steps and drop them in exhaustion on the sidewalk.  They’d actually been apprehended at the border (Eufemio explained to Héctor as they stood together watching the young man at work) after their coyote abandoned them and fled into the desert, loaded like animals into a van with barred windows, and driven to a detention center in Deming, where they were held overnight without tortillas or even TV.  The next day, they were visited by a gringo attorney who advised them, as descendents of the “social bandit” and revolutionary Pancho Villa, to request political asylum on the ground of persecution by the PAN government in Mexico City.  With the attorney’s help, Eufemio had filled out the required paperwork, and, the day after that, the church bus arrived, chauffeured by the young man who’d offered to take them north to Belen for no money.  When Héctor suggested that he might be willing to drive them as far as Chicago, or maybe just Albuquerque, Eufemio said no, that wouldn’t be necessary; Belen was a good town, full of opportunity, and, anyway, the Villas needed to stay together if they hoped to survive in a racist country.

After the bus drove off, AveMaría announced that, if she was really expected to feed all these people, she would need to do a big shopping at the Albertson’s store in Los Lunas.  She left in her new Subaru, taking Contracepción along, while Juana went into the bedroom to lie down in the big double bed with its Shape-U-Up mattress and Héctor and Eufemio seated themselves at the kitchen table.

“I was bringing you a bottle of José Cuervo from Namiquipa,” Eufemio explained, “but the migra stole it from my hands at the border—bastardos!”

“It’s OK,” Héctor said helplessly, “I got plenty of tequila in the house already.”  A hard winter lay ahead of them, he could see; he’d better try to get used to this.

After the first drink, Héctor felt slightly better; after the third or fourth, he was barely aware of the din around him as a dozen young children and pendejos surged back and forth through the house with a confused roaring sound, like a dirty tidal wave.  The two men were still drinking when AveMaría and Contracepción returned from the supermarket and carried in the groceries they’d bought—bags and bags worth, so that they had to make three or four trips in from the car, and costing, Héctor guessed, three or four hundred dollars.  And tomorrow, he’d have to go to the liquor store and stock up, big time.

AveMaría, with help from Contracep, prepared an enormous pot of menudo and a platter of hot dogs wrapped in fried tortillas.  When the meal was ready, Juana came from the bedroom to join them, and the adults—Contracepción and Máximo included—sat down around the table in the kitchen, after AveMaría had served the kids on paper plates and shooed them out into the yard to eat.  Partly to be hospitable, and also for survival’s sake, Héctor produced a gallon bottle of Gallo wine and six tall water glasses.  By now, he hardly knew what was happening to him, or cared; after all, he reflected stupidly, mañana is another day.

Later, when Juana had retired to the bedroom again and AveMaría and Contracep were washing up, Héctor and Eufemio, carrying the wine bottle along with them, wandered out into the yard to watch the sun set behind Ladrón Peak, which, from their perspective, appeared like an eruptive volcano against the western sky.  Around them on the grass, the Eufemio clan—plus a few others of whose identities Héctor remained ignorant—were spreading their blankets, whacking each other with pillows, and tuning their transistor radios for the night.  Off in the southwest corner of the fence, where Héctor had in mind to place the sod-buster plow, Contracepción and Máximo stood embracing in a manner that caused her father to avert his eyes.  In just a few hours, his home had assumed the aspect of a barrio in Chiapas.  What, Héctor agonized, would the neighbors have to say about this small corner of the Third World set down overnight in their pleasant and comfortable neighborhood?

In the bad Old Mexico of Pancho Villa’s day, when peons amounted to property, like so many yard ornaments, a convenient solution to his problem might have existed.  In the circumstances, there was only prayer to trust to—prayer, and the worthy honorables at the Belen city hall.