A Dream. A Journey. A Price
by Juanita Vasquez
Photos by Larissa Bahr

She sat in the taxicab, squeezing a piece of paper that had a confirmation number for the flight from Zacatecas to Tijuana. She had only traveled within her home state and now was making a trip 1,377 miles across Mexico. It was her first time on an airplane. Her mother didn't want her to go – she was just 19 years old – but her father had just died. His lungs gave out on him, leaving Rosa's mother without a main support line. She had nine brothers, but most of them were married with families. And as the eldest of those still home, Rosa thought it was her job to bring the family out of its financial slump.

Javier, a family friend, was like many Mexicans who had gone north and came back to Mexico to flaunt their financial well-being. Rosa saw the answer to her family's problems in Javier's representation of economic success. He agreed to help her travel to the U.S., pay her expenses and give her a job and place to live as soon as she got there. Her plane landed minutes before noon in Tijuana, where Javier met her and bought her lunch. He told her that the man who would smuggle her into the country would call him.

"I was sad and crying a lot, and although I had it in mind to go back, I had never been away from my family," Rosa said. "I was coming with fear and sadness." After their meal, Javier took Rosa to the house of a family living near the U.S.-Mexico border; she was to spend the night there before she met the coyote or smuggler the next day.

Javier told her to shower, relax and prepare herself for the day ahead of her. Javier, who had promised to help her pay the $800 needed to get into the States, showed her to the room she would spend the night in. Rosa did not know that the following minutes were to be the longest and most agonizing moments of her life. Javier took advantage of the situation and raped her as payment. He took her to an abortion clinic the next morning before taking her to a nearby hotel, where Rosa was to meet nine men who wanted to cross the border. She assumed the hotel was always used for the purpose of smuggling people into the States; it was not a place to rest.

The men sat in silence on the bed that was in the middle of the room, waiting for the signal. The walls were a brownish color, and the paint fell off in chunks. Rosa sat on a corner of the bed as the smell of the Tijuana night blended with the stench of urine that came from the curtains. The men and Rosa stayed in the room until they heard a knock on the door at midnight.

When the door opened, the group stood up and followed the man who had knocked. The only words that came out of the coyote's mouth were: "Everything is ready, let's go."

The group walked from the hotel room to a parking lot in silence, not knowing what to expect. Most of the trip was this way. As they walked through the lot, Rosa saw a wall ahead of her. Bricks had been taken out in places, and when she realized this had been done on purpose, she put her foot on one of the holes and climbed up. She scaled up the wall – her dark jeans protected her from any scratches – dropped down from the top of the wall and ran behind the men who had jumped before her. Her lungs burned, but she ran as fast as she could until she reached the second wall. She had overcome the first obstacle.

The wire fence was next. Rosa had to crawl under a hole in the fence, which had to be redug periodically with shovels next to the fence. Brownish dirt clung to her sweater, which the coyote bought for her in the Tijuana parking lot. It was dark; she guessed only an hour had passed since the group had left the hotel room. She could only see those running in front of her but kept saying one more step in her head as she ran to the last wall that loomed in the distance. It hovered above her.

Rosa kept her eyes down as her legs carried her to the tallest and final wall. She ran as fast as she could and only stopped when she finally reached it.

"I was really afraid because I was alone," Rosa said. "I kept praying because I didn't know anyone there besides God."

The people who were near the wall encouraged them. They waved their arms and said, "Don't give up – you're almost there!"

The last wall was made of a rusty iron. One last time she was asked to crawl under a fence through a hole that had been dug just shortly before by a coyote.

The group made its way under the fence without interference from immigration officials, and each person ran to the freeway, where a Toyota van was waiting. Rosa was ready to run, but the coyote came to help her up. He took her hand, walked her to the van and pretended they hadn't been the ones who slipped under the fence just minutes before. The goal was getting to the van unnoticed.

One more step, Rosa thought.

The van only had two seats. Rosa and the men she was with were asked to lie down in the back of the van, which was empty because the seats had been removed. In the back of the van, pressed between men she had only spoken to briefly, she closed her eyes and hoped the car would make it through the checkpoint. They had to remain as still and silent as mannequins.

The truck stopped, the doors opened, her breathing grew heavier. She heard the coyote telling the people in the van that they had driven by the immigration checkpoint without raising suspicion. Rosa walked out the truck, waking her legs from their sleep and waited in the parking lot of a McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif.

It was around 2 a.m. and Rosa had just set foot in the United States. Her journey, however, was not over. As she left the truck, the men with whom she had traveled were taken to different cars. That was the last time she saw them.

She saw Javier once more, when he drove her from the McDonald's to Orange, Calif. In that drive, Rosa kept going over the events that happened since she left Mexico. The last part of her trip was almost done; she was dropped off in an alleyway, where she would meet the man that would drive her to the promised job and house in El Modina, Calif.

It was there, at her first job as a cashier in the marketplace, that she met the man she would marry. The next two decades were filled with work and Rosa continued to send money to Mexico until her mother died.

Rosa had been lured by promises of money. After all, the people she knew who had been in the States told her they had to sweep money off the ground. In her young eagerness, she set out for a place that only one person in her family had seen. Her father made the trip and returned with stories of trains and backbreaking work. But Rosa forgot these memories in a blur of youthful hope.

She made the journey, like many before her and like many will continue to do generations after her. In her first job, Rosa received less than $50 for more than 12 hours of work a day. She also worked as a babysitter and a house-cleaner to help her husband with the expenses of raising a family in the United States. Although Rosa loves her family, in her time away from Mexico her younger brothers married, her mother died and she spent countless hours working for people who didn't seem to value her work.

"When we leave Mexico we only think about other people's futures, but we never think about our own," Rosa said. "We have to pay one way or another for being here."