Dr. Toloza and his two young sons had been waiting for more than two hours in the long line of pedestrians on the Mexican side of the Donna–Rio Bravo international bridge. Normally, the wait was a half hour, maximum. Rio Bravo was no midsized city like Matamoros and did not bustle with international commerce like Reynosa.
Unlike the international bridges in other parts of Southern Texas, the city of Rio Bravo had not slowly crept up next to the river’s edge. Rather, the adjacent Mexican side looked exactly like the American side: treeless farmland that stretched for miles.
This time, though, Alejandro had noticed lines of people sleeping on pieces of cardboard all along the bridge. Most had the tangled hair and wrinkled skin of those who have not bathed in days. He had even seen a few small children, no older than two, playing with stuffed animals.
Dr. Toloza kept a close eye on his two young sons. José, a second grader, had gotten tired almost immediately and asked to be held. He was in his father’s arms.
Alejandro Junior, in fourth grade, could barely stand still for five minutes and talked constantly. He kept wandering to the concrete railing to look at the river and stared shamelessly at strangers.
Alejandro constantly barked at Junior in his rusty Tagalog: “Halika dito!” “Tumahimik!”
Less than an hour ago, Junior had seen a child of the same age in a straw hat hawking small packets of green and purple chicle. Junior had pulled on his dad’s pant leg. “Look! He’s making money!” Then, he threw a fit. “I want to make money!”
Dr. Toloza had never been more embarrassed at how sheltered Junior was. He felt his face redden and then grow hot with anger. Still, he did not want to make a scene in line, so he told him to ask his mother when they got home.
Junior rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. “But, ¡mamá nunca dice que sí!
Many people had brought umbrellas for the sun, and Dr. Toloza saw a tent canopy with two border agents in black uniforms. This puzzled him; they were stationed quite a ways on the Mexican side. As he neared, one of the agents asked him in Spanish: “¿asilo?” He shook his head and replied in Spanish. “CIUDADANOS.”
After another half hour, he and the boys finally reached the roofed immigration station in the center of the bridge. It was already noon. A podium loomed and behind it stood a tall, white, slightly overweight man. He wore lime green fatigues. Alejandro handed the immigration officer his passport and his two sons’ passports.
—And the mother of your two sons?
—She’s in Mission, Texas, officer. Waiting for us.
The officer furled his brow and then sighed. He handed back the passports.
—Minors have to travel with both parents. Unless you have that notarized transit document.
—Here it is, officer. We did one document for both sons.
—This… Do you have the original?
—No, sir, we keep the original at home.
The officer grimaced and stared at the document without saying anything. Then, he glared at Alejandro for what felt like a long time. He exhaled through his nose. He did not hand the document back.
—What were y’all doing in Rio Bravo?
—We went to a funeral. For a relative.
—¿Y tú eres de Rio Bravo?
The white officer’s question and competent Spanish caught Alejandro off guard. Yes, Alejandro had jet black hair and café au lait brown skin. Plus, his first and last names were Spanish. Still, he had never looked at himself in a mirror and thought “Latino.” Not even close.
Normally, he laughed dismissively at getting confused for being Mexican. Yet, in this context, the mix-up had implications. Alejandro could feel beads of sweat start to form on his forehead. He remembered why he hated crossing the border by foot: that hopeless feeling that these officers, loitering atop bridges, too often acted like trolls.
After years living near the border, he spoke very fluent Spanish, but instinctively answered in English, just to be safe.
—Actually, I was born in the Philippines.
Alejandro had grown up in Marilao, a modest-sized city in the Philippines about four hours North of Manila, the capital. Marilao was small, provincial enough where passersby smiled, acknowledging a stranger when out and about during the day.
Alejandro’s had been a childhood of privilege; his family’s compound on the town’s outskirts sheltering him from monsoons, political upheavals, violent protests, and street crime. He did not even attend a private school. Rather, Monday through Thursday, a private tutor—a white expat New Yorker—visited and taught him literature, algebra, chemistry, and, most importantly, helped him refine his English.
Most people in the Philippines spoke English, but with varying accents. From a young age, Alejandro prided himself on speaking almost like an American.
Alejandro had one sibling, an older sister named Maria. On hot summer days as children, the two would go outside to hunt lizards with rocks and play-fight by using giant plantain leaves as swords. Maria was the type of girl who preferred to play the nefarious villain or the swashbuckling savior.
They were inseparable. At night, Alejandro would tiptoe to her bedroom if he felt scared. As they grew older, their bond only strengthened. When Maria hit puberty, and then Alejandro, they became confidantes, sharing embarrassing milestones and secrets. They spoke in whispers around their parents, their laughter echoed throughout the house at all hours.
When Alejandro turned eighteen and moved to Manila for college, he emailed Maria daily. He called when he could and talked with her about everything and anything, from a boring day in class to his first serious crush. Sometimes, they would start talking shortly after dinner and finish well into the early morning.
He constantly complained about the large quantities of salt the street vendors in Manila layered onto adobo. At times, he confessed to loving the bustle of the capital. In other moments, he said he missed the tranquility and personal space at his family home in Marilao. Maria had chosen a college nearby and was home most weekends.
Alejandro soon realized he had spent eighteen years hating small town life and yet, after only a few months in Manila, he was homesick.
He thought constantly of Maria.
When she contracted malaria, he didn’t think twice about missing a week of class and catching a bus to Marilao that very same day. In his haste, he only brought a backpack stuffed with wrinkled jeans and dirty T-shirts. He had not even packed a toothbrush or deodorant.
Once in town, he didn’t even go home first. He paid a taxi to go directly to see Maria at the St. Michael Family Hospital.
He had feared the worst; at the time, malaria still killed many people.
The hospital was an unassuming two-story structure. The outer walls were painted beige and had black patches due to constant rainfall. The thick concrete fence was over five feet tall with sloppily trimmed hedges in front. At the metal gate, a potbellied security guard in blue dress pants, a white short-sleeved dress shirt, and yellow cap waved Alejandro’s taxi inside.
Upon entering, he instantly felt an intense chill from the air-conditioning. It was in stark contrast to the hot, sticky weather outside. The walls inside were painted turquoise and the floors were a smooth, polished concrete. A few people sat in finely-crafted mahogany chairs in the lobby. The place was silent but for the pitter-patter of distant footsteps and muffled conversations.
When he entered Maria’s room, she was sitting up in her hospital bed and watching a soap opera on TV. She smiled from ear to ear and insisted on a hug. Maria and Alejandro chatted for awhile, until an older man with thinning, gray hair stepped in. Alejandro marveled at the man’s immaculate white jacket.
The older man smiled, cracked a joke, and told Maria that she could leave tomorrow, but had to keep taking her meds for at least two weeks. He also told her to eat plenty of fish to replenish the iron in her body. Alejandro was asked if he was Maria’s boyfriend. The old man smiled and left before they could say anything.
Alejandro was smitten by the solemnity of the hospital, the warmth of this helpful old man. He knew he would someday wear the white jacket.
A decade later, Alejandro first entered the United States at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. His initial impression of America was not good: he stepped off the plane and suddenly felt invisible.
In the two hours he took to gather his luggage, get through customs, ride the metro-rail, and then flag a cab, he had made eye contact with exactly one person: the African-American customs officer who had checked his papers and waved him through. Not a single other person had looked at Alejandro, let alone smiled or even nodded.
In America, Alejandro thought, one feels like a ghost. Or, rather, one is made to feel like a ghost.
His grandmother had once told him that the eyes were the window to a person’s soul.
He wondered: did Americans avoid eye contact because they were afraid of what they might see? Or what they might reveal?
Alejandro finished his residency in Dallas after five years, but hated the city. The never-ending freeways and constant traffic reminded him too much of the unsavory aspects of Manila.
Plus, he had arrived unprepared for winter. He marveled at his very first sight of snow, but immediately came to hate scraping ice off his car’s windows in the early morning. He also often forgot to put enough antifreeze in the engine. The tow truck guy knew his name after the fourth time.
When a friend told Alejandro about a job at a stand-alone clinic in South Texas, he was intrigued by the weather and small town possibilities. He flew down to Brownsville, spent a day at Padre Island, and then drove west along the highway and got a feel for the local towns. Harlingen, San Benito, Weslaco, Alamo, San Juan. He loved the warm weather and something just felt right. He was much more comfortable than in Dallas.
People actually made eye contact and sometimes smiled. Strangers did not view him as an oddity.
Within two weeks, he had moved to Weslaco.
Only a few months after the move, he met his wife at a fundraiser for the Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg. Normally, he went to the Lifeteen Mass in the evenings, along with most of his Filipino co-workers and friends. However, the “Monte Carlo Night” fundraiser mixed parishioners from all nationalities and languages.
His future wife wore her black hair in a very long braid, this intricate weave intriguing him. He glanced her way when he could, but dared not make the first move.
Finally, her eyes caught his glance, and he felt less nervous. She smiled, he approached, and introduced himself as Doctor Toloza.
He then felt his face grow bright red and tried not to cringe. He was proud of his medical degree, but it had dawned on him recently to not rub everybody’s nose in it.
—Sorry. Bad habit.
—Alejandro. I’m Alejandro. Or Alex. People call me AJ.
She shook his hand, they struck up some small talk, and he realized she had come to the event with her two elderly parents and a few sisters about the same age, mid-twenties. Of the handful of women he had dated in the United States, almost all of them had tense or non-existent relationships with their parents.
He was delighted to meet her family and so soon. They were all reasonably well-dressed and treated him warmly and kindly. Her parents spoke very little English, but smiled and nodded at him appropriately.
With two boxes checked in his head, he politely asked her near the night’s end if he could have her phone number. Maybe if they could get lunch or perhaps a coffee?
When she said yes, he felt his chest swell so much he feared a button in his dress shirt would pop.
Alejandro felt incredibly nervous when he first presented Sara, his Mexican fiancée, to his mom over video chat. He suspected that their brief courtship, only six months, would annoy her.
At first, his mom’s serious demeanor spooked them both, but then her face lightened and she said in English: “She is quite beautiful. Nice to meet you.”
Alejandro realized that his wife was wearing a rosary that was visible over her black blouse.
When Alejandro and his mother spoke a few days later over the phone in Tagalog, he laid everything out. To his surprise, his mother was not concerned that his wife was Mexican or even undocumented. Rather, she was ecstatic that his future wife was a practicing Catholic. Mom was already thinking of grandchildren and christenings and first communions.
Part of him wondered if his wife’s fair complexion—she was from the North of Mexico—also played a role. Growing up, his mother had never displayed many pictures around the house that included her own father, likely because he was maitim. As a young child, he remembered sitting in the bathroom attached to the master bedroom as she religiously applied Goree beauty cream every morning and at night before bed.
The first few times he returned home for the holidays from Dallas, his mom cooed over his fairer skin. A stewardess on one of his flights and even a ticket rep at Ninoy Aquino International Airport had confused him for being Korean until he spoke. Was his mom happy now to not have to worry about grandchildren as dark as her own father?
His parents flew into McAllen for the wedding and stayed at his apartment, which he shared with Sara, for a month beforehand.
That first day, his mother not so subtly inspected their apartment, prodding and nodding. “A prayer candle with Jesus’ face, very nice.” She even straightened by a single centimeter the silver crucifix on the living room wall. “Pretty.”
His dad, much more agnostic, merely strolled to the living room, sat on the recliner, and turned on the television to ESPN DEPORTES despite understanding very little Spanish. Alejandro sat by his father.
His mother then grabbed Sara by the arm and walked her to the kitchen. Alejandro grew nervous and watched them out of the corner of his eyes. His mother inspected the spice rack, shook her head, and muttered something in Tagalog. She then opened the refrigerator, surveyed the contents, and again shook her head.
She smiled at Sara and said: “You love my son, and you love Jesus, so that is most important.” Her smile disappeared instantly. “But you now need to learn to cook some of his favorite foods.” She then turned her head, whistled, and shouted: “BATA! HALIKA DITO!”
Alejandro had not heard his mother’s whistle or been called bata in almost two decades, but still instinctively stood up, basically jumping off the couch. He walked briskly to the kitchen and saw his mom’s arms were folded across her chest.
“Sara needs your credit card. We are going food shopping.” Alejandro furled an eyebrow. He slowly reached into his pocket.
His mother tapped her right foot impatiently and said quickly in Tagalog. “We may also get some clothes too.”
He glanced at Sara.
His mom stepped into his line of vision, leaned in closer, and growled in English. “You cannot dress your future wife like this while she is still young and pretty. You are too cheap.”
The wedding was a resounding success. His sister, who had recently had twins, watched the procession via Skype. She gave him a big thumbs up when he kissed the bride and marveled out loud at the enormity of the recently built Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg.
At the reception, Alejandro was amused to hear his parents try to speak Spanish to Sara’s parents, who were also participating via Skype on one of Sara’s sister’s phones. Though they lived only a half hour away in Mexico, they had overstayed their tourist visas recently, and could no longer cross.
Alexandro’s mom flew back to visit them for the birth of each son, but his dad’s failing health meant he stayed behind in Marilao.
At times, Alejandro felt jealous of the long weekend trips he and the boys would take to Mexico to visit his wife’s parents. It was sad and annoying that his wife could not attend, but he felt a gulp in his throat when he thought of his own childhood home and how few years remained when he and his sons could visit it.
But the airfare was just so very, very expensive.
With Sara’s help, Alejandro’s Spanish improved each day, and soon he could talk with patients and even his in-laws. He called his two boys “m’ijo”.
It pained Alejandro that his children spoke much better Spanish than Tagalog. They could chatter away with his wife and her parents effortlessly.
Still, they understood enough Tagalog at least to interact with their grandmother in video chats, nodding at the right moments and saying, “oo Lola. Hindi, Lola.” She steadfastly refused to speak English to them, even though she knew the language quite well.
In these chats, he could detect bitterness in his mother’s voice. She desperately wanted the boys to come visit for a summer, to fill his old childhood bedroom with laughter and roughhousing. Still, she had no rebuttal to his argument on Sara’s behalf: would any mother let their young children out of her sight for so long a time?
His mother had been aghast that Sara could not attend her father’s funeral in Mexico. She thought that her son’s status as a doctor would allow him to speak down to border agents and do as he pleased; she had no clue that the fine line between the US and Mexico was now as fortified as a Marcos mansion.
Sara had harbored doubts about him going to Mexico given the uptick in violence, but his own mother had insisted. After all, she had remarked curtly but unintentionally, she would want her son and grandchildren to be present at her own funeral at the very least.
Dr. Toloza took another sip of water from a small, plastic white cup and then cleared his throat. He had been sitting in the interview room with his two sons for what felt like hours. This was the first time he had ever been sent to “Secondary,” though friends had described it in detail. Basically, something had troubled immigration and they wanted to screen him in depth.
He had already told two different officers the same story about the transit document and his trip: they had crossed for a relative’s funeral. His wife had not traveled because she felt ill. He was sure the original document was at his home somewhere. They had crossed with a copy of the document several times.
He had never been a good liar, and wondered if his eyes, tone of voice, or body language betrayed the half truth each time he said “his wife was sick.” He had not wanted to get into details about his wife’s status with border patrol; also, illness was always the reason he told his children for why mom could not go to Mexico whenever a trip neared.
José peacefully slept on his dad’s lap, but Junior had grown anxious. The battery on his tablet had died after twenty minutes. “When are we going?” “¿Ya nos vamos?” “Can we leave yet?” “I’m booored.” He harbored no anger or urge to reprimand his son for the pestering: he himself felt the same way and wanted to ask the same questions.
Finally, the door opened and another immigration officer entered, this time a middle-aged blonde woman in a suit. She smiled as she sat across from him; he noticed she was holding the passports for him and his sons. Hopefully this meant things were coming to an end.
—Okay, Dr. Toloza, I appreciate your patience. We’ve checked the passports, and I just want to recap…
—You and your sons came to Rio Bravo for a relative’s funeral.
—You are from the Phillipines and a naturalized U.S. citizen.
—So… The relative was a relative of your wife.
—But she didn’t travel with you and the kids because…
He sighed noticeably and resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Then, he got an idea.
—Would you care to give me a pen and paper?
—I… It’s about my wife. I think you’ll understand better.
He glanced at his two sons when he said the last part; she got up, left, and returned shortly with a yellow notepad and pen. He scribbled onto a sheet of paper, ripped it off, folded it, and handed it to her.
She opened the paper, read it quickly, and then her jaw grew noticeably tense. She then glanced at his two sons. She slid the paper back to him. Her hand shook.
—So, Dr. Toloza, you can… You can understand that we have lots of child abductions in these parts.
—And that’s why we’ve recently had to start scrutinizing single parent travel a bit more.
—Are you okay? You look… You just seem a bit nervous.
—Frustrated. I am frustrated. I feel as if I am being treated like a criminal.
—I am sure my wife is worried sick.
—Well, Dr. Toloza, we appreciate your patience. I just need to ask a few more questions.
—I… I understand.
—So, just to recap, you and your sons crossed on foot into Mexico. So, you came by foot to… go to a funeral?
—We had my wife’s relatives pick us up. It is not safe to drive around with Texas plates.
The morning of the funeral, Alejandro and his two sons crossed the pedestrian bridge when they saw the familiar red Ford pickup. It was parked near the sidewalk; a window rolled down and his wife’s sister, Gemma, waved them into the rear cab. They then rode swiftly to the family compound that was north of town.
The truck was followed by two small cars driven by relatives, a black Honda Civic and red Toyota Paseo. In an earlier trip, Alejandro’s wife had explained that the family always drove around in a caravan to deter any robbery attempts.
When they arrived at the one-story house with red tiled roofs, Alejandro saw a white tarp had been set up in the front lawn and loomed over rows of folding chairs. Some guests sat, most stood, and everybody wore black. A few of the older women waved hand fans rhythmically.
First, he and the boys visited the body and casket in the living room. They said a quick prayer in English and then joined a few relatives in prayer in Spanish. His sons both knew the novena in Spanish, but Alejandro did not.
He took pictures frequently and sent them to his wife via Facebook. Broadcasting the event made things surreal until his youngest sons asked about Grandpa and Heaven and started to cry. Alejandro felt a tear form in his eye and excused himself to the bathroom, briefly.
In the kitchen, older women baked nonstop, producing conchas and bolillos for the mourners. Gemma spoke passable English and tried to make Alejandro feel welcome; she tagged along and translated at times.
Still, Alejandro missed his wife profoundly. Her absence saddened him. He knew how badly she had wanted to be there.
The funeral Mass was held at the Parroquia San Martín de Porres. Two bells rang loudly from the tower above and, inside, Alejandro sat in the front row. He hugged his youngest son with one arm and held up his smartphone with the other. He used the phone’s camera to broadcast everything live to his wife back in Mission.
Shortly before the Mass ended, he saw her face covered in tears and excused himself. He holed up in a bathroom and spoke with her by phone. The only words that came to him were in Spanish: Lo siento, “I feel it.” They felt more appropriate than the awkward “I am sorry” of English. He knew he mispronounced the phrase; it came out like “low” “sin” “toe.”
She cried into her end of the phone line, and he wanted desperately to be beside her, to hold her, to feel her.
But he could only mutter softly: Lo siento, Lo siento, Lo siento.
Dr. Toloza gripped his and his sons’ U.S. passports so tight he could feel muscles bulge in his forearms. They walked briskly across the remainder of the bridge and went straight to the gravel parking lot; he was so fatigued, he forgot where he had parked days earlier. He pulled out his car clicker, pointed in one direction, and was relieved to hear the “beep beep” of his Nissan Maxima.
He loaded José, still asleep, into the back seat and strapped him into his Spongebob booster seat. Junior was now big enough to ride up front.
He rolled down the windows, started the car’s engine, and waited for the AC to blow cold before putting the engine in reverse. The leather burned and even the steering wheel simmered with heat. He had forgotten to put up the silver sun shade.
After a few minutes, when the AC blew frosty, he closed the windows, and he guided the car out of the lot and onto the FM road. Using an earpiece, he dialed his wife on his cellphone. It went straight to voicemail. He tried a second time and it rang twice before a familiar voice answered.
He exited the FM road and got onto the elevated East–West highway.
—Hola amor ¿cómo estás?
—Sí, pues, nos dejaron pasar. Pero… Te cuento después.
—Llegamos en veinte minutos.
—Sí, se portaron bien.
—Me hiciste mucha falta. Un chingo.
She always laughed when he swore in Spanish, using Mexican slang. Even he cracked a smile.
He didn’t tell her about Secondary; he felt no reason to worry her further. Instead he made a mental note to start traveling with the original transit document.
He also didn’t think to tell her about his lie: he had told the border officer in the note that his wife has cervical cancer and the boys were unaware. He had gambled on her empathy, but also that they could not verify or disprove it. And what was a little white lie?
Instead, as he sped home, he told his wife about the burial. Taking her place at the ceremony, he had stood alongside her two sisters and used a shovel to drop a clop of dirt onto the coffin. The boys had behaved exceptionally well, he stressed. They were quiet and understood the gravity of the event.
At her father’s tombstone, they had left a divine peace bouquet with carnations and alstroemerias and dusty millers as white as freshly fallen snow.