Mar 142012

by Patty Somlo

Magda Arrellano Lopez was eight and a half months pregnant when she stepped onto the third-class bus from Guadalajara to Nogales, Mexico. She knew this fact because her employer, Adela Rios, had taken Magda to the doctor after she bolted for the bathroom and vomited three mornings in a row, as soon as the aroma of frying eggs reached her nostrils. The doctor told Adela who let Magda know. In less than six months, the teenaged maid, whose black hair swept an inch below her waist, was going to have a baby.

Magda wanted to tell Jorge but he was nowhere to be found. Like the other young men from Magda’s village outside Guadalajara, Jorge had crossed the border to the other side. There was no work in the village or even in Guadalajara, especially for a boy who’d had to quit school after the third grade.

Magda cried when Jorge said he was leaving. She kept sobbing even after he assured her, “Magda, mi amor. I am not going forever.”

“You won’t come back,” she argued, between hiccups and sobs.

Jorge pushed a thick strand of hair away from Magda’s eye and brushed her forehead with his calloused palm.

“Please don’t cry, Magda,” he pleaded.

She kept sobbing, in between gulping air that ended with a startlingly loud hiccup. Jorge sighed.

“Look, Magda. I tell you what. If I am not back in six months, then you should come look for me.”

Two weeks shy of her due date, Magda packed three pairs of underwear, two huge bras she needed now that her breasts had filled out, and two cotton dresses – a white and yellow flowered and a pale blue one – in a red and yellow woven bag. She set bottles of shampoo and cologne and her Bible in the bag next.

When she was done, Magda looked around the small square bedroom behind the kitchen, where she’d slept the last year, bathed in the aromas of stewed chicken and tomatoes, onions and jalapeños. At that moment, she got scared. Who was she, a poor girl from a village almost no one had heard of, to think she could make it to America?

She opened the woven bag, whose straps she had knotted, using her red-painted nail to get under the thick ball of woven straw. The baby shifted and gave Magda’s belly a violent kick.

She realized then she had no choice but to go, regardless of the risks.

In the end, Magda did not have the courage to tell her employer she was leaving. For this reason – and to get an early start – Magda tiptoed from her room through the silent kitchen and out the back door when it was still dark.

The air was cool at that time of the morning. Magda walked slowly through the nearly empty streets. Or rather, she waddled. The baby had slipped down, making it impossible for Magda to step forward without bowing her legs and splaying her feet. The colored straw bag hung down from Magda’s right shoulder.

She was relieved that no one bothered her. As she waddled past storefronts, Magda noticed bodies sleeping on narrow strips of cardboard, in skinny spaces a step or two from the sidewalk.

To keep up her spirits, Magda prayed.

“Holy Mother of God, protect me and keep me safe. Holy Mother of God, I have sinned but I will make my confession now and pray for forgiveness. Holy Mother of God . . .”

Magda went on praying all the way to the bus station.

Of course, she was approached. Not on the bus but the moment she stepped off, into a muggy, windless Nogales morning. As she duck-walked out of the station, past buses spotted with mud and every sort of person carrying straw bags and big hard suitcases, coffee sacks, stuffed and knotted pastel-colored cloths and crates with squawking chickens, kids in ragged shorts and flip-flops grabbed her dress and begged for money with their hands out. They followed her to the narrow street, which was choked with cars. Every few feet, a man stepped close reeking of cologne. She clutched her straw bag in tight fists. Drugs, money for her baby and a job were offered in whispers as Magda waddled. She shot her gaze forward, where she assumed America and Jorge must be, and assured the men she had no interest in their offers.

One man told her he could do something the others couldn’t.

“I can help you get to the other side,” he claimed.

Magda’s heart speeded up. Her already dry mouth got drier. She saw in a quick sidelong glance that the man was hardly more than a boy. He barely had the hint of a moustache. Magda was afraid and thought she’d better keep walking.

The boy sensed that the other side was where Magda wanted to go. Why else would a pregnant girl about to burst be on the street carrying a fat bag on an awful hot morning in Nogales?

“I can help you get to America,” the young man said.

Magda had her life’s savings, a handful of pesos, wrapped in a pale blue handkerchief at the bottom of her bag. Right then, the baby gave a kick that made her grab the boy’s arm before she had no choice but to plop down onto the ground.

Her breath came in pants. She couldn’t do anything but let her legs flop open on the dirt path. Luckily, her flowered dress covered her knees.

The boy had seen his mother give birth four times and didn’t like the looks of this — a woman panting, sweat pouring down her heart-shaped face, and her legs flung open like a window on a scorching hot day, here on a city street, and with her hand practically strangling his wrist.

A moment later the pain subsided and Magda was all right. But she understood. She had to find Jorge before the child arrived.

“I would like you to help me,” she practically croaked to the boy. “Help me get to the other side.”

She promised to pay him a portion of the pesos stashed in her bag, which wasn’t much. The boy agreed for two reasons.

First, he was new at this business of people smuggling. He hadn’t yet grown hard.

He also didn’t want to be around when the baby was born. If he got the woman across fast, he’d be long gone before the squalling thing arrived.

The boy, who’d been christened Alberto, told the pregnant girl his name was Carlos.

“Carlos,” she said. “Turn around.”

Carlos wasn’t sure why but he did as she requested. When he wasn’t looking, Magda fished the blue handkerchief out, freed the agreed-upon amount, retied the knot and buried the handkerchief between the two dresses and her underpants.

Throughout that afternoon, Magda waddled behind Carlos. Every so often – and Magda didn’t know she should have been keeping track – her belly was rocked by seismic convulsions that forced her to the ground. The sun inched and then dropped down in the sky. As is customary in Mexico, moments after the sun grazed the horizon, the sky went dark.

Magda stumbled behind Carlos, not able to see a foot in front of her. At times, Carlos mumbled to himself and even cursed. When she heard this, Magda’s throat became drier, which made her feel as if sandpaper were being rubbed as she swallowed.

“Are we lost?” Magda finally dared ask.

The boy didn’t respond. He simply kept on walking.

“Aren’t we there yet?” Magda asked, when it seemed as if they had been walking for a week. She had begun to fear that they were winding around the same wide circle in the darkness.

“We are close,” Carlos said. “I am looking for the spot.”

“What spot?”

“Don’t worry about it. Didn’t you pay me to get you across?”

“Yes but . . . I am so very tired.”

An hour later Carlos said they were going to stop.

“We will sleep for a while. As soon as it gets light, we will make our way across.”

“Do you have anything to eat?” Magda asked. “Any water?”

“You didn’t bring anything?” Carlos asked, rather roughly, Magda thought.

Magda lay back on the hard bare ground. The baby, which by now Magda believed was going to be a boy, kicked hard, as if to let her know this was not how he imagined being born.

That night Magda dreamed she gave birth to a howling boy. When she gazed down at the child in her arms, Magda could see something was wrong. The baby had come out with more than the usual parts. He had an oversized head on the left and a second, soccer ball-sized head on the right.

Magda was panting hard from the nightmare when she heard Carlos’ voice.

“Wake up, señora. Wake up.”

He called her señora, not knowing that she and Jorge weren’t married.

Still lost in the nightmare of the two-headed child, Magda had trouble forcing herself awake.

“There’s a helicopter,” Carlos said. “We must go.”

Magda opened her eyes and flattened her palms against the ground. She pushed hard but her weight and the tiredness from walking without food and water for hours made it impossible to get up.

“I need help,” Magda said.

“We have to hurry,” Carlos told her.

He grabbed Magda’s hands, steadied his feet on the dry ground and pulled. Magda didn’t budge.

Now that it was light, Carlos could see the bottom of the hill and the dividing line between Mexico and the United States. A hole had been cut in the fence there.

All Carlos needed to do was shove this pregnant girl through the opening and his work would be done. He could hear the helicopter circling and worried they’d been spotted. He’d grown dizzy and weak from hunger and the girl was panting violently, as if the baby might pop right out there on the ground.

“C’mon, help me,” Carlos pleaded with Magda. “I’m going to count to three. Once I say three, you must stand up.

“One. Two. Three.”

By some miracle, Magda managed to haul herself up.

“Now we must run,” Carlos said and bolted down the hill.

The tut-tut-tut-tut of the helicopter blades grew closer. Carlos didn’t waste time checking to see if Magda was following. In seconds, he made it to the hole.

Only then did he turn around. Magda was right behind him.

“Here, here,” Carlos yelled.

Magda fell, panting. Her legs opened and she howled.

Carlos noticed that the dry ground was suddenly wet and dark all around.

The baby arrived in an instant. Moments later, a jeep pulled up.

Sergeant Alma Brown, riding shotgun, was first to jump out. Alma knew a thing or two about babies. Her three kids were back home in Oakland with her mom.

The moment Alma stepped away from the jeep, she saw the boy run. Before she had a chance to move, he’d made his way up the hill on the Mexican side.

A woman was there, though, lying on the ground. Alma jogged over, her hand poised above the gun snapped into the leather holster at her side.

Alma had spent ten years on the police force before getting called to active duty and being deployed along the border. She’d answered way too many calls for domestic disturbances. Seen too many women’s faces – bruised, bleeding and swollen.

Alma’s mind worked fast as she made her way over to the woman, wondering how they’d land a helicopter here to get this woman to the hospital.

By the time Private Aldo Rivera stepped out of the jeep and let her know, “I’ve got you covered, Brown,” Alma had gotten over to the woman.

“I think we’re all right here,” Alma shouted back.

That’s when her breath caught.

“Oh, my Lord,” she said, after she saw what lay on the ground.

No one was initially concerned about where the six-pound, seven-ounce, purplish-brown baby boy had slid out. Alma wanted to make sure that the mother and baby were going to survive.

“How we doin’ here?” Alma said, after she’d squatted down and taken Magda’s hand into her own, covered in electric blue latex gloves.

Alma picked the baby up from where he lay on the dusty ground, attached by the umbilical cord to his mother. His skin color almost matched the sergeant’s, except that his pudgy legs and arms and rounded miniature fists had a slightly copper glow.

The sergeant handed the infant to the mother who looked startled and then pleased.

“Here’s your son,” Alma said.

Alma hadn’t noticed or even considered that the baby’s body barely made an impression where he’d lain, something everyone would want to know about later.

The helicopter was brought down onto a cleared space five hundred yards from the border. Magda and the baby were loaded aboard. The young maid thought about naming the baby Milagro, because of the miracle that he’d been born with all his fingers and minus an extra head, but reconsidered and decided to call him Efrén after her father. Five hours later, Magda and baby Efrén were examined in the emergency room and then kept for observation overnight.

In the meantime, deportation proceedings had begun. Even if Magda had been told, the young mother wouldn’t have comprehended. No one had informed her that it was against the law for her to stay without papers in the United States. Magda also did not know that the place Carlos had left her was called Arizona.

Word got out to a reporter in Tucson: an illegal alien had just given birth a few feet from the border. Gregory Rodriguez tracked down Sergeant Brown, who said she’d have to get permission to speak to the media. But when the reporter asked the first question – was the baby born in the United States – Alma couldn’t keep herself from whispering, “Yes sir. I believe he was.”

Rodriguez’s story ran the following day, flew around the Internet and made it onto the cable news stations. Magda was released from the hospital and taken to a jail stuffed with Mexican and Salvadoran women without documents. Two girls got up from a metal bench inside the small brightly lit cell and gestured for Magda to take their place. Every woman in that tiny space – and there must have been at least a dozen – gathered around Magda and the baby making cooing sounds and giggling.

A Tucson attorney, Arlene Weiss, heard about Magda’s plight. Both mother and baby were going to be deported, even though the baby – and it was clear from the reports – was a citizen of the United States.

Jorge Mendoza was working atop a roof under the hot, late-morning sun. Heat reflected off the dark gray shingles, causing sweat to leak from his brow. The radio was tuned to a station playing ranchera music. Jorge’s boss yelled that it was time to break for lunch.

A moment after he stepped onto the ground, his hands still clutching the aluminum ladder, Jorge heard the name of a girl from his village, whom he had once hoped to marry.

“What?” Jorge said.

He looked at his co-worker Alejandro.

“Did the radio say Magda Arrellano Lopez?”

The round, fat gray ends of microphones were thrust into the face of the Senate Minority Leader.

“This is exactly why we need to amend the Constitution,” he said.

He’d fastened the top button on his blue blazer but left the rest undone, since the jacket had gotten a bit snug around his midsection.

“Running across the border, dropping babies that our taxes have to support.”

The senator let the word support drip slowly off his tongue.

Reporters scribbled notes and the senator turned to the right, to give the cameras a shot at his best side.

At that moment, a crowd formed, where the border patrol had patched a yawning hole in the fence an hour before. Photographs were snapped of the dry bare ground. Three scientists – one hired by the federal government, a second recruited by the State and a third by Magda Lopez’s attorney – spooned samples of dust into small glass vials. Everyone agreed that comparing the baby’s DNA to the dirt should prove the baby’s nationality. Anyone who looked at the place where the mother had been found would conclude that the space where baby Efrén took his first breath could as easily have been Mexican as American.

A year later, the case of Magda Arrellano Lopez and baby Efrén sat in a thick file at the back of a gray metal file cabinet labeled PENDING. Released on bail, Magda and Efrén lived in a small room with Jorge above an abandoned storefront in downtown Tucson. One narrow window behind black metal bars looked out on a sidewalk strewn with candy wrappers and green glass shards. Magda spent her days cleaning houses and at night cooked beans and warmed tortillas on a two-burner hotplate that sat atop a scratched wooden dresser.

Lying next to Jorge the night they celebrated Efrén’s first birthday, Magda said, “Remember the stars?”

Without waiting for Jorge’s response, Magda went on.

“Remember when we used to walk together around the plaza? Remember how sweet the air smelled?”

Magda waited another six months before telling Jorge. She wanted to celebrate the baby’s next birthday in Mexico.

“No,” Jorge said without a moment’s hesitation. “We cannot go to Mexico. There is no work.”

Magda wondered if she could get her old job back working for Adela Rios.

The morning before Efrén’s second birthday, Magda told Jorge her throat hurt and she planned to stay home from work. Jorge ate his cold cereal alone, at the table set a few feet from the bed. Magda pretended to be sleeping.

As soon as Jorge left the small room for work, Magda got up out of bed. She lifted clothes from a cardboard box on the floor and packed them in her red and yellow woven bag.

She pulled on a pale blue dress and walked down the hall to the bathroom, where she washed her face and brushed her teeth. When she came back to the room, she fed Efrén a bowl of Cheerios.

The hallway was dark when Magda stepped out the door, cradling Efrén in her right arm. The one overhead light had been burnt out for months.

Magda made sure to double-lock the door. Her red and yellow straw bag hung over her left shoulder.

The first hour, Efrén jabbered and poked his pudgy index finger at the bus window. After that, he fell asleep in Magda’s lap.

The bus ride to Guadalajara seemed long. The scenery, dusty and tan, hardly varied for hours.

The birth certificate she’d eventually obtained for Efrén lay in a clean white envelope at the bottom of Magda’s bag. Nogales, Arizona, the certificate read. For years, that piece of paper would remind Magda of Efrén’s miraculous birth, and that her son, if he wanted, might one day become president of the United States.

  One Response to “Where He Took His First Breath”

  1. I really like this piece. A sentient feel for cross border life without cliche attachments.
    When Magda’s husband put his head on her lap for the slow moving bus ride to Guadalajara I thought,
    That’s a Mexican family.