by L Vocem
First published in Ghost Town
Issue 10, 2018
California State University, San Bernardino
I stand by the stage, waiting in line with the other girls. An ICE agent looks confused going through my passport, driver’s license and my Cédula, the Venezuelan National ID. They can take me in, I don’t care. They can throw me in one of their new jails for illegal immigrants. Anything is better than getting mugged when you are the lucky one to buy toilet paper and Harina PAN corn flour and cheese back in Caracas.
“You know that your visa has expired?” the ICE agent tells me, slightly confused at all my papers.
I see the guys from the kitchen being brought out and placed against a wall. They came in the country through Coyotes, they have told me. Juan is from México, Pedro from Honduras. The other ones, I don’t know their names. They are good cooks and fast. They can whip out Italian food, Mexican food or American food in no time. This restaurant has Tex-mex, Gringo food– Gabachofood as the cooks call it. The menu has big photographs of the fajitas and all the items and combinations that they could have – Speedy Gonzalez number two. I only had this job for two months. I like it better than cleaning hotel rooms all night. I look at Katy, my new best friend. She is Latina all right, but acts as if it is a bad word, or is a little ashamed of it. Her Spanish is really bad. She keeps fidgeting with her apron and looks scared to death.
The stage where we stand, has big black speakers next to fake plants to either side. At one point this restaurant must have been a nightclub with a place for a band. The ICE agent tells me to come down and sit by one of the chairs as he checks the papers of another one of the girls. They tell a blonde American girl that her driver’s license has expired, and then they let her go.
The manager of the restaurant stands by the bar, gesticulating with his hands while talking on his cell phone, constantly riffling through papers.
One of the ICE agents wraps plastic cable ties around the hands of the cooks.
Wow. I can’t believe it. It’s happening to this country too. This is like Germany in the Thirties.
I shouldn’t complain. I know what it is to be so hungry, four days with no food and yes, sticking my hand in the garbage cans of a restaurant and taking what they tossed away. I remember when I was stopped by the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana after one of the demonstrations against the government in Caracas. The motorcycles surrounded my group and they ended up kicking us to the ground, stealing our phones and leaving us there for dead. When I got home, my mother screamed at me “tienes suerte que no te violaron” you’re lucky they didn’t rape you. Two weeks later I boarded a plane to Miami.
Now this. What is wrong with the world, the left, the right, first in South America, now here. My friend next to me, her lower lip quivers. I see her fear and anxiety.
I take out of the tray the dishes and run them through the water with disinfectant. I hear screams above the sound of the dishwashing machine. They scream a lot in the kitchen so I do not look, I do not care. Then I see the man in black with a gun pointed at my face. I lift my arms up. He points his gun at the brush in my hand. I let it drop.
“Papeles,” he screams. I walk on the slush of water and soap towards the dry mat. I put my hands on the apron, he follows me with his gun. I look in my pockets. But the truth is I don’t carry my passport with me all the time, I leave it in the room where I stay. He sees the tattoo on my hand, MS-13, Mara Salvatrucha. He points his gun at it and says “pandilla” gang. I cover it with my other hand. I shake my head. I did not put that tattoo there. I was branded. I was property. I was the girl of the Palabrero, until he no longer found me attractive and passed me down to his boys. If I said no, or even hinted displeasure they would beat me. I hated the smell of my clothes drenched in their semen.
“Move, move,” the man in black says to me, out of the dish washing area into the kitchen and then into the dining room. Their uniforms say ICE. Some of the chicas, are standing in a line. The Patron looks outraged. He talks to one of the men in black, points back at some papers. He is good to me. He cannot get anyone to do dishes. I get free dinner every night and make good money.
They ask for papeles again.
“En mi cuarto,” in my room, I say. They tell me to stand on the line.
Before they handed me down to the boys, I saw what happened to one of the girls that came back. She was a traitor. How could she leave to the Estados Unidos. They raped and played with her like a rag doll. I never saw her again.
I know what to do. I will make myself ugly. I will turn the tattoo into a black flower. I will come back here again. Nobody cleans dishes better than I do.
I whisper to Alejandra in my horrible Spanish, “this can’t be happening to me. I’ve been accepted to a good college. I’ve never been to the part of México where my parents are from.”
“Cálmate chica,” calm down girl, Alejandra says. “No dejes que te vean el miedo,” don’t let them see your fear.
“How can you be so calm in this?”
Is my fear that obvious? I remembered how nervous I was taking the SAT exam. I was shaking, yet half way through it, I knew I was going to do great. I remember the letter of acceptance. But I can’t remember when we lived in México. All I can remember is the faded color photograph of my Nana in an apron around some chickens. We were so poor my mom always tells me.
An ICE agent puts ties on the dishwasher, that pretty Salvadoran woman that’s always smiling. They scream to the kitchen crew “en fila” on a line, and ushers them outside of the restaurant. The waitresses sit on several tables. Different agents talk to them softly, then wrap plastic cable ties around their hands and escort them one by one outside. The ICE agent that told Alejandra her visa had expired comes over to where we sit.
“You need to process your papers pronto,” he tells Alejandra.
“Si. Yhess. I’m applying for asylum, political…” Alejandra says, almost flirty. “But…slow process.”
“Next time I see you, we’re taking you in,” he says, handing Alejandra her papers.
The agent looks at me, then at my driver’s license in his hands and back at me with suspicion. Oh my god. I can hear my own palpitations with intensity. I can’t breathe. I see the plastic ties on the agent’s hands. What did Alejandra tell me about fear?
Cálmate chica, Cálmate chica, Cálmate chica.
“Carolina,” the agent reads, with the Spanish pronunciation, carefully inspecting my driver’s license.
“Is there any problem?” I answer in perfect English.
“Nah, just checking,” he responds, handing my ID back.
He looks at Alejandra and then at me.
“You two can go. But the restaurant is closed until further notice.”
The other chicas are escorted out with ties around their wrists.