The North is like a battle*

Francisco Villa, homonymous of a Mexican revolutionary, was born in Loja, located in Nayarit’s coast. His migratory career started by chance in 1975, when he was only 20 years.

It all started from a comment he heard; it got in his head as a fixed idea, like an urgency of going to the North to seek fortune. He didn’t have any contacts and didn’t have enough money. It seemed that his only and most valuable resource were his determination and lack of fear of despair.

Once in Tijuana, he decided to try on his own. He used to get near different groups that would cross the border, and without any route, he used to cross in the open field. Obviously, he got detained and deported. This occurred many times. However, each try was a new experience.

While being neglected, he got his first job: smuggler’s aid. He got his training period to finally work by himself and become a smuggler.

Francisco Villa’s story makes honor to his name, because it offers us a life full of adventures were there is a mix of family life with the smuggler life – crossing undocumented, arm trafficking, and documents’ forging.

*Interviewed by Victor Espinosa in San José, California, during August 1991.

I take off my shirt for a good friend,
today I am a millionaire, tomorrow a beggar
I don’t tell anyone about my happiness or pain
that’s why no one knows how much I’m enjoying
or when I’m hurting.

- Mexican popular song.

In my town, I lived with my grandparents, my siblings, and my parents. I did study my high school in Tepic. Then I went to college for a year and I didn’t like it. I went to the University in Guadalajara and studied for a year. Then my grandfather passed away, and nothing was the same.

I started having problems with my father because I liked to go out everywhere and have fun; I remember one day, my father got drunk, went to my mother’s home – they were separated, and asked me what I was planning to do, to work, or if I was thinking that my mother would continue supporting me. That’s when I said to my mom that I wanted to go to the North.

-“If you really want to go, just tell me how much you need”, my father said.

During those years, I just listened, but I didn’t know what the North was. I didn’t know how what needed to be done to go. That was 18 years ago, in 1975. The next day, I looked for my father and told him that I wanted to go to the North. I said that I needed about five-thousand pesos, and explained to him that I needed money to pay the smuggler, plus some extra money to pay in train to Mexicali. However, since he wasn’t drunk anymore, he swore that I had asked for too much money and told me that I was a bandit.

The idea had gotten in my head, and I knew I had to leave. I had only 200 pesos, and that money would only serve me to arrive to Tijuana. I asked my mom to fix my clothing because I was leaving. I also told her that my dad had given me money, so she wouldn’t worry. However, my uncle Pedro heard that I was leaving - once everyone in the family knows, they go to see in what they can help and say farewell - so he went home and asked me how much money I had. I told him the truth: 200 pesos, but that would only serve me to arrive to the border, and once there I would do anything to cross to the other side. My uncle Pedro said:

- “Don’t leave today. Leave tomorrow and I’ll give you the money.”

Thus, the next day, he gave me one-thousand pesos. Another aunt gave me 200 more; I had a total of 1400 pesos.

I was so happy then, that I got drunk and spent 200 pesos. I was left with 1200, which was enough to cross.

When a friend knew that I was leaving to the North, he said that he wanted to go as well, but didn’t have any money. He also said that he had an aunt in Tijuana and that we could stay with her. So, I told him that I had enough money for both of us. For me it was better to go with him, since I was doing this just for adventure. We got to Tijuana with his aunt; she knew some smugglers, who only crossed my friend, I stayed back with nothing. I lived at my friend’s aunt’s home for one more month, and during that time, I knew all Tijuana. I spent all day long in the streets, and tried daily to cross by my own, but I was deported daily. The first couple of days, I tried to cross, just to see how far I could get. I got all the way to San Diego, but I didn’t have any money for transportation. Since I was always deported, I learned all the ways in the mountain, besides, I met a lot of people, mostly a lot who did dirty business.

One day, one of them said to me that he could take me all the way to Los Angeles, only if I could help him to cross six people to San Diego. I took them to where he had a parked car. Once he got the people in, he came back and I stayed in Los Angeles without knowing anyone. I was in the North, but didn’t know what to do. Once at night, I thought:

- “Oh my God, now what am I going to do?”

While walking, I found some bars, and I entered just to see what happen. At closing time, people left, and a waitress told me:

- “Hey, we’re closing now”

I asked her if there was a job for me, doing anything. I said:

- “I sweep, I just need to sleep here”

- “So, where do you live?”

- “I just arrived, and have nothing and nowhere to go.”

- “You can’t stay here because we would have to tell the boss. If you want, we can go to my home, and then, you can stay in the hallway. That way, you don’t sleep on the streets.”

I left with her. I helped her daily to clean the bar. About a week later, she told me that she had some friends who lived alone. She would talk with them so I could live with them, in exchange for cleaning their home. Those guys used to go to the bar on the weekends; by then, I also worked in the bar, and I got paid 6 dollars to help them clean.

The guys allowed me to stay with them. After two months living with them and working at the bar, I met a lot of friends. I met a lot of people from Compostela, I met Chavalo and went to live with him. I also met some cousins of mine, and got a better job at a factory. However, I only worked there for a month because I didn’t like it. Two months later, I bought a car and left for Oregon with a friend from Los Angeles. He knew about the agricultural opportunities there.

- “ So, do you want to go?” I said. I knew about cars and said, “if you want, we can go all the way to Washington.”

Washington was about 50 hours away in a normal car. On my car, it was about 70 hours away because my car didn’t have windshields. I remember well because that was my first adventure there. We bought a small portable windshield and it rained and rained there. My friend got his head out and cleaned the window for me. We drove for fifteen days. We didn’t have any problems with migration services; we had problems with the rain, besides the car didn’t have any heat. We traveled with blankets all over us. A policeman stopped us, because we were traveling like that. It was cold and it was October, but it rains and even snows there. So, the police man stopped us because I wasn’t driving straight.

- “It’s because I’m cold”

There was no problem. He just said to drive carefully because the roads were in bad shape.

I worked there for a year. My friend knew the supervisors. We got to some stalls known as big galleries. There, they only give you a bed to sleep. We were there for 15 days, until we started working. Then, we left to the mountains for another six months; there we slept at motels. Then, we came down to pick up cherry, to Weston, then to pick up pear. Then, we drove to Oregon, and picked up pear. Then, I returned to Mexico because I wanted to return to school. However, that was impossible. I couldn’t be home anymore. I was not well received, and my dad lived with another lady. I had to work on the field, and I didn’t like that job. They only paid eight thousand pesos, and that didn’t convince me.

I returned to Tijuana. Since I knew how to cross, I started crossing people; mostly all of them were from Loja. The people I crossed was people that I met in the border. Since I knew how to cross, everything was a lot easier. I stayed for four years crossing people. I did get people myself in the bars, on the streets, on terminals. I crossed them myself. I had my car parked on one spot on the other side. I could never get my car to Mexico because it didn’t have documents. So, it always stayed on the other side; I had two set of keys.

Until today, I’ve crossed about 200 people from Loja. Sometimes I don’t charge. I remember that I didn’t have money when trying to cross. Then, my siblings wanted to come. Every time I returned to my town, I always returned with money, so most likely my siblings were in awe. The first time I returned to Loja, it was four years later; then, it was every year. Daniel crossed the first time I returned home, and Victor left school and crossed with me on the last year. He didn’t have money to continue studying. He was suffering too much, so he came with me to Anaheim. There, we lived with some friends for three months, until the field started in Madera. We worked for two to three months, and I didn’t like it. By then, my wife was already here. When she came with me, she was my girlfriend. I asked her to go to San Jose, and then, once there, I asked her to stay with me.

- “ Let’s look for work; it’s the same here or over there”

Besides, we were closer. We got a job in a restaurant as busboy and dishwasher. I was the dishwasher and my brother the busboy. I worked as a dishwasher for a couple of days.

- “You know what, I don’t like this job. I thought it was a lot better.” I worked for another day and I didn’t like it.

- “Ok, what do you want to do? What do you do?” the supervisor said.

- “Everything”

- “Do you speak English?”

- “Some”

- “Ok, so you can start as a prep”.

You don’t get that job right away. It usually takes 3 to 5 years to get there, until you know the whole thing. I got that job on my third day. I didn’t want to stay. The general manager was surprised to see me on the line. He asked who got me there and how much I was getting paid.

- 3.50.

Then, he said that he would paid me 5. I got an uniform and my pay was 6. However, the supervisor didn’t like that and problems started. One thought that I was complaining with the manager, so I got raised. So I said:

- “I don’t have to listen to these ***.”

I got paid double the minimum wage, but I decided to return to Tijuana. I could get one-thousand per night.

- “There’s your uniform and your job. Pay me what you owe me; since you’re firing me, you have to pay me now.”

He got the money, and paid me. I got in my car and left for Tijuana.

I started crossing people again for another year. Then, Daniel got deported. I went for him to San Luis since he couldn’t cross. A friend of mine would cross him; everyone crossed except Daniel and a cousin. Once on the train, both of them got detained. So, Daniel started working in a bar with another friend of mind. However, three months later, I didn’t like what I saw, Daniel had gotten into drugs.

- “Let’s go to hell, you’re so high”

He was the one who started it all. I told him to fix everything because I would come back for him in a month. He was an addict, and it was not convenient for him to stay. He even had a wife and a kid. I crossed him and started working; however, he was always high with every single drug. That was the story until he started working at the casino. Then, he left for Oregon. I brought him back, stayed with me for a month, made a friend, and left with him. Then, I heard he had gotten in jail. It seems that it was on a fight. I left for Oregon for a month, I never found him, but I heard that it had happened in Madera. I arrived there, and got him out. Everyone got upset, but I brought him to Los Angeles and I also stayed here. Only when there were people from Loja at the border, I traveled for them to cross them. Then, I worked forging documents.

In all my jobs, I met all sorts of people. One can get in trouble or be someone. I met people who forged documents, letters, and about everything. One day, I got tired of crossing people and I said “I’m leaving to San Jose.”

My wife and daughters were back in Mexico, and my daughters were growing up. I didn’t know what I was going to do in San Jose. “Let’s see what I can do,” I thought.

Upon my arrival, I started working at a casino, but I didn’t like it because I had the night shift from midnight until 8a.m., and the wage was not good. I don’t like to work just for money. I didn’t like people yelling at me just for having a better job, or for working more days than one could. Just because one is a rookie and doesn’t have experience, people yell at you. It happened at a restaurant. Since I didn’t use the knife properly, they yelled at me. Besides, I had problems with a cook. He used to yell everyone and then fired them. One day, he did that to 5 or 6. He was an American who yelled to everyone. Then he did the same to me and I said, “no, no, no, you don’t yell at me.”

- “You are used to yelling to everyone, but with me you’ll have to put a fight,” I said.

He picked up the knife, while I yelled at him “*&#@, I guaranty you I used the knife better than you do.”

While I picked up the broom, he called security and told them, “please, this crazy guy wants to fight me.”

- “How come I want to fight you? You are the one with the knife,” I said.

- “Just behave and don’t come into the kitchen,” he replied.

- “I’m a janitor, I have to come in and you can’t say anything. Besides, you’re not my boss. You can yell to the undocumented, but not me; I’m not one anymore,” I said.

Security arrived and reported me. Then, they told me that they could fire me at the third report.

- “You don’t need three reports about me. Here is your broom and I’m leaving now,” I said.

That’s when I moved to Los Angeles. I contacted a friend with the forging business and told him: “You know, give me the machines that I’m going to start crossing people.” Thus, I started crossing people. I go to Tijuana for them. They are people I know, and who usually do not have money to pay. I just tell them to pay for gas and I’ll cross them.

You have to be conscious of what you’re getting into and the problems all that brings. It’s not easy to raise $50 or $60 dollars without doing anything. You have to work to get them. This job is both easy and difficult. It’s difficult because today you’ll have people, but tomorrow you may not. As you see me right now here crossing people, you may not see me tomorrow.

But, what can I do? Instead of robbing, I have to do something. Here, salaries are bad. You only get paid to live daily. If you don’t have family here, you can live easily by living in a house with 5 or 6 people. That way, you only pay $100 dollars in rent per month. Paying an apartment alone, it’s about $550 and that includes rent and phone. That way, $100 per month plus the children’s food, my mother in law, my wife, mi child, plus gas. My salary would have to be around $1,500 per month. That means that I would have to get paid $12 dollars per hour. Who is going to pay that? The other option is to work two jobs. I can’t because my daughter is ill. She’s had five surgeries, and I owe the government about 5 or 6 millions of dollars. Doctors said that my daughter would not walk. Now, she’s three years old and she’s starting to walk. It seems that she will walk. So, with my own salary, it’s not enough. I have to do anything.

I’m not paying any of the money I owe to the government. It’s not convenient for me. If the insurance finds out that I’m working, they will suspend all welfare and I’ll have to pay them. So, what will be left? If I work, it will be worse for me because I wouldn’t have any more benefits. That’s why I have to do something somewhere else. My daughter is 3 years old now; she’s been in the hospital for one year and 8 months. She is the youngest and she’s the reason why I stopped my life in Tijuana. It’s because of her that I’m here. It’s been a year and a half of being here, and it’s not worth to live in Tijuana. I do some mechanic work or little jobs on the side, or some trips to Tijuana.

I don’t get caught too often. One time, I got caught with 15 forged green cards and 15 social security cards in Arizona. They confiscated my car and I was in jail. The border patrol detained me. When I got detained, I was drunk and I yelled the border patrol.

- “You’ve got guts for that! Remove your pistol and come inside the jail,” I yelled.

Indeed he removed his pistol and went inside the jail. We fought both of us inside. When I was wining the fight, the other officers helped him out and kicked me. When I went to court, that’s why I won the case. I spent a month and a half in jail.

- “You spent $300 dollars for your bail. That way, you start a demand that you got hit and you can get your papers that way,” they told me.

I didn’t have money for the bail and I had to be going to court for that. The lawyer was appointed to me by the government. I wanted to be out, because in Tijuana I could get the money. I came and I crossed people to Madera. I got drunk and I was involved on another fight. When the police arrived, they tried to split us, but I also hit the officer. I got in jail once more because I hit an officer. I got out again, and a week later, I got drunk and ended up in jail for another 6 months. Madera is not good for me. Everyone knows me, even the police. So, I came down here. I was caught once drunk and I was appointed to go to court, but I didn’t go. A year ago, I was caught drunk again, and I didn’t go to court either. So, they put me in jail for three months and my driver’s license got suspended. However, there was a program that I could go home. I just had to pay $5 dollars daily, plus I had to work 8 hours for the police. I worked at the jail’s kitchen. After that, I’ve been here with my people. That last time I ended up in jail, I even stopped smoking. So, I came with my family and got my papers.

A friend of mine gave several of us letters. I didn’t want it because I wanted to return to Mexico, but he came and told me to accept the letter to get documents for my daughter whom I couldn’t take back. So I got the letter from him; we are friends now and we see each other almost daily.

Here, you have to work doing anything. One day, I took fire arms to Mexico in several trips. Nuñez went with me. I bought nine thousand large-bore bullets, 9mm and 22mm. Then, I took twelve thousand more. I also took 25 automatic rifles. I made space on the car, because I could fit in it lying down. I put all the firearms inside the car, covered everything, and painted the car. That time, I got out that deal like 15 million pesos – that’s when the dollar was worth 60 pesos. That was on 81 or 82. Here you don’t have trouble getting firearms. I get them daily. So, there’s an exposition the first and the 15th day of the month, where you can buy arms.

- “I’m taking some,” I said.

So, I bought a big car with a big trunk. My uncle Pedro was in San Luis that time and he knew I was going to Loja. He asked me to pick him up on my way, but he didn’t know what I had on the car. I brought him. Right after inspection, we stop for lunch in Santa Ana. My uncle very nervous told me: “You know what?, I brought two packages of bullets.”

- “What? Where do you have them?” I questioned.

- “In a bag. I have two boxes with 25 pieces,” he replied.

- “Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked.

- “So you didn’t ask me to leave them behind,” he said.

- “If I would have known, I would have thrown them away. Once we get to Loja, I’ll show you what I have,” I said.

If inspection would have found those two boxes, they would have inspected us thoroughly. They would have confiscated all the firearms I was transporting. Once we got to Loja, I showed my uncle my stuff; he couldn’t believe it.

- “I would have ended up in the Maria Islands as a result of your boxes!” I exclaimed.

My uncle turned yellow upon seeing the firearms. I had tons of them. I sold everything. All people know me, and I did several trips. One time they caught me, that’s when I stopped.

That particular day I wasn’t thinking on traveling. However, some friends requested some rifles, and I didn’t have many of them. So, they confiscated the firearms and $300 dollars. I also traveled with stereos. That day, the stereo had bullets inside of it, and I didn’t know about it. They had finished inspection, but one of them saw a pistol inside the stereo. They revised all of it, and caught me. The person who had sent the stereo is no longer of trust. I don’t bring his stuff or anything that belongs to him.

You have to do something here. When you have come more often, you are no longer ignorant. People who come are very ignorant; they come from the fields to work and get exploited. I don’t like that. That’s why I help people who don’t have money. Sometime people come to me letting me know that their family members are at the border trying to cross. I just tell them to pay the gas and they can pay later.

Most of them thank me. Many of them arrive here very humble. However, once they get experience and start speaking a couple of words in English, they don’t know you anymore.

I have several friends at stores, restaurants, bars, whom I trust a lot. What I do are favors, because I bring people to work and I get them documents. I have friends with $200 or $300 thousand dollars in their businesses. So I recommend people to work for them.

They are friends whom I trust a lot. A lot of people talk about me, but a lot of them I’ve helped. Some receive checks from the government, and the check is on another’s name. For example, she’s getting welfare and Medicare for his child, because she doesn’t work. However, the amount she receives is not enough. She has to look somewhere else. She came with me and gave her papers. I didn’t charge her anything because she’s my sister in law. They work with those papers, but I tell them to do their income tax. I tell them to do it because it’s their money. I tell them to bring me their papers and I do their income tax for them. We do that because if not, the government keeps that money.

I do those types of work. They receive their check and then, they pay me with a beer. It’s better if they have money instead of begging for it. That’s better instead of borrowing money. That’s my thinking.

The ID allows you to work. If the border patrol sees you with it, the officers may confiscate it. With the new law, you can’t work if you don’t have papers. The boss is benefited by it. The day that people from Mexico no longer come, this whole thing ends. The government knows about it. They know about the millions of people here and about the millions of people working like this. The situation at the border is just politics from the government. The border is too long. The government knows our crossing points. If they wanted to stop us, no one would pass. If they want, they could patrol all the border and no one would pass. The border patrol takes turns. They leave you a 10 to 15 minute window to cross. From the two to three shifts, one time no one is there and is a free entrance. They know about it. They let pass a number of migrants and detain another number of migrants, that’s their regulation. For example, they allow about 2 million entrances, but they also apprehend 1.5 million monthly. The other half million returns home because there are no jobs. There is an average of three million entrances annually through Tijuana. They apprehend two and one returns voluntarily because they have finished their work here.

Toño Nuñez became very coincided and proud. I got upset at him about a year ago. I brought him and all his siblings for free and I gave them papers. His pride was too much and one time he told me he didn’t pay in cash no more; he only paid with his MasterCard. But, God knows and punishes you. A month later, they fired him at the job in which he had about 7 years already. Now, he is working in construction and gets paid 5 dollars. I also remember the people I’ve helped and owes me and no longer talks to me: the Huerta. I gave papers to the 5 of them. They went to Mexico and returned last year. One day, I was watching TV and we started betting.

- “How much?” we shouted.

- “You shout too much with your dirty money ….”, they told me.

- “By the way, you haven’t paid me your way yet, and it’s been more than two years,” I said.

When I first arrive, we were only 5 persons from Loja. Now, there are acquaintances. If you don’t find a job, at least you have a place to sleep. Even though if you arrive with no lodging and no food, at least there are people who can advise you and five you a ride to look for a job. Also, there are people who just come for adventure and sleep at parking lots or bus stations. When I worked in Tijuana, I passed two to three people from Loja each week.

I don’t know if I’m staying much longer here, it all depends on my younger girl and her health. When the children are at school, one cannot move, even though there is a desire to do so. Then, over there, there’s another kind of life. You have to adapt again to the kind of life and work… mainly work. You know that the job won’t pay you much; it’s like readapting to your own land. One does well when returning with 100 or 200 dollars, and to vacation for two to three days. You spend the money and come back. But, returning to work and get paid the minimum wage? With my job here you can get $200 or $300 per day. Even though one doesn’t pay rent over there, the problem is to pay for food, and it’s not affordable.

I came here due to family problems. I didn’t like the agriculture, and in my town, that was the only type of work. During those years, the North was the good option. One could come here and make money because there were only a few people. There were good salaries and good jobs. Seventeen years ago, I worked for $5 dollars an hour. Today, there wage continues to be $5 dollars an hour. It keeps going down because now we are many workers here.

The one that crosses the line is not the boss. The one that crosses you is someone who works with someone else. The smuggler crosses you; that guy knows the way and has people looking for you on the back. The boss is the one who picks you up, the one who gets all the money. The smuggler is just the guide who crosses about 10 people. The smuggler gets paid $75 to $100 each time. I used to work alone all the time. The danger is when there are people waiting for the group. Only one time I was attacked; they took away a ring, a watch and $100 dollars. The robbers were drug dealers from Tecate and they were robbing everyone on the line. I couldn’t do anything because I was crossing two kids, a lady, and a cousin – my Uncle Pedro’s son. One of the robbers put the knife on Pedrito, and I didn’t want to do anything because they could kill him.

- “I’ll give you everything I’ve got, but leave him alone,” I said.

About ten minutes later, a friend of mine picked me up and looked for the robbers. I obtained the lady’s watch back, but not mine because they had sold it already.

The Mexican police are the bad guys. They got me about 15 to 20 times. I gave them $50 or $100 dollars, and there was no problem anymore. They never classified me as a smuggler, since I always crossed acquaintances. They don’t do anything; they just take away the money. They cannot put you in jail because the smugglers with power are part of their group. The big smugglers know all the policemen; they have their own agreements, and they know all the movement on the border. I remember that I one time I was traveling with my brother, he was driving while I was napping, and then, a federal police stopped us in Hermosillo;

- “I stopped you because you’re driving too fast,” he said. He requested the driver’s license, but it was suspended. I explained to him that we were traveling from San Jose, and my brother was helping me to drive. He asked me for $200 dollars, and I offered him $50, but he didn’t want them.

- “So, take me whenever you want,” I said. So, he took us to Hermosillo and confiscated the car. “Give us the ticket so we may go,” I said. I told him I was vacationing to see my people, and he said that I didn’t want to cooperate. “No, you’re the one who doesn’t want to cooperate,” I said.

- “You’re only giving me $50. I’m a federal police, not just a policeman,” he said.

- “You know what? You’re upsetting me with your federal position. Take my car away and do whatever you want. I won’t give you a penny. Just give me the ticket because I’m going to submit a complaint,” I said.

I called the Tourism Governmental Agency, and we even went to the main delegate. They couldn’t find the policeman. We looked for the car, and we never found it. We paid the ticket and submitted a complaint. Everything is now better; now they are nicer. Another time, I was in Nogales, and they stopped me. “You have your lights off, just turn them on,” I was told.

Before, they asked you for $50 or $100. Now, the normal rate is $10 or $15 dollars, just to cooperate.

The North is like a battle. If you’re now with your own, it’s very difficult. Most of the people come with no money. Sometimes, your own family is the last ones to help out. I don’t understand how people get so conceited once they get to the North and have money. Whenever a river grows, it looks for a path. When you come to the North, you have to do whatever to survive. You don’t care about the laws, because you have to work somehow to feed your family.

In Tijuana, you have to be with your own to get money. It’s bad. I’m 36 now, and I’m done. I don’t have a need and I have my savings. I’m making money here, and while I’m here, I’m getting paid $100 to $150 daily. I don’t have to go anywhere. I just watch TV and people look for me. I can get paid up to $500 weekly very easily. I’m not at the border anymore. I’m too old.

People who come are from the ranch. For example, I brought about 70% of the people who now work in Oregon. Those people don’t have education, they come from the land. They are used to being yelled by the boss. They work in really bad conditions, with no bathroom and no sanity at all. Before, you arrive and you used to get gloves, scissors, boots; that was when there were no workers. Now, you, as a worker, have to take your own tools to work. Eighteen years ago, it was hard for me because I knew no one. I was one of the first ones to come, but it was quite easy to get a job.

I thing I really miss from my town is the friendships. Over there, there is always someone to talk to while drinking a beer. I’m never alone over there.