Along California’s Pájaro River, a father and daughter trace a complicated family history.
On our walks to the riverbank, my father pretends he is an expert commander. “Follow me,” he says, his feet maneuvering expertly over the tread marks where a tractor’s wheels have pressed into the earth, their weight leaving behind a narrow path of dried soil amid the mud. His right foot presses into the ground while the left one taps it briefly with every step, that semi-permanent limp from two-and-a-half decades of kneeling in front of strawberries with one foot in front of the other, always rushing to take the next step and finish the row. My little brother walks slowly behind him, careful not to crease his new pair of Jordans. I walk slowly, too, in a single file behind both of them, the toe of my Chuck Taylors digging into the places where the soil is still soft when I step. This past weekend’s rain, besides giving my father a few days off from work while the mud hardens, means that the Pájaro River might actually have water, and there might even be birds.
We cross the fence dividing our eighteen-unit apartment complex from the neighboring agricultural fields through a jagged opening in the metal links that’s been there, unrepaired, for as long as I can remember. A ‘No Trespassing/ Private Property’ sign, with a small strawberry and the words ‘Reiter Berry Farms’ tucked in the corner, hangs above it. That, too, has been there, ignored, for as long as I can remember. “Okay, ‘manos,” my father says, “Duck down, we’re about to cross the border.” My little brother laughs and ducks behind a spot where overgrown grass clings to the fence, obscuring himself from the view of an imaginary border agent. My father likes to play this game because he thinks it makes our walks more interesting, makes it feel like there is some danger to what we’re doing, some rebellion, even though there isn’t. Most of the residents in our complex take walks through the fields, and the owners are probably aware. I don’t laugh when we play anymore; I find the game too morbid.
We move through changing landscapes of produce. First, an acre of broccoli florets, just beginning to sprout. Then, a small apple orchard, dry and barren at this time of year. A solitary walnut tree. Blueberries and raspberries housed under white, gleaming tarps. Strawberries, or at least hints of them, tiny pink bulbs that promise the start of the coming harvest season. And finally, the Pájaro River, tucked behind a row of wetland trees.
My father turns to us, the lazy smile on his face revealing a missing incisor and chipped front tooth, and beckons us forward. “Por aquí, síganme. Walk straight forward, leave only one pair of footprints to throw off la migra. Otherwise, we’ll all have to run.” I want to tell him that it’s not funny, it’s really not funny, but I think it’s not my place. Instead, I roll my eyes and throw out an exasperated “Ay, apá” before taking my little brother’s hand and climbing down the path where my father’s feet have trampled the wild earth. When we reach the river, flowing with rain, my father points out how miraculous it is that we found water. He tells us to drink up. We’ll need to be hydrated for the rest of our journey. My little brother laughs and scrunches up his nose in disgust, remarking that river water is “so gross.”
The stakes of this game aren’t lost on me; my brother and I are the only members of our family who were born on “this side” of things. Our entire lives have been sustained in and by these fields, these strawberries, this city filled with people from our could-have-been home, from elsewhere. We didn’t make the journey over, but inherited its promise. I wonder how much of his game is based in memory, how much in imagination. I wonder this because, despite my father’s desire to play-act migration with us, he’s never been one to divulge the specifics of his own journey. That’s why I don’t like to play along anymore: I can’t fill in the blanks. There is so much I don’t know, and I’m afraid that if I let myself interrogate his journey, my brain will conjure up some dark possibility I can’t disprove. Worse, I might stumble across something true, something painful, then wish I had never started turning over stones. The thought of it feels wrong, like picking at a scab on a wound that isn’t yours. Still, on our walks to the river, I look at my father’s face and can’t help but imagine him on a different journey, not smiling then, but dreaming.
My father’s journey started on a tiny sliver of land in the arid Valle de Guadalupe in Gomez Farías, Michoacán, in central México. The youngest son in a family of four sons and five daughters, he quickly learned to make himself useful and to stay out of the way. At age nine, he dropped out of elementary school to start helping out on the rancho. He and his siblings were dutiful in their work: pulling weeds, planting crops, milking cows, and making themselves busy to avoid my grandfather’s drunken rages. Once, he found my father screwing around in their driveway with a slingshot, and nearly ran him over with his truck. That memory is now a jagged pale scar protruding from the right side of my father’s forehead, always with him. Everything I know about my father’s childhood and adolescence comes to me like this—in scars and half-stories, missing all the hows and whys.
What I do know is this: my father grew up surrounded by people in a state of constant fear—and buried beneath, hope. He came of age in the aftermath of the Dirty War, the name given to the Mexican theater of the Cold War, during which U.S.-backed government forces disappeared an estimated 1,200 of their own citizens due to suspected political opposition. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was supported by CIA officers who served as station chiefs in México City as late as 1969, the year after tensions between the government and leftist guerrilla and student groups peaked at the Tlatelolco Massacre. On October 2, 1968, police officers and soldiers shot into a crowd of unarmed student protestors, killing at least 300. My father was born four years after this massacre and six years before the legalization of left-wing political parties officially ended the Dirty War.
Despite the government’s attempts to eradicate its rebels, México’s revolutionary spirit kept breaking ground, like a weed whose roots are planted firmly into the soil. Two decades after the end of the Dirty War, the newly-emerging leftist Zapatista National Liberation Army began organizing against the still-ruling PRI on a platform demanding land rights and political autonomy for Indigenous people. In 1994, on the day NAFTA came into effect, dissolving the trade border between México and the United States, the Zapatistas declared war against the state with their battle cry: La tierra es del quien la trabaja. The Zapatistas demanded “work, land, housing, food, healthcare, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace.”
Like most people who grew up poor in third-world conditions, my father understands that capitalism necessitates dispossession; the patrones need the laborers with the bodies to use and discard. When I think about this, I get the urge to lie down. My father keeps on instead. He buys bags of oranges from the trunks of street vendors’ cars to make their days a little shorter, and then gives a dollar and the ripest ones to his primos, the unhoused men who linger at the margins of our intersections with cups full of pennies and dimes. I’ve always believed that my father should have been a Zapatista—he is, in practice, the most radical person I know—but he wasn’t. Because he came of age as the families of victims of state violence demanded answers and accountability from the Mexican government, he knew it was safest not to get involved.
As the Zapatistas attempted to appeal to campesinos’ ties to the land they cultivated, my father witnessed the men in his village disappear to work in foreign lands. This was not a new phenomenon; every spring during his childhood, busloads of braceros were picked up from the station in Morelia, off to labor in the fields of California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, and dropped off again in the fall. But now small towns all over México were emptying out. Once you left, you weren’t coming back.
Up until the nineteen nineties, crossing the border both ways was relatively straightforward: you paid a coyote to smuggle you over, came back, rinsed and repeated. But with the ending of the bracero program and the militarization of the southern border, deportation was becoming a new beast, and people who made it to the United States were incentivized to settle down there. No longer welcome on the land they’d been working for decades, the men of my father’s village figured out ways to get to the “other side” for a share of its promise, without the possibility of return. Many of them found their way to California’s Central Valley, vying for a home around the fields where their fathers had labored as braceros before them.
In 1997, my father married my mother in Gomez Farías, and later had his first daughter. With a family to support, it quickly became clear that it was his turn to make the journey over. Two of his brothers and three of his sisters had already migrated to a small town on the coast of Central California, a town whose name was whispered like a hand-me-down promise in the villages of Michoacán. Watsonville: A promise of work, of money, of better, if not good. So, my father prepared to make the trek up to Tijuana, where he would pay a coyote to smuggle him through the urban crossing. Then he would hitch a ride from San Diego to Watsonville, where he would sleep on a mattress on the floor of his brother’s apartment until he raised enough money to pay for his wife and daughter’s journey north. It sounded simple enough, but my father knew it wasn’t.
Over the last decade, as the United States militarized its southern border, more and more stories of terrible things happening during people’s journeys north trickled down to my father’s village. The stories were repeated, exaggerated, made into myths. It’s a bit like my father’s game on our walks to the river: part reality and part imagination. Somebody got their organs scoped out in Jalisco, somebody got their legs stuck under a train’s wheels in Chiapas, somebody died of dehydration hidden under a seat in Sonora. Nobody really knew what happened on the journey north except those who made it out, but that didn’t stop people from guessing.
What is true is this: since 1993, the United States government has benefitted from making the journey north more treacherous for migrants. After passing the North American Free Trade Agreement to make crossing the border easier for merchandise, President Bill Clinton made it harder for migrants. Stadium lights went up, shining into Tijuana. More armed Border Patrol agents and advanced surveillance equipment turned the border region into a war zone. Thermal-imaging devices, motion detectors, in-ground sensors, and biometric scanners were employed at urban border crossings to deter migrants. The goal was to force migrants to cross instead through the South Texas flatlands or the Arizona desert, a longer, more dangerous journey under scorching heat. Clinton’s Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner claimed during the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s annual death-watch update that the “geography” of the southern border was an “ally” of the United States.
According to the Border Patrol, just under 8,000 migrants turned up dead in the desert between 1998 and 2020. That’s one a day, pretty much every day, for the last twenty years. I feel lucky that none of them were my father. But I feel devastatingly sad when I think about the number 8,000, and all the others who may never be found, their bodies stuck between home and their destination, never fulfilling the promise of arrival.
I’ve never been to Gomez Farías, but I see it in my dreams. I close my eyes and enter dusty valleys, walk down sepia-tinted dirt roads, look up at ripe-green avocados clustered on trees angled towards the sun. Some of what I see is real—a replica of the landscape that is burnt onto my retinas from spending hours on Google Earth, dropping the little explorer into every street of my father’s town, making him take the walks my father took—from my father’s cotton-candy pink terracotta home to the kindergarten near San Antonio Ocampo where he learned to count. Mostly, though, the dreams are superimposed on the terrains of my own hometown, on the landscapes where I strut in my Chucks and Zara jeans, where I steal blueberries from vines and stare at an empty riverbed. I know it’s México only because even in my dreams I feel foreign there.
In my favorite dream, I wake up in a bed that looks like mine but isn’t, a bed inside that pink house that could have been mine if times had been different, and to a rooster crowing outside my window. I drag myself out of bed with leaden legs, and the conviction of someone who knows she’s got shit to do. I walk into a living room that looks like the one at my grandmother’s house in Watsonville, and my father is cutting fruit into tiny pieces. He smiles but doesn’t speak; I sit at the kitchen table and look out the window toward dry flatlands that never stay flat for long. Before my eyes, the landscape morphs, pixelates like the images on Google Earth do when I make the little explorer walk, and hills pop up out of the ground like unwanted zits. This part of the dream makes me anxious, although I’m not sure why. Once the curves of Mount Madonna and the California skyline appear outside the window, the landscape doesn’t go flat again. Then my dream is over, and when I wake up, I’m back in my own bed, in my own house, in this town that has always been mine.
I’m grateful that my roots are deeply planted in a place from which I can’t be taken, that my body won’t have to risk its survival to cross any border, but I still feel like there’s something crucial that I’m missing; like the gap between my father and me is unbreachable, spanning across miles of terrain and through the years between us, like I’ll never see the world the way he does. My father is all make-do and make-believe and make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation. I’ve inherited his dream of success and safety, of growing roots into this new land of promise, but all of these ideals look different to me. I want to make-better. I want to make-move and make-shake and make-the-whole-system-burn-goddammit! I don’t think this difference is inherent to us; I think it’s all circumstantial, tied to the landscapes on which we are planted and watered. These borders are not real, but the possibilities that separate them are, the ones that make people cross through miles of arid desert without water or protection for a taste of what’s on the other side.
My father’s eyes are hard and warm; he is easy to love, but harder to understand. He offers love to me in bowls of chopped papaya, triangle shaped strawberries, jicama cut into little strips, raspberries stolen from the fields we call a backyard. He is anxious and overprotective, says things like “ten cuidado, be careful; be home before dark; don’t get involved, don’t fight back, just follow directions; don’t forget to look under your car for assaulters before you get in so nobody slices your ankles; te quiero mucho, mija.” As his daughter, a girl who just wants to experience a world that’s mostly been kind to her, it’s kind of annoying. As his daughter, a girl who sees herself as an extension of his dreams, his journey, it’s devastating. I can only reply, “Okay, okay, I’ll try, okay, yo también lo quiero, apá.” He has been through a lot. I can tell by the way he moves, slow and calculated, always wanting to know where his foot will land before taking his next step.
I have been through a lot, too, if measured in a different pitcher. When I walk, I am not ladylike, and rarely graceful, but I am nervous like him. I let the heel of my shoes hit the ground first. I don’t make noise; I don’t want to leave a trace. In November of 2016, when I was a junior in high school, I told my father I was heading to the ‘Not Our President’ demonstration in Oakland, and he told me I would never see him again. I rolled my eyes, said “apá, it’s my right” without considering that, in his world, it wasn’t. In his world, university student protestors were shot by soldiers in broad daylight and never came home. I get it now, mostly, because it’s my world, too. I inhabit it through the fragments of him I can grasp, through the history I’ve imposed onto them in an attempt to make them whole, and through my own memories of seeing protestors on screens fall to the ground to the tune of rubber bullets and tear gas and the National Guard filling our streets. Like a stained-glass window, the fragmented pieces of our experiences come together and tint my world a different color.
Alex Rocha-Alvarez is a senior in Saybrook College.