Border Reflections - ZAPATOS
This shoe exchange is told as experienced by Marciana Heemstra on a hot April day at The Refuge in McAllen, TX. The boy’s history is a compilation of stories our team gleaned throughout our border journey, plus a bit of research. (Photographs by Jon Stegenga)
He is puzzled, why is his mother packing clothes and food? Why is she selling family stuff and hiding the money in her zapatos (shoes)? His dad has not been home for a long time, something about coffee leaf disease on the farm. Mama grabs his hand and they walk. The house disappears behind them. The roads become unfamiliar. They walk and walk.
Mama is very quiet except in hushed conversations with other people who are walking. The boy hears the words “Mexico”, and “America”. They walk on and on, day after day. The boy feels a change in this mother, a fear in the group of travelers as they hurry through a stretch of land called Guatemala. Some of them break away and jump on the fast trains. Mama chooses to stay on foot, to keep him safe. He stays silent, somehow knowing that silence is the best way he can help mama.
The walking never ends. The fear takes residence his bones. One night a group of men come into their camp and take the girls away. They demand money, a lot of money, if the families want their children back. Frantic, the parents count their hidden stores of pesos. Frantic, they borrow phones to call family back home or far away in America to beg for ransom money. Mama takes his hand and they slip away in the night, moving ever forward.
Weary, mama makes a hard choice. Handing over a small bundle of money she secures a bus ride in Mexico. The space is tight with people, it smells of all things dirty. But it feels good to sit. The boy falls into a deep sleep, the vibrations of the bus soothing his aching muscles. “Take off your shoes, empty your pockets! Rápido, rápido! Give us 500 pesos or we will report you.” The boy jolts awake, his mother pleading with the Mexican agents to let the boy keep his zapatos. She hands over what they have, money, clothing, and her zapatos.
The boy has lost track of time, months have gone by, all is a blur until one day they stop at a large camp of travelers. This camp seems different, like people have been here a long time. Clothes hang on lines, drying in the sun. Chairs sit in groups under the shade of trees. There is a buzz of conversation, a sharing of knowledge and something else... a thread of anticipation.
The boy joins the happy play of children. He learns the pattern of meals and clean water brought to the camp twice per day by people whose words he cannot understand. He bathes on the edge of a wide, brown river. Mama points to the land on the other side, “That is America.”
The boy is happy, only vaguely aware that only about 5 families per day are invited to America, passing through the big fence, giant and rusty. More weeks go by until one day mama takes his clothes and gives them an extra good washing. She combs his hair. “It’s our turn now.” They hold hands as she speaks to one American after another in small rooms, showing documents, answering questions, describing the drought and famine in their homeland. Finally, they too get to pass through the giant, rusty fence.
That night he shivers in a cold cell of a large, brick building, sitting on the floor with many travelers. They call this place a Detention Center and “the ice box”. People sit shoulder to shoulder, knees against backs. He sits here for days. It is so cold. Why does cold air pump through the vents in the ceiling? Do Americans like to be cold? He doesn’t like the taste of the crackers and cheese in the little packages. Is this what Americans eat? He misses home. He misses papa.
Another meeting with another official, this one makes mama happy. She squeezes him tight. At last, at long last, they have permission to stay America! Mama promises to attend a court date sometime in the future. They board a bus, a clean bus, for a short journey to a building where they are welcomed and people have kind eyes. They help mama make a phone call to a relative in Seattle, their sponsor. They help mama get airplane tickets. There are many rooms in this building, some for sleeping, some for food, some are full of clothing. Everything smells different. Like flowers almost. Sweet. Is this how America smells?
The boy stands with his mother in a line to get new clothes. He is good at waiting quietly. Leaning on the smooth grey wall he absent-mindedly picks at the paint. It falls from his fingernails in satisfying flakes. Bit by bit they move their way forward until they are next in line for the sweet smelling room full of clothes.
PRESENT DAY AT A REFUGE CENTER ON THE SOUTH TEXAS BORDER
I open the door and motion the next family inside, a mother and her son. I size up the child, perhaps six? Rapidly pulling together clean underwear, a pair of socks, a t-shirt and jeans, I hand them to his mother with a smile. “Zapatos?” she asks, nodding toward the small shelf of donated children’s shoes. “Yes,” I answer as I kneel down and unlace this boy’s dusty brown leather shoes. They are sturdy little shoes, but so very tight on his feet. One by one we try shoes from the boy’s shelf, they are all too small. I swallow back emotion, so disappointed that I cannot fulfill this one basic need. I look into his eyes trying to convey my sadness, wondering if we need to squeeze his feet back into his traveling shoes. His eyes meet mine with a twinkle. Grinning, he points to another shelf, the girl’s shoe shelf, to a bright white pair of sneakers with silver sequins. They fit perfectly! The frenzied pace of the children’s clothing room stops for a brief second as we all - mother, child, fellow volunteers and I - clap and rejoice.
I can no longer hold back the tears as I quietly tuck his dusty, brown leather traveling shoes into a black Hefty trash bag to be thrown away.
THEIR PURPOSE HAS BEEN FULFILLED.