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Authors: Kem Nunn

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary

Tijuana Straits (5 page)

BOOK: Tijuana Straits
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And that was the beginning of Magdalena’s files. She called them the Dolores Rivera files, in honor of her mother. The project became her obsession. There were a dozen sites like Reciclaje
Integral just along the highway that led from Tijuana to Tecate—foreign-owned, toxic, and abandoned, and God knew how many more scattered throughout the country. She began with the collection of factual reports, one for each of the sites. She made lists of the sites’ owners then set about searching for any ties to Mexico, any at all. The process was both time consuming and expensive, expensive because any search done through a public agency, such as the Registry for Property and Commerce, had to be paid for and this she did from her own pocket. She also collected old case files, curious about repeat offenders, and on occasion, original inspection reports. She took some pride in the acquisition of the original reports, as each could only be gotten from the person who’d written it. The reports were simple and to the point. They named names. Once a case was filed and put into the system, the reports were copied, and there was always the chance that they might be compromised. If the complaint for which the report had been written never made it into the system, the reports were often discarded, or otherwise lost. This made of the originals an invaluable source from which to acquire the names of offenders, so that these in turn might be compared to other names from other sources, both now and in the future. And so it went. Her files grew to fill an entire room, in offices already pressed for space. After eighteen months, the files represented as complete a picture of environmental and labor abuses along the Mexico-California border as one was likely to find. By sheer volume they were unique. In their assemblage of original inspection reports they were irreplaceable. Taken altogether they were an exceptional resource. Everyone said so. Yet the children of Vista Nueva continued to suffer.

Then something happened. Someone had broken into Carlotta’s offices, destroying computers, ransacking files. An attempt had been made to burn them out. The fire department had been quick. Still, much had been lost. Magdalena had taken her remaining files and
moved them into hiding. Every case Carlotta handled was potentially dangerous. Any case involving environmental wrongdoing in Mexico would by its nature involve governmental corruption. The laws were on the books. People were simply paid to look the other way. Everyone had an agenda. Every case generated new enemies, potential suspects. They would both, Carlotta warned her, have to be very careful. The older woman was worried. Magdalena had seen it in her face. Magdalena was ecstatic, caught on the wave of some adrenaline high. She was convinced that whoever had broken into the offices had been after something in her files. Word of their existence had gotten out. The enemy had been engaged. It was her reason for being, the reason she had come home, back to Tijuana, the scene of her mother’s murder.

It was dark when she finally reached the old factory and her thoughts shifted from the case against Reciclaje Integral to other events that had transpired here during the past weeks: Three young women, all factory workers, had been murdered on the dirt pathways that led from the factories to the
below. The women had been raped, strangled, and mutilated, then left among the weeds and refuse that cluttered the hillsides—a common-enough crime along the Mexican border, where the women worked in the factories and the men loitered, unemployed, and the gangs ruled the streets. In this case however, Magdalena had known one of the victims. She had interviewed the woman when they’d first begun the case against the plant, had known her as a sister in arms, and now felt both violated and diminished by her passing. She supposed it was how one ought to feel, about any such crime. And yet the world was so full of death. If one were to feel violated and diminished by each there were be little of oneself left to go around. She judged it a risk of her chosen profession, in a land where the
murdered factory girl and the dead boy whose vigil she’d come to attend were but two sides of the same coin—the price her country seemed more than happy to pay in its slow ascension to the lights.

She parked in front of the old smelting plant then sat for a moment to observe her surroundings—a precaution she would not have taken a month before. But the shifts were still changing in a nearby factory and there was activity in the street, food vendors and buses, workers, predominantly women in blue smocks and hairnets, conversing in groups, sharing cigarettes, some dancing to the music that spilled from their plastic ghetto blasters. As Magdalena got out of her car, she was recognized by one of the women, who waved a greeting. Magdalena waved back, taking in the smells of sizzling tacos, the exhaust of the buses, the reek of chemicals and burning rubber. She smiled in spite of herself. Welcome to the Mesa de Otay, she thought, the soiled heart of the monster.

Upon her return to Tijuana, Magdalena had spent time at a women’s center known as Casa de la Mujer. Established to aid the young women streaming north to work in the factories, it had grown into an all-purpose facility where Magdalena had done everything from teaching classes in personal hygiene to facing down drunken husbands. The work was strictly voluntary and of late she’d not had time for it, but she was glad to have done it for it had put her in touch with women throughout the city, some of them activists and some in need. She supposed the woman who waved had been one of the latter. Under other circumstances she might have walked over to find out, to see how things were going. On the evening in question she waved and went on, thinking that when her workload had lightened she would have to spend more time with the women of Casa de la Mujer. It was frontline work, similar in spirit to her work with Carlotta, but taken to the street, where the game was faster, the victories more tangible, if not, perhaps, as thoroughgoing as what might be won in the halls of justice amid paper trails and writs.

She walked back across the front of the condemned building, its doors and windows sealed, the plywood that prevented entrance decorated with spray-painted warnings of
together with skulls and crossbones. She noted too a smattering of gang graffiti, together with a crudely painted devil, replete with horns and forked tail, the artists apparently blind to the contaminants already leaching in ugly, colored stains through the cinder-block walls. She seemed to recall hearing there was even a homeless person, evidently deranged, rumored to have taken up residence there—yet one more reason to be rid of the place. The thought of someone actually trying to camp amid those ruins made her shudder and she turned onto the dirt path that led between Reciclaje Integral and its nearest neighbor, a sprawling auto shop surrounded by corrugated tin and barbed wire. It was the kind of path from which the women of the past weeks had been abducted. Soon, however, she was within sight of the mourners on the bluffs at the rear of the factory, the lights of Vista Nueva at their feet.

Most of those in attendance were women from the community below and Magdalena knew them well. She was greeted with hugs and kisses, then provided with a candle and a paper party cup. The cup had a little hole punched in the bottom to make way for the candle and was meant to protect the flame. When lit from within the cups appeared as tiny inverted lamps hung upon the night air. But it was unusually cold and breezy atop the mesa and the delicate lights were difficult to maintain.

A small group of students from the university had come with guitars. They had taken to the high ground—a broad mound of dirt where they sat strumming inspirational songs and at whose base were the scattered remains of an old refrigerator, gleaming like the bones of some dismembered animal in the scant light. A trio of documentary filmmakers had come as well. The filmmakers were from Seattle. They were making a movie about the maquiladoras and had
been told about the vigil. They had a single handheld camera and a powerful spotlight with which they periodically washed the walls of the old factory and blinded the mourners. Magdalena was introduced to the film’s director, a young woman with high-topped black sneakers and a pierced nostril. The director was interested in interviewing Magdalena for her film and wanted to do so in her Spanish, which was limited. “It’s okay,” Magdalena told her. “We can use English.” The director persisted in her poor Spanish. But then the questions were simple and inevitable. Who is responsible? Why hasn’t the Mexican government acted by now? Why is the man allowed to do business in the United States when his factory is still killing people in Mexico? Magdalena answered by rote then disengaged to circulate among her friends.

The women of Vista Nueva were understandably obsessed with the recent murders and not quite able to leave it alone, even here, at the vigil for the young boy. Theories were advanced. Two of the girls who had died had been moonlighting as taxi dancers in the old red-light district, where a certain amount of credence was being given to a folktale in which a handsome, blue-eyed stranger stalks the floors of the brothels and dance halls. According to the legend, the stranger is the devil himself, come to carry away Tijuana’s fallen angels. Apparently one of the recent victims had been seen talking to a flashy young cowboy in a red convertible shortly before her death. The man had come to visit her during a break at the factory but she’d told her friends of meeting him on the dance floor at one of the clubs. The story was repeated here in hushed tones amid gusting winds as the students sang, as the spotlight swept the walls . . . Other theories were advanced as well, without recourse to the supernatural. For Magdalena, however, the talk only added to the gloom of the event and when she had made her rounds and her candle had gone out for about the fifteenth time, she said her good-byes and made her exit.

The truth was, she was not feeling altogether well. She had been putting in long days of late, cramming for exams, working for Carlotta then sitting up till nearly first light, alone with her files, searching for clues as to who might have invaded the offices. The pace was beginning to take its toll, accounting perhaps for the creeping depression she had experienced upon the bluff. That a number of local officials had been invited and failed to show was hardly surprising. But on the evening in question their absence seemed only to fuel her depression, as did the film director, with her poor Spanish and simple questions. Ditto for the nervous twittering of the young women from the
reminding her yet again of how naive and uneducated so many of these people were—her people after all—that they should entertain folktales of handsome strangers with cloven hoofs while the real Devil, such as he was, was made manifest all around them, his form as shifting as the vapors that seeped from the factories to cover the old border town like a dirty blanket, and she had been hard-pressed to refrain from saying so. But the night was for mourning and not for lectures. What was called for, she concluded, was a hot bath, a night’s sleep, maybe even a day or two back at Casa de la Mujer, where she could lead a strike, demonstrate the use of condoms, and face down a drunken boyfriend or two, all in the space of forty-eight hours—a little something to raise the blood, and so thinking she slipped out the way she had come, on the narrow footpath between the factory and the body shop with its pack of scrawny watchdogs barking at her in the dark.

At one point along the path, she thought she heard something move behind the block wall of the factory—something too large to be a rodent—and she quickened her step. She reached the car without incident, got quickly inside, and drove away.

She took a different route going home, skirting Cerro Colorado, through La Florita, the district of the flowers, then picking up Mex One as it swept down from the mesa, on its way to the sea. It was here that she realized the car was not handling well. This was not without precedent. She drove a 1989 Ford Taurus with bald tires, a torn headliner, and somewhere over two hundred thousand miles. But who was counting? One thing about Mexico, its mechanics were the best; you kept them in spare parts, they could keep anything running. And the country was made of spare parts.

BOOK: Tijuana Straits
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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