Thursday, December 8, 2016


By Juan Montoya
The second time Chato ran the checkpoint at Sarita, it was for love.
After he had returned home from the military and then finished college, Chato landed a job working for the county as an assistant to an elected official. He would write his correspondence, answer constituent complaints, and prepare his statements on issues relating to the office.

It was in the mid-80s when Cameron County, at the very tip of South Texas, was inundated with Central American refugees. After making their way through Mexico and being abused and riped off all along the trip, they crossed the Rio Grande and into Brownsville, Texas.
In particular, they crowded into empty lots next to the Casa Romero off Minnesota Road. Hundreds of them lived in makeshift tents or cardboard shelters in an empty lot next to the refugee shelter. That, in turn, generated a backlash from nearby residents who complained about the trash generated by the Central Americans as they awaited their permits from the INS to travel north.

Among them were people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and sometimes even as far south as Nicaragua. As a county employee, Chato had to deal with the problem and try to soothe the feelings of the residents who lived nearby. A resident group had even built a watchtower in an adjoining lot to keep an eye on the crowded tent city that had sprouted as more and more refugees arrived.

The ones from El Salvador had the easiest time. Since their country had been in the throes of a civil war, their claims for asylum due to the war were routinely approved and they stayed for a few days before money from relatives arrived and they would leave on a bus headed north.

But it was the Hondurans who faced the most difficult time and who had nowhere to go. Many young women found work as domestic help in local homes or through churches. Others found work in local restaurants and bars hoping to make enough to reach their eventual destination. Some struck relationships with local residents and married, choosing instead to remain in South Texas.

The commissioner he worked for hired a young Honduran woman to take care of his young daughter while his wife worked. In his role as his assistant, Chato would sometimes have to stop by the house and deliver things that were needed there.
He struck a friendship with Tina (Ernestina), who, as it turned out, was from a town near Tegucigalpa and had family in the large Honduran populations of Houston and New Jersey. That friendship eventually turned romantic and on their days off they would go visit her Honduran friends still in the city and take in a movie or long drives to Laguna Atascosa or South Padre Island.

Tina was short, with black curly hair and a skin tone closer to copper than to brown. As Hondurans tend to be, she was very sentimental and warm.
"Yo te quiero un monton," she would tell him in their tender moments.
When she was mad, she would sometimes ask him: "Y a que se debe ese gran bocho, Chato?"

Eventually, her relatives in Houston sent her enough money to pay a coyote to take her around the Sarita checkpoint and to the city. She called Chato days later to tell him about the long walk in the dark through the rattlesnake-infested and cactus-filled llano around Sarita trying to avoid la migra.
"Ya no aguantaba los chamorros," she said. "Me tuve que estar acostada dos dias cuando llegamos."

 Despite not being in Brownsville, they remained in touch through telephone calls. Sometimes, when attending to county business in Houston or Austin, Chato would call her. Over time, the calls became less frequent.
As a county employee, Chato had the use of a county vehicle. The car came equipped with a radio to communicate with the work crews who serviced the county roads and Boca Chica Beach.

One day Chato got a call from Tina asking for his help. A nephew from her native city in Honduras had gotten to the border and his Honduran girlfriend had come down from New Jersey to take him back with her. They had been a couple in Honduras and they wanted to marry and settle down in Jersey. She was a legal resident, but he was here illegally and could be deported if he was caught on the bus without papers. Could Chato help them, Tina asked him. From the tone of her voice, he could tell she was near tears at the thought of him being caught by la migra.

He thought about it long and hard before he went to the hotel where the couple was staying. After talking to them, he came up with a plan.
The nephew was of classical Mayan stock. Not too tall, dark-complected (but not black), with dark hair that stuck out of his head (con los pelos parados). He would have to change his look to a point where the trained eye of the Border Patrol would not make him out at first sight.

He took the nephew to a barber who cut his hair to a decent length, bought him plenty of hair gel, and loaned him a white dress shirt to go with a dark suit they found at a local segunda. After dry cleaning it and making some adjustments, it fit him nicely. He decided to run Sarita with Antonio (his name) himself.

He also put on a suit with a coat and tie and after grooming Antonio to look like a typical Mexican American from South Texas, had him hold a clipboard with some real county correspondence on it.

He then took a piece of paper with the Sheriff's logo, folded it, and pinned it to the sun visor so that the star showed when it was flipped down. He draped the radio microphone over the rear view mirror and laid it on the dashboard. They took the girlfriend and put her on a bus to Kingsville and told her to get off the bus and wait for them at the convenience store along US 77 that served as a bus stop before entering Kingsville. They saw her off in Brownsville and then set out on the road themselves giving her about two hours head start before departing.

When Antonio's girlfriend saw him decked out like like an investigator with his coat and tie, his neat hair and clipboard in his hand, she swooned.
"Ay mi amor, parece un licenciado!," she exclaimed before she got on the bus.

On the road north, Chato slowly and patiently instructed Antonio to act nonchalantly and not to panic when they approached the checkpoint in Sarita.
"Como que vamos en negocio," he told Antonio. "Si no tienes que decir nada, no hables. Has como que ivas leyendo los papeles en el clipboard."

As they approached in the county vehicle, he flipped down the sun visor so that the sheriff logo could be plainly seen and adjusted the cord on the radio so that it looked as if they had been using it. Still, Chato knew that one slip would probably mean his arrest and a long jail term in a federal prison, never mind losing his job. He steeled himself and rolled to a stop by the standing Border Patrolman.

The officer, seeing the county vehicle, the sheriff logo on the sun visor, and two apparent deputies in coat and tie – one of them putting down the clipboard he had apparently been reading – glanced at them and waved them through. Chato waved and made a point of looking at the drug-sniffing dogs on leashes as they passed through. He stopped at the rest area past the checkpoint until he stopped shaking and breathed a long sigh of relief.

They picked up Antonio's girfriend and had an uneventful trip to Houston. When they arrived at Tina's apartment, she burst out crying when she saw her nephew, the first relative she had seen from her home in years. They hugged and cried together for a long time. She then hugged Chato and tearfully whispered her thanks in his ear for helping her nephew.

"Verdad que mi amor se parece un licenciado?" the girl fried kept repeating.
Chato later found out from Tina, who had since married and started a family of her own, that Antonio and his girlfriend had arrived in New Jersey and that he had found work at the same factory where she worked. They had married and had started a family.

Chato lost contact with Tina after her husband objected to her calling him and he lost track of her. But he knew that somewhere in Houston and in New Jersey, love had flourished for two families of refugees because he had run Sarita for love.


KBRO said...

Helluva love story, Juan.

Anonymous said...

Part 1 was better.

Anonymous said...

glorifying pinche drug pushers, Juan. Only you would.

Anonymous said...

Ayyy, that was nice. This was a different kind of contraband. He did for love.