Arizona is the epicenter of the nation’s immigration brawl and my new book, Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone, profiles the invisible immigrants stubbornly hunkering down in the Phoenix area, persevering despite kidnappings, killings, and laws meant to drive them out of the state. I follow several characters over time, chronicling how they hope, sin, die, work, and love in the shadows of Phoenix.
In one chapter, called “The Border Crosser,” I profile Rodrigo, a cross-dressing construction worker whose alter ego, Erika, morphs from a southern Mexico prostitute to an Arizona party girl after she sneaks into Phoenix. Erika and Rodrigo share the same hubris—they fall in love with married men who grew up under the enforced heterosexuality of Mexican Catholicism. In the excerpt that follows I visit Rodrigo in the apartment he shares with Emilio, who as a kid was smuggled across the line by a pedophile narco. The passage brings the readers into Rodrigo’s tentative world, and foreshadows the dangers and temptations that lie ahead.
I visited Rodrigo several times in the spring of 2009. He shared the apartment with a friend I’ll call Emilio, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had been smuggled into the United States at the age of 12 by a drug lord. Emilio had been kept in the drug lord’s Chicago home and used as a sex slave. Orphaned in Mexico, Emilio didn’t have a lot of options, and would never think of his years in Chicago as sexual abuse. He would instead remember them as confining. A babysitter took care of him when the pedophile drug lord was out of town, and Emilio was well fed and clothed. Mostly, he watched TV, which taught him English, played video games, and plotted his escape. He secretly communicated with another immigrant who had a relative in Phoenix, and finally the two escaped to Arizona. Emilio eventually got a job at a fast-food restaurant using a friend’s Social Security card, and his English skills and work ethic soon got him promoted to manager. By this time, he was in his late 20s.
Rodrigo and Emilio both loved men, but they weren’t attracted to each other. (I can attest to that, since one day at the apartment I bumped into Emilio’s boyfriend, a decidedly straight-looking mayate who was embarrassed that I knew he was involved with a gay man.) In the one-bedroom apartment, Rodrigo slept on the living-room couch and Emilio slept in the bedroom.
A small statue of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, sat on Emilio’s bed stand. The grinning skeleton saint is said to be worshipped by many involved in the drug trade. She originated in the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, but the same church disavowed her. In 2009 President Felipe Calderón of Mexico ordered that several of her altars be destroyed as part of his professed war against drug cartels. Emilio left offerings to his Santa Muerte, mostly dollar bills and cigarettes.
Emilio paid for Rodrigo’s share of the $570 monthly rent and utilities expenses. Rodrigo had pawned his jewelry to help Emilio pay the rent. Their situation was not unusual in Phoenix—undocumented immigrants like Rodrigo couldn’t collect unemployment, although they’d paid plenty of taxes through their fake documents when they were working. Absent public assistance in times of dire need, undocumented immigrants took care of each other in what amounted to an underground social service network.
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Rodrigo went out in search of work regularly but was turned away from fast-food houses and construction companies when he couldn’t provide documents. Once, he almost signed up as a lab rat for a company that tested medicines for drug companies. The job would’ve paid $1,000 for the duration of the experiment, but his sister talked him out of it. Without a work routine, Rodrigo sometimes languished in his apartment. He might get up around 10 a.m., clean the house, watch TV, eat his only meal, lunch, at his sister’s house, watch more TV, then go to bed at 10 p.m. He felt trapped, but he didn’t want to return to Tehuacán for a visit because he didn’t think he could successfully re-enter the United States, what with ramped-up border enforcement and exorbitant fees charged by smugglers.
Like thousands of other undocumented immigrants, he hunkered down in Phoenix, waiting for an improved economy, waiting for the ouster of Sheriff Joe, waiting for comprehensive immigration reform that would bring him out of the shadows. Frankly, I figured that sooner or later Rodrigo would get so desperate for cash, he’d turn into Erika and start turning tricks. Through the months, I would ask him over and over if he was prostituting himself to survive. He would always say he wasn’t. I worried out loud that if Rodrigo unleashed Erika as a sex worker, he risked contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Since Rodrigo himself had never been tested for HIV—he told me he wanted to get tested but was too frightened to do so because he feared the results—if he was a carrier, he might unwittingly infect some married man, who might infect his wife, who might infect her baby.
Rodrigo would nod and fold his hands and look down at his feet and say one day he would get tested.
Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at terrygreenesterling.com. Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, will be published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.