San Luís Potosí, Mexico- "Listen," Hilario Uvalde said, dropping his voice like he was confiding a secret, "don't let them fool you. It's as easy now as it was then."
His audience was rapt. The 44-year-old laborer, temporarily enjoying rock-star status, was regaling a group of young men in the San Luís Potosí bus station with his lengthy repertoire of border antics.
It all started when someone brought up a headline in La Reforma, a salacious national newspaper: "Dan paliza a ex 'migra'" ("They beat the former Border Patrol agent"). The story was about inmates who kicked Ignacio Ramos with steel-toed boots just weeks after his high-profile incarceration for shooting Osvaldo Aldrete-Davila, a drug-smuggling illegal alien. The attack had come shortly after America's Most Wanted aired a profile of him.
A roughhewn man from the bus-station group blurted: "I'm glad they finally got that [expletive]." Others nodded-they could picture themselves shot at while crossing the border illegally. Here, Uvalde started telling stories of how he has entered the United States illegally more times than he has fingers.
The only time he lost the game came about 20 miles past Tucson-well beyond the Border Patrol's frontlines. His friend's Ford Aerostar van was moving at a swift but lawful clip toward Flagstaff. "I was asleep, but the other guys all of a sudden started yelling, 'Oh no! Lights! Police lights!'" Uvalde recalled. "A state trooper stopped us for an expired inspection, and he found the vehicle full of mojados [wetbacks]."
Border Patrol agents showed up and took Uvalde and others back across the Arizona line to Nogales, a town teeming with soon-to-be mojados. Two days later Uvalde tried again-and made it all the way to Miami. He returned voluntarily to his home state of Chiapas six months later, at the end of 2004. Uvalde hasn't tried to cross since; he said the Virgin of Guadalupe has granted him luck, but he's aging.
Soon the conversation deteriorated into halfway-joking arguments for why George Bush should be dropped by plane somewhere in the Sonoran Desert and why Mexican President Felipe Calderón should be starved to death with stacks of tortillas just beyond his reach ("Romancing the corn," March 10).
By cheap económico bus line would-be illegal immigrants make it from Mexican interior villages to border towns-their readying rooms. They often negotiate the coyote (smuggler) fee, if there is to be one, right in the bus station. A ritualized pact-forming process happens here under fluorescent light, amid rows of plastic seats: Handshakes make allegiances binding, and traveling partnerships form between slurps of coffee.
Then those making the attempt head to coyote hideouts in the borderlands. Shouldering small packs, they breech la línea, the longest border in the world between the First World and the Third. An estimated 3 million illegals try to cross this line each year, looking for the fabled American Dream. And they are persistent: One crosser is caught for every three or four who make it, and one in 3,000 dies, but most of those who are caught try again.
As the United States frets over how to handle the ordeal, Mexico slowly has come to embrace it as a glorified pilgrimage and a cultural pillar, deepening the divide between two important trade partners that share 1,950 miles of border.
Most Americans feel that illegal immigration is out of hand. Many say it increases crime, drains taxpayer dollars, undercuts wages, and may be Balkanizing the Southwest if the immigrants, who tend to retain their allegiance to Mexico, don't attempt to assimilate. A poll last year by Time showed 51 percent of Americans thought the United States would be "better off" if all illegals were deported and the border sealed; 56 percent supported erecting a fence along the entire border.
The prevailing opinion of Mexicans is the opposite. Eight or nine out of 10 Mexicans object to a fence. They feel it's another example of how the United States uses them to scapegoat its problems. Felipe Portillo, a student in Monterrey, said it would do Americans good to have compulsory viewings of A Day Without a Mexican, a satiric 2004 movie in which Californians wake up one morning and find that a third of their state's population has disappeared.
Mexicans interpret the echoes they hear back home of the U.S. debate on immigration. On a bus from Mexico City to Querétaro, Cristina Zavala, 31, voiced one popular Mexican refrain: "Americans hope all illegals die crossing into their country." These rumors fuel animosity, especially among the poor. "I heard there is going to be a test [to get into the United States], and you have to pass it in English," said 25-year-old Lucas Ortiz, who consequently has started saving for English lessons. "Calderón is going to help the Americans build the wall," a man named Martín Pereira announced in the bus station.
Resentment does not diminish the desire to cross: A Pew Hispanic Center survey found nearly one in two Mexicans would move to the United States if it were feasible. One in five is willing to go illegally if necessary.
"Mexicans see it as a challenge, like Americans think we aren't good enough to come to their land," said Rosalina Huerta, 23, who cleans house in a nice Monterrey neighborhood. The 11th of 13 children, Huerta has five brothers, all of whom are in the United States illegally. She wouldn't disclose names, but she described at length the extraordinary way one brother crossed. The feat sounded like a Hollywood stunt: He held onto the underside of a train, wedged above its axle, as it rattled and bounced into Texas.
Huerta also said that Americans "always have treated me well"-but she is squarely in the minority here, according to a Zogby poll from 2006. "Mexicans think Americans are neither hard workers, nor honest," its analysts wrote. "They see them as racist, intolerant and moderately law-abiding." Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said the United States is wealthy because it "exploits other people's wealth." Uvalde and others particularly criticize President Bush, lumping him in with anti-immigration Republicans.
Overall, the United States is loved and hated: It's part American Dream-a utopia of cheap, excellent health care and beneficent employers beckoning-and part immigrant nightmare, born out of the presumed conspiracy to entrap Mexicans there only to work jobs Americans don't want anyway.
When James Truslow Adams first used the term "American Dream" in 1931, he was describing "a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone." That dream pulls in Mexicans looking for at least $4 an hour instead of $4 a day. But the flip side features a Mexican reality that is not too rosy. One drastic consequence of Mexico's modern Diaspora is that it can be a death knell for small rural towns like Mazapil, an old mining settlement on the interior plateau of the state Zacatecas.
Fernando Del Soto, a winsome traveler in the Nuevo Laredo station, was headed back there from Alto, Texas. Though the mineral-rich mines his family worked for 50 years still yield a mix of gold, lead, copper, and zinc, Del Soto called the town "a memory of its old self." "Mazapil has mines," he declared flatly. "But how does that compete with money, adventure, power, and the things you get in America?"
Del Soto's own son-a cotton picker in Oklahoma, last he heard-joined the migration north. He told Del Soto during his last visit, which was Christmastime 2003, that the town now made him feel dirty, poor, and provincial. It's difficult to complain about the unraveling of a way of life when your son makes $50 a day, he admitted.
For Mexican families left behind, the material aspects of life can improve: better farm equipment or more animals, a newer car, a nice TV or stereo. But when the men don't return, towns become communities, figuratively and sometimes literally, of orphans and widows.
Are those drawbacks, plus the need for illegal immigrants to live as fugitives and risk abuse and exploitation, strong reasons not to leave? Hardly, Del Soto said: "Mexico is a very prideful place. Here a man wants to do the best he can, and feels inferior if anyone does better than he does. Men return from the U.S. with great stories of adventure. . . . It makes the other men envious and feel like sissies for staying behind."
Drift through a dozen dingy, fluorescent, look-alike Mexican bus stations, and you tend to lump them all together as one indiscrete, inseparable entity, like Pangaea. But the Querétaro station I distinctly remember.
Here, determined to make the two of us see eye-to-eye on illegal immigration before the overdue Flecha Amarilla bus showed, a spindly 63-year-old hung his hat on this Mexican proverb: It is not the fault of the mouse but of the one who offers him the cheese. I gave him points for creativity but said this was bona fide buck passing.
Several days later, after having an expensive camera stolen out from under my nose, contracting severe traveler's diarrhea, and operating under the perpetual assumption that I was with la migra-Mexicans' word for the Border Patrol, but also used nebulously to describe anyone who "colludes" to keep out illegals-I was on the brink of conceding that the proverbialist had a point.
I'd traveled for almost a week. Beginning at Mexico City's Terminal Norte, I went wherever the northbound bus lines went, so long as they eventually converged on Nuevo Laredo, where I would reenter the United States. Some of these buses had plush reclining seats, refreshments, bathrooms, and B-list American movies like Ultraviolet, whose subtitles replaced every profane epithet with the one-size-fits-all moniker idiota. These buses had the magic word ejecutivo printed on their tickets.
Other buses seemed apt training for bull riding. As these old metal monsters pitched and rocked and rolled along precarious switchbacks, sliding to random, maniacal stops to pick up ranchers invisible to the naked eye, I gripped the hard vinyl seatbacks. These buses had the treacherous word económico printed on their tickets-if, in fact, tickets were required at all. Sometimes 10 pesos and a wink were sufficient.
In Matehuala, on my way to meet a man in a nearby town, I hopped onto an económico. Later, when the driver abruptly pulled off and killed the engine, I wondered if it might not have been to my advantage to upgrade slightly. The bus driver's explanation was unintelligible, to me at least, but a lady nearby relayed it: The bus, apparently, was recalentado. I envied her; she seemed at peace with the situation. Although I wasn't entirely sure what recalentado meant, it seemed to incorporate calentar, which means "to heat." I made myself be at peace with the translation "overheated."
Regardless, we sat for 45 minutes, as the driver tried various unsuccessful remedies on the engine. By the time we reached the town, my contact had left. Unable to reach him by phone, I returned to Matehuala-on a newer, sleeker bus. As I boarded, I reconsidered the proverb: It is not the fault of the mouse but of the one who offers him the cheese.