Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Stick to the Script

by Noemi Martinez

Cactus, Texas-the chief of police spits his tobacco into a cup and looks me over. “I heard someone was in town asking questions.” I talk fast, a Boriqua/Chicana spitting out English. I try to get my three minute sell out fast, why I’m here, looking for immigrants who have been trafficked or forced into working.

“Hold on there,” he says, never taking his hat off. ” We’re not down in South Texas no more. And we talk a bit slower up here. And you didn’t come here first?”
It wasn’t really a question, just giving me notice. I bit the inside corner of my lip which always produced a semi-smile. He asks if there’s any money in it for him, helping me find these “victims” and helping them get visas for being sold, bought or forced to work.

His starched uniform is saturated in sweat. “I actually live here. Do any of my officers? No. But I bought a house here and I live here. My wife won’t move here. She still lives in Amarillo.”

We’ve been in town for a few hours, drove in from Amarillo. There’s no hotel in Cactus, so we’ll be heading back at sun down. Driving up towards North Texas, the landscape changed from burnt fields and small trees, to rolling hills and now in the Panhandle, miles and miles of green plains and distant canyons. Damn picturesque even.

This summer never ends and we stop at every little town we come across. This should be the last stop for the summer, on the edge of Moore County, before we head back to South Texas. Carlie will be going back to law school when we get back. I tell her if she plans on coming back, she has to form roots in the community and not just work for the community.

I want to visit New Mexico which is only a few miles away but we can’t take the car out of Texas. Carlie sings corny country songs and makes me dance in the car. I can’t find one single station on the radio that plays anything but country. In Tulia, she took the bed with blood on the box spring. I kept her up all night with my stories of how the blood got there.

“One of us’ll get crabs from the bed,” I tell her. “Try explaining that to your boyfriend.”

Once in Cactus, I say talk to the kids at the swimming pool and walk up to Mrs. Gonzalez, the lifeguard who’s also the gym coach at the only elementary school in Cactus. Junior high and high school kids get bussed over to Amarillo. “They have to wake up early,” she says, “because the bus leaves at six am, but the group is small anyhow and mostly the Mexicans don’t send their kids, get them to work instead.” I stare at her shiny forehead, browned skin under the sun.

I buy a Mexican Coke, pan de polvo, three Gansitos at the only store in town. I ask the owner, Mrs. Morales if I can leave Spanish “Know your Rights” pamphlets at the counter. She’s nice enough. Tells me the story of Cactus. The immigrant Filipinos of the 40s, the waves of illegals, she says. After the last raid, reporters came into town and hounded everyone for weeks. The city manager was fired for something he said to the press. Since the raids last year, folks don’t seem so nice to outsiders. And I remind myself, I do not belong there, I am an outsider, even though this chief doesn’t see any difference-I am the same color as the people of “his town.”

Yolanda, who works at the only laundromat in town, says for days after the raid last December, no one was seen in town. It was like after the tornadoes that had hit last April-house after house with red spray-painted X’s on them. The streets were ghosts and they seem too still even now, empty trailers and desolate streets. The one park is empty. It reminds me of neighborhoods where every one goes up north to work in the summers, but this is the famous “norte” that families go to look for work, with factories and fields.

Mrs. Saenz, the librarian, tells me 80 percent of the kids didn’t go to school for days after agents detained hundreds of workers at the local meat processing plant. Either they had been deported with the parents, or the one parent left behind was too afraid to send them.

For months we had been hearing reports of parents being arrested outside of schools throughout West Texas and the Panhandle. I worried who would pick up the kids come 3:30. We heard reports of grocery stores being shut down and agents going around asking for papers. Random checkpoints appear at traffic lights and streets in El Paso, stopping cars and asking people for their papers. ERs calling border patrol on patients. No boundaries. We’re supposed to be looking for victims of human trafficking, held against their will and forced to work-but the tales we hear are different.

Making our way up to Cactus from South Texas, we come across one of those random checkpoints in Del Rio. The flashing red lights tell us to stop and after a few minutes they open the lane next to us, putting a plastic barrier in front of our car.

“Why y’all headed?” The agent in the telltale green asks.

“Going to Uvalde.” I’ve learned too much information can work against you.

“Coming from?”

“We were in Del Rio.”

“Why are y’all coming up from Highway 83 instead of going straight on through on 90?”

“What do you mean?”

His sidekick appears. “What he’s asking is why’d you decide to take 83 which takes you through La Pryor and is 45 minutes longer and not go straight on through US90?”

Things to remember: always keep your hands on the steering wheel. Have your license and car info on your lap. Do not reach for anything underneath your seat. When they ask you for your insurance, let them know it’s in the glove compartment and you have to reach over to get it. Tell your passengers to keep their hands in plain sight.

“I’m just following the GPS thingie that came with the car.”

“Where’d you get this fancy car?”

“It’s a rental, through work.”

Then they searched us. Separating me from Carlie, looking for incriminating words in my paperwork. I am patted down, asked where I was born. I am reminded of the time cops called border patrol on my mom, who is Puerto Rican. I don’t know what they ask my passenger, my friend, on the other side of the car.

“Why is the rental in your name and not hers?”

“She’s a volunteer, I’m an employee,” I say.

Still scrutinizing the paperwork, I reword my response. “She’s a law student, volunteering where I work.”

She smiles across to me and I know her heart hurts. The parts we play, we know them well.

Trying to engage law enforcement is my least favorite part. They say it should be a partnership, a circle where all the parts work together. I even made a nice chart to show law enforcement this symbiotic relationship, even if I don’t believe it myself. Back in Cactus, a town that was built in the 40s to produce ammunition for World War II, I explain to the chief the government benefits human trafficking victims can receive. I mention the Visa that lets them stay for up to three years and a social security to work legally. I mention relocation fees and counseling. His eyes get shiny, he spits and says, “So then we’re gonna have the whole town saying they’re victims!” Moments away from blowing a gasket, I let him know that the FBI or another federal agency has to certify that they are in fact real claims of human trafficking.

I have seen his reaction before, like the sheriff who told me they get what they deserve. I use other arsenal, “even U.S. citizens can be victims of trafficking, it can happen to anyone.” It does not help, and I don’t bother with the rest of the requirements. I don’t tell him how sometimes federal agents don’t return our phone calls or how once they whisked a victim away from us, as a “witness” for one of their cases and put her in a cell. I don’t tell him how it’s stacked already against them and how defeatist it all seems to me.

Chief tobacco spitter perks right up to Carlie when she mentions he can apply for grants from different government departments. I know why they paired us up like that. The Mexican mom who can relate to the community and the white law student who can pacify the authorities. The scene repeats itself throughout most of Texas– Crystal City, Quemado, Sonora. I tell Yolanda and Mrs. Morales I’ll be back next summer, but I’m not too sure about that.

Read Noemi Martinez’s bio »