(At night all cats are strays)
We weren’t exactly strays, but we were in the dark in many ways.
That night we made the decision to leave for the city there was nothing but frantic movements. In one instant the sharp pain of my father awaking us with jagged force, the overfilling what little we could into the few bags we had, the hurrying to leave before sunset, all blended together into one drunken blur of adrenaline and excitement. Before I knew it we were on the road going north farther than we had ever traveled away from our sleepy little border town, at least in this direction.
My father hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell his uncle that after more than eight years of working for him and living beside him he was moving us out of town, so we had to hurry up and leave before anyone awoke that morning. We were heading for Houston. My father had a brother there and my parents had enough money to get us there. People said there were lots of jobs there and something called minimum wage. I don’t know if there was an actual plan to what we were doing, but we were told we’d be staying with my uncle for a few days until we could afford a place of our own. I’d never met this uncle, but the excitement of knowing he was somewhere new made me want to meet him.
Our biggest excitement in the Valley was making the weekly trip to the grocery store. Valley Mart was an hour away from our home in the woods and every Saturday like clockwork we would all pack into my dad’s car to make the trip into town. If we were lucky, he’d hand us a few quarters to go buy some candy or anything else we could afford. Even when we didn’t get any money, being inside the Valley Mart was thrill enough. Yet we had always wanted to know what else was out there.
For years my mother had begged my father to move us into the city. He always shot her down by reminding her neither of them, nor my two eldest sisters had the legal documents to make it past the immigration checkpoint on this side. One slip of the tongue and we would be back in Mexico faster than you could say immigrant.
By this time, though, everyone had their residency papers, and try as he had, my father finally realized improving our life in the Valley was not going to be possible. He didn’t earn enough and we were only getting older, requiring more and more.
This was long after our days of running to hide from la Migra. Before then, every time we’d see their green trucks driving along the main road – a good football field from our home – we’d run inside yelling la Migra, my mother would lock us inside the house, and we wouldn’t come out again until we were certain no immigration officers were nearby. They did come to our house a few times, and just a few years before, their threats of involuntary deportation had been enough to send us packing back to Mexico for several weeks. Our family, however, like countless others, could not afford to stay put. We came back and were lucky enough to gain legal status in the United States.
Green cards were all we needed to take flight. Now there was nothing stopping us from hitting the road towards Houston. My father, my mother, my three sisters, my two brothers, and I all crammed inside my dad’s car for the trip. My youngest sister was not born yet. On the drive over my brothers and I spent the entire time asking the same questions over and over: What is the city like? Are there any trees there? How tall are the buildings? Are we there yet? We imagined a barren landscape with nothing but concrete floors and metal skyscrapers shooting up from the ground. Apartments and homes stacked one on top of the other, building after building.
My father didn’t do much to avoid our wild imaginings. Perhaps he thought they were charming, even a little magical. For me they were – I didn’t sleep at all that night, afraid to miss any of the incredible new things my eyes were discovering. That moment of driving into the big city I would not miss!
Ironically, we never actually realized where the city began because the trees and grass never disappeared as we had imagined. Instead we rode in on a sea of concrete past the extravagantly spacious commercial complex labeled The Galleria. My older brother yelled out look dad that huge building is a galleria (hen house). We all gasped in amazement: wow what an enormous hen house! We could even drop off the rooster we brought in the backseat of the car with us there if we wanted to, or sell it for money.Eventually we realized it wasn’t a hen house at all – it was, and still is, one of the most prestigious shopping malls in the United States. Later we’d get to know it well because our first apartment was actually within walking distance of The Galleria.
That night we wandered aimlessly, lost in the little we knew about the world from our vantage point as simple country folk, but amazingly on the road we were like so many others – immigrant or not. Just another car driving down the interstate looking for a new start in a new place; hopeful about the possibilities ahead; scared, nervous, happy, sad, all at the same time. In the darkness we were no longer invisible.