The plan to deport so-called undocumented people, en masse, from the United States makes me think of four people I once knew, in a four-month period in early 1954, at a mining camp in Arizona. Daniel, Tamayo, José and the girl, Sylvia.
Daniel and Tamayo, the miners, had families across the border and came and went regularly. What their work or immigration status was in the United States I have no idea. José and Sylvia were in a more equivocal position. Undocumented, without doubt. As was I, for that matter.
Daniel in the Spanish way, accenting the last syllable. A short, brown man, powerfully built, he did the heavy lifting in the mine, lugging the big pneumatic drills into place, moving timbers. He was good-natured, easy-going, and deferred absolutely to Tamayo.
Tamayo—I knew no given name for him—was the one indispensable person in the mine. It was as though Tamayo could smell where a vein of ore was going, or divine by feeling a rock face just how much dynamite, placed where, and at what depth, would yield the optimum result of the blast. A wiry, copper-skinned man of few words, of uncertain age, of infinite dignity and self-possession.
I once, many years later, talked to a rock hound about the mine—it had by then become famous for a kind of distinctive lead crystal called Wulfenite. He knew of Tamayo. “Oh, yes,” he said, “the little Indian.” I would wager it was Tamayo who first discovered the Wulfenite.
Daniel and Tamayo were a world apart, even from José and the girl, not to mention the gringos among us—which was me and the boss, Ed, and sometimes one or two others. Ed was usually away, on obscure errands involving obscure deals. I did the mucking around the miners, shovelling, winching, running cars out to the ore hopper. And cooked for us all. I was never unaware of the measured and ironical tolerance the miners had for me, or of my own sheer lanky, soft, obvious, ill-adapted, goofy gringo-ness. To say they didn’t trust me or have much respect for the gringos generally would be true, but not get anywhere close to a measure of the real distance, which was of time and space, deeper than religion or language.
The rock-hound’s use of the word Indian, rather than Mexican, opens fertile ground. A different idea of territory, of legitimacy, of history, of boundary, of intersecting identities. Who then the interloper? Who the immigrant? The undocumented?
Sylvia and I were the same age, just turning fifteen. Ed brought her to the mine one day, an element in some deal he had struck across the border. She occupies a central place in The Wulfenite Affair, my fictionalised account of those months. In life, as in the story, it all ended rather badly. I will not retell it here other than to add a detail that did not enter into the fiction.
On the day Ed brought Sylvia to the mine I first saw her while she was still sitting in Ed’s pickup truck, waiting, alone. I was across the arroyo, coming out of our cook-shack and all I could see at a distance, in the glare of the sun, was a head of black hair and a profile. So much I tell in the story. The hallucinatory effect of the girl, the day, the surprise. What I do not include there is that this effect was largely due to the utter conviction in that moment that this was a girl I knew. Cynthia, my first proper girlfriend, from the year before, whom I had abandoned in running away and whom I had missed sorely in the muzzy way of the adolescent.
So here was this miracle, and I am not sure I ever, in the weeks that followed, wholly gave up on the conceit, that Cynthia had somehow found me in Arizona and was pretending to be Sylvia so that we could be rejoined. Cynthia, of West Indian creole stock, had had the lightest of brown skin, like Sylvia. They shared too a teasing, mocking assurance in their feminine powers, already, while still little more than children. The gift of inspiring worship, and despair. At this distance in memory I can scarcely separate them. Cynthia/Sylvia. The girl from Queens and the girl from Nogales.
José, the last in my quartet, wandered in off the desert one day. He spoke vaguely of having walked from Durango, as though we were still in the borderless tracts of ancient Sinaloa and eight hundred miles of mountains and desert were a doddle. He certainly showed no signs of stress from the journey. Trim, slender, groomed, a bit of a dandy. He seemed to know about mining, and about many other things, and made himself useful without asking for a job or expecting anything in return. In The Wulfenite Affair I describe in detail how he got us honey: crouching down among the cactus flowers and tracking beelines for the hidden cave high on the bluff above, a quarter-stick of dynamite, a neat crack, buckets of fragrant, tarry stuff.
José disappeared one day as mysteriously as he had come. A magician, a shape-shifter, a coyote. A wall would have been nothing to him.