You might see him around Oakland, riding his bicycle around with his signature dirty red backpack or stocking the shelves at the local Whole Foods, just another Mexican guy in a city where Mexican guys are cleaning your offices and schools and cooking your food at your favorite ethnic restaurant. Maybe he’s sipping on a strawberry kombucha or nursing a cup of coffee. Depending on your preferred immigration narrative, you’ll probably assume that he either a) crossed the border to flee oppressively poor living conditions and provide for his family or b) came here to steal jobs from Honest Americans. Then you’ll go on with your life.
“Rascarle los huevos al leon. There’s this saying in Spanish which means – what’s the thing you do when something itches? Scratch? ‘Scratching the lion’s balls’,” he tells me, while recounting some of his favorite back-room brawl stories. It sounds like it’s a mix of “living recklessly” and “living in the moment”. I can’t think of a better way to describe him. Apparently an old Mexican lady told him that he lived as though he was scratching a lion’s balls after he brawled with her son and his high-on-coke buddies with Corona bottles and a Flying V guitar straight out of Kiss.
Chuch (that’s a long U) was born in the late 1970s in Coahuila, Torreon, Mexico. His abusive alcoholic father quickly left the picture, leaving his mother and siblings to move to Mexico City, where he spent his teen years getting in fights and developing an appreciation for punk rock. After a punk concert-slash-counter-culture festival in the border town of Nogales, Chuch and some of his fellow punk rockers decided to cross the border so they could connect with the American punk scene, earn some money to reinvest in their communities, and buy all the records they wanted.
“The first time I tried to cross the border was when I was 19,” he tells me, “We were a bunch of young activist punks, you know. Vegans. We all wore these plastic shoes – it felt like my feet were in boiling water. And I was the only one to bring a jacket. The others all made fun of me – ‘Chuch, it’s so obvious you’re trying to cross the border, you gotta look more casual’ – but I brought it anyway. And at night these huge dark clouds started building up, you know, and it just started raining and raining, and none of them had a jacket.”
Weather was the least of their problems, however. “We didn’t hire a coyote to help us across. We just tried to walk across the desert with bread and water. And when we were walking through the mountains, we got robbed by these – we call them cholos, people who live in the mountains. They took all our money. We were in two groups, and the other one – two guys and a girl – also got robbed.” He paused for a second before adding, “And the girl, the guys told me afterwards that she almost got raped.”
But they continued on until finally succumbing to heat, starvation, and exhaustion. “We just fell asleep and woke up and this Border Patrol guy was there, you know, big blonde American guy. They kept us in this cell for like eight hours with the A/C turned on really high, and we didn’t have any sweaters or anything. He even sat in front of us and just ate this really big hamburger. It was awful. We hadn’t eaten in two days. Then they deported us back to Mexico City.”
He was only in Mexico City long enough to pack his things and try again, despite his mother’s wishes; she and his stepfather wanted him to finish vocational school and get a job as an office assistant. “She left the house early that morning because she didn’t want to see me leave,” Chuch tells me, “My little brothers were playing football outside and just said ‘Are you leaving?’. The weather was real cloudy and uncertain, you know, and I was walking to meet my friend at a train station when it started to rain. It looked like a Pedro Almodovar movie. Afterwards, my brother told me that my mother got really sick after I left.”
Broke but not broken, he hopped trains with his punk cohort from Mexico City to Tijuana, riding on the roof above the din of the passenger cars and taking in the beautiful views of Mazatlán over the next couple days. “I remember we stopped once and there were a bunch of kids running next to the train, you know, looking like they were going to throw rocks at us. So we all ducked because we didn’t want to get hit. Then I got hit by something soft – and we realized that they were throwing mangos. We ate mangos for the next few days. It was beautiful, the kindness of strangers. I still think it’s funny, too, to see people paying so much for mangos at Whole Foods when these kids were just throwing them at us.”
Once he reached Tijuana, he was taken in by a grizzled tattoo artist (named _rancho____) who knew the lay of the land. “I went to the garita early Monday morning,” Chuch tells me, “It’s the best time, because all the Americans who came over to party in the – you call it a ‘red light district’? – leave to go back to work. It’s really busy. I just walked up to the garita and there was a lady who asked me for my papers. I nodded and reached in my pocket like I was going to pull out my papers and show them to her, and just walked past. I saw some guards, big guys, but I just blended in like a ninja.”
From here he made it to San Diego – almost broke, and knowing no English outside of Doors lyrics (“Come on baby, light my fire,” he says) – but in San Diego nonetheless. “I was just walking around. I wanted to see America. I grew up seeing all kinds of American stuff on TV, you know, movie stars and McDonalds, but I wanted to see it myself. I figured even if I was going to get caught and deported to Mexico, I’d still be able to say I saw it.” He pauses and takes another sip of his strawberry kombucha. “I was like, ‘Wow, people here stop at traffic lights. We just ignore it in Mexico City. And the bathrooms were clean. McDonalds and Burger King all over the place’.”
Chuch wasn’t quite out of the fire, though–he needed to get to Fresno to meet up with his fellow punk friends, and there was a second border checkpoint between San Diego and Los Angeles. “While I was walking around, I talked to a guy who could tell that I had just crossed the border and said he could help me. He told me to meet him at the train station at 6am, but I didn’t have the money to pay him, so I showed up at 7am and bought myself a train ticket, figuring that was how he planned to help me. I got on the train and everything was fine, until the train broke down and we had to get on a bus. I didn’t want to get on the bus, you know, because of the garita, but we had to. So we stopped at the garita and the INS guy came on the bus and looked around with his flashlight. But I got really lucky. The bus driver was like ‘Hey, this bus is already really late because the train broke down, I can’t let you look around too long.’ So I made it through to Los Angeles. I didn’t have any money, and I was just walking around downtown begging for change to try and get a bus ticket to Fresno.”
Initially, the plan was to get in touch with a guy who was somewhat notorious in the Mexican punk community for being willing to help out comrades who had crossed the border, but Chuch’s good samaritan was thwarted by his mother, who answered the phone as though she was tired of dealing with her son’s sympathy. “At about 2am, this really fat ugly guy in this really big, fancy white car pulls up next to me and asks if I have a place to go. At first I tell him, ‘Yeah, I’m just staying with my cousin over there,’ but he figures out that I’m lying and insists I get in the car with him. He says he can tell by the way I look that I just crossed the border, and I don’t have papers. Then he asks me if I was hungry, and takes me to a Carl’s Jr. I know it’s a big multinational corporation and everything, and I was vegetarian at the time, so I ordered the fries. They were so good. I hadn’t eaten in like, two days. Then we go back to the car and he tells me that he can take me to the bus station, but I had to, uh, let him give me a blowjob first. And I was like, ‘What?’ He even took my hand and tried to demonstrate on my fingers, you know, trying to show me how good it was gonna be. So I lied to him and told him that I had a family, and I was a really religious guy, and I couldn’t do that kind of thing. I was thinking that if things got bad, I’d just dive out of the car, you know, like the movies.”
He pauses. “It’s kind of sad, I guess he’s a gay guy who just couldn’t be happy. Anyway, he took me to the bus stop and gave me forty bucks – enough for the train ticket to Fresno. Then he dropped me off, but called me back and gave me another twenty. I was so grateful. I-I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, you know, and said ‘Thank you’.”
“Once I got to Fresno, I realized that I didn’t really know how to get to my friend’s house. The public transportation system is just so bad there. It was like, a 45 minute drive, and I didn’t have a car. So this guy in a car drives up and says, ‘Get in the car, I’ll take you there, it’s on my way. You hungry? Let’s get something to eat.’ And I was like, ‘Awesome, more free food.’ So we went to eat at a restaurant, then we get back in the car and he’s like ‘Hey, you like chicks? I got some porno in the back of the car.’ And I was thinking, this is really weird. So I dove out of the car – you know, just like I said I was thinking about with the guy in LA. Just like the movies.”
Chuch eventually made it to his friend’s house, but the relief was short-lived. “His place was really small, like his room was smaller than this,” he says while spreading his arms, “He said we couldn’t stay there. And we tried to find work, but we didn’t even have a fake green card. I saw the jobs that Mexicans were working there, it looked like slavery in the 1800s, you know, a bunch of brown guys working in the field all day. $4.50 an hour picking oranges all day – I’ve had enough shitty jobs , you know, I didn’t want to do that kind of work. So we said, let’s try going to Oakland, which had a big punk scene and stuff like Food Not Bombs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_Not_Bombs) and The Long Haul (http://thelonghaul.org/). So we went up to Oakland, where we met up with another guy we knew. He was staying at this vegan lesbian house – they called it the Poonani Palace. They already had like, four Mexicans staying over there, so they said we couldn’t stay long.”
“The guy we were with though, I knew him from Mexico. We didn’t really like each other – like if he saw me buying a Coke, he’d be like ‘Why are you drinking that shit? What are you doing for the cause?’ and I just didn’t like that shit. Turns out he had been talking shit about me before we got up there. Anyway, we get to the house and he’s like, ‘Hey Chuch, I wanna talk to you outside.’ So we go outside and–BAM!” Chuch mimes a slow-motion haymaker to his jaw. “But everyone else stopped the fight. He ended up staying for a few more weeks, but I was there for – let’s see – about two months.” He relates that last bit with a smug grin on his face–his little revenge for that punch, I guess.
The grin fades into sincerity as he continues his story. “I needed a green card, but I didn’t have the money, and this one activist chick who didn’t really know me lent me the fifty bucks to get a fake one – a good fake one, not one of the shitty cheap ones, you know, because there’s good ones and bad ones. So I walked around for like, five or six hours a day just looking for a job. My first job was washing dishes at the Old Spaghetti Factory. Then I started working at Whole Foods as a janitor, sweeping and mopping and everything. One day, this guy I’m working with tells me, ‘Hey, you know that white girl over there, the cashier? She said she kinda likes you.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, really? Me?’ She was cuuuute, man. So I’d just be sweeping over by her like ‘Hey, what’s up?”, you know. I didn’t realize that the guy had told her the same thing. And she asks me out like, “Do you wanna come to my house and eat some tofu?” So our first date is like, watching movies at her place, and she’s sitting on the couch and I’m sitting on the floor ’cause I’m kinda nervous. But then she’s like, ‘Hey, come sit next to me.’ “
He deliberates for a second whether to continue the story. “Then we made love a couple times. Oh, and we were really high.”
“We dated for a little while, and then she was like, ‘Hey, you wanna get married?’ That way I could get a real green card – back then, the laws were different and if you were an illegal trying to marry a U.S. citizen you just had to pay a fine of a couple thousand dollars – but I was kind of nervous, you know. I was only, like, 21, and her family was from Georgia. Her dad was like the VP of Coke. It’s a funny story – we drove to Georgia so I could meet her parents, and we stopped in Las Vegas. I didn’t wanna stop, but her car broke down so we had to. And I was trying to rent a room and needed to show ID, but they wouldn’t take my green card! The real one! I was like, I knew the fakes were more real than the real ones, somehow.”
The marriage didn’t last. “I was young, and I kinda wanted to see other people. We talked about that in the beginning, that it might happen. I didn’t have that many girlfriends when I was growing up.” But he shows me her picture, which he keeps with him. “Man,” he sighs, “She was an angel.” They keep in touch, though–she lives in San Francisco, close enough to keep in contact but worlds apart.
Chuch’s momentum has slowed down from a torrent to a trickle. I have no doubt that a cup of coffee would revive him, but I’ve got enough to sort through. We’re both slightly dazed, too–he because he doesn’t really have the chance to sit down and talk about all of this, and I because I had never heard an immigration story like this before. To be sure, his story isn’t over yet. Oakland has been good to him for the last ten years or so but he is always talking about travel (he’s been around Europe for a little bit, next on the list is Brazil) and lately about starting his own food business.
So we get our things together and start heading back to Whole Foods to pick up his bicycle. He points at one of his co-workers and tells me, “That big guy over there? He used to keep talking shit in the back, so one day I decided to wrestle with him. Took his back and choked him. He didn’t talk to me for in, two months.”
Keep on scratching the lion’s balls, Chuch.