57th Street and 7th Avenue subway stop in Manhattan. Late at night. The station is virtually empty. There is no pinche train in sight.
A young man sat on the lowest step of the stairs leading down to the platform. His eyes seemed focused on the scrapes and gouges cut into the concrete by the rush-to-work shoe-pounding of countless New Yorkers. He looked up to check for the train and, as he turned in my direction, an almost imperceptible nod seemed to telegraph a need to talk.
His look is almost a uniform in Manhattan … blue jeans, faded shirt, and sheer exhaustion on mostly Native-American features. He bore the imprint of México and the burden of life as an indocumentado.
I addressed him with a friendly “Buenas Noches” to dispel what the business suit I had on oftentimes meant: that those who wore them considered muchachos like him subservient, insignificant … invisible.
He returned the greeting and, as we waited for the train, I heard the story of how he rode that unseen yet chillingly efficient immigrant railroad. How he worked long, grueling hours in the hot, noisy cocina of a restaurant.
The young man, only recently arrived in New York City, kept his gaze downward, looking up now and then as if looking for someone.
That someone, I soon learned, was his wife.
She had accompanied him on the journey to El Norte. He had arrived in New York.
She had not.
The young man told me how they survived el Río Grande but that in the searing heat of arid brush country, his wife had fallen ill and died.
He cradled her in his arms and wept. Then, forced to leave her by the Coyotes, he wrapped a shawl around her, draped her in ragged branches to protect her from the elements, and kissed her goodbye.
I sat on the steps next to him, for once in my New York life not complaining about a late-arriving subway train.
There was more. He could not bear to tell her family or his … and certainly not their little daughter who, during telephone calls, asks why Mami cannot come to the phone.
His answer, “Está trabajando.”
“She is working.”
Even though whispered, his next words were a grito that overwhelmed the subway platform with his grief.
“No sé cómo decirle …”
“I don’t know how to tell her …”
Without a conclusion; without a period to mark the end of a sentence, he hung on to those words and we sat in silence. As if trying to decipher an explanation for what had happened, he stared at those random hieroglyphics of gouges, scrapes, and pockmarks on the floor of the subway platform. Then, we heard the rumble of an approaching train and rose to meet it.
I shook his hand and put my other mano atop his; a brief momento of sympathy that could in no way lessen the ache I sensed in his grasp.
The train door closed and a rush of anger opened as I recalled a meeting at the television station where I worked at the time, about a report on the city’s undocumented immigrants. The topic of the crossing came up. “No one gives a shit how they got here,” was one news manager’s comment.
As the train transported me downtown, I threw those cold, vicious words into the dark tunnel of New York’s underground from where I hope they never emerged.
To the young man with the ghost of a wife who works a ghost of a job, to their daughter, and to the brave spirit herself I say … your husband remembers you, your daughter remembers you. I remember you.
As your body rests in a makeshift grave somewhere in the Southwest, you need no green card, no passport, and no endless legislation to travel where you need to go.
Your soul travels freely from México, where a young girl senses a gentle breeze that feels like a mother’s kiss. Then, you hurry across the river and through a subway tunnel to comfort a husband who rides a train and remembers, as I remember … La Mujer de Manhatitlán.