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El Complejo

by Marcus Narvaez

The sun was hitting my neck as I stood in line for the bathroom. “Bathroom” is actually a nice way to put it. They put ten portapotties for the thousands of us who are stuck waiting here. The portapotties usually fill up after a day and don’t get emptied until the end of the week, so in reality I’m standing in line for a section in the back of the stadium that’s been designated for us to piss at.

My old job created a habit of me constantly checking my shoulders, so as I wait in line I look around and observe. The line behind me stretches back thirty yards. Tents fill up the middle of the complex, and sleeping pads cover the spaces between the tents. Tables line around the sides. The tables usually have food for us, but it isn’t uncommon for a day to go by and all the tables be empty. Today just happens to be one of those days.

This place used to be an athletic complex. Where there used to be fresh, well-maintained grass, there is now only dirt with occasional patches of dead, brown grass. I can’t help but think of the happiness that used to be associated here. The goals scored, the friends embracing in tight hugs as their dreams came true, but now I only see a living nightmare. Families are stuffed into small tents to avoid the summer sun. Kids are asking their parents for food that isn’t here. As a man of the law I wanted to follow the law and do the right thing, as did everyone else in this stadium, but now I’m not so sure it was worth it.

A spot on the wall opens up, so I finally get to piss. I pull my shirt over my nose, the smell of my musk is much better than the smell of dehydrated urine. My stream is dark yellow. It’s been getting darker every day that passes.

I make my way back to my sleeping pad. I placed it just shy of where the halfway line would be if a field were still here. It’s hard to look at my surroundings. I don’t want to accidentally step on someone so I keep my eyes on the ground and occasionally take a glance around. Nothing seems out of place so my walk back to my pad is uneventful. To tell the truth my stay here so far has been uneventful.

My sleeping pad is less than an inch thick, so when I sit on it I can still feel the bumps of the earth underneath. I take a deep breath. Inhale through my nose, exhale through my mouth.

“You stressed?” Says a voice to my left. I turn my head and see a skinny guy standing next to a dark green tent. He doesn’t look any older than nineteen. Maybe he hasn’t hit puberty yet or something.

“I’ve just been here too long.”

“How long you been here? We just got here this morning,” he says.

“I don’t know. Two, three weeks maybe?”

“That’s not too bad. I have a tia who came through here last year. She spent five months waiting,” he says as he takes a step closer to me, “I’m Edgar,” he reaches a hand out.

I extend my arm out, “Maynor,” Edgar gives my hand a weak shake. I take a closer look at his face, it’s very dark. His lips are chapped. I scoot over on my pad and pat the open space, “Sit down, Edgar.”

He lets out a small grunt as he takes a seat next to me, “Thanks.”

We sit silently for a moment. I hadn’t really had a conversation with anyone since I’ve gotten here. I look at Edgar, his left cheek is covered in acne scars. “You seem kind of young to have traveled here alone… how old are you?”

“Twenty,” he says, “And I didn’t come alone. My son is asleep in the tent,” he nods his head toward the green tent next to us.

“Oh yeah?” I can’t help but think of how irresponsible he is to bring a kid into this place. “How old is he?” I ask.

Edgar rubs his eyes as he responds, “He’s three. I had him when I was seventeen.”

“And the mom?”

“She didn’t wanna come, so we left her.”

I look over at Edgar, he lets out a yawn. “Go in and get some sleep. I’ll watch over the tent, don’t worry.”

He doesn’t need anymore convincing, Edgar stands up and heads toward the tent, “Gracias” he says as he goes in.

The sun is setting and Edgar still hasn’t come out of his tent. He probably hasn’t had much sleep over the last few days on his travels here. After today I don’t imagine he’ll get much sleep until he leaves. It feels like I’ve barely slept since I’ve been here. I stand up to go pee again. I don’t really have to go too bad, but it’s better to go while the sun’s still out a bit. I’m not leaving my sleeping pad at night. Don’t want to risk anything bad happening.

As I make my way across the stadium I notice a man with a shaved head on my far left heading towards the bathroom as well. He’s wearing a tanktop. He has a tattoo on his right arm, I can’t see what it is from this distance, but I have a bad feeling that I know exactly what it is. I keep walking towards the bathroom and as I do the man with the shaved head starts coming closer to me, occasionally looking at me. One of the first things I learned on the job was to listen to my instincts, so without hesitation I turn around and am about to head back to my sleeping pad, but I get cut off by a tall, shirtless man whose body is covered in tattoos. On his chest is the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by spiderwebs.

“Where you going, maje?”

I look around and the man with the shaved head standing behind me, and another man wearing a blue t-shirt is standing on my right staring at me. “To bed,” I say.

“For real? You can’t be going to bed, maje. The sun is still out,” the shirtless man smiles at me, his teeth are gray.

I don’t respond. I check my shoulders and see the man with the shaved head is getting closer. I try to step away to the left, but the shirtless man stays in front of me.

“I’m keeping my eye on you, puerco,” the shirtless man spits at my feet before walking past me. The other two men follow him.

I quickly make my way back to my sleeping pad. I can feel my pulse in my head. I sit down and take a deep breath, in through my nose, out through my mouth. I think Edgar and his son are still asleep. Hopefully they’ll sleep through the night. I know I won’t be getting any more sleep while I’m here.


I lean back onto my elbows and stare up at the bright night sky. I haven’t seen very many stars since I’ve been here. We’re close to a city, so the lights reflect off the sky in a way I hadn’t seen before. I miss the sky at home, but I reach up and touch the scar on my shoulder to remind myself why I left.

The door flap to the green tent opens up, and a young boy steps out. He has buzzed black hair and is skinny like his dad. The boy starts to walk away from the tent, but Edgar isn’t following. I jump to my feet and quickly walk over to the boy.

“Hey buddy, wait!” I say as I get closer to him.

He jumps and tenses up before turning his head to look at me, his dark brown eyes open wide. He stays silent.

“Where’s your dad?” I ask.

The boy points at the green tent.

“Is he still asleep?”

The boy nods his head.

“Let’s go back to the tent. You shouldn’t leave without your dad, okay?”

The boy walks past me back toward the green tent, I look around and I see the shirtless man with the Virgin tattoo staring at me and the boy from a couple of tents away. He smiles and waves at me. I turn my focus back on the kid as we arrive at the tent. He crawls inside and I close the flap. I move back over to my sleeping pad and slide it closer to the green tent.

The boy doesn’t get out of the tent the rest of the night. The sky starts to turn a dim shade of orange as the sun starts to rise. You can’t see the sun rise from inside the stadium, but at least the sky gives an indication of the sun's position, so I can close my eyes and imagine how the sunrise must look right now.

Edgar and his son come out of the green tent, “Hey is there a bathroom here?”

“Number one or number two?”

The boy whispers in Edgar’s ear, then Edgar says, “Number one.”

I point to the pissing wall, “You’re going to want to pee on that wall. We have portapotties, but those are for number two. They overflow fast so we don’t want to overflow them with pee and be forced to shit out here.”

Edgar picks up his son, “Gracias Maynor,” and they head off towards the wall.

As I watch them walk away an unwelcome voice behind me says, “That’s a nice boy, maje.”

I turn around and the man with the Virgin tattoo is standing there. He’s wearing a blue button up shirt that’s unbuttoned at the top so you can see his spider web tattoos. “What do you want?” I ask him.

“Nothing, Maynor. We don’t want a thing,” he smiles.

I freeze up when I hear my name. I look around for a way out, but to my right is the man with the shaved head, and to my left is the man who’s still wearing the same blue t-shirt as yesterday. “Did they send you all the way from Honduras? You followed me all the way here?”

“What do you think, maje? You fucked with my mara for too long. Watch your fucking back, puerco.” The man smiles and backs away. The other two close in behind him without saying a word. I watch them walk away. Edgar and his son walk past them on their way back to the green tent.

“Who were they?” Edgar asks.

“I’ll tell you about it later.”


I learned Edgar’s son’s name is Jose. We were able to get some lunch today. A large group of volunteers from the U.S. brought thousands of turkey sandwiches and bottles of water. I gave Edgar half of my sandwich to hold on to in case Jose needed extra food over the next few days.

The day was hot, but the sky was cloudy which helped immensely. Now as the evening progresses the clouds turn darker. Their color is a shader lighter than black. Thunder starts to shake the stadium and Jose tears up. Edgar takes him into the tent and I sit on my pad patiently waiting for the rain to fall. I wish I had soap.

As the first drop falls and lands on my leg I see Edgar stick his head out of the tent.

“Maynor, want to come inside? A bit of shelter from the rain at least.”

Another thunder rumbles and I take that as a sign that I should take shelter. I crawl into the tent behind Edgar. There is one sleeping pad in the tent, which Jose is laying on, but he’s so small he only takes up half of it. Edgar sits on the other half, and I sit on the ground. The tent wasn’t made for three people, so I’m glad Jose is so little.

We sit in silence and listen to the rain. The rain splats against the tent making a sound that is soothing. I look at Jose and his eyes are dozing off and slowly closing.

“So, when can you tell me about those guys you were talking to earlier?” Edgar asks.

I look at him and then back at Jose who is now asleep, “They’re the reason why I’m here.”

Edgar leans forward, “What do you mean?”

I inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth. “I was a cop in Honduras. I was helping take care of the maras around my town.”

“Take care of them how?”

“I was arresting them. It didn’t do much. They would end up back on the street within a few days, but I had to send a message you know?”

Edgar lets out a soft smile, “I don’t imagine that went very well.”

I smile too. I never thought I would smile telling this story. I pull the collar of my shirt down exposing the deep scar in my shoulder.

Edgar’s smile goes away, “They shot you?”

My eyes stay on my scar, “They shot me.” I look back up at Edgar, “I was asleep in my home. I woke up in the middle of the night to two men standing over my bed. I couldn’t see who they were, but it didn’t matter. One of them said, ‘Leave or die.’ Then they put a bullet in my shoulder.” I let go of my collar and cover my scar back up.

“I don’t understand. You left, so why are they here?”

“I don’t know. Pride? Maybe? I don’t know. I just hope I get my trial before they do anything crazy.”

Edgar looks over at Jose. Edgar’s face turns a shade paler, “I don’t need to worry about them… do I?”

“No, I don’t imagine they’ll try anything that crazy in here,” I say.

For a moment I remember that Edgar is only twenty years old. He’s here with a son he had when he was seventeen. “What about you, Edgar? Why are you here?”

Edgar rubs his head as he answers, “There’s just no work. There was no way I could provide for Jose if we stayed.”

“Do you have a plan if they let you into the U.S.?” I ask.

“Yeah, my older brother and his wife live in Kansas. They said if Jose and I can get into the country then we can live with him and I can work with him. And you? Do you have a plan?”

I sigh. “No, not really. I have an old friend from primary school who lives in Houston. He said I could stay with him until I find my feet, but I don’t want to stay there too long. I don’t know the guy that well anymore, so I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”

Edgar picks up Jose and moves him to one side of the sleeping pad. He lays down on the space that’s left. With his eyes closed he says, “Don’t worry, Maynor. God has a plan for everyone. Things will get better for us, I know it.”

“Yeah… I hope so,” I say. Edgar doesn’t say anything else. I watch his chest slowly go up and down with each breath. I lay on the ground and close my eyes. The sound of the rain pattering against the tent makes me relax. Despite laying on the ground, this is the comfiest I’ve been in months.


The sound of the tent flap opening wakes me up. I look over, Edgar and Jose are gone. I don’t hear any rain hitting the tent. I crawl and stick my head out of the tent and I see Edgar and Jose walking toward the portapotties. There are puddles of water all around the stadium. The sky is clear now, the moon is shining directly on top of us.

I go back into the tent and lay back down. I was about to close my eyes, but the sound of the tent flap opening again makes my body tense up. A man with a shaved head peeks his head inside and smiles, “He’s in here.”

I get on my hands and knees ready to jump head first out of the tent, but by the time I get in position the man with the shaved head, the man with the Virgin tattoo, and the man with the blue t-shirt are already inside and blocking the exit.

“Poor little puerco is stuck in his pen. Right, maje?” The man with the Virgin tattoo says.

“Come on, please… I’m leaving. You won’t hear from me ever again,” I plead.

The man with the Virgin tattoo smiles, “I know we won’t hear from you again.” He pulls out a small knife from his waistband. Then the other two pull out knives as well.

I look at the three of them, and I look at the door flap behind them. I let my body react without thinking, I put all the force in my back legs and thrust myself forward. I hit the man with the Virgin tattoo with my shoulder, but as I made impact I felt a sharp pain in my side. I feel two sets of arms grabbing me on each side and they pin me to the ground. A warm, stinging sensation fills my left hip. I have no doubt that I have a knife wound there.

I don’t think about my survival anymore. I think about Edgar and Jose. I hope they are able to make it to the U.S. safely. I hope these guys don’t leave my body here for Jose to see. As I open my mouth to plead for Edgar and Jose’s safety, I’m hit with an immense pain in my throat. I try to breathe in but am unable to. I close my eyes and do my best to ignore the pain.

About the Author

Marcus Narvaez is twenty-three years old from Birmingham, Alabama. He is a first-generation American, the son of two immigrants from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Marcus uses his experiences as a first-generation American to write about the immigrant experience.

A professor once told Marcus, "We write to give a voice to the voiceless." And that's exactly what Marcus attempts to do with his writing.

Marcus graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. In 2020 Marcus was awarded the Tom Brown Award for Creative Nonfiction by his peers at UAB.

Marcus is the first person in his family to graduate from an American university.

Marcus is currently a soccer coach, and is working on two picture books.

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