Updated: Oct 3, 2019
Gradually the footsteps began to intensify, and a shadow came into view. Mateo remained hidden under the floor boards, wondering if the shadow noticed that he blew out the candles. His anxiousness overpowered his breathing, but to refrain from being heard he concentrated on the one thing that always made him happy: his family. And even though they weren’t together, they were alive and well, and they would want him to fight this ordeal. Drawing in deep breaths, he hoped that maybe thinking about everything will produce some emotion other than fear and anxiousness. Maybe it would be best to think about the beginning.
It started with the flyers.
When Mateo’s mother, Nora, first read the flyer, she became immersed in so much hope that she couldn’t help but attend the meeting.
“Look mijo,” said Nora holding up a bright orange sheet of paper as she entered their little trailer home from work. “What happened to your knee?”
“I scraped it playing soccer,” he replied.
“Mijo, you have to be careful,” said Nora setting down her tools from the nursery. “If you get a serious injury, there’s not much we can do to for it. Come on, let me clean it for you.”
She began to read the flyer aloud as she cleaned his wound. “Families in need go to the break room during lunch to get free food. For all family sizes!”
“Are you sure about this?” asked Mateo inspecting the flyer. “Remember what happened to Papá.”
“We don’t have a choice,” replied Nora finishing the wrap around his knee. “We’re running out of options. What I make by myself isn’t enough for all of us.”
“I can get a job.”
“No, you focus on school. That’s your ticket for a better future.”
“Did you show him?” asked Stephanie walking in, wearing the exact same thing as Nora, setting down the same gardening equipment from the nursery.
“I wish we had more options,” said Stephanie reading Mateo’s reluctant expression. “But we need all the help we can get.”
Mateo remained silent, studying the flyer as though looking at it long enough would reveal some hidden truth. His impression of the flyer was solely based on the last time someone offered help, and that ended with his Papá being deported. To this day, Mateo still hadn’t heard from him. The possibility of starvation was their greatest enemy, and those who knew it, used it to exploit their weakness.
The day of the food giveaway, Stephanie came home, distraught. As she cried, unable to speak, a wave of anger shadowed Mateo. She didn’t have to say anything, he knew the same ICE uniforms that took his father, took his mother.
“It was awful,” Stephanie finally spoke after several minutes. “They lined us up in two rows.”
Mateo felt sweat begin to form through every pore on his body as Stephanie described the raid.
ICE announced their arrival with an unnecessary burst through the break room doors. Stephanie counted eight armed men, and two standing point directing the entire ordeal.
“Dos lineas,” said a man in a terrible Spanish accent who everyone referred to as Brady. “Papeles, sin papeles.” There was a stillness in the room that simply aggravated the armed men.
“Now!” Yelled one of the men holding up a rifle.
Everyone in the room jumped, and started walking in different areas, unsure if they should lie about their status. One man acted on his fear too quickly, too impulsively. He made a break for the exit, only to be close-lined by Brady.
“Don’t!” Brady shouted holding a gun to the man’s face. “I have no problem using it.”
That was the only time anyone dared escape. Stephanie was making her way to the papeles line, holding Norma’s hand, guiding her towards the wrong line. Norma tugged her hand away, eyes widening, letting her daughter know that they had to part ways. Instead, Stephanie walked to the sin papeles line with her mother, careful not to attract too much attention. When everyone was settled they called their row “The Illegals.”
Nervous about the sudden change in plans, Norma began to tremble, hoping her daughter would be spared for being in the wrong line.
“Turn around,” said an agent to Norma. He patted her down and inspected her belongings. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What do you think is wrong with her?” asked Stephanie, a twinge of anger intercepted her rationality and forced her to speak up. “Look at us. We’re all terrified.”
“Your English is good. Are you sure you’re in the right line?”
He walked over to her and began his pat down. After rummaging through her backpack, he found her social security card. Stephanie thought there was little that could make the ICE agents angry. Judging by the draws of deep breaths, she was wrong. He packed everything in her backpack, and threw it to the other line along with Stephanie.
Then came the K9s. They sniffed around the sin papeles line thoroughly. While the dogs sniffed and barked, the sound of a helicopter droned overhead. Within moments, the everyone in the undocumented line were all arrested with plastic zip ties and escorted to a bus.
Everyone from the papeles line had a loved one being escorted out. The moods varied as anger and sadness shadowed the nursery. No one would explain what was happening, where they were going, what was to become of them. They nursery became immersed in cries from both crowds giving each other instructions on how to survive the separation.
“Get the money that’s hidden,” shouted Norma to Stephanie. “Put it somewhere else. And help Mateo clean his wound. Take care of each other.”
In a matter of moments, there was a profound silence that seemed to resonate in the pit of Stephanie’s stomach. Once the agents cleared out, everyone ran home.
Mateo felt as though he didn’t go through the lengths he should’ve gone to keep his mother away from that meeting. Losing both parents was always a possibility. But the moment it became reality, Mateo felt lost. He had learned from his father how to be kind. But what of it? No one was kind to them.
“Mateo?” said Stephanie, breaking him from his trance. “There’s something else.”
“What is it?”
“When everyone left, some people went to the manager’s office, and he said he never authorized flyers to be put in the break room.”
“What are you saying?”
“Someone set us up. They called ICE and told them we would be there, in the break room.”
“Who would do that?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “People who call this place Little Mexico? Ugly annex? There are so many possibilities. Which is why we have to hide.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone thinks they’re coming here next.”
In less than an hour, they gathered enough food and water for two days, and hid in a panic room their father built underneath their trailer. In the first two hours, they heard scurrying outside from families getting in cars and driving off without enough time to pack everything up. Sobs and wails echoed in the emptying trailer park from people who broke the news to them. Children cried when night came, wondering why their parents hadn’t arrived from work. Mateo and Stephanie had to fight their instinct to go out and help. But they heard stories about children who were taken into custody when they had no adults around. If they tried to help, and they happened to be out there when ICE arrived, who would help their mother?
Forty hours passed, and their food and water rations had depleted. ICE agents never came to the trailer park. The cries of children had stopped. Several cars had driven away. Now and then there was an uneasy feeling that the subtle noises they heard were from people who were left alone. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, all alone. And in that moment of solitude, a wave of mixed emotions controlled everyone’s decisions, no matter how awful. Mateo and Stephanie didn’t know what to expect when they walked out, back into their little community after almost two days.
They emerged from their safe room and instinctively began searching for their mother. But they had become so intent on finding her that they didn’t give themselves the opportunity to see what really happened. Mateo couldn’t explain what it was, but at that moment, even when the sun had already set, a shadow fell over him, overpowering any notion of safety he had left.
“Something’s wrong,” whispered Mateo to his sister.
“We heard it,” she replied, thinking he was talking about the emptiness. “We heard people leaving.”
“No,” he replied, breathless. “Something else. It feels weird, doesn’t it?”
As they stood out in the open, they breathed in the smoky, rubbery air, possibly the only thing that remained the same. No sooner were they aware of the desolation. Bicycles were thrown across the street, doors remained open, and toys were scattered across yards, as though the desperation was so immense, what was the point of worrying about anything other than escaping? Soccer balls were left on the gravel soccer “field,” suggesting that Mateo’s friends were so terrified they left their dearest possession behind.
“Do you see that?” asked Stephanie pointing to a light inside one of the smaller trailer homes at the entrance of the community.
“Should we go?” asked Mateo.
“I don’t know. Maybe they know more about what happened?”
They made their way in that direction, only to be stopped by a whisper coming from the inside of their neighbor’s home.
“Don’t,” said a boy. “Stay inside.”
“Diego?” asked Mateo.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Someone’s been coming and going through people’s homes.”
“Is it ICE?”
“Don’t know. But he’s scary looking. Come see me tomorrow morning. For now, hide.”
Without asking questions, they immediately turned around and went back home. Mateo had become so focused on Diego’s warning, that he couldn’t even close his eyes to try and sleep. When an acceptable time of daylight had passed, they went back to visit Diego.
“He’s starting from the entrance,” began Diego. “He’s cleared out two homes. One per night.”
“What do you mean cleared out?” asked Stephanie.
“He’s checking if there are any people left inside. Then, when the train passes, he takes his ax and destroys as much as he can before he leaves. He’s dangerous.”
“And he’s come every night?”
Diego nodded his head.
“Is there anyone left?”
“I think so. But I haven’t checked.”
Suddenly, Mariana from three houses down ran towards them carrying a cardboard box. They had taken her husband, her only family. Mariana kept it together better than anyone else in the community, but as she ran towards them, her disheveled look made her almost unrecognizable.
“The post office,” she said out of breath. “They have people helping everyone out. They heard about what happened at the nursery. Here.”
Before any of them could ask her anything, she began handing them milk, and bread.
“Alejandro will be back,” she said with a touch of madness brewing in her eyes. “I can’t give you more, because I plan on having the house ready when he comes back. Go to the post office. Go!”
Mariana made a sharp impression, and this last suggestion forced them to oblige. As they approached the Post Office several volunteers were blended with the crowd of people desperate for food and water. They saw people distributing eggs, milk, bread, and water. Off to one side Mateo saw a woman handing children crayons and bubbles. On the woman’s left was a nurse checking people for blood pressure. Several volunteers were walking through the crowd handing everyone flyers for suicide hotlines, free mental health counseling, and free legal advice.
“Come on,” said Stephanie handing Mateo and Diego plastic grocery bags. “Let’s get as much as we can and go back.”
“Where are your parents?” asked a man handing out flyers.
“They were taken,” replied Mateo.
“Here,” said the man handing them a purple flyer. “If she’s detained you can call her, but it’s a dollar per minute. If you need calling cards, call the number on the flyer and these lawyers will help you with that. Good luck, mijo.”
“Of course it would be a dollar per minute,” said Diego reading the flyer. “They don’t make it easy, do they?”
A week went by and the man with the ax didn’t return, they still couldn’t reach their mother, and the food from the Post Office was almost done. They didn’t dare visit the detention centers, otherwise they would get caught just the same. Stephanie went back to work, but her hourly pay wasn’t nearly enough to pay the bills. After eight days, the power went out.
Everyone who remained in Little Mexico began to unravel. There was far too much to worry about. Food, water, power, the ax, and the safety of their family. Esteban, a man in his mid-twenties, placed a gallon of gas on the side of the trailer and hung a noose at the edge of the porch. His girlfriend, Sarah, and her family fled back to Mexico during the nursery commotion. She didn’t even have time to write him a good-bye letter. When he heard of the raid, he went to her house only to find it empty. The only family he had was gone. He spent the last week, sitting outside his front door, holding a lighter and staring up at the noose, as though it held some long-awaited answers to this mess. Most were afraid to approach him, worried that if they woke him from his trance, he would use both.
Aurelia from eight houses down just stopped eating. And not because she didn’t have the food, she just stopped after her father was taken. Everyone tried to get her to eat, but she just choked on the food that was forced into her mouth.
“It’s been two weeks,” said Stephanie. “I think we should go.”
“Not yet,” replied Mateo. “Just a few more days.”
“She’s not coming back. We have to make our way to her.”
“What if we go, and then she comes back. You know how long all this stuff takes.”
“We won’t go far. Just to our Tío’s house.”
“How do you even know they’re still there?”
“I don’t. But we have to try. We can’t stay here eating dollar menu every day, with no electricity. They’re going to shut down the water on us soon. And what if they come here and just take the rest of us. They’ll separate us. What then?”
He considered the idea. “Okay. Let’s leave in the morning.”
Mateo waited all night for a sign, anything that told him his mother was safe and sound. He couldn’t bear the possibility that he may have to live without knowing what happened to her. It was impossible to think of a time when someone told him a happy ending to a raid. He looked over to his sister, who still lay awake, staring up at the ceiling of their bedroom. He opened his mouth to say something. Instead, he kept to himself, careful not to tell his sister how distraught he was. Careful not to tell his sister that he was terrified on so many levels, because her glistening eyes told him that there was some tumultuous thought process causing chaos in her mind.
Suddenly, a terrible sound pierced through every trailer home in the vicinity. The dangerous man announced his arrival with heavy footsteps and dragging his ax on the pavement.
“He’s back,” whispered Stephanie. “Let’s go back down to the panic room.”
Gradually the footsteps began to intensify, and a shadow came into view. Mateo remained hidden under the floor boards, wondering if the shadow noticed that he blew out the candles. Drawing in deep breaths, he thought about everything, and it brewed some emotion other than fear and anxiousness. There was internal fury fueled by this man, possibly the man who set everyone up.
Before he could thoroughly inspect their trailer, something caught the man’s attention and he walked away, towards Esteban’s house.
“I’ll be back,” whispered Mateo.
“No,” cried Stephanie. “Don’t go out there.”
“You have to trust me.”
“No, I’m responsible for you.”
“If I’m going to live without parents, why bother treating me like a child?”
Stephanie, speechless for a moment, said, “What are you going to do?”
“I have an idea. When I say run, you get one of the bikes outside and go, got it?”
“To Tío’s house. I’ll catch up.”
“No, I don’t like it.”
“Just trust me.”
Before she could protest, he exited the panic room. He walked in view of Esteban and saw the man with the ax, rooted in place over him. He swung his ax at the railing of the porch, as though he was challenging Esteban’s stoic gaze. He didn’t flinch. As the man toyed with Esteban, Mateo walked to the side of the trailer and opened the gallon of gas.
“You should’ve left with the rest of them,” said the man with the ax. His voice so murky it was as though he knew what he was saying was vile.
Without thinking twice Mateo shouted, “Sarah’s back!” as he doused the man with gas.
He turned around and chased Mateo. Mateo pushed as hard as he could and shouted “Run!” in his sister’s direction. He thought he saw her picking up a bike, but it was too dark to tell. Suddenly, a bright light emerged from behind and lit up the road ahead. His sister was waiting for him with another bike, waving him with an urgency that suggested the man with the ax was close. But Mateo slowed down when he looked over his shoulder and saw that the source of light was the man falling to the ground in a ball of fire.
“Where’s Sarah?” shouted Esteban.
“I’m sorry,” cried Mateo. “I had to say it. He was going to kill you.”
“You should’ve let him!” shouted Esteban along with a series of curse words in Spanish. Mateo and Stephanie pushed their legs until they reached the end of the community. Bringing the bike to a sudden halt, Mateo looked back and saw the man motionless on the ground. Further out he saw Esteban walking towards the noose. Mateo tried to make his way to him, but Stephanie held him back.
“We’ve done enough,” she said crying. “We have to leave.”
Off to one side they heard police vehicles approaching. They locked eyes and gave each other a nod, understanding that this could no longer be home. They paused to give one last look at the ruin that was once a neighborhood before riding off into the night, fleeing the sirens.