Esteban was used to spending his birthday alone, because his mother always had to work, and his father, Chucho, had vanished before Esteban was old enough to remember him.
Esteban’s parents were from a village in Oaxaca called Ixtepeji. He had heard many times how they had left the village to find work. The people of the Ixtepeji had been farmers, but the chiles they grew were now purchased by a large company who paid for machines to do the sowing and the harvesting. There were no places for new farmhands.
Some of the women of the village wove traditional clothes for the tourists to buy, but few tourists came to Ixtepeji, and the road to Ciudad Oaxaca was long. Most *ixtepejeños* could not afford a car, and there was no regular bus.
"All the young men and women of Ixtepeji left when they came of age," Guadalupe would say, as if recounting a Biblical exodus. "We travelled North, looking for work. Some of us came to *el DF*, but the *mestizos* would not give work to the *indios*, so we went further and further North, until the only place left to go was *la Frontera*, the border lands."
The city of Tijuana lies precisely on the border between the developed and developing worlds, and at times it seems entirely populated by gringo tourists and *indios* waiting to become immigrants.
These would-be immigrants are called *pollos*, "chickens", by the *tijuanenses*.
Esteban’s parents were *pollos*. They crossed the border with the help of a *pollero*, a trafficker, who led them and twelve other *pollos* through the hills of Border Field State Park one night.
It was not a route with a high rate of success, but Guadalupe, being pregnant, could not use the underground tunnels or the hot, crowded hidden places in the backs of trucks. She and Chucho fell behind the others due to her pregnant condition, so when the *pollero* and his nine other charges were arrested by the IMS, Esteban’s parents escaped.
When they reached the United States, Chucho picked fruit and Lupe cleaned houses, like many many others had done before them, until the time came for Esteban to be born.
They went to a hospital, though they knew the risk, because they had long ago learned that anyone born in the United States is automatically a citizen, and they wanted their child to have a US birth certificate.
This birth certificate was the most important thing they took back to Mexico when they were deported, apart from Esteban himself.
When the US deports Mexicans, they only send them across the border to Tijuana, regardless of where they came from. Chucho and Lupe had always intended to return to the United States, but Lupe could not go while Esteban was an infant.
Instead, Chucho attempted to return alone. He was to get more work and send money back to them until they could join him. He made his second attempt to cross before Esteban was three months old. He was never heard from again.
Lupe was a woman of faith. She chose to believe that Chucho had been killed in his attempt to cross. She even included him in her *ofrenda* on Day of the Dead. This is how Esteban learned that his father’s favourite mezcal was *Banhez* and that he preferred sweet tamales and *champurrado* to *pan de muerto.*
But the harsh life of poverty in *colonia* *Libertad* made Esteban a cynic, and he wasn’t very old before he decided his father must have made it back to America and chosen to abandon his family. But like food, this was not something he could risk debating with his mother.
With no husband to join, Lupe soon gave up hope of ever returning to the United States herself. But it remained her goal for Esteban.
"You are a Mexican, but you are also a citizen of the United States", she would tell her son. "Some day you will return there and make something of your life. Because in the United States they do not know the difference between *los* *mestizos* and *los indios*. We are all just Mexicans to them. And if a Mexican has education, works hard, and speaks English, he can succeed there."
Esteban did work hard, and he did speak English - it was the school subject he did best in, because of the message of his destiny which had been repeated throughout his childhood.
But as he grew older, his mother’s meagre income from cleaning rooms at the Hotel Caesar gnawed at his conscience. He was one of the very few children in Libertad that went to school regularly, as it was his mother’s wish. But at age fourteen he began skipping school whenever his mother told him a rich *gringo* was staying in the hotel. He would loiter around the doors until they came out, and try to guide them through the city for tips.
When there were no gringos at Hotel Caesar he would stake out other hotels, or even walk up and down La Revo near the Mexicoach station, looking for confused tourists. His only success in all these efforts was that he had so far escaped the notice of the police, but still he saw it as his duty to try to contribute what his absent father would not.
On the morning of September 15th, 1994, he awoke on his sunken mattress to the smell of *atole*. His mother hurried him through *desayunos* and soon had him following her through the morning streets. To every question of where they were going she would only reply that it was a surprise. She avoided looking him in the eye, for when she did something very like mirth threatened to break through her hardened stoicism that was the gift of poverty and hardship.
It was a long walk south, out of *Libertad*, through *Buena Vista*. As they crossed the *Via Rápida Poniente* Esteban began to get suspicious. Still Lupe would only reply that their destination was a secret. But when they hit *Agua Caliente* he had to protest.
"We’re going to the dogs?"
Only now did his mother stop and face him, shocked.
"¡*Niño*! You are too young for the dogs anyway. Now be silent until we get there. If you keep asking me questions we will never arrive!"
Before reaching the racetrack they turned down *Tapachula* and stopped at a place Esteban had never been before: The United States Consulate General.
As they approached, his mother’s mirth died down and she became solemn and grave.
"Now, Tebi, you must help me with English. Tell them that we have an appointment."
Esteban tried the door, but it was locked, though the sign indicated they were open. Then he saw, beneath the opening hours, instructions to buzz for entry.
A crackly voice from the intercom answered. Stuttering, Esteban asked the unseen woman if there was an appointment for Juárez.
The door made an even louder buzzing and Esteban only just collected his wits in time to realize that he had to push the door open.
"What is this?" he asked in a whisper once they were inside the door.
"Today you are sixteen. You are here for your passport."
And he saw that she had taken his birth certificate, still in pristine condition, out of their hidden safe and carried it gingerly all the way here.
It was not a smooth transaction. Inside the door was a small, shabbily carpeted antechamber with only one plastic seat. A door at the opposite side of the room opened and an icy blonde woman asked if they had the forms.
Esteban turned to his mother and asked her in Spanish. She produced, along with the birth certificate, a six-page stack of pages of fine black type, interspersed with blank white boxes.
The blonde woman was not pleased.
"You need to fill these out."
Again Esteban recovered just in time and filled in the form himself, as it was entirely in English.
He asked his mother several questions in Spanish, one of which was "How did you do this?"
"Pily and I came together after work. She helped me make the appointment."
Esteban had to use the plastic chair as a writing surface; he finished just as it seemed the woman’s patience was running out.
After glancing through the forms she allowed them further into the building, into a tight and dusty office drenched in fluorescent light, where an older man asked Esteban several questions. Through Esteban, he asked Lupe questions too, though the man seemed to understand Spanish well enough not to need a translation of the response.
Everyone examined Esteban’s birth certificate suspiciously, and the man who interviewed them eventually picked up the phone and rang the hospital. It was an excruciating wait until the hospital rang back with confirmation.
Finally they emerged from the stale, dust-smelling office into the blinding afternoon and began the long walk back to *Libertad*. It was four thirty-five.
They walked in silence: Lupe afraid to ask if Esteban’s gift had pleased him; Esteban afraid to ask for what he really wanted.
When they reached their blue faded shack, they found the door slightly ajar. Inside, some things had been rifled through, but nothing of consequence was missing. The safe had once again remained hidden, and in any case Guadalupe had brought all their money to the Consulate for the application fee. With the remainder she suggested they buy tamales from a street vendor, for she did not have time or ingredients to cook something herself.
Esteban looked at the floor. He could not look at his mother as he began this fight again, a fight which he had never won.
"I don’t want tamales."
"What do you want?"
"We can’t afford it."
"McDonald’s is cheap. It costs the same as a comida corrida."
"I don’t want you to eat that gringo food!"
"Why not? You always tell me, ’Tebi, you are a US citizen,’ ’Tebi, you will go back to the United States.’ What do you think I will eat there? *Gusanos de magey*?"
As Esteban’s voice grew louder and louder he began to expect that she would slap him and end the argument once and for all. But instead Lupe just lowered her head, as if he were the one chastising her.
"Why, on the day I apply for my passport, can I not finally eat what I want to eat? All my friends eat there, and no one cares. But I, the only one of them who is a citizen of the United States, am not allowed?"
Still she hung her head, like a berated child. He almost paused in confusion, but the adrenalin coursing through his blood helped him keep his momentum.
"It’s my birthday, and I have no *pan dulce*, no *cajeta*, just some plain *atole*, and then you drag me through the streets to get me a passport I don’t even want, but you refuse to give me what I *do* want? *Bien*. Maybe I will go to the US. And I will eat *hamburguesas* every day. And I will never come back to visit."
Now he did stop, with the sudden horror that a baby who just has crossed the room for the first time and finds he cannot turn around and walk back to his mother.
During the pause Lupe lifted her face at last, and Esteban saw that her enduring stoicism was marred by a tear which had coursed down the length of her face, traced in the afternoon light, like a crack in a stone god’s face revealing something shimmering and beautiful beneath.
He let his breath catch up with him and his heartbeat slow. When the light-headedness lifted, he walked across their only public room and embraced his mother.
"I’m sorry, mamá."
"No. I am sorry, mijito. You are right. It is your birthday. And you deserve to be happy."
And so, when the sobbing on both parts had subsided, they collected themselves and went out again, heading toward the McDonald’s on Avenida de la Amistad.
* * *
In light of his mother’s chosen destiny for him, it was strange that Esteban should have been born on the anniversary of Mexican Independence. But of course, thousands and thousands of people are born every day.
One of the many who shared this birthday was a young man called Felipe Gutierrez. Like Esteban, his family came from Mexico’s impoverished south. But whereas Esteban had grown up with a mother who encouraged him to believe in a better future, Felipe had spent his youth on the streets, watching people flaunt things he could never have, at least not legitimately.
Felipe had turned to crime early, and by the time he was Esteban’s age he was active in the local arm of one of the cartels.
Mexico was a cronyist oligarchy, but the cartels were a kind of meritocracy. Anyone could rise to the top, as long as he could eliminate the people ahead of him. Felipe intended to make himself as ruthless as possible, to become an object of fear and mystery, so that none would oppose him in his quest for the untold wealth and power that the cartel leaders seemed to enjoy.
But Felipe had reached too far too fast. He attempted to distinguish himself by wresting control of another cartel’s area.
This was in Juárez, a border town that was already notorious for the audacity of its warring drug lords. After the first attempt on his life, Felipe decided to flee Mexico for the United States. This is what had brought him to Tijuana, and what had brought him to the McDonald’s in the *Zona Río*. After dark, the polleros would walk the streets, gathering the *pollos* to smuggle across the border. Tonight, Felipe planned to be among them.
Felipe was hiding in the McDonald’s, keeping a low profile. Or so he thought.
In fact, his whereabouts were well known, and two men with guns were sitting in a parked car across the street. One of them had even come into the restaurant to order a Big Mac and confirm that Felipe was inside.
* * *
Though the walk to McDonald’s had seemed to take much longer than usual, time did not truly begin to slow down until Esteban and his mother reached the corner of Avenida de la Amistad.
When he remembered that day, which he tried very hard not to do, all sound was muffled, like when he buried his head under a pillow as a child, on nights when there was shouting on the street outside.
He was aware of his mother standing still in the corner of his eye as he looked up at the "M" and, above it, the red sign advertising "*desayunos*", which he had always longed to eat there.
He was was aware of people on the sidewalk stopping and staring across the street while his own eyes were fixed on the door to the restaurant, which had just opened to let out a young man in his early twenties.
He was aware that the man had stopped in the doorway only because he was blocking Esteban’s own entrance.
And then came the first clear, un-muted sound: from across the street someone shouted "¡*Feliz cumpleaños pendejo*!"
Then firecrackers exploded again and again and again, for hours and hours, while everything else seemed to vanish. He looked and looked for the firecrackers, but all he could see was a dark grey that was almost black.
Eventually the fireworks stopped and Esteban realized he was crouching on the sidewalk, head down, hands behind his neck like they learned to do in school if there was an earthquake. And what had seemed like silence in the absence of the rapid-fire popping sound became screams that quickly grew louder, like sounds from a car driving toward you at a high speed.
Esteban opened his eyes and stood up to a world that was very different: shattered glass, people running in all directions, screaming and crying, or lying on the sidewalk.
Esteban never saw the body of Felipe Gutierrez, who was lying dead, practically at his feet; in fact he would never even learn this man’s name.
Instead he turned to where his mother’s dark shape had been standing before the fireworks and found she was not there. He looked around the pandemonium. Then he looked down.
She was lying there, face up, but staring at nothing, and he then learned the limit of her stoicism, for she had never in all his life worn such a blank expression, like a mask of herself with no one to wear it.
The screams receded again into the sound of rushing water that grew louder and louder as a strange bitter taste filled his mouth. Then the sun, which had held still during the hours of bursting firecrackers, set instantly behind his eyes, leaving a plush, woolly silence.
* * *
"This is where you live?"
There were two *estatales* in Esteban’s shack. Whether they were really from the *policía* he did not know. He suddenly had a memory of seeing Federal Judicial Police officers standing around on the sidewalk, and it was usually *federales* who dealt with drug violence.
The younger of the two sergeants began to search the shack. It did not take long. He discovered the safe quickly, but it no longer held any money. What little of their cash remained after paying for his passport had almost certainly been taken from his mother’s body.
Esteban’s birth certificate was still at the US Consulate; they had chosen to collect it from the consulate when the passport was ready, as it was not safe to send them anything in the mail. All that remained in the safe was —
"A fucking photograph?"
The younger officer held up the only picture of Esteban’s father in existence. Guadalupe had kept it there and placed it on the *ofrenda* for *el día de los muertos* ever year.
The older officer took the photo, examined it, then handed it back to the younger one, who absently dropped it on the floor. Then he began searching again.
"Forget it, Rafa. There’s nothing here."
The older one headed for the door, and "Rafa" followed him, stopping as he passed Esteban.
"What about him?"
"We’ll see him again in a year, sucking cocks for food in Norte."
Rafa laughed and both officers walked out.
Through the door they left open behind them, Esteban could hear el grito beginning, even in this stale midden of decayed hope.
¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron la patria y libertad!
¡Viva Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez!
¡Viva Galena y los Bravos!
¡Viva Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la Independencia Nacional!
¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!"