Las Palmas restaurant, Vista
  • Las Palmas restaurant, Vista
  • Image by Dave Allen
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In April 2001, 15-year-old Reina was leaving her home in Tenancingo, a high-plateau town west of Mexico City. She was happier than she’d been in a while, traveling north to Tijuana, in the company of Arturo López-Rojas. At 32, Arturo was nicely dressed, heavy, and short, barely five feet tall; Reina, with a pretty round face, was shorter by several inches. Arturo was taking her to the border crossing at San Diego to get her into the United States; he would then deliver her to her new job as a housekeeper, maybe with children to watch; he also vowed that once she had established herself, they would marry. This bundle of offerings excited Reina. She knew of other girls who’d made the trip to California, who were cleaning grand houses with grassy yards and swimming pools and sending money to their loved ones in Tenancingo — dollars instead of pesos.

But Reina was also worried. Six months earlier, she had given birth to a boy, Manuel. Leaving her son behind was the most painful thing she’d ever done. For miles she cried, felt the space between her and Manuel stretch across the span of blue sky. Arturo said, don’t worry. In a month, after she had earned his gas money, Arturo would return to Tenancingo and pick up Manuel and bring him north. He would get Manuel across the border the same way he would get her across. Don’t worry. Reina felt better, remembering the swaddled baby she had hugged and kissed and given to Arturo’s sister, a young woman who also told her, No te preocupés. Don’t worry.

Before they left, Arturo asked about Manuel’s birth certificate. Reina said it had been lost. But, he said, we must have proof of his birth. So he arranged for Reina to go before a civil registry judge in Tlaxcala, Arturo’s hometown, where she told the judge that Arturo was Manuel’s father. With the boy theirs, Arturo could now do things for Manuel that Reina could never do by herself.

From Tenancingo to Tijuana took several days of Arturo’s driving the desert highways and their sleeping in the car. Upon arrival, Arturo, according to court records, took Reina to the home of his brother, Daniel López-Rojas. Besides Daniel, she met a woman named La Porfa, who also lived there. The next day La Porfa took Reina shopping. The kind of clothes La Porfa pulled off the rack were short dresses and tank tops, silver belts and black shoes, things her future husband Arturo, La Porfa said, would like. Reina was glad for something girlish to wear.

That night, after dinner, La Porfa walked Reina into the heart of Tijuana’s nightlife. North along Avenida Revolución — by the discos pulsing out Mexican rap and packed with norteamericanos; by dark doorways with men extending their arms and opening their palms to invite them in; by all-night pharmacies, an AM/PM, lines of cars with California license plates. Along the way very young boys wore T-shirts riddled with holes; their soiled pants were belted low on their hips and drooped below their knees. Some staggered and fell, high from sniffing glue. Soon Reina and La Porfa reached the north end of the street. There, guy wires anchor a great steel arch, and a screen flashes the time and ads for Corona beer. Below the screen is the sign, Bienvenidos a Tijuana.

The border was only two blocks away. Would Reina see it now? Would they cross tonight? Not yet. They turned a corner and walked toward a narrow street. Crowds of people bunched together. Urine-colored light and angry motorcycles unsettled the scene; there was a bar called El Fracaso (the Failure), and out front a vendor sold carne asada, the smell as savory as Reina’s grandmother’s kitchen. Then a shock. In front of every building were girls, leaning against the wall, facing the street. Some were Reina’s age, some were older, most dressed in the clothes she wore. They possessed a vigil-like silence, waiting for someone and no one. Men with ponytails cocked their heads while they lectured girls who gazed forward, dead-eyed. What was this place? La Porfa told her, Zona Norte.

They walked farther. Two dozen girls flanked both sides of a fat man with a thick gray mustache, sitting on a stool at the entrance to a loud bar. How much the girls’ faces resembled each other! Tall, skinny, or fat, how many were sisters? Their supershort dresses covered only their behinds; their feet, strapped into black or silver-glittering high heels, changed places, one foot easing forward and one moving back; their rouged-up faces, drawn-on eyebrows, and red or pale lipstick made them look tawdry and older. Many were darker skinned than Reina. Those girls were from states in southern Mexico, Chiapas and Oaxaca, maybe a few from Guatemala. Some looked Mayan, the most ancient women of Mexico and, many believed, the most beautiful.

Suddenly La Porfa thrust Reina into a bright-lighted stairwell, marched her up the steps to a dark room with curtains. There, according to court documents, La Porfa told Reina, you must begin working, before you cross into the United States. What? Work. To pay off the coyote’s bill. Now, sit on the bed and be quiet. In a minute a man was in the room, telling Reina to pull her skirt up, pull her panties down. He pushed her back and didn’t ask.

What Reina had put out of her mind for three days, the truth about her past, now may have flooded back. It was her father — what he had done and why she had left. When Reina was 10 and her mother and grandmother had died, her father began abusing her — constant put-downs, slaps, and beatings. To escape, she quit school at 13 and, looking older than her age, got a job in a club. There, a Tenancingo policeman met Reina and, alone with her one night, had her take her pants off, had her do things she didn’t like doing. When she resisted, he got angry and hit her; when she cried and screamed, he became enraged. He raped her. Reina wanted to tell her older sister, but she had left home. She told one of her brothers, but he didn’t believe her. She cried to her father then, and he believed her but not about how it happened. He said she had seduced him, the policeman. She deserved what had happened, and she had embarrassed her father. She was nothing more than a prostitute.

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