After almost half a year of struggling to survive, our focus changed from trying to get ahead to just trying to get back home. It wasn’t a matter of packing and heading north. The move required first month’s rent, a deposit, and a job, and we had none of those things. We had trapped ourselves in Mexico. Our unemployment had run out, and with it went money for gas and electricity. For a couple of weeks, we cooked meals over scrap wood in the BBQ grill, always leaving a small fire going to warm middle-of-the-night bottles for the baby. We went to sleep right after the sun went down.
Looking for chofers
One day at the sobre rueda, Maria heard about a man who hires people who can cross legally into the States. They’re called chofers, which is slang for delivery driver, and a chofer could earn 60 dollars per trip by delivering groceries. This sounded too good to be true. We were reluctant, at first, but desperate people lose their inhibitions, and so, in the end, we called the man. He explained that it was, in fact, only groceries that could be brought legally into the U.S., mostly in the form of homemade food sent up from families in the interior of Mexico to relatives in the States. It would never be drugs, people, or anything else illegal. Still skeptical, we asked point-blank why he was willing to pay someone to drive groceries across. Why not do it himself? “It’s the volume!” he said. He had a lot of groceries.
After considering our options and realizing that we were running out of them fast, we decided there was no harm in checking it out. Plus, the people from our neighborhood spoke highly of Manuel and his wife, Linda, assuring us that they were “good people.” In Mexico, this is a big deal.
Food orders from Mexico’s interior
are flown to Tijuana in wrapped cardboard boxes. Then they’re sorted and transferred to black plastic bags
for each customer, then smuggled
across the border by drivers.
We agreed to meet Manuel the next morning at his small warehouse near the airport. We arrived to find four other cars already waiting. There were two couples with small children, a young guy who looked like a college student, and a chubby girl in a sports car — not at all what we were expecting. We learned that Manuel was usually late because he had to pick up “merchandise” at the airport. The plane was the unreliable part. Only in Mexico, I thought. While we waited, we all sat around talking. The kids ran up and down the sidewalk in front of the empty warehouse. It looked like any other day in that neighborhood, until an hour later, when a man — not Manuel — finally arrived. When he opened the rear doors of his van, I saw three cardboard boxes bursting at the seams. I watched closely as he and a helper carried the heavy boxes inside, cut them open, and began tossing out bags of tostadas, sweet breads, chilies, salted fish, chocolate, and cheese — lots and lots of cheese.
"Kinda, sorta like FedEx"
It took about half an hour for them to transfer the contents of the big boxes into tightly tied small black plastic bags. They passed these out to the people waiting outside. Once handed off, the chofers shuffled the bags to their cars. It was obvious they were all familiar with how things worked.
When the warehouse was nearly empty, except for the ceiling-high pile of collapsed boxes from previous runs, the man introduced himself as Rolando. He asked if we intended to carry some merchandise across. He was a young guy, the son of the man on the phone, we assumed, calm and collected. He didn’t apply any pressure, just asked matter-of-factly whether we wanted to “work.” My wife and I looked at each other. Without needing to discuss it, we agreed. Why the hell not?
We’d been told that, even if you were caught, the only punishment was a fine, which Rolando said he would help pay. As one of the regular chofers put it: “The Border Patrol is looking for illegals and drugs; they don’t care about food.” We were just desperate enough to hear that as unqualified permission.
You never know what the load’s going to be, only that it’s homemade food from places like Michoacán or Oaxaca, and maybe some personal items and mail. Apparently, it’s cheaper and more trustworthy to send these things along the food network instead of the Mexican mail system: this import-export circuit is a direct pathway for all items traveling from family to family. One week, I noticed a cardboard cutout of a child’s foot in one of the bags headed north; a week or so later, new shoes that would fit that child might be headed south. For a small fee, you could toss almost anything in with the sweet bread and cheese, and it would make its way through the network, into a family member’s hands in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or wherever along the way.
When the merchandise arrives in Tijuana, it’s divided between five, six, and sometimes as many as ten chofers, each earning around $60 per trip. Sometimes, there’s so much that each chofer transports two or even three loads in a day. That was plenty of incentive to my wife and I to take risks. Where else were we going to make that kind of money?
Before loading the merchandise, you have an opportunity to inspect every item to make sure it’s not drugs, cash, or contraband. You can refuse anything you don’t like, but the size of the load determines its value. Everything sent north is legal, except for the amount of goods — it’s the volume that’s the problem. A van full of food and personal items must be pressed through to the other side, and the chofers are how they get it done. Refuse to carry things too many times, and you will find yourself off the phone list in a hurry.
Sometimes, we were concerned with the amount of goods we were transporting, but never concerned enough to stop doing it. We had moved to Mexico to try and get ahead in America, and we weren’t alone. This wasn’t a smuggling operation of desperados hiding behind huge mustaches. It was mostly average Americans forced to choose between surviving and not. Moreover, it would be our ticket home. We felt we had to do it.