It’s late February, 2000. I’m just a few months away from graduating college and finally leaving that place. I’ve been mindful of what I do because I don’t want to get into trouble. I’m driving around with a fake insurance card in my crappy car, so I don’t go over the speed limit and I heed all the traffic signs. That night, however, I’m at the Bridge of the Americas. It’s well past two in the morning, and I have class at eight.
I’m in line to cross the bridge because my cousin, my dearest cousin and friend at the time, decided that he was going to celebrate his birthday a little late and do so on the Mexican side of the Paso del Norte. I didn’t come along because I had class the following morning, but I’m in line to cross the bridge now because he didn’t have class. He celebrated a bit too hard by drinking himself into a stupor.
His friends were afraid of letting him drive, for obvious reasons. They’re in the back of my crappy car, also waiting to cross the border with us. All of them except one, the one with no papers. The one who jumped out of the car to cross on foot because he didn’t want to get us in trouble if the Border Patrol guy at the end of the line — the guy working the overnight shift at one of the busiest ports of entry in the world — decided to ask all of us for identification. That friend is on foot, hoping that the overnight guy at the pedestrian booth doesn’t care and lets yet another Mexican kid cross.
He’s not the only Mexican kid crossing the border that day. By sunrise, several hundred kids will cross in order to go to high school, college or to a job. Most of them will be undocumented, willing to be called “wet backs” or worse because that’s what you are willing to do when you find a way out. You pay the price. You do what has to be done.
We’re sitting in line well into the second of hour of our adventure to get everyone home and my cousin decides to vomit. He barely makes it out of my crappy car in order to do so, and he manages to attract the attention of the few Border Patrol agents who walk between the lines of cars with their dogs. They come over and ask if he’s okay. I tell them he is. He just had too much fun in Mexico, too much tequila. They laugh at him and he mutters something in return. Before he says anything else, we have him back in the car.
It’s almost three in the morning, and my cousin is now hungry. He yells at one of the young men selling snacks. The young man comes over and sells him a bag of sunflower seeds. My cousin starts to crack them open one by one, dropping the husks on the floor in front of him. Our friend in the passenger seat tells him to just drop them outside. My cousin slaps him on the back of the head and tells him to shut up. Our friend takes it. He chalks it up to the alcohol and not the years of knowing that my cousin is an asshole.
We finally get to the inspection booth and the agent waves us through. He’s probably had enough and sees that we’re all worn out from the night. I bet he wonders what we’re doing crossing at three in the morning on a Sunday night, or Monday morning. I was the only one showing my Resident Alien card. The others just tell him they’re Americans, born on the northern side of the Rio Grande. I don’t know if they are or they aren’t. I don’t care. Not my job to enforce immigration laws.
As we drive, the cold desert air comes in through the window that my cousin has opened, and my crappy car’s heater can’t keep up. We’re freezing, but the drunk dude needs air. He’s finished the sunflower seeds — husks all over the floor — and they’re making him queasy again. I step on the accelerator to get him to his place before he loses it again. We’ll be at his place in fifteen minutes. If I drive fast enough, I’ll be at my apartment by four so I can get three hours of sleep before heading to class.
I can’t miss class because I’m in the final phase of my medical technology program. Missing lectures or clinical rotations has a huge impact on our grades, and the program won’t take anything less than a 75 as a passing grade. Fail one class and you’re held back in the program for a whole year. They really were that strict, and I thank them for it these many years later.
After we drop off my cousin by helping him to his room and explaining to my aunt that he drank too much, that he called me to go get them, and that his car is still in Mexico, the other two friends and I drive toward the Lower Valley. We talk about my cousin and how he can’t control his alcohol. We talk about me graduating in May and my plans to pick up and leave for the East Coast. They tell me they’re going to miss me, and I believe them.
They don’t have similar plans. They work menial jobs and get by from paycheck to paycheck. They kind of have given up on aiming for more than their high school degrees. The one kid who made it through the pedestrian booth and joined us on the other side of the bridge smokes a cigarette and looks out at the city. He has plans, he tells us. He’s planning on moving to Mexico and making something out of his life since he is unable to do much more in the States.
We all shake hands as we part ways, and I make it to class that morning, not having slept at all. I didn’t sleep because we pulled into an all-night burger joint and I bought us all dinner, a proper dinner. We drank milkshakes and talked more about our plans. We also talked about the Mexican soccer league and the pick-up soccer game we played a few days back. We talk about how my aunt blamed me for my cousin’s drinking, and they shake their heads and feel bad for me. They tell me they admire me for not drinking, even with all the peer pressure to do so.
I remember that I’m graduating in May, that I have a fake insurance card in my car, and that I really don’t have the cash to drink and get in trouble. I feel bad that they’re not coming with me to the East Coast, to join me in the sun. That night, I had burgers and milkshakes with my real friends. Come morning, my split with my cousins and that side of my extended family would begin when he refused to clean the sunflower seed husks from my car because, in his words, I didn’t ask nicely. That was the way it always was with them, demanding respect but earning none of it.
In a few months, it’s Mother’s Day and I’m at the graduation ceremony. I made it, against the odds and the wishes of many people. I look around, and my relatives have come to celebrate. They’ve also come to remind me that I’m their investment, and that they expect some sort of return on said investment. My father is also there, and he expects nothing in return. He is just proud of his oldest son.
In a few weeks, dad and I are in our crappy cars riding the interstate highways toward the East Coast. A few weeks back, I flew up to Pennsylvania for a job interview at a small hospital. They offered me the job right then and there, and I made arrangements to be back in time for the Fourth of July. As we drive, we are running out of cash and have no idea where we will stay once we get there. But we’re doing it because we are used to going the distance for lesser things.
With my first paycheck, the biggest one in my life until then, I buy us a nice dinner at a so-called Mexican restaurant. The waitress seems nice, and I embarrassed her by telling her that the food she served us is not what she called it. I’d see her again a year later as she starts working in the hospital as a nurse. A year after that, I will whisper in her ear that I could have loved her… But I never did.
Eighteen years before that, my mother takes a picture of my cousin and I hugging each other. My aunt jokes that we are bound to be best friends forever because we were born so close to each other and spent so much time together. Twelve years later, I tell him at my high school graduation that I beat him to diploma, and he doesn’t seem to forgive me for it. He begins his habit of discrediting everything I do, and continuously telling me how college is not a thing I need. With every paycheck he earns from menial jobs, he reminds me that I’m plunging all my cash into school when he’s living it up across the border, having fun and drinking to excess.
He says I’m wasting my time.
On my way to get him that night, I am pulled over by a cop for speeding. He asks me for my license, registration and proof of insurance. He looks at the insurance card skeptically, and my heart races because I know it’s fake. The guy I paid $100 for making it for me answers the phone, as he promised he would. He tells the cop that, yes, I am insured. I am allowed to go on my way with a warning.
A week before dad and I leave, I am stopped at a sobriety checkpoint. I don’t have the fake card with me because I decide to not risk it anymore. Instead, I take the $300 fine and pay it off over the next few months by sending my other aunt, my dear aunt, money with my bigger paychecks from Pennsylvania. One day, she calls me and tells me not to worry about paying anymore, she paid off the balance for me, for my birthday.
I am not her investment. I am her nephew, her little nené.
Ten years later, I receive an email from my cousin. He berates me for not contributing money to take care of our elderly grandmother. He berates me for making what in his mind is a lot of money and not helping him and that side of the extended family. They collect grandma’s pension check from when grandpa was a mailman, though. She has medicare for her medical expenses. But they still want more, and they want recognition for the sacrifices of taking care of her.
He calls me names and promises that I’ll pay for not helping them. I ignore his email and move on with my life, finally unfriending, unfollowing and unsubscribing from that drama.
Over the last 50 years, for every child born to my aunts and uncles, my grandmother traveled to them — sometimes across international borders — to help them raise their children. She does this because she knows that the parents, her children, need to work. So she gives free childcare. I’m one of the lucky kids to be taken care by her, and she basically raises my younger brother on her own as well.
She dies on Memorial Day, six years ago. She taught me how to read at age two, and I blame her for my love of letters. My hypergraphia is relieved through what she taught me how to do, and I do it a lot. I do it sometimes to my detriment. I’ve found myself having to defend what I write over and over again… To the point it’s almost fun.
Last week, I defended my deconstruction of an article on fluoride. Eight years ago, I defended my anti-anti-vaccine blog posts to people at the state health department where I worked. A year ago, I defended my dissertation. Fourteen years ago, I wrote a note for the girl from the mexican restaurant, the girl from the hospital. I left it on her windshield but it was intercepted by a jealous boy who also worked with us. After passing it around and embarrasing me, I decide that I’d gone from not liking him to absolutely hating him. I had to defend what I wrote on that note to her to my boss, swearing that I wasn’t sexually harassing her and promising to stay away from her while on work time.
Two weeks from today, I’ll be defending this blog post.
My anger and hate of that dude didn’t last long, though. You can only hate someone consistently if you interact with them consistently. I didn’t interact with him consitently because I was never around town enough in those days. I’d go to work and then get a few hours of sleep before sleeping some more on the way to DC on the metro. Although I work hard for the master’s degree in epidemiology and biostatistics, something is missing. It’s not quite what I want, or need. I’m perfectly happy being a lab tech.
That all changes thirteen years ago, on a hot summer night. I pick up a girl outside her apartment and we go to a bookstore. We talk and talk like we’re old friends. I introduce her to chai tea and Eddie Izzard. She introduces me to the physician assistant profession. She’s just finished her master’s and is starting a job locally. We met when a friend said we’d be a good “match.” Two months later, as we’re swining on a swingset on a playground, I tell her all about my master’s project. She tells me it’s time to get it done and get moving with what she sees as a fascinating profession. All that winter, I collect information on influenza activity and prove that I can do it better at a local level than CDC can do it at a national one.
I get my master’s degree and a job at a state health department. Though that paycheck is smaller than the ones I received as a lab tech, I have a special sense of pride in it. I’m doing something good for the public, not just for a few wandering patients who stumble into that little hospital in rural Pennsylvania. I wear my badge with pride and I move into an apartment near Baltimore while staying weekends with the girl who’d be my wife.
I don’t see the other girls, the exes, ever again. They email and contact me through social media, but I don’t see them again.
As I talk to my roomate in Baltimore about his drinking, I am reminded of having to deal with that one drunk over and over again by going across the border to save him from himself. And I am reminded of the times I went to try and have fun myself but ended up being someone else’s hero because that’s who I am. That’s who my mother and father made me to be. That’s who grandma taught how to read. I wasn’t their investment. I was their legacy.
Two years ago, my own legacy was born, and she is a long way away from all those people who are now turned into anti-vaccine activists who sell natural supplements and attend megachurches to worship a being who commands them to be the opposite of who they are. She will probably not get to know them, but she will know the story of that night… Just like you do now.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.