Train Crossing

By René Dario Herrera

Several hours had passed since they had hidden away in the thirty-third car of the cargo freight train bound for El Paso, Texas. Carlo and his father, Nepo, had been among the twenty-one men who now sat in the car on their way to the United States. It was Carlo’s first trip out of Chihuahua. The Bracero Program had been in place for only seven years, but it presented an unexpected opportunity for Carlo and Nepo to find work. Their options for work were very limited in their hometown of Chihuahua. The economic situation had shifted. Opportunities now existed in the north. If it meant they could avoid starvation, the sixteen-hour trip to the Texas border was worth the risk.

“Did you remember to bring the cigarettes?” Nepo asked Carlo. The train was loud, but he didn’t have to shout to be heard.

Without checking, Carlo said, “Yes. I packed them.”

“Give them here.”

Carlo opened the sack his sister had sewn together and pulled out a carton of cigarettes. He handed the carton to his father.

Nepo took a cigarette, lit it, and said, “This is how you become a man.”

Carlo watched his father draw from the cigarette and inhale deeply. Carlo said, “Everyone smokes. There is nothing special about it.”

“No. Not what you do, but why you do it. Why we’re here in this stinking train to go work in a field picking cotton or chili or bell peppers. You must take responsibility for yourself and make your own way. You must take a risk to get ahead.”

Carlo didn’t respond. He had been working, in some way or another, since he was a small child. Most of his short life. When his mother died, he became responsible for things at home like cooking and cleaning. His older brothers and sisters could find work outside the home. Now that he was old enough to go work the fields, he wanted to make the trip with his father and make his own way. He rested his head on the hand sewn cloth sack, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply.

“Wake up. Someone is searching the train,” Carlo heard his father say.

The train had arrived at its destination. The stowaways could see through the gaps in the wall of the train car that someone was searching the train cars. The lights shining into the cars down the line were coming from hand held flashlights. The men searching the train were speaking English, and they were coming towards their car. They were only four cars away.

The train car they were in had giant sliding doors on either side. The men in the car were all standing, holding their belongings, ready to flee out of the train’s right side. One of the men whispered about splitting up. He said something about how half the group should go out one door and the other half out the other. He moved to the train’s left side. Nepo moved with him, but no one else. Carlo stepped in line behind his father. Both groups of men were wound like a spring, ready for each door to slide open, so they could burst from the train and run.

The men outside the train were now two cars away.

In unison, the two groups inside the train slowly slid the heavy doors open. Ready to launch from either side of the train into the dark. Carlo clutched his sack close to his chest and looked at his father. The doors were now open wide enough for them to move, but they feared any sudden movement would alert the men searching for them. They needed a diversion.

Carlo thought back to what his father told him earlier. You must take a risk to get ahead.

Carlo push-kicked Nepo in the back and Nepo flew out of the train onto the ground, crashing hard. The men outside searching for them trained their lights on Nepo.

Everyone else in the train quietly went out the other side.

Carlo was resting in the shack provided by the farm owner. He was finishing off his Budweiser and the last of his rice and beans. After a long day of stoop labor it was a simple pleasure, but in a few more weeks, he would move on to the next farm.