(Originally published in READ Magazine on November 21, 2003)
Ernesto rolled the pebble between his fingers and stared out at the road, watching for the cloud of dust that would rise when the truck came to take them to the fields where their short-handled hoes would hack the beets under the leaves, and their fingers, too, if they weren’t careful. El Norte was supposed to be better than this, Ernesto thought, but the money was more than anything an 18-year-old could have earned in Chihuahua.
His back was killing him, and he hadn’t bathed in weeks of twelve-hour workdays. The Texans made him sick with the words they yelled in town when the workers tried to buy food on the weekend, filthy and half-dead from picking the beets that would die on the vines if the braceros hadn’t come. It was their government who had called them there when the war started, and they were ungrateful.
Oranges and pinks spilled out of the flat horizon and streamed upward in the only bit of heaven Ernesto saw each day. Usually he only heard heaven because that’s what his brother’s low-humming song was to him. But Amador was quite this morning.
Ernesto looked at his brother. “You promised,” his eyes said, but Amador looked away, his long hair flying around his face.
On the night years ago when the promise was made, they were lying side by side in their bed, resting under the dusty stream of moonlight. Their father’s snoring had awakened them. They giggled in silence, the kind of giggle they had shared since they were in their mother’s womb. By the time the humor of their father’s grumbling roar faded, they weren’t sleepy anymore.
Wide awake, they stared into each other’s eyes, mouthing words and speaking in a way the brothers could hear in their hearts. With their hands, they made shapes that told each other their thoughts, both common and unique.
“Want to talk?” one hand-shape asked as Ernesto touched his mouth.
“No,” Amador’s hand shaped with emphasis. “Tired of talk.” He covered his mouth with his hand, shut his eyes, and then opened them again. There was nothing else to say.
Ernesto opened his brother’s hand. With this movement, he motioned as if taking something from his heart and something from his head. Ernesto would speak for them both, and in return Amador would sing for his brother every day.
To seal the promise, Amador sat up in bed and took a bit of moonbeam shooting over them. He let it rest heavily in his mouth, on his stilled tongue. From now on, there was room only for truth. He would listen to the sounds of the world as if they were the drumbeats for the song he would sing. A song that would last until he had nothing more to give. A song that he would perfect each day until he got it right.
Every day now Ernesto watched his brother close his eyes and listen to the patterns, the rhythms most pleasant to his ears—the moving of feet, the flapping of wings, the rustling of leaves, the beating of hearts. When Amador found the combination of rhythms that moved him, he opened his mouth and sang, wordlessly letting the sounds swirl around everything seen and unseen.
But today, instead of the low hum of Amador’s song for the new day, Ernesto heard the growl of an airplane, the same on that had passed over the day they arrived. The braceros were silenced. From the plane, a hand threw out a stack of papers that rained down, swishing from side to side. Amador smiled for the first time that morning. He reached his arms up, and a piece of paper floated into his hands. Picking up the fliers, the foreign words stared at the men from the page.
“Ingles,” someone said. “Can anyone read this?”
Discouraged, some men folded the papers and put them in their back pockets. Some grumbled, crumping up the fliers, throwing them down.
But Ernesto stared at the words. Maybe he could figure them out. Maybe there would be some words that looked like ones he knew how to read in Spanish. Maybe Amador could help.
He looked at his brother. Amador held the paper in front of him, smiling at his gift from the sky. Ernesto grinned when he saw the joy in his brother’s eyes. Amador will understand the words, he hoped, as he watched his brother marvel at the page. After all, silence was Amador’s first language and words on paper were the quietest way of talking that Ernesto could imagine. Amador would figure out the message.
The men around them chattered on. More nothing-talk. Ernesto twirled his pebble and watched his brother’s face with expectation.
Amador’s eyebrows furrowed and danced over his bright eyes. He turned his head from sided to side. He looked to the east and smiled, but the words called his attention back to the flier. Amador looked restless. He looked as though he wanted to run, but he stopped himself.
Amador looked to the sky, then to the paper. He held out his arms. “Angel wings,” his movements told his brother. Ernesto took a step closer, dropping the pebble. Dust clouded up around his feet.
Amador touched his chest. He danced his hands in front of him. “Win freedom.”
“Freedom?” Ernesto said aloud.
The other men were watching now, and some of them laughed. But the two brothers didn’t pay any attention.
“We must go to the canyon,” Amador motioned, then pointed east.
Ernesto watched his brother. A fire seemed to fill his body. Without making a sound, Amador was shouting.
Ernesto stared toward the sun, but Amador grabbed his arm. “No. We must all go,” he explained, sweeping his arms toward the crowd.
“Vamanos,” one of the men said, seeming to understand. “We have to go to the canyon.”
“What are you talking about?” another man asked, looking for a rise of dust on the road. “The truck will be here any minute.”
“But Amador says we can win freedom at the canyon,” another bracero said.
“Are you going to believe this burro? The only thing you’ll win by going to the canyon is a way back across the border. You’ll lose your job and everything you’ve worked for.”
Ernesto didn’t listen to the insult against his brother. He didn’t care about anything anyone had to say anymore. He felt the freedom that Amador saw in the letters that magically spoke to him and the freedom that burst from his heart.
“Por favor,” Amador’s face begged. He waved his arms, forming shapes with his hands.
“What’s he saying?” asked a man, staring at a flier. “Yes, Ernesto,” a man said with a laugh. “What is he say?” The man picked up a crumpled flier from the ground and threw it at Ernesto’s head.
Swatting the paper, Ernesto said, “There’s a race. A chance to win freedom. The man in the plane will be at the canyon. He’ll take the one who gets across first to a place farther north where he can stay for good.”
“Why would a man with a plane give freedom to one of us? What does he care? Not me, I’m staying. I want to keep my job.”
“Keep it,” Ernesto said, his eyes piercing the man as he and Amador headed toward the canyon. “The fewer who come, the better chance we have. Stay if you want,” he called back to them. “Wait for the dust to come.”
The two brothers walked. They didn’t look back, but they heard a handful of men following them.
Most of the men would stay behind. They were right. The truck would come. And the men who went to the canyon would lose their jobs and be sent back home.
But Ernesto couldn’t stand around waiting for more misery. He was tired of the hoe handle’s tearing his skin to shreds and of breaking his back in the fields. Ernesto would go home if they made him, but he couldn’t pass up a chance a better life.
As they approached the canyon, they saw the plane perched near the ridge. The pilot waited beside it, waving to them. “Stand there,” the pilot yelled in English through a little cone he held to his lips. He pointed to the edge of the canyon before them.
Ernesto saw the gaping hold grow wider as they came nearer. “Not much of a canyon,” his eyes said to Amador. The walls were steep, but a man could scale down them if he were careful. A small stream cut the center below.
“Two hundred dollars,” the man yelled across the canyon. They all knew what that meant.
“Ride the airplane north,” the pilot said, signaling with his hands. He waited for the men to understand. It took a minute to sink in for most of them, but Ernesto looked at Amador right away. His brother was smiling. “No more sugar beets,” the brothers told each other with their eyes. “One of us will go north and make a home for the rest of the family.”
“Do you trust him?” Ernesto whispered. In his quiet way, Amador smiled and nodded so that only his brother could see.
The pilot waited and watched as each man scanned the canyon, trying to find the quickest way down. Studying the possible paths, they looked for branches to hold on to and places to set their feet so that they would not slip.
“It’s dangerous,” one man said.
“Go back to the sugar beets, then,” said another man.
“Yes, you might catch the truck if you go now.”
A few men inched away from the canyon, looking first at one another and then back to the place where the others still waited for the truck.
“I make enough money,” one man said, walking away. “My family needs me. I won’t be able to work if I’m hurt.”
“Go get your short-handled hoe, then,” a man said, plotting his trek across the canyon. “As for me, I’ll take my chances.”
Ernesto listened, but he didn’t care what they had to say. He was going across. He would be the first. With two hundred dollars in his pocket, he would ride in the airplane to a place farther north.
In silence, he pictured his path across the canyon. He could feel Amador standing next to him doing the same thing. He could feel a song rising deep within his brother.
Some more men headed back to the trucks. Some stepped back to watch as the five remaining men chose a starting point along the rim of the canyon and focused on their routes to the other side.
Waving to the pilot, the men readied themselves. The pilot raised his hand. “Listos?” he asked.
Ernesto looked over his path. He sensed the other men farther down the rim. Don’t think about them, he told himself. Just get across. Ernesto lifted his arms to signal the man that he was ready.
His arm slashing down through the air, the pilot shouted, “Vamos!”
Ernesto grabbed a branch jutting out under the rim, launching himself to a level piece of ground. Sliding down to the next spot that would hold him, he saw, out of the corer of his eye, three men making their way down. He caught hold of a branch to steady himself before jumping to the next spot.
He heard the sound of someone slipping down the side of the canyon, but Ernesto didn’t look to see if the man was hurt. He didn’t nee to. Ernesto could hear the man’s screams as the man lost control.
Put it out of your mind, he told himself. Watching his hands and feet, he concentrated on the safest places to grab and step. Just under the sound of grunts and shifting feet, a familiar low sound grew behind him on the rim of the canyon. The sound came from Amador.
Ernesto could feel his brother still standing at the edge of the cliff. At first he wondered why Amador hadn’t run. But as he neared the bottom of the canyon, Ernesto heard his brother’s long, deep inhalations. He heard the beginning of the music that made birds want to jump onto the wind and float. He could almost see his brother’s face. From somewhere deep inside, through his chest and out of his mouth, Amador pushed out a song.
A perfect song.
This song will get me across, Ernesto thought. I’ll be strong enough now. His feet hitting the bottom of the canyon, he took off running. Seeing another man right behind him, he pushed harder, focusing on the song, letting it guide him safely across. When he saw the water and ran through the canyon, Amador’s penetrating howl seemed to tear the air. Ernesto’s feet flew faster than he could imagine.
Then, as he splashed down in the stream, he knew something had changed. It wasn’t the water rushing around his ankles or the stones that seemed to tremble under his feet. A fire stormed through his brain. He heard the other man land in the water behind him.
He had to keep going.
Ernesto ran through the stream, focusing on his balance, when he saw a shadow pass on the water around him—too big for a bird and too quiet for an airplane.
He heard shouting all around, and he slowed down.
I’ve lost, he thought. He looked up to the edge of the canyon. The pilot ran back and forth along the rim of the canyon, crazed.
His chest heaving, Ernesto followed the man’s eyes. Above the canyon, Amador’s long black hair whipped behind him as his song ripped the sky open, setting a path above them all. Singing, Amador ran on the air to the other side of the canyon.
Ernesto had to get there to meet his brother. He jumped to a branch sticking out of the canyon wall and pulled himself up. His hands and feet found all the strongest spots. He wasn’t even aware of where the other men were now. It didn’t matter. He had to get to Amador to say goodbye before he left on the airplane.
Ernesto touched the rim of the canyon. Pulling himself up, he collapsed on the ground, dragging himself forward. He cried aloud, trying to catch his breath. “Amador,” he called, too exhausted to see. “How did you do it? How did you make the pathway in the sky?”
But there wasn’t a sound to guide him to his brother.
Ernesto saw the pilot’s boots and knees, trembling as the pilot walked toward him. The pilot dug down into his pockets and took out a wad of paper. Dollars showered Ernesto’s sweat-soaked body, and he looked up at the man’s tear-filled eyes.
The pilot fell down to his knees by his side. “You won,” the pilot cried.
“No,” he tried to explain, pushing the money away.
The pilot just shook his head.
Letting the money fall, Ernesto found new strength and pushed himself off the ground. A few feet away, Amador lay completely still.
Crawling to his brother’s side, Ernesto howled. A rush of sadness more powerful than the water that carved the little canyon behind him poured through his body. He beat the ground; he beat his chest. He took up his brother’s hands and buried his face in them. The pilot rested his hand on Ernesto’s shoulder.
“I’ll help you,” the man said, lifting him, pointing at Amador and to the airplane. The pilot picked up Amador’s feet, starting to move him.
Ernesto jumped up and pressed his hands on his brother’s lifeless body. “No,” he said looking back at the canyon and the invisible highway built by his brother’s perfect song.
He didn’t know how to tell the pilot what he was thinking, what he knew had to be. He signaled with his hands as well as he could. “Let him rest in this perfect place.”
Still trembling from Amador’s song, the pilot set down the feet of the silent man and gestured. “Bury him here?”
Ernesto nodded. Letting his brother go, he dug at the ground with his hands.
Who Were the Braceros?
During World War II, the United States suffered a great shortage of manual laborers. With so many Americans supporting the war effort overseas and in industry, U.S. agriculture struggled to survive. In 1942, the U.S. and Mexican governments entered into an agreement that allowed skilled Mexican laborers to work on U.S. farms.
These experienced field workers left their families in hopes of making more money than what they were earning in their own country. Because the braceros signed contracts written in English, many did not understand their rights and conditions of employment in the United States.
Suffering harsh working conditions, frequent harassment, and racist attacks, the braceros kept American agriculture alive. Approximately 5 million Mexican citizens worked as braceros. The program officially ended in 1964.
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Here’s a short story I wrote years ago.
The idea came from a dream I had where I visited an old man in the desert who told me the story of his brother who sang a song that was so perfect that a bridge to freedom opened up on the sky. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to try to my hand at magical realism and was excited when it was published in the magazine that I used to read with my students.
The story turned up in another dream a few weeks ago, so I’m revisiting it and seeing how relevant it is today.