Young Juan kept silent when the other men began teasing him about his old ski mask.
“He’s afraid those big ears will get cold!”
“Don’t worry about your ears, chamaco, there are more important things to keep warm
“Hey, he’s too young to be worrying about that.”
“No man is ever too young, amigo.”
“I think that mask will make him invisible so La Migra won’t see him.”
“Hey Juanito, I need that kind of magic more than you do…pinche migra caught me
“Only because you are too slow, Gordo. Besides, it would take something a lot bigger
than a ski mask to make YOU invisible.”
Juan joined in the quiet laughter and settled the raggedy mask more comfortably over
his face. Then he told the group about his mother, now far away to the south.
She could have ordered him to stay home; he was still young enough that she had that
power over him. But she saw that this trip he had dreamed of for most of his short
life could turn him into the man he wanted to be. So she had spent her last coins on
the faded black ski mask and made him promise that he would wear it in The North.
Tonight they were as far north as they could go inside their own country. Soon they
would cross to a new world and a new life. And what kind of man would he be if he did
not keep his promise to his mother?
No one spoke. They thought of their own mothers or wives or sweethearts. It seemed as
if the women had sped north to embrace their men one last time.
The night air felt sad until Juan, feeling guilty for changing the mood, admitted that
he had been worried about his ears as well but they already felt much better, gracias.
The gentle laughter returned. Gordo’s voice rumbled in the dark.
“Juanito, you are a good boy. A promise to one’s mother is holy, you know. Keeping
this promise is better magic than being invisible to La Migra.”
“Yes, but Gordo will stay close to you for luck anyway so he can go with you if you
suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke!”
Everyone laughed again, then settled down to wait for the guide who was to lead them
through the desert to the next safe place. They kept their thoughts to themselves now.
Some remembered the past, others looked far into the future, and a few worried about
the days directly ahead. But each one made a private promise: “Young Juan will be safe
no matter what happens to me.”
THIS IS HARDER THAN YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE, ISN’T IT, JUANITO. YOU SHOULD NOT BE HERE,
YOU KNOW. YOU SHOULD BE BACK HOME WITH YOUR MOTHER. WHO WILL TAKE CARE OF HER NOW THAT
YOU ARE GONE? NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT THAT, DID YOU? ALL YOU COULD THINK OF WAS THE NORTH:
HAVING AN ADVENTURE, SEEING THE WORLD, BECOMING A MAN. AY, JUANITO, SOMETIMES THE ONLY
TRUE MEN ARE THE ONES WHO ACCEPT LIFE AS IT IS GIVEN TO THEM. BUT YOU HAD TO BE ONE OF
THOSE DREAMERS….CAREFUL,YOU COULD BREAK YOUR ANKLE IN THESE ROCKS AND THEN WHAT WILL
HAPPEN? DO YOU THINK YOUR COYOTE WILL CARRY YOU THE REST OF THE WAY? NO, YOU WOULD BE
STRANDED OUT HERE IN THE DESERT, LEFT AS FOOD FOR THE FOUR-LEGGED COYOTES. OH, DOES
THAT IDEA UPSET YOU? WELL, TRY HARDER TO KEEP UP WITH THE GROUP, JUANITO. YOU ARE
SLOWING THEM DOWN. THEY COULD GO MUCH FASTER WITHOUT YOU, YOU KNOW. LA MIGRA WILL CATCH
ALL OF THEM BECAUSE OF YOU. LA MIGRA WILL NOT LISTEN TO YOUR DREAMS, THEY HAVE HEARD
THEM ALL BEFORE. THEY HAVE SEEN DREAMS TURN INTO NIGHTMARES. THEY HAVE SEEN PEOPLE WHO
WANDERED IN THE DESERT FOR DAYS WITH NO WATER, NO FOOD, NO IDEA THAT THEIR DREAM WAS
OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN. YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE COME, JUANITO. YOU ARE NOT STRONG ENOUGH FOR
THIS FAMOUS NORTH YOU THOUGHT WOULD BE SO WONDERFUL. THERE ARE TERRIBLE THINGS HERE AND
THEY ARE WAITING FOR YOU. DO YOU REALLY THINK YOU ARE MAN ENOUGH TO FACE THEM, JUANITO?
“Juanito…Juanito…here…take a sip of water, it will help you.”
“How is he?”
“Poor chamaco, he is very tired. I do not think he was ready for this.”
“No one ever is, Gordo. In dreams it is all so easy but no one is ever ready for the
“So why do we keep trying?”
“Because sometimes dreams do come true, amigo.Let’s go, the guide is signalling.Vamos,
Juanito. We will help you. You can do it…we all can do it. Vamos, Juanito.”
JUANITO….JUANITO….THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO START A NEW LIFE. STUMBLING THROUGH THE
DESERT, HUNTED LIKE AN ANIMAL. AND FOR WHAT? NO ONE WANTS YOU HERE. THEY ARE AFRAID OF
YOU. THE MEN ARE AFRAID YOU WILL TAKE THEIR JOBS….WHICH OF COURSE YOU WILL, BECAUSE
YOU KNOW HOW TO WORK AND THEY HAVE FORGOTTEN WHAT THAT MEANS. BUT THEY WILL STILL
HATE YOU FOR BEING WILLING TO SWEAT WHEN THEY ARE NOT. THE WOMEN WILL NOT SEE YOU AS
THE INNOCENT YOUNG BOY YOU REALLY ARE. THEY WILL THINK YOU ARE HERE JUST TO GET THEM
ALL INTO BED. THEY WILL HATE YOU IF YOU TRY AND HATE YOU MORE IF YOU DO NOT TRY. PEOPLE
WILL CALL YOU NAMES, THEY WILL BE CRUEL, THEY WILL TRY TO MAKE YOU GIVE UP. YOU SHOULD
NOT HAVE COME, JUANITO…YOU SHOULD GO HOME RIGHT NOW…JUST TURN AROUND, JUANITO…NO,
THE OTHER WAY,JUANITO…JUANITO…JUANITO…
“Juanito!! Juanito!! Catch him, Gordo!!”
The men were huddled under mesquite trees, hoping for protection from both the sun and
the patrols looking for them. The guide had ordered them to stop while he went ahead
to scout the country. No one was entirely sure he would return for them. But even with
this concern hanging over their heads, they were more worried about Juanito, who did
not seem to know who they were or even who HE was. He was listening intently and with
obvious terror to something none of the men could hear.
“What has happened to him?”
“The desert can make any man crazy….I have seen this before.”
“Yes, but that is why we decided to make this trip in the winter months. The heat is
not the same as it would be in summer. So I do not think the heat is making Juanito
behave this way.”
“I did not say the heat, I said the desert. It is too wild, too empty, too strong.”
“Maybe for one man alone. But we are all here with Juanito, and he must have known we
would do anything to help him. So why is he so afraid?”
They watched as Juanito curled himself into a tight ball, shook his head and whimpered
like a frightened puppy.
“I do not understand this at all. But I think he would be more comfortable now without
the ski mask. Juanito…Juanito…”
JUANITO…JUANITO…YOU HAVE TO DECIDE RIGHT NOW. YOU CAN STILL GET BACK TO WHERE YOU
BELONG. JUST GET UP AND START WALKING. IT IS EASY. I WILL HELP YOU. I WILL PROTECT YOU
FROM ALL DANGER. JUST GO. YOU CAN DO IT. YOU WILL BE A FAILURE, OF COURSE, BUT AT LEAST
YOU WILL BE A FAILURE IN YOUR OWN VILLAGE. NO ONE WILL LAUGH AT YOU THERE. YOU MUST GO
HOME. AND YOU MUST TAKE ME WITH YOU. NEVER LET US BECOME SEPARATED OR YOU WILL DIE IN
THE DESERT, JUANITO…JUANITO….
“Juanito, let me help you, chamaco. You do not need the mask until later, let me take
it off for now. You will feel better.”
Juanito struggled, trying to keep Gordo away, but the big man pinned him down easily
and pulled the sweaty black mask off the boy’s head.
“What have you done? Look, he has fainted!”
“It is the fresh air on his head that did it. He has worn this mask day and night
since we crossed the border. I know he promised his mother, but it was making me
“So you took it to calm yourself, not to help Juanito? Gordo, you should be ashamed,
being scared of a boy in a ski mask.”
“I did not say scared, I said nervous.”
Just then the guide returned. They were all to follow him quickly and quietly. Gordo
stuffed the mask in a pocket, pulled Juanito to his feet, and helped him begin the next
part of the journey.
This section of the trek was rough. The desert scrub grew closer together, making it
nearly impossible to walk without getting scratched by sharp thorns. The guide hurried
them along, insisting they could not stop until much farther. The men worried about
Juanito at first, but were surprised that with each hour that passed, he became
stronger and had no problem keeping up. Finally, when even Gordo felt he could not take
another step, the guide called a rest break.
“Juanito, it is so good to see you as yourself again!”
“Yes, welcome back to the world, chamaco. Do you feel allright now?”
“Of course he feels allright! Why, he would be running instead of walking if he did
not think it would make you old men feel bad!”
“And what about you, Gordo? Are you not also an old man?”
“Yes, but I would not feel bad if Juanito ran.I would be proud of his warrior spirit!”
“You got a taste of that spirit when you were taking his mask away, didn’t you?”
“That is how I discovered it, yes! Oh, by the way, here is your mask, chamaco.”
Juanito took the mask as if it were on fire, held it a moment, whispered an apology
to his mother. Next he found a rock as big as an orange, tied it inside the mask and
threw it as far as he could into the desert. Then he quietly explained.
It had seemed such an easy promise to make, the one to his mother about wearing the
mask in the North. But with every step he had taken on this side of the border, the
horrid thing had felt as if it were shrinking. He could not see. He could not breathe.
He could not speak. He could barely hear, and then only a voice he did not recognize. A
voice which slowly emptied his mind of his dreams and filled it with doubts and fears.
And most terrifying of all, he could not seem to make himself remove the mask. He was
trapped inside his mind with that voice. The very moment that Gordo had pulled the mask
from his head, Juanito had felt such a surge of relief that he had fainted. He was fine
now, just a little sad about his mother; he hoped she would understand.
“Ay, chamaco….that is witchcraft!”
“Yes, there must have been a curse on that mask!”
“But who would do such a thing to this young man? And how…..when?”
“Maybe La Migra did it!”
“They would not know how…..Would they?”
“No. Besides, as far as we know, no one touched the mask except Juanito, Gordo, and..”
There was an embarrassed silence. No one wanted to say what they were suddenly all
thinking. Would a boy’s own mother use such evil magic against him? If there was no way
to keep him at home, would she send him on the road under a curse that would force him
to return? A curse that might kill him?
The guide called and the men started walking again. Juanito trudged along, pretending
that he had not understood the words the men had left unsaid. But a confusing new empty
space in his heart was more honest, and told him the truth the rest of his life.
“When will my son return?”
“I do not know if he will return.”
“But…but I paid you for…”
“You paid for powerful witchcraft. But you did not pay to know the results.”
“I must know! I will find the money somehow. Tell me now….you must tell me!”
“I can not. I warned you. Every curse has a shadow. Now you must live in the darkness
of uncertainty, never knowing if Juanito is even still alive. This is the true price of
your desire to interfere with his destiny.”
copyright Debbie Zapata ~~ July 1, 2014