Camp Olvido


This article originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune on April 3, 1988.  I traveled with my friend, the photographer Victor Varela, along the border from Tijuana to El Paso, stopping and interviewing various people along the way – Border Patrol agents, people preparing to cross the border and those in custody, a coyote who was related to a man we knew in Santa Cruz, and some of the small business people who catered to those coming and going.  At that time, the drug trade was not as violent as it has since become. 

The article was written while the Simpson – Mazzoli Act, officially known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, was being implemented. 



Crossover Dreams


To the west of downtown, the hills of Tijuana are thick with houses.  The whole bus shakes as it climbs steep, stone paved streets to the barrio alto.   A narrow road leads down from the last stop through shacks, cinder block buildings with corrugated metal roofs, and chicken coops.  On one side stands a kindergarten dedicated to the great defender of the peasant class, Emiliano Zapata.  At the bottom of the road, a footpath turns left towards the Campo de las Canelas

Canelas lies on the northern side of the border.  Back on the Mexican side, the dwellings cluster together and piles of burning garbage spill down a gully and throw smoke into the sky.  Across the line that separates the U.S. and Mexico, everything changes abruptly.  Canelas is green and open, and devoid of houses.  To the north lies a half-mile wide swath of bare ground, criss-crossed by the jeep paths that the Border Patrol uses to chase down people crossing.  The land is broken by valleys and draws, and grows more rugged to the east.  Beyond the open land are the cities and highways of the United States.

Every evening around dusk, small groups of people begin to congregate in Canelas.  It is one of the main staging areas for those about to cross, in part because it is on the northern side and once there the emigrants don’t have to be concerned about the Mexican police.  A community has sprung up supported by the traffic that passes through.  Vendors have tarps permanently set up against the sun and the rain, and they work here every day, selling to the emigrants.  One older woman with dyed blonde hair sells shoes, warm jackets, tequila, and cigarettes.  “I’ve worked here for seven years,” she says, “and I do about a hundred dollars of business a day.”  Under another tarp, a large ring of metal rests over a brazier and a man fries meat and onions for tacos.  Two boys carry a bucket around peddling soft drinks and beer.  

The emigrants are in good spirits as they wait for nightfall.  Most have no real fear of the Border Patrol catching them.   One dark haired man has been caught six nights straight, and he’s still determined to make it.  “They don’t do anything to you when they catch you,” he says.  “You just have to sign a paper and they let you go in the morning.”  In the same group, there is a boy they call a virgencito, a little virgin, because it is his first time across.

The vast majority has some connection in the United States.  They carry very little with them; some of them take only a plastic bag, and most carry nothing but the clothes on their back.  But they know where they are going.  Many of them have family or friends already living in Los Angeles or some other city.  Some of them have jobs waiting for them.  Spending time working in the north and then returning to Mexico is a way of life. 

A young man walks out onto the field with a girl on his arm dressed in white.  They are newlyweds.  It will be her first time across, but he crossed with his parents when he was two years old and has spent his entire life between the two countries.  He works as an auto mechanic in Los Angeles for four dollars an hour, a good wage compared to what he could earn in Mexico.  “I guess I feel more American, because of the work,” he says.  “I’ve always worked in the U.S., never in Mexico.  But when it was time to get married, I felt more Mexican,” he laughs.

The white dress seems a strange choice of clothing to cross a dirt field by night.  But once across and into San Ysidro, she will blend in much better and not be identified as an illegal.  For the same reason, they carry extra pairs of shoes.  Mud on the shoes is another sign that could betray them as illegals.

If the emigrants don’t fear the Border Patrol, they do fear the cholos, the gangs of young toughs who carry weapons and roam on both sides of the border.  Cholos could be from either the north or the south, but in any event the illegals are their preferred victims because they are unlikely to call the police.  They fall on their prey in the hills, in the strips of land along the border that are not patrolled by either the Mexican police or the Border Patrol, and even in the apartment complexes which are built very close to the line.  The auto mechanic was once attacked by cholos.  “They were hidden in the hills when we were trying to cross over,” he says.  “They attacked us and took our watches, clothes, shoes, practically everything we had on us.  But it’s better not to carry arms to protect yourself, because they get very nervous and they can kill you.”

Two Salvadorans stay a little apart from the others.  They have more at stake than the Mexicans who are trying to cross.  If they are caught and identified as Salvadorans, they may be returned to their country.  They will throw away their passports before they begin to cross, but an agent may still be able to pick them out as “OTM’s,” which means Other Than Mexicans in Border Patrol slang.  When illegal immigrants have no identification, they are questioned more closely.  They may be asked who the current president of Mexico is, or the colors of the Mexican flag, or who Pancho Villa was.  Their clothes will be inspected; if the labels say “made in Guatemala” for instance, or are torn out, it is another indication that they are OTM.  In addition, the agents can often pick up words or expressions that are not used in Mexico.

When night falls, groups of men and women filter away from Canelas.  Many choose to cross around eleven o’clock when the Border Patrol watch is changing.  Three older men, field workers, trudge up the hill on their way north.  One of them produces the canceled pay slips from where he last worked.  He holds them very carefully, as a young graduate might hold a diploma.  “I’ve picked oranges, I’ve picked cherries, I’ve picked grapes, for more than ten years.  But the other years I was paid in cash.  The United States consulate told me I had to get letters from the people I worked for before he’d give me a visa.  So I’m going to work only November, December, and a few days in January, and then I’ll take the letters back to Mexico to arrange a visa.  My bosses all know me.”

“We come here to suffer, to work,” says another.  “It’s very sad, the life in Mexico.  Prices are high, and the salaries are low.  So how are we supposed to live?  We have to come and look for a living here, even though this country rejects us.  If our government were a good government, we wouldn’t be out here risking our necks tonight, but it isn’t.  So we come here to run risks, and to work; we don’t come here to have a good time, we come here to work.”

They send money back to their families by Western Union.  They all have young children back in Mexico.  “My wife doesn’t like it when I come, but what are we supposed to do?  We have to look for a way to live more or less.”  One of the men brought his wife with him to Modesto once, but when she took ill he grew frightened and decided to take her to back to Mexico.  “I didn’t want to bring my wife to suffer here.  For me, I don’t care, but I’m a man.  I didn’t want her to suffer.”

All three men have been caught many times by the Border Patrol, La Migra.  “When they catch me, I don’t take it bad.  Everyone is doing their job.  We also are looking for a way to do our job with the help of God.  The Migra has never treated me badly.  Some of them already know me.  When they catch me, they say, ‘What happened?  What bad luck we caught you.’  That’s all.  They send us back to Mexico, and we go north again until we get lucky.”

A mist begins to roll in from the ocean.  Up the hill, the sound of a helicopter chops down.  They can distinguish the sound of the Border Patrol helicopter from other helicopters, and decide to wait.  They huddle behind a hill and put the collars up on their coats against the cold of the night.


San Ysidro

The thick black infrared scope makes a whirring sound from the back of the truck where it is set up.  The screen throws a pale green light onto the face of the agent, who watches intently.  Another agent stands guard, to prevent the agent on the scope from being surprised and overcome.  All agents carry .357 magnums.

The fields through the scope are green and grainy, but the roads and main landmarks are easy to make out.  Everything is still; then three bright dots appear on the screen, so bright they seem almost white.  They are moving rapidly across the field.  The agent radios down to one of the four wheel drives down on the flat:  “Three of them, heading for the Elbow.”

A larger white dot appears on the screen, heading towards the three dots.  The three halt suddenly.  The large dot closes in on the three, and stops nearby.  The agent radios down, “They’re laid up about ten yards ahead of you.” 

A dot detaches itself from the large dot and walks towards where the three have stopped.  The agent’s radio crackles:  “I’ve got them.”  He shows no emotion when he hears about the arrest; it is all in a night’s work.

Officer John Clough, a veteran agent, is on patrol in the western sector, near Imperial Beach.   “We have foot sensors and the scope,” he says.  “We have a lot of technologically advanced equipment.  But we’re undermanned.  We don’t have enough people to go out and check everything, or chase every alien that comes across.   And when we do catch them, it’s just an inconvenience for them.  As soon as you throw them back, they do it all over again. It’s either keep trying or go back south, and if they’ve come all this way they’re not about to go back.”

Close to the border in the western sector, there are some junkyards and storage areas, with many places to hide.  Semi trucks, stacks of lumber, and piles of scrap wood are jumbled together.  Two hundred yards of open ground lie between the storage areas and the apartment complex.  “They usually jump over the levee and hide in here.  Unless you actually see where they go, it’s impossible to dig them out.  When they feel it’s safe, they’ll make a dash for the apartment complex.  Once they get in there, we usually give up the chase.  In the time you spend chasing down one guy, five more might cross.  It’s hit or miss; you either catch one or you don’t.”

There is more bandit activity in the western sector than in Canelas.  Some robberies occur right in the apartment complex.  Another dangerous point is Goat Canyon.  This deep draw is rarely patrolled by the Border Patrol; the immigrants who try to pass through here have a good chance of avoiding the Migra, but also run a great risk of meeting cholos.  Border Patrol agents normally work alone, and an agent in Goat Canyon is completely isolated.  His radio is often useless because of the steep canyon walls, and if he were to contact somebody it would be ten minutes before help could arrive.  Rock throwing attacks are not uncommon near the line.  Officer Clough asks, “Why risk it for somebody who’s going back to Mexico in four hours?”

Up the dirt road from Goat Canyon, two agents have detained a family of five; there are a man and a woman, two children, and one older woman who could be their grandmother.  They sit crowded behind a wire mesh barrier in the back of a big Chevy Suburban, while the agents wait for the transport van to pick them up.  The man says they came up from Mexico City.  “We wanted to go to Los Angeles.  We’ll make it another night, with the help of God.”

These five will be taken to a processing center, and interrogated to determine that they did enter the U.S. illegally, and that they have no legal right to remain in the U.S.  They will have the opportunity to request a deportation hearing, in which case they would go before a judge, or they can ask for voluntary return.  Like the vast majority, they will request voluntary return.  They spend a minimal amount of time in custody, and are released without punishment.

The transport van holds fourteen prisoners.  The family is herded out of the Chevy and climbs in, where they join a couple of their compatriots.  “They won’t spend much time behind bars,” Officer Clough says, “but we like to hold them until the end of the shift.  That way at least you’re not catching the same people twice in one shift.”  He shakes his head. “You kind of have to think of it as a game of hide and seek.  Otherwise, you’d go crazy.”

In the hills above Canelas, another infrared machine scans the open fields.  Canelas is known among the Border Patrol as ‘The Soccer Field.”  The agents know the roads so well that they drive their Chevys without lights while they receive directions from the agent manning the scope.  Once in awhile, a flashlight flares on, indicating that an arrest is being made.

In the deeper valleys to the east and north where the infrared scopes cannot reach, horse patrols roam in search of illegals.  The horses are so well trained that they carry out a function similar to the infrared machine.  When they sense a human being in the dark, they communicate that to the rider through their restlessness.

The night is cold and dark when the transport van arrives.  The horse patrol keeps a group of detainees surrounded.  The agents remain mounted, and speak gently to their horses.  They stroke their necks, while the animals blow in the frigid air.  The detainees shiver, and stay warm as best they can.

On the highway back to San Ysidro, there is a yellow diamond-shaped sign with an outline of a man walking.  Below the man, a smaller sign reads:  “People crossing next five miles.”


The Coyote

The Coyote makes a living smuggling people across the border.   If someone comes to him recommended, he will take him across to San Diego, accompany him on a plane to Los Angeles, and drive him to whatever address he wishes, for three hundred and fifty dollars. 

“Three hundred and fifty dollars sounds like a lot of money,” he says, “but there are a lot of expenses.”  He lives down an alley off calle Negrete in Tijuana.  The alley is narrow and dark, and full of standing water.  He and his wife and three children share a two-room apartment on the second floor.  He speaks hopefully of getting into one of the new apartments the government is building, but is afraid he’ll have to bribe somebody.

The Coyote’s normal day of work begins when it is very late, after the first avalanche of illegals has crossed.  He uses several different routes, but prefers to go by the beach.  The border fence extends only to the high water mark, and it is not always guarded at night.  He always walks at the head of his group, and is especially watchful for the mosco, the helicopter searchlight.  The largest group he has ever taken across was twenty-five, but a group of five or six is more normal. 

His contacts in the north leave a car for him with special air shock absorbers.  When the car is weighed down with seven people, he can fill up the shocks so that it doesn’t look suspicious.  There are checkpoints on the road where the Police or the Border Patrol stop suspicious looking vehicles. 

There are police on watch in the airport too.  They watch for dirty pants and shoes, and dirty hands.  A lot of people are caught there also.  But if everything goes well, he buys them tickets and flies with them to Los Angeles.  Another car is waiting there, to deliver the illegals to their final destination. 

The Coyote does not collect any money until after he takes his charges to their addresses.  However, if the emigrant did not come recommended, he collects as soon as they arrive in Los Angeles.  Even so, he has been cheated by the people he takes.  Somebody once ran away from him without paying in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport. 

He has been caught by the Border Patrol several times.  The first two times he was released the next day, but the third time he was identified as a coyote because they found him at the steering wheel.  He was sentenced to ninety days and served his time in Calexico; when he was released, they told him that another conviction would cost him a year and a day.

On his next trip, he was again signaled to stop while at the steering wheel.  He pulled docilely to the side of the road, and the Border Patrol vehicle pulled up behind him.  When the agent got out, he stepped on the accelerator and pulled away.  The agent jumped back into his vehicle and gave chase with the sirens sounding.  With a little bit of a lead on the Border Patrol, he pulled into a parking lot and jumped into the back seat with the people he was taking across, and so they couldn’t identify him as the coyote.

“I’m not sure if it’s worth it,” he says.  “I don’t want to spend a year and a day in jail.  Who would take care of my kids?  But when I was working at something else, I was starving to death.”



The Rio Grande, where it runs between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, was channeled between two steep cement levees in the sixties.  This was done to fix the border, which changed every time the river changed course.  The El Paso sector is the second busiest in the United States, after San Ysidro.  It covers three hundred and forty-eight miles of border, and some 85,000 square miles of territory. 

The border in this region is very different than the border at Tijuana, because it runs between two urban centers.  Downtown El Paso butts up against downtown Juarez.  From Tijuana, nearly everybody goes north for an extended stay.  Many of the illegals here cross just to work for the day, and return in the evening.   Most of those who do go beyond El Paso either head for the Upper Valley, to the north of Las Cruces, to work the harvest, or they go to Albuquerque and then to their final destination.

During the seventies, the United States constructed a large metal fence along the levee on their side to control the people crossing the border illegally.  It was dubbed “The Tortilla Curtain” by some who saw it as a manifestation of the inhospitableness of the United States to diverse peoples and other cultures.  They needn’t have worried.  The fence is holed every hundred yards or so.  As fast as the holes are repaired, new ones are created.  The border may be fixed on the map now, but in reality the border is in flux; it wavers with the daily movement of people back and forth.


The Mojados

The agricultural workers cross the river very early in the morning.  Busses from the chili fields in New Mexico gather in a certain place near downtown, and leave with a load of pickers at five o’clock in the morning.  Sometimes the Border Patrol agents raid the lines of workers waiting to board the bus, and sometimes they don’t.  The workers who cross the line never know if this day they’ll be detained and sent back or if they’ll have a chance to work.

Around midnight, a group of people stands in front of a green, dimly lit hamburger stand across from the fire station in Juarez.  The main street, filled with neon signs and bars and dance halls for the pleasure of the Americans who come south, is just around the corner.  But this small group of people is not here because it is enjoyable.  They are waiting until it is time to cross the river and catch a bus to their work.

The night is clear and cold, and a wind blows downriver.  A woman named Rosa comes up and joins the group.  She claps her hands and says to the rest, “Come on all you wetbacks, let’s get wet tonight!”

Rosa buys a cup of coffee from the hamburger stand and passes it around after lacing it with sugar.  Everyone in the group takes a sip before the cup ends up again in her hands.  Rosa came up from Chihuahua for the chili harvest, and has already been caught and sent back once.  “La Migra came onto the bus where we were and asked us for papers.  We didn’t have any papers.  They told us we were going back down.  And I said, ‘What do you mean, back down, if we just came up?'”

Rosa is a short chunky woman in her mid-thirties.  She began working in the north some four years ago, when her marriage fell apart, and she dreams of being a legal resident of the United States.  “If I had all my papers, and could walk around in peace, I’d like to stay.  Bring my children with me and live somewhere in the country.  We like the life in the fields, not in the city.  But how, when the Migra won’t let me ride a bus?  I tell my children that I’m going to meet a man in the north and marry him, and my children say, ‘No, madre, don’t do that.'”

She has one other ambition for the future, which she announces to everyone in a loud voice.  “I’m going to have a farm in the north, and I’m only going to let wetbacks work there, puros mojados.  Nobody but wetbacks will be able to work on my farm.  If anybody comes with papers, or a green card, I’ll kick them out.”  She gives a good kick to the wind.

The others all laugh.  Rosa smiles, and says more quietly, “I’m just a mojado, but I’m not ashamed of it.  I work, I support my children.  I’m proud to be a mojado.”

In the dark hours after midnight, Rosa decides it is time.  Three others come with her.  Along the river on the Mexican side are open spaces of gravel and weeds, and the rubble of buildings torn down during the building of the levees.  They stop in the shadow of one of the bridges, hop over the low wall, and down on to the cement slope.  The river is low this time of year, flat and black, and the street lamps from the opposite side throw bars of light on the surface.  Across the river, a hole in the Tortilla Curtain is clearly visible.

The four wetbacks take off their shoes and pants and stow them in plastic bags.  The first pair holds hands and walk into the river without any hesitation.  The third, a boy named Lorenzo, fumbles with his shoes.  Rosa waits for him at the water’s edge, her thick legs already naked, and calls to him, “Ven, m’ijo, I’m not in a bed of roses here.”

The boy comes down and takes her hand, and they wade into the river together.  The water is at their knees.  A minute later, they are across, and climb up the levee on the northern side.  They squeegee the water off their legs with their hands and dress hurriedly, in part because of the cold and in part because of the Border Patrol. 

One by one they turn their back on Mexico and slip through the fence onto United States soil.  They will walk the streets of El Paso for an hour until the bus leaves for New Mexico.


El Paso

The sky begins to lighten at six o’clock Monday morning, as Officer Dave Wyman begins to patrol the riverbank south of town.  “Monday morning is the busiest morning of the week,” he says.  “Everybody’s going to work.  You see a lot of people these days who come in on Mondays and stay the week, so they don’t have to risk getting caught every day.”

The Rio Grande is low and muddy, and the fence does not extend this far south.  “The river here is no barrier to anyone.  When I first saw it eleven years ago, I was very disappointed.  It’s just a trickle of mud at this time of year.” 

About fifty yards separate the riverbank from the nearest road.  The ground to cross is flat and cut by tire tracks, and no shrubs or trees offer cover.  “Downtown is the most popular place to cross, because they can blend right in.  But this area here is popular for freightyarders.  They can follow one road up between some houses and go right into the freight yards.”

Two illegals freeze when they recognize the pale green vehicle bearing down on them; then they scramble back down to the riverbank. Officer Wyman stops the car and gets out near where they have hidden.  When he approaches, they stand up and wade back into the river, carrying boots and pants on their heads.  The water is still and smoking with the cold, and the sloshing sound the men make is clearly audible in the morning. 

The fence begins with the cement levees.  At the edge of the levee, two entrepreneurs have their pants off and a large truck tire inner tube inflated.  Two boards lay across the inner tube.  For some twenty-five cents, they ferry people across by walking alongside the inner tube while the passenger rides on the board.  When they see the Border Patrol, they and their customers turn and hide their faces.  Officer Wyman cracks a smile.  “We wouldn’t go by a facial description to apprehend them anyway, we’d go by a clothing description.”

A freeway runs along the river close to downtown.  After crossing the river, the illegals cross a flat gravel causeway and then dodge across the freeway on their way into El Paso.  The fence has holes in it every few hundred yards, and across from nearly every hole stands a ferryman with a raft of some kind.  One pair of businessmen have attached two ropes to an inner tube; one of them stands on the northern side of the levee, and they haul the passengers back and forth without getting their feet wet.

“They’ve always had their favorite spots to cross,” Officer Wyman observes.  “Since the Tortilla Curtain went up, they’ve cut holes in those same places, so they’re still using the same spots to cross.  When the fence is repaired, they just put another hole in it.”

In the heart of downtown, half a dozen launches and rafts and inner tubes actively cross the river.  A railroad bridge known as El Puente Negro, the black bridge, extends into Mexico; there is a twelve foot high metal barrier across the bridge, but the Mexicans have put up a wooden ladder on their side, and let a rope ladder hang down the northern side.  When the Border Patrol is spotted, they pull up the rope ladder; one face shadowed by a baseball cap peers over the edge.

Some fifty people are held back by Officer Wyman’s presence, but the launches continue to bring over more.  They hang back by the edge of the water, ready to wade in if he should approach.  Most of the illegals are going to El Paso to work for the day.  There is no difference between the way they dress and the way people dress on the northern side; they will blend in perfectly.  One of them wears a Dallas Cowboys hat, and another wears a hat that reads, “U.S.A. Today.” 

The majority of the women will work cleaning houses.  They can make fifteen or twenty dollars a day, much more than they could make in a week in Mexico.  Many of the men work in construction.  “You can find any kind of worker you need here,” one brags.  “If you need a master carpenter, you can find a master carpenter, if you need a plumber, you can find a plumber, if you need a mason, you can find a mason.  We’re skilled workers.”

“We usually don’t try to apprehend them right here,” Officer Wyman says.  “They could just walk back to Mexico.  We hang back a couple of blocks and lie in wait.  When they get fired up enough, they’ll all make a run for it.  They know we can get some of them, but not all of them.”

The detention center is a low building near one of the toll bridges between Juarez and El Paso.  The detainees are brought in a van and escorted into the building through a chain link fence corridor.  A row of open booths serves for interrogation.  The agent’s stand on one side, and the detainees stand on another.  The language spoken is Spanish.  Most of the detainees sign form I2-74 and request voluntary return to Mexico.

The two holding cells are long and dark, with benches along the side.  They are big enough to hold some twenty people.  The doors are left open, because of the constant traffic in and out.  The detainees have no motive to escape; they know that they will be freed within a few hours, when the cells are full or when the shift ends, whichever comes first.

A little after eight o’clock, a door is opened and the Mexicans file out through another chain link corridor that leads directly to the bridge back to Juarez.  One of them turns back to the Border Patrol agents and says in English, “Goodbye, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

From the bridge, some graffiti is visible on the Mexican side of the levee.  Large, colorfully painted messages sent to the United States:    “Tan lejos de dios, tan cerca de los estados unidos.”  “Somos todos ilegales.”   And a simple question:  “Are you sure you don’t need us?”

Camp Olvido is everything a novella should be—intense as it is resonant, propulsive as it is deep—but, even more than a shining example of the form, it is simply a great story. I haven’t read anything as powerful about pickers and California since I read John Steinbeck. Lawrence Coates writes with every bit as much tenderness and compassion, but this moving novella—full of characters I won’t forget and images I can’t—is cut with a clear-eyed, brutal honesty that gives it a hard-won wisdom and beauty all its own. —Josh Weil

Author of The New Valley: Novellas

[A] stunning exploration of one man's bold actions and their consequences. Gorgeously written, the novella shows the dark side of California's prosperity, with violence and, unexpectedly, elements of the divine. A superb addition to a distinguished series.

—Cary Holladay

Author of A Fight in the Doctor's Office and Horse People: Stories

I have rarely read a novella so rich, with the moral complexities of Melville’s Billy Budd and the social and visual acuity of a film like Buñuel’s Los olvidados . . . Read Camp Olvido, a masterful work of fiction, as provocative as it is jaw-dropping in its beauty.

—Wendell Mayo

Author of The Cucumber King of Kédainiai

In Camp Olvido, Lawrence Coates paints a sensual and humane picture of life and death in a depression-era work camp peopled by Latino fieldworkers . . . showing not only the sorrow of endemic poverty and powerlessness but the love and good humor of a community that can endure.

—Bonnie Jo Campbell

Author of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters and Once Upon a River