Zaida Marthas Vinyard
14 Aug 2017

My Grandfather’s Illegal Crossing of the Rio Grande


The Ordeal of an Illegal Immigrant

My Grandfather's DiaryAlmost 100 years ago my grandfather illegally crossed the Rio Grande. He was imprisoned in San Antonio, Texas. His brothers on Martha’s Vineyard got him out. At year’s end he had to return to Europe from where he traveled to Africa. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Island and meet many cousins for the first time. It was a deeply moving experience. In his memory, Shabbtai ben Yechiel Moshe, I am posting an excerpt from his diary which covers the years 1905-1927.

This entry picks up after years in Cuba waiting for permission to enter the States, then moving to Mexico. He eventually decided to enter illegally, making his way to the border town of Laredo. On being arrested there he writes, “We were taken to a place to the the American border. From here I could see American soldiers across the border. I so longed to be on the other side.” Despite numerous obstacles and even though he had been warned by “an old Jewish Granny” that he would likely be killed by the smugglers, he decided to take his chances, hiring a local Mexican to take him across.

(My grandfather refers to the men who actually smuggled him across as “Negroes.” This was the terminology of his day and for the sake of authenticity I have left the text intact.)

I returned to my room, quietly shutting the door and closing the curtains. I reached for the suitcase, put it on the bed and took out two sets of clothes and laid them on the bedcover. I dressed with one set of clothes on top of the other. After I had dressed myself in my double set of clothing, I replaced the suitcase where it had been. I opened the curtains and quietly went out of the room closing the door behind me.

“What are you doing here?” asked my guard.

He was standing just behind me. I was caught by surprise but did not show my fear and replied, “I am just going to the park to listen to music.”

I left the building and walked rapidly through the filthy streets, keeping close to the buildings and walking down the narrow side streets. I walked into the small block of flats and entered the single room. I found the man sitting on his pitifully small bed. He left the room for about fifteen minutes and then returned with two well-built tall Negroes.

By this time I was extremely worried. I looked at the Mexican.

“You told me you alone would help me cross the river and get past the border. Why have you brought these two men?” I asked.

“I have just received a letter from Mexico City and have to leave immediately for there,” he replied. He pointed at the two men and added, “Do you want to go with them or not? If you go with them, all is good. If you decide to not go with them, I will tell them to go back home and you can leave.”

Thoughts raced through my mind. It did not matter if I lived or died but I did not want to live the way I had for the past three years. Nothing could be worse! I had no fear. Even death was better than returning to that.

I answered, “I will go with them.”

The one Negro left and called for a carriage. An old soldier was sitting in the driver’s seat. He apparently had a son who was a guard on the border. The old man’s wife entered the room. She negotiated the deal. I was unable to hear what was said.

I took leave of all the bitterness I had been through in order to survive. I walked out of the room and sat on the passenger seat of the drhoshki. Both Negroes sat on the opposite side. The soldier pulled the reins and drove off. We drove through the many tiny streets, stopping and starting until we reached the outskirts of the town.

My Grandfather on Martha's Vineyard 1926When we began our journey, the sun had started setting. Now only the sunbeams were visible. No houses were to be seen along our path; only wilderness lay ahead. Sadness welled up in my heart. I did not speak to my companions. We all just kept quiet.

Darkness set in and I began to feel frightened. It was so completely dark! No moon or stars. The world around me became strange and threatening.

When we had travelled quite far from the town, one of the Negroes ordered the driver to stop. I was the first to get off the coach and jumped down. I walked a few steps and noticed that one of the men took a long rope off the wagon. He also hauled a large sack. I was terrified! Would they push me into the sack? Was it for me?

I imagined how they would tie me up and cover my head with the sack and then, even worse, how they would tie a stone to my feet and I would drown in the water…The chief smuggler ordered the father of the soldier to unbridle the horse. The man took the horse and moved away from us, disappearing among the bushes. I remained with the two smugglers.

“Follow us!” they said.

The river was half a vorsht from us. I was very scared that one of them would get behind me, grab me by my neck and I would not even have a chance to cry out.

On the way to the river I purposely tried to get them to walk in front of me. They kept looking back to see if I was following. I kept my distance. The edge of the river appeared. The water sparked as it rushed strongly past. I was not a good swimmer. It seemed impossible to swim across such a wild river. I listened very carefully to what they said to me and kept looking around all the time. I walked backwards a little to see what they were doing. Suddenly I saw a sharp knife gleaming in the dark. I was terrified and jumped into the air. I just wanted to run away. Then I realized they were standing in one place and not rushing towards me.

One of them held the knife in his hand and called to me.

“Hey Gringo, do you want to pull the grass out with your hands or do you want to cut it with my knife?”

He moved closer to me.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I will pull out the grass with my hands.”

He put the knife back into its sheath. They passed me one of the sacks which I filled with grass. One of them approached me.

“Do you have the money?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Give it to me,” he said.

I had the money ready in my pocket. I immediately took out my purse and gave it to him. The counted the nineteen dollars – which was a lot of money.

I then said, “Senor, I do not have any more.”

He returned the money and ordered me to get undressed. I undressed and put the clothes into the sack which we had both filled with the grass. Then, standing naked in the darkness, the smuggler appeared as a devil to me standing on the bank of the river. He tied the sack around his waist, put the sack into the water, and we both jumped in.

In the beginning it was not that deep and we did not have to swim as we treaded across slowly, trying to keep our balance. About halfway across, we could walk no further. The current pushed us over and we tumbled into the water which rushed over our heads. I could hardly breathe. The Negro kept pushing me to the other side as I battled to keep swimming ahead. The current carried us along for about a vorsht. At least we were getting nearer to the American side.

Exhausted and dripping, we pulled ourselves up onto the bank. I crawled out. It was very cold and my whole body shivered. My muscles were aching. Our clothes were dry as the bag had been waterproofed. I got dressed and gave him the money. The naked smuggler stood next to me and pointed to the direction I should take.

“Walk straight. Don’t take the first path. Go onto the second path and it will get you to the main road. Continue walking in the fields next to the road. After twelve miles you will reach the town of San Antonio, Texas,” he told me.

Then the smuggler jumped into the water with his bag and swam away from me. I stood all alone on the other side of the river. It was a dark, quiet night with no moon. His directions were not easy to understand. I tread slowly away from the edge of the bank. Suddenly I lost my balance and slipped down into a hole. It was full of mud. Would I be sucked into it? Were there snakes or scorpions? I grasped wildly around me – my hands tightened around something hard. Fortunately it was the roots of a tree and I managed to pull myself out.

I was scratched all over but kept walking. After one vorsht I suddenly came upon two horses standing in the dark. A dog started barking. I dropped to the ground so I would not be seen. There was a farmhouse nearby. I had to get past it. I began crawling on all fours and managed to get past the house. Trying to get away I stumbled over barbed wire. It was dark and I could not see. The barbed wire was placed there to protect the cattle. My clothes were torn and my hands were scratched. I groped along until I found the first path.

Suddenly I heard the sound of a train approaching. It rushed past me and I could hear the whistle. I rushed over the railway track and now found myself next to a motor highway. The railway track ran in the same direction as the road. The flashing of the car lights lit up my path. Would they see me? I now had to backtrack and crawled under the barbed wire to get into the field and not be seen.

My hands were torn by the barbed wire, my face was scratched from the many falls, yet I felt little pain. But I was extremely thirsty. Where could I find water in this wilderness? I was forced to drink from puddles. I looked at my watch and by now it was already past three a.m.

Dawn would soon be approaching. I looked up at the road signs and realized I had already walked thirty five miles. I had a mirror with me and reached into my pocket and took it out. I could not recognize myself. The whole of the side of my face was full of blood and my hair was matted. I felt I had to keep going. I kept looking around for water.

Suddenly on the left of me I noticed two barns and right next to them was a dam. Cattle were drinking water from the side of the dam. I ran to the water, jumped in and washed the upper part of my body. I was too tired to wash the lower part. I then lay down just for a while. I felt so miserable and tired but I just had to keep going…

…I eventually managed to walk sixty eight miles from the border when I arrived at a small town…It was much too early to walk through the town…I lay down. It started raining…A wind came up and I fell asleep. When I awoke it was already dark, so dark that I could not see the face of my watch. I wanted to stand up and couldn’t. My feet burned and ached terribly and I had to sit down again. I tried to make my shoes more comfortable but the soles were very worn. I took out a bandage and bandaged my feet and put the shoes on again and stumbled along with the little strength I had.

I headed in the direction of the town. The little town was lit up. Electric lights burned in the street. I walked carefully, keeping close to the buildings. There was a side café further on. A glass of hot, sweet coffee would have been so welcome but I was too frightened to enter. Suddenly I saw a tall man standing on the opposite side of the street. I walked past him showing no fear. He saw me.

“Stop!” he shouted.

I stopped and answered back. “Can you speak Spanish?”

He answered me in Spanish. “Where is your passport?”

I shook my head. He grabbed my hand and pulled me to the ‘Border House’ which was a large prison near the town.