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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Conversations with a wetback poet on the eve of his return to México

By Simon Farabundo Rios

Special to CSMS Magazine

I met Pedro Robledo four years ago, in the winter of 2004, and he presented himself as a poet. Though he never sunk to the pretension of calling himself a poet, he is truly a poet in the fullest sense, a bard of the new world border—Chicano, weed-smoking, internet savvy and angry.

            Not limited to penning Spanish decimals and reciting Spanglish sonnets, Robledo embodies his poetry in each piece of advice, his metaphor in every slow observation that he offers us.

            It renders Pedro Robledo a shaman amongst friends, and an archenemy of la migra.

            For well more than a year, on any given day Pedro would tell you exactly how many days left until his return to his native Mexico City. Being called a criminal within the most criminal society of our age has worn thin on the soul of this migrant. He survived not by alcohol, nor materiel things nor God. But by ganja brownies, incessant beadwork and the hope that something better was awaiting him south of the border.

            Now his count, which he’d relate to me each time I saw him, had whittled to just three, more, days.

            It was midnight, lying on the floor of his Somerville apartment, where we shared our last words in the United States, I took intermittent pulls from a Guinness tall-boy, lofting queries up into the room for him to toy with, shoot down, or use to cane the whole of society with.

            A red bandana wrapped around his forehead, giving way to a mane of rich black hair, strewn over his bare chest. Faded tattoos of snakes and swords adorned his beige skin.

            Pedro looked at me upside down through bloodshot eyes, like a tired puma at the mouth of his cave, responding in his bass voice, almost whispering, each word delivered in pithy and slow chilango Spanish.          

SFR: Como te llamas? What is your name?

PR: My name is my name. I am called Pedro Robledo. I was born on the 8th of December, 1971. And ever since my mother liberated me from her womb I have defined myself as a free human being. I’ve always followed that freedom. My name means stone. That’s all I know about my name.

SFR: How old are you?

PR: I have 36 years. I told you I was born in ‘71, so take note compañero.

SFR: Dammit, you’re older than that!

PR: Well, maybe you’re right! (laughs) Maybe I’m 500 years old, (stone serious) or more.

SFR: And your nationality?

PR: Internationalist. I don’t believe in nationalities because I don’t believe in flags. A flag is a waste of rag. The fabric used to make flags should be used to make diapers. Flags and nations were made by imperialism, to divide us, divide us into Mexicans and Salvadorians, even though we speak the same language and have the same physical characteristics…. So, my passport says ‘Mexico’ but my nationality is internationalist, from the foot of the Tierra del Fuego to the northern fringes of Canada.

SFR: Where do you come from, and where did you arrive?

PR: I come from a curious mix of Indio and Español, or in this case, India and Español. My face tells me I’m Indian. My passport says I’m Mexican. They robbed my identity when I was very small, convincing me that I should stay in the pen for those of my caste. They said I was born to serve, that I was born a slave and that I had to submit.

            I travel to seek my freedom, but I’ve never crossed a border, because borders, see, I don’t recognize them. To recognize a border is to recognize an authority. I can’t recognize an authority that is a terrorist force, which planted and formed itself on the annihilation of my brothers, on the slavery they were bonded into.

            I don’t come from any place, I come from the earth, and eventually that is where I will return. If you look close at me you will see that I have two hands, two eyes, a head, and that I walk and talk like all of my compañeros, and this makes me a human being.

SFR: If the border between two countries, we speak of the United States and Mexico, is a construct and nothing more, arbitrary, what significance does it have to be in one, to have arrived in one, and to be leaving to the other?

This is something completely symbolic. Being on one side or the other is a state of consciousness, not a physical form. To be on this side, and to have come to this side as I have come, without presenting a document, without recognizing the border, is for me an act of more than rebellion; it is an act of dignity. To reject the border and the power—to come here to the part where we are, in Apache territory, in Cheyenne territory, in Hopi territory, and travel to Lacandon territory, to Huichol territory, to Maya territory—is a human right.

            What you call border is a farce. In that place that you call border there were trees, and the aggressor robbed our fruits, broke our limbs, burned our trunk. But never will he be able to kill our roots, because our roots cross-frontiers.

SFR: If it is true that you had a goal when you came to this place, this side, what was it, and have you completed it?

PR: I came here out of curiosity. I didn’t come out of the necessity that many of my people face, my brown people—those who face hunger, or the need to escape governments imposed on our countries by imperialism, where the fruits of their labor have been stolen and they are obliged to leave. They come for these reasons it, and I respect them. However in my case, I came out of curiosity. Nothing more. It’s like when you’re little, and they put you in a little playpen so you can’t get out. You will always have the curiosity to get out and see what’s on the other side. I never had any specific goals.

SFR: Is your curiosity greater now than it was before? More satisfied?

In my curiosity I realized that the people on this side of the border are more fucked up than those of us who travel out of curiosity. For example, take the woman I fell in love with. I have the right to bring her back to my country and live free.  But she doesn’t have the right to love me, and she doesn’t have the right to have me here with her. So, who is the slave? He who doesn’t have the right to move freely, or he who doesn’t have the right to choose the person he loves? So my curiosity has been more than satisfied. And it has given me so much pain to see that North Americans don’t have that right. I have decided to rescue this right for an American woman and allow her to be with the person she loves, a right that this damned country doesn’t give. That fills me with satisfaction.

            I would like to struggle further for that liberty, but I have a life to live. And there in the south, it’s a little warmer. It’s cold here. Boston and New York are very cold.

Do you say this in the name of your people? Your people from Mexico City, from the mountains of Oaxaca & the Dakotas?

Look, brother. I can’t speak in the name of my people. Check it out. One time I was in the north of Carolina, in the outer banks, and I met a woman from Sinaloa in the hotel where I stayed, a cleaning woman, obviously, in a faraway place, an island almost. And I said to the woman, “Señora, what are you doing here? I don’t see any Mexicans around these parts.” And the señora responded, “si, we’re everywhere.” And when I saw that this woman was washing and cleaning, I realized that the people who rule this country need us more than we need them.

            They had the nerve to say “all people were created equal.” How many people were represented by this belief? How many people were there when they said ‘we the people’? When they made that declaration of independence, they were far fewer in number than the 12, 13, 14 million of us they now call illegal. So, if the 12, 13, 14 million make a declaration, and we say “We the people establish that all men were created equal”, our repressor would seem ridiculous. It would contradict the principles they claim to defend, because those guys who wrote that declaration of which many people are proud of, in 1776, are the same people who enslaved my black brothers, it’s the same civilization that annihilated my indian brothers, and it’s the same society that killed my Japanese brothers in a brutal bomb, an act of terrorism that few countries have been able to surpass.

            So, my people are the ones who produce. My people are the ones of any color. I don’t have color. I don’t have identity. I don’t have patriotic pride. I can’t call myself anything else but human being, plain and simple.

            What I am doing now, returning south to what they call Mexican territory, is an act of dignity, possibly of rebellion.

SFR: Since what age are you here?

PR: Sixteen.

SFR: Almost half your life?

PR: Yes, especially my active life. I began working in the United States when I was seventeen.

SFR: Doing what?

PR: Washing dishes. That’s what I did when I came to California, washed dishes. I cleared tables, worked as a busboy, a waiter, other things.

SFR: You never worked as a manager?

PR: I have worked as a kitchen manager, which isn’t to say I was only managing. After ten years I became a natural leader, not a boss, a leader.

SFR: You mentioned an experience you had some years ago with your boss, where you sort of put him in his place. How did it go?

PR: [Guttural growling guffaw] Hahahahaha!!! The guy who was my boss, whose name is Jeff, yelled one time at a compañera of work, a woman who had been in the restaurant longer than he and I. He yelled at her in front of the workers and in front of the customers! And then the son-of-a-bitch has the nerve to invite me to a Christmas party. But I told him “look, man, I’m not going to your Christmas party,” and I asked to see him outside of the restaurant and I said “you know what’s happening, brother, I don’t appreciate the way you speak to people.” And that’s what I told him—in the situation I was in, where I don’t have legal papers.

            I speak to my boss like nobody else, and yes, I’m proud to say that I’m a self-determined wetback who can scold his boss. I told him good and clear that a restaurant or factory can still function without the boss. But I’d like to see it happen without the workers! Let’s see who needs who!?

            You don’t need to work eight hours to produce what you need, cabrón. Because out of your eight hours of work, you’re only getting paid for one or two, the rest goes to the government. One part goes to the government that oppresses you, another part goes to the boss, and another part goes to pay bills that shouldn’t even exist….

SFR: But in the end it turned out that this boss of yours, who had been abusive & exploitive, decided to give you a small present, no?

PR: Oh yes! But we should say that he didn’t give them to me, the bastard returned me a little bit.

SFR: Just a little bit?

PR: Five thousand dollars. He gave me five thousand dollars. Well, let’s see. This guy works 25 hours a week, and every week he takes home twenty thousand. I worked 40 hours a week, and I took $600. Who deserves that money more? My boss, or me? Now, I appreciate the guy for giving, supposedly giving me five thousand dollars. Legally he didn’t have to. He washed his hands with that money, perhaps, but I had asked him for a raise long before. And he told me that because of my legal situation he was running a risk, and for this couldn’t give me a raise. So he took advantage of a situation. He gave me the money maybe because there existed a bond between us, or maybe his Conscience came into play. I appreciate it, I appreciate it. But I don’t over-appreciate it.

SFR: Speaking of being legal or illegal, I know that you reject the idea of any human being  as illegal, that ningun ser human es illegal, and all of that. However, Martin Luther King said that when there exists an unjust law, he who challenges that law is just. And so it could stand to reason that all of the illegal workers, who can’t be called illegal by any moral standard, are the just ones, and can therefore identify themselves as illegal, and proudly.

PR: Up to a certain point, I would be in agreement. But the ones who created this concept of rule are violating the very thing they are propagating. The ones who make these laws have killed nearly a million people in Iraq, in a war that is completely illegal and unjust. Then they speak of me? They call me illegal for having crossed the border they said was theirs? Me, who came to create with my hands? No, hermano. They order rape, torture, murder, and they can go to hell.

            If it makes them happy to call me illegal, let them wash their mouths out. My hands are clean. I haven’t killed, raped, robbed. Imagine! Someone comes to your house, sits at your table, you feed him, and then the fucker gets up, ties you up, beats you, rapes your wife then kicks you into the street saying you’re illegal in your own house!

            I can’t accept them calling me illegal under any conditions.

SFR: I remember that six or seven months ago, your situation here had you, to put it frankly, half-crazy. You yourself said it. What’s happening here? In this city, where you work, in your house, in this country, this world that brought you to this state of angst?

PR: No. I don’t understand what you say. Why crazy? I don’t understand.

SFR: Six months ago, you were melancholic, you wanted to leave, didn’t have calm. You had a period, no?

PR: [Pedro closes his eyes, taking a deep breath as if enraged, then sighs.] “When they criminalize you, and you don’t have the right to visit, to travel, even to speak with your own family, your parents, your siblings, and people close to the family of your wife, when you can’t be truly honest with them, you begin to choke. And you get sick. When your mother falls ill—which might be one of things that happened to me—and you can’t see her, and you know that she might die.

            There are moments when the madness rises in you. There are moments when you are filled with hate and you can’t think objectively, especially when you feel attacked by the justice system. They categorize you constantly, “illegal alien”, this and that, and these blond men with blue eyes! [Big smile] Hahahaha. You feel like you want to jump on him. Then you realize that the only difference between you and them is that you’re not heartless. Yes. You get into a state where you feel a measure of impotence, and rage. It comes in periods. Sometimes you feel calm.

            I fell melancholy four years ago, but now I’m proud to be going home. I’m one of the first wetbacks to give press conference and posting videos on youtube.

SFR: You’re not scared anymore?

PR: The truth is I’ve never really been scared.

SFR: So, Pedro, tomorrow it is then. Tomorrow you go home.

PR: The day after tomorrow. I’ll fly from New York on Monday morning.

SFR: How are you getting there?

PR: By airplane, compañero. I go from New York to Houston. From there, I’ll go to Mexico City.

SFR: What are you expecting, and what is expecting you on the other side?

PR: A little more liberty. I hope to find a little more freedom. The first thing I will look for is a bit of calm. Heal the hate that has generated in the years of oppression. Then I want to get together with other people who have the same necessities, and live life happy. That’s all.

SFR: Do you feel like you’re finishing a poem, or a chapter of a book?

PR: No! I feel like I’m just starting. This isn’t the end of anything. This is the beginning.

     With that Pedro and I parted ways, he to his bedroom where he was awaited by his lovely wife, me to my computer screen to translate what you just read.

            “I’ll see you south of the border, brother,” he said, hugging goodbye as I choked back a tear.

Note: Simón Farabundo Ríos is a freelance writer, currently working on a novel about a two-year trip through Latin America. He lives and works in Nashua, New Hampshire. 

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