Ofelia Montelongo

Shuttle to San Luis


Ofelia Montelongo is a bilingual writer originally from Mexico. She received a BA in accounting and finance, an MBA, and a BA in English and Creative Writing. Ofelia is also a freelance writer and photographer and collaborates with magazines such as Phoenix Magazine. She led creative writing workshops in Spanish at Palabras Bilingual Bookstore and was the Editor-in-Chief for the literary journal Superstition Review during the fall of 2016. Two of her fiction stories have been published by Lux Undergraduate Creative Writing and she collaborated with the artist Rembrandt Quiballo and Four Chambers Press on the chapbook In Sight II: Literature + Art with the short story “Tarantulas.”  She taught Spanish at Arizona State University and she is pursuing her MA in Latin American literature at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include Chicano and Latin American literature, theory of translation, borderlands, creative writing, and more.

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It wasn't my first time riding a shuttle to the Mexican border. I had ridden one to Nogales before, but never to San Luis. The landscapes are similar, I could see bushes in the chaparral and a sea of endless desert that made me wonder what it would be like to actually walk through there.

When I boarded the fifteen-passenger van in downtown Phoenix that May, three ladies, and two men had already claimed their seats. I smiled and took a seat in the middle row next to the window. I looked at my crumpled white ticket that said the departure time would be 10 a.m. My cell phone read 10:10 a.m.

A middle-aged robust man wearing muddy jeans hopped into the driver’s seat and looked behind him, “listos?” he said.

Vámonos,” one passenger responded.

Si,” I said.

“Let’s go,” the driver said. He put a hat on and turned on the radio. “We need to stop for three others near here, two in Gila Bend, and fierro pa’ San Luis.”

 The first man we picked up was a tall middle-aged man with a rancher’s hat. After placing his large luggage on the top of the van, he sat next to me. “Buenas,” he said. I pulled my jean skirt below my knees and placed my purse closer to me.

The second man, a dark-skinned young guy with loose clothes and a sweaty Yankees baseball hat, climbed stiffly into the shuttle. He carried only a Wal-Mart grocery bag, no extra luggage. He sat next to a gray-haired lady in the back.

The third man, probably younger than the second one, wore a t-shirt with the words “Tecate,” and a black t-shirt wrapped around his head. He sat in front of me and was the only passenger who introduced himself. “Soy Carlos,” he said, waving a little.

When we finally hit the I-10 highway, the driver turned up the music and my fingers moved at the rhythm of a banda song. “Cahuate, pistaches…A cuanto la bolsa…A diez la bolsita…” I found myself singing.

“I love that song too,” said the rancher-hatted man next to me. His name was Rogelio. He wore a plaid shirt and blue cowboy boots.      

“Never heard that one before. But it’s catchy,” I said.

Si pues,” he said. “Why are you going to San Luis?”

“Visiting family,” I said. My mom had moved last week from Obregón City to San Luis Rio Colorado for a better job. She was closer to me now. I was lucky to have a job and a work visa in Phoenix, only three and half hours away from her. It made me nervous that she lived by herself in a Mexican border town. What if she got robbed? Or killed? A lot of narcos lived there. I didn’t want to risk my life on the road with my ten-year-old car, so I had decided to take a shuttle directly to San Luis.

I looked out the window, staring at the desert. I wondered if the cactus flowers got tired of being the only colorful plant around. But then I saw the daisy wildflowers, and I smiled. Beauty was found even in the vastness of deserts. I imagined two men, a woman, and two kids walking with their backpacks, looking at their feet. I imagined them running out of water and lead by a coyote, who would later take all their money, letting them stranded to the mercy of the deadly wilderness.  

“Ah,” Rogelio answered, bringing me back to the conversation. “Same here. I’m visiting my grandkids. I have a suitcase full of toys just for them.”

The second man in the back, whose name I didn’t know yet, talked with the gray-haired lady as if he had known her his whole life. I wondered if I should do the same with Rogelio. But I didn’t feel like talking that much. I fanned myself with my hand. Even though the A.C. was on, I could feel the heat of the desert through my bones.

We stopped at a gas station in Gila Bend, a town half way to San Luis. “Ten minutes,” said the driver.

As I walked through the junk food hallways, I smiled at the Wal-Mart-grocery-bag guy from the back of the van, and he smiled back. When I returned to the shuttle, there were two other new guys sitting on the back seat with the gray-haired lady, who was handing out chicharrones, so the Wal-Mart-grocery-bag man had to sit between Rogelio and me. 

“I’m José,” he said, stretching his hand to me.

“I’m Olivia.” His hand was sweaty and slightly mucky. I wanted to clean my hand after touching his, but I couldn’t do that with him staring at me.

José kept asking me questions about my life, about my visit to my family and my job back in Phoenix. I tried to keep my answers short, and Rogelio interfered, “She doesn’t like to talk that much.” He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “Singing, though…that’s her thing.”

I laughed. “Yep. That’s true.” From that moment on, we asked the driver to put on banda songs and we sang along. “Cahuate, pistaches…A cuanto la bolsa…A diez la bolsita…”

José, Rogelio, and I invented some seated dance movements, making us the most vibrant row of the shuttle. How easy it was for us to talk among ourselves in our own language. Even easier since we had to share a cramped seat.

When we finally arrived in San Luis, I thought for a moment that we were already in Mexico, but then I remembered the shuttle driver mentioning that he’d drop us a block from the border, and then we would have to walk to Mexico. 

It was easy to confuse San Luis, Arizona with Mexico. The unpaved streets with cardboard houses gave the city a similar Mexican-esque vibe. Only the yellow school buses and the Arizona plates revealed that I was still in the U.S. We passed through the main street showcasing a McDonald’s and Duty-Free and exchange stores.

I peered through the window and saw a white truck with green stripes that read, “Border Patrol.” I saw José looking at it and he immediately lowered his voice and placed his hat onto his face. “La migra,” he muttered.

The driver turned off the music and slowed down. What was going on? I felt José’s arm tensed. He clutched his Wal-Mart bag to his chest. 

When we parked at the shuttle office, the truck parked behind us. Carlos and José jumped out of the shuttle and ran, but three men in green uniform stopped them immediately. They were handcuffed and dropped to the sidewalk.

One of the officers removed José’s hat, showing his bald head. José closed his legs while the officer kept asking about his papers. “They’re up there,” he said, pointing at the upper rack compartment in the shuttle.

“You’re supposed to have them with you at all times.”

“They’re up there,” José repeated. And then I remembered he didn’t bring any luggage. I saw all of this through the window while the rest of the passengers got out. I double-checked the cross-body bag that held my visa and passport. “I’m all good,” I said aloud and hopped off the shuttle, leaving Rogelio there.

  “Are you American?” one of the three Border Patrol officers with the nametag Raul asked me. I could’ve lied, and said yes, and probably they’d have let me go. But I couldn’t lie. My accent would have betrayed me.

“No,” I said. Without further questioning, the green-uniformed man put both of my arms on my back and handcuffed me. “Wait, I have a work visa.” But he was no longer listening to me.

“I need to cross to Mexico to see my mom,” I said louder. “I have a visa. It’s here in my bag.”

“Please stay silent,” Raul said.

At least he said please, I thought. Raul sat me on the warm sidewalk next to Carlos and José. I closed my legs, but my skirt kept going up. The handcuffs seared my wrists. I had never been handcuffed before. I wanted to break free.

While Raul stayed with us, the other two uniformed men interrogated the rest of the shuttle passengers. Why was I the one handcuffed? Why were they having an opportunity to show their papers and not me? And then I saw José, who was clearly trying to hide something in his crotch.

“Open your legs,” Raul said. But José refused.

While another officer came to help Raul with José, Rogelio silently stepped down and I watched him, unnoticed by the officers, already on his way to Mexico, carrying only the Wal-Mart plastic bag José originally carried with him. His suitcase was still in the luggage rack. With his left hand, he held his sombrero on his head, and power walked across the border in his blue cowboy boots, disappearing into the crowd.

From the sidewalk, I saw the Mexican yellow, dilapidated bus stop with graffiti written on it, last-year’s politician advertisements painted on the decrepit walls, and unleashed dogs smelling garbage falling from jam-packed trash cans. But I could also smell the carne asada tacos and my mom’s perfume. I could feel her hand in my hand. I could trace her loose skin and wrinkles. I knew she would be waiting for me there. I wondered if Rogelio passed by her.

The Border Patrol dismissed everyone but the three of us. A dog sniffed into my crotch, and I closed my legs again. “Get off me,” I said. The German shepherd barked at me and moved on to Carlos, whose legs were tightly closed.

They forced us to stand up and to hop into the back of their white truck. As the truck moved away from the bronzed fence that separated the countries, tears came down my face. “What’s going on? My mom is waiting for me,” I told Carlos and José.

“My wife and my two kids are waiting for me,” Carlos said. He looked down at his shoes, and I noticed the black and white Cantinflas figures on his socks.

José stood still and said nothing.

We bounced a few inches off the truck bed with every bump. I had to quit my desire to pull my jean skirt and endured the warm metal on my legs. I felt people staring at us, so I looked around the town instead. I envied the birds crossing the fence back and forth without a visa and without being questioned. Even cockroaches had a free pass between the countries.

How was my mom going to find me? She was seventy. She couldn’t cross the border to save me. I was supposed to cross the border and save her.

We arrived at an office where they separated us. The room I was sitting in was dark and cold. They took away my bag and left me there by myself.  

After a few minutes, Raul walked in. I saw his bushy eyebrows wrinkling into one. “Are you with Camacho?” I wondered if he could see beyond the color of my skin and listen beyond the sound of my accent.


“José Camacho. Do you know where the rest of the drugs are?”

“What? I just met him in the shuttle. I’m going to visit my mom. I’m an accountant. I know nothing about drugs.”

“You’re lying. I know everything about you,” he said. He looked at me without blinking, his hands on the table. “Tell me the truth. Lying to a federal agent is a criminal offense.”

  “We met in the shuttle. We barely talked, we sang a little. That’s it.” I looked down, trying to avoid his gaze. “I just came to visit my mom.”

“So, that’s how it is?” he said, opening the door to let himself out.

The handcuffs chafed my wrists. The coldness of the metallic chair ran through my core and gave me the immediate sensation of wanting to go to the bathroom.

Tears appeared again. “I didn’t do anything,” I said to myself. “I just want to go home.”

Two hours passed, and no one came. What was I supposed to do or say? What Carlos and José were saying about me? or about themselves? I had no choice but to wait. My desire of visiting the bathroom had disappeared when I decided to let it go. The smell of pee combined with the smell of the jeans made me sick to my stomach.

After six hours, Raul came back. “You’re good to go,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“Here’s your bag,” he said. I imagined him realizing I was still handcuffed because he immediately got his keys and removed them from me.  

I rubbed my chubby wrists and took my bag off Raul’s hands.

“Thank you,” I said. Should I ask him what happened? Should I ask what happened to José or Carlos? Should I be mad and make a scene? But I decided not say anything, and I just walked by his side to the exit of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

I smelled the warm air again and headed to Mexico, the moon illuminating my path. I could still smell my pissed clothes, wondering if those around me smelled it as well. I knew at least my mother wouldn’t care. Barefoot kids walked next to their mothers and by my side. I looked down at my dusty feet, following the traces of old gum all the way to San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico.

I stopped at the Mexican customs where no one was, so I continued walking into my home country. The first thing I saw was a paletero selling frozen lollipops in a small rolling cart.  A middle-aged man on his bike asked me to move. A taquería in the corner had a heavenly carne asada and carnitas smell and right next to it, there sat a seventy- year-old woman in tears. When my mom and I saw each other, my legs sent me to the floor. I was free, but for how long?



© The Acentos Review 2018